Steinberg have packed a lot of new functionality into their bargain upgrade to Cubase.
Cubase 7.5 is, in many ways, a more refined Cubase 7, building on the many point releases Steinberg have issued throughout the year. These addressed much of the initial criticism certain areas of the program received, particularly concerning the aesthetics of the Mix Console, but Steinberg's focus in Cubase 7.5 is very much on production workflows. The company have clearly been spending time looking at various workflows users find essential in competing music and audio software.
If you were to ask an audio engineer fluent in Pro Tools to list the features he or she might miss the most when using a competing product, I'd be willing to bet that Playlists would be high up that list — especially if said engineer records orchestras, drum kits, or anything involving multi-take, multitrack audio. For those not familiar with Pro Tools, the Playlist feature basically allows you to have multiple versions of different material on the same track. For example, say you're recording a multi-miked orchestra across 32 tracks and you record a take. It's not quite right, so you want to record another take. What do you do?
In Cubase, traditionally, you'd mute the initial take, create another 32 tracks, and record again; and if you keep recording takes, the number of tracks can build up and the management of the project can become a nightmare. With Playlists, however, you can simply group the tracks together, create a new Playlist, and suddenly you can record straight away onto the new Playlists, but still the same tracks. Better still, you can now switch between the different takes from a pop-up menu of available Playlists without any of the nonsense of muting and unmuting different sets of tracks. And when it comes to editing, it's easy to create another Playlist and copy and paste material from the different takes to create the master.
For years, people have been pleading with Steinberg to add a Playlist-like feature to Cubase (and Nuendo, for that matter), and while Steinberg have looked at the problem of dealing with multiple takes with features like track lanes, nothing has quite come close to the simplicity of Playlists. So perhaps the biggest new feature in Cubase 7.5 is Playlists — by which I mean something Steinberg have called Track Versions.
The basic operation of Track Versions is straightforward. Say you've got a single vocal track, for example, and you want to try a different approach. Rather than create a new track, as you might have done before, you can hover the mouse over the track name, whereupon a new Track Versions button becomes visible. Clicking the small arrow opens the Track Versions pop-up menu, and you can choose New Version to create a new, empty Track Version. Cubase automatically names the original Version 'v1' and the new Version 'v2', and the Version name now appears to the right of the track name. You can now switch between the two Versions via the Track Versions pop-up menu, which also contains commands to rename, delete and duplicate the current Version.
In addition to this very Pro-Tools-like way of managing Playlists — sorry, I mean Track Versions — there's also a more Cubase-like way of accessing the same functionality. Steinberg have added a new Inspector section called, unsurprisingly, Track Versions, and this lets you switch between Track Versions and access the various commands in a much more friendly and intuitive manner.
One of the neatest things about Track Versions is that Steinberg haven't just limited their use to audio and MIDI tracks; you can also use them with Chord, Tempo and Signature tracks. This is great, since it means Cubase finally gains Logic's ability to try out different tempo variations, although weirdly, the Track Versions Inspector section is not available on the Tempo or Signature Tracks, which have to be handled using the pop-up menu approach.
As I mentioned earlier, where things start to get interesting is when you're dealing with multiple tracks that comprise a single take, as with the example of the 32 tracks required to record my fictional orchestra. Creating a new Track Version across multiple tracks simultaneously is easy: simply select the appropriate tracks, and use one of the tracks to create a new Track Version in the usual way. However, despite the apparent perspicuity of this approach, it's probably not the best way to use Track Versions with multiple tracks.
Every time Cubase creates a new Track Version, it assigns a unique ID number to that version; and, if you create a new Track Version across multiple tracks simultaneously, the new Track Version on each track is assigned the same unique ID. When switching Track Versions with multiple tracks selected, this makes it possible for Cubase to ensure the correct Track Version is chosen for each of the selected tracks. If you try to switch Track Versions with multiple tracks where one of those tracks contains Versions not created at the same time as the others selected, Cubase will politely inform you with a 'Missing Track Version' alert that gives you three options.
You can choose to deselect the 'out of sync' track and thus keep the current Version, or, alternatively, you can choose to duplicate or create a new Track Version on the affected track and have Cubase assign a new, common ID to the Track Version being switched to on the 'in sync' tracks as well as the new Track Version on the 'out of sync' track. This means that the current Track Version on all selected tracks will then be consistent, and the tracks can work together as though a new Track Version had been created with all those tracks selected together in the first place.
It's also possible to assign a common ID to Track Versions across multiple tracks without running into this error by using the 'Assign Common Version ID' command from the Project / Track Versions menu. And there's also a handy command to select all tracks with the same Track Version ID.
I wonder if the Track Version ID system might be exposing the user to more of the internal workings of Track Versions than is necessary, although power users will no doubt appreciate having full control. However, you can simplify working with Track Versions across multiple tracks by using the Group Editing feature introduced back in Cubase 6, which guarantees that Track Versions will be consistent across all tracks in a folder, and means you shouldn't ever have to worry about assigning common IDs.
Steinberg's implementation of 'Playlists' is powerful, and, in terms of simplicity, is only slightly let down by the fact that Cubase doesn't have a more generalised track grouping feature, meaning you have to work with folders and Group Editing. That said, since Pro Tools doesn't have folders, some users might prefer Steinberg's approach. Either way, with one exception, Track Versions are going make users of other music and audio software very jealous — especially, at least for now, Nuendo users!
Another new feature in Cubase 7.5 that will also seem familiar to Pro Tools (and Digital Performer) users is Track Visibility, which brings the Visibility functionality introduced in version 7's Mix Console to the Project window. The familiar Inspector is now divided into two tabs: one for the standard Inspector and all its various sections, and the other for Visibility. As with Channel Visibility, Track Visibility shows the list of tracks in the current Project, and you can toggle the visibility of these tracks by clicking the dot to the left of the track name. The hierarchical nature of the Track List is preserved, so you can also hide and show entire folders of tracks by clicking the dot next to a folder.
This is exactly the kind of functionality you'd expect from a feature called Track Visibility, but Steinberg have gone the extra mile — and perhaps the extra league in some cases! To start with, if there are different states of hidden and shown tracks that you want to easily recall, it's possible to create a Track Visibility Configuration that stores the current visibility state of the Track List. Simply click the Track Visibility Configurations button on the Project window's toolbar and choose Create Configuration from the pop-up menu. Configurations can later be updated, renamed, or deleted from the same place, and you can assign Key Commands to the first eight Configurations.
Now, you might be thinking that this sounds better than the similar Channel and Rack Configurations feature in the Mix Console window, which only stores four different states — and it is. So much so, in fact, that Steinberg have replaced it in version 7.5 with a similar Channel Visibility Configurations feature, and you can now choose whether Channel Visibility and Rack states are linked in a configuration with a new option found in the Rack Settings menu.
A particularly handy touch is that it's possible to synchronise the visibility of tracks and channels, although this is done by way of some of the cryptic interaction design of which Steinberg seem to be so fond these days. If you hover the mouse over the heading of the Visibility tab, a dot will appear to the right of the word Visibility. The dot will become tumescent as you hover over it, and a click will reveal the 'Sync Track/Channel Visibility' pop-up menu, allowing you to synchronise visibility with any or all of the available Mix Console windows. The dot will then display the number of the synchronised Mix Console window, although this is confusing if you have multiple Mix Console windows synchronised, as only the number of the lowest-numbered Mix Console will be displayed.
Given that the Track and Channel Visibility Configurations are essentially the same feature, but implemented separately in the Project and Mix Console windows respectively, you'd be forgiven for wondering if there is the potential for any conflict when these windows are synchronised. The answer is yes and no, since the Configurations are not shared between the two windows, even though their state is reflected when synchronised. However, this isn't as complicated as it might sound. Basically, when synchronised, the last recalled configuration affects the synchronised windows. So if you choose a Channel Visibility Configuration, this Configuration will be reflected in the Project window as well, and vice versa.
The only point of potential confusion is if you assign Key Commands to the Configurations, since the eight available Configuration Key Commands are shared between Channel and Track Visibility Configurations. If the Project window has focus, the 'Visibility Configuration 1' command will trigger the first Track Visibility Configuration; but if a Mix Console window has focus, the same command will trigger the first Channel Visibility Configuration. This seems a shame, because it means if you're working in a Mix Console window but want to change the visibility of Channels based on a Configuration you have stored in the Project window, you have to first switch to the Project window, activate the command, and then switch back again.
In addition to toggling the visibility of tracks manually, Steinberg have also added some clever features for some common workflow scenarios, and this is arguably where the new Visibility feature starts to become really useful. First of all, as you might expect, there's a Filter Track Types button (at the top of the Track List) that displays a pop-up allowing you to toggle the visibility of different track types: Audio, Instrument, MIDI, Group, FX and Other. It seems a bit much that Other encompasses eight different track types (Arrange, Chord, Marker and so on), but there are plenty of ways to work around this, as we shall see.
Next to the Filter button is an indicator that displays how many tracks of the currently unfiltered track types are visible. So, for example, if you are only showing audio tracks and you have 16 audio tracks in your project with half of them hidden, this indicator will display 8/16. The indicator also works as a 'show all' button of sorts; if you click it, all unfiltered tracks will be made visible. So in the previous example, we would see all of our 16 audio tracks again; but if we had filtered out the display of MIDI tracks and we had 100 MIDI tracks in our project, these would remain hidden.
A 'Show All Tracks' command is, however, available from the Track Visibility Agents pop-up menu, which can be accessed by clicking the button next to the Track Visibility Configurations button on the Project window's toolbar. Here you will also find a list of more advanced visibility commands for different usage situations. For example, there are commands such as 'Show Tracks with Data