Panicos Georghiades and GABRIEL JACOBS put Steinberg's new budget 'MIDI‑plus‑audio' sequencer for Windows through its paces.
Steinberg's Cubasis Audio is probably the first budget stand‑alone Windows music program that combines sequencing, scoring, and digital audio facilities within the same package. Not that all of these facilities have been unavailable in the past. There are other sequencers that link to and/or synchronise with hard disk recording programs, but there has never been one that includes both facilities in one program, at this price (£250). What's more it has a brand name. It comes from Steinberg, and if you're familiar with Cubase — most Atari users are — you should have no problems finding your way around it.
The package is a new version of a sequencer program released last January, Cubasis, which is not copy‑protected; unfortunately, Cubasis Audio is. So you have to put up with using a dongle (a hardware copy‑protection device).
Cubasis Audio offers up to 64 tracks and each one can be designated for digital audio or MIDI use (the number of audio playback tracks is set by your PC hardware). The MIDI side of the program is the same as in Cubasis. The digital audio tracks can be stereo or mono, but the two pieces of stereo information on a single track are treated together — in other words, four stereo tracks doesn't equate to eight mono tracks in terms of editing flexibility.
Cubasis Audio provides a handy utility that tests your hard disk and processor and lets you know how many tracks of audio your computer can handle. Our test machine, a 66MHz 486 PC with 16Mb of RAM and a hard disk with a transfer rate of just over 1.6Mb/sec, scored four mono tracks or three stereo tracks at full CD bandwidth.
First, let's deal with the program's MIDI side. The smallest MIDI data element of music in Cubasis is a Part: ie. a recorded section. Parts go on tracks. You can duplicate them and/or move them around, and a Part isn't locked to a track as with some other sequencers. Parts may also be merged, split (in time), joined, deleted, repeated, named, individually played, or have their length altered.
All tracks constitute an Arrange window (what some other sequencers call a track sheet screen) and Cubasis allows 16 of them to be open at the same time, and all to be saved together as a single song. Each Arrange window can hold a different arrangement of the song or bits and pieces. When you play, only data from a single Arrangement window is sent to your MIDI devices. Also, single Arrangements can be saved to disk separately, if you wish.
As with other sequencers, you have the usual tape transport buttons for moving around in your composition, and for playback and recording. Here, however, they are located in a movable 'always‑stay‑on‑top' window, which you can place at any part of the screen that suits you. There's FF, RW, Stop, Play and Record functions. The FF and RW buttons can also be used during playback (without stopping first), and can be speeded up using the Shift key. This floating transport control panel also includes Solo, Metronome Click, Master and Cycle buttons, plus readouts for the tempo, time signature, song position, and for the left and right locators. These are two markers which can be used for cycling the playback or recording of a section.
Cubasis has three other edit modes: the Score editor, the Key editor, and the List editor.
The Score editor shows the music in standard notation, and has commands for both large‑scale and minor adjustments to the score. You can record and play back within this window and, unusually in a budget sequencer, editing can be carried out while the music is playing. The score facilities are adequate, and include the ability to add text for lyrics, descriptions or other purposes, as well as printing out.
The Key editor uses the familiar piano‑roll analogy (as do most other sequencers) and has a vertical piano keyboard diagram for easy identification of note pitches. Non‑note information (pitch bends and controllers etc) can also be handled and edited in this window; they appear below the note display in their own sub‑window, which scrolls in sync with the piano‑roll. Clicking the right mouse button brings up a floating toolbox with tools such as a pencil, a selector tool, and an eraser. These enable you to edit the data in this window, and there are similar toolboxes for the Score and List editors.
The List editor (Event List in other programs) shows a list of MIDI events in time. It can even list System Exclusive MIDI data. Tracks can be created, have their order re‑arranged, deleted, and so on. Each track has four column descriptions: Mute (on/off), Track Name, an Output Channel (which can also have a value of 'Any' — in other words, data is sent to all 16 channels on the current port), and Output, where you set the MIDI interface Output port. This data is specific to each track, and not to the data in any Parts you place on a track, which can also keep similar data assigned to Parts during recording. When you move a Part from one track to another, it is sent out on the MIDI channel and port of the destination track.
Apart from these four settings, additional ones can be found in an Inspector window which determine the Bank (0 to 16,384), Program Change (0 to 127), Volume, Transposition (numeric with values of between ‑127 to +127) and Velocity (‑127 to +127). Notable omissions here are a Pan setting and the ability to select instruments by name from a list, but both these facilities are available elsewhere from a GM/GS/XG Editor window — a real‑time MIDI mixer facility.
When you record new material, you do so on a specific track at a specific position of your choice. You can later move it around if you wish, and a recording can be undone if you don't like it. You can also set a Precount (count‑in) and a Metronome, and you can start recording on an upbeat. This is very handy: many sequencers will only allow recording to start at the beginning of a bar. In addition, you can punch in and out, and you have the choice of overdubbing — adding to (mixing with) the existing data on a track — instead of replacing it.
The recording resolution of Cubasis is 384 pulses per quarter note (crotchet) — not high by today's standards, but adequate. All MIDI messages are recorded apart from System Common and System Real Time, and Cubasis does record System Exclusive data which means you can save synthesizer sound and program data in your sequences. It also means you can reprogramme your synth (or parts of it) with different sounds in the middle of a song, and thus use more sounds within a composition than the number your synth can hold in its memory. Time Signature values can range from 1/2 to 16/16.
The Undo facility works only in single step, but the Quantise options are not destructive — you can re‑quantise a section if you desire, or even turn quantising off. You can also filter out MIDI Controller data and any double notes.
Cubasis Audio contains everything described above and adds digital audio capabilities. It treats audio data in much the same way (as far as possible) as it treats MIDI data, and thus establishes a single working method for both.
The equivalents of MIDI Parts for the digital audio section of the program are known as Segments. These are sections of sound files which you can define and place anywhere in the arrangement, and you can create as many sections out of the same sound file as you wish, while the original data stays intact — this is what's generally known as non‑destructive editing.
...if data from two or more tracks overlaps (ie. it is allocated to the same audio channel) then only one is played...
Cubasis Audio also provides an Audio Pool window, for managing the sound files and sections included in the arrangement. However, although you can record from the program, there's no monitoring window to set optimum recording levels. You have to use whatever monitoring facilities (if any) came with your PC soundcard.
You record or assign Segments to audio tracks (instead of MIDI tracks). Audio tracks are assigned to channels too, but in this case these are digital audio channels rather than MIDI channels. Cubasis Audio offers four audio channels, and each channel can be designated as mono or stereo. In fact, one Segment on a track can be mono and the next can be stereo, if you wish. As with MIDI, more than one track can be assigned to the same channel, but in this case, if data from two or more tracks overlaps (ie. it is allocated to the same audio channel) then only one is played (the last one). With MIDI, all data is played.
You can start and stop audio recording manually, or you can select a start and end section so that the program records only for a preset period of time — exactly as done using punch‑in/out on a normal tape recorder.
Although you can cut, move, and delete digital audio Segments, there are no other wave editing facilities for altering volume, adding fades, crossfades or various effects. Well, this is an entry‑level program... And what's more, you wouldn't expect to get such things if you were to buy a multitrack tape machine anyway. If you do wish to carry out further editing of this kind, some wave editing software should most likely have come with your PC soundcard ["Oh, that thing..."], and so you could export Cubasis Audio files into it, edit them, and then re‑import them back into Cubasis Audio.
Cubasis Audio does provide a small, floating, real‑time 4‑channel mixer for the digital audio channels, complete with volume and pan faders and a mute button, but this is active for playback only — it doesn't record your fader movements.
Cubasis Audio is designed for the PC musician who wants the three facilities it offers: sequencing, scoring, and digital audio. All functions are provided at entry‑level, but due to lots of competition in this part of today's PC market, the current entry‑level standard is pretty high compared with what was available just a few years ago. Furthermore, many would argue that £250 is not an entry‑level price, but very few programs currently provide digital audio and MIDI in a single package, and working in an integrated environment does simplify things immensely.
If you're thinking of buying a 4‑track (or even an 8‑track) analogue recorder and you already own a PC, you should consider this program as an alternative. Plus, you get a free CD full of samples to use in your projects. So, overall, it's not a bad deal. In fact, we liked this program, and award it a bouquet for being cheaper than what Steinberg usually charges for its products. Our only real complaints are the lack of online help, even though the two printed manuals are good, and the existence of the dongle; a type of copy‑protection which has now vanished from most areas of computer software. It's a sad indictment that it remains with us in music software.
- Digital audio, sequencing, and score editing in a single package.
- Fast and reliable.
- Simple to use.
- It has the Steinberg pedigree.
- No wave editing facilities.
- No online Help.
- Copy‑protection dongle.
Well priced for what it offers and should work with any PC soundcard.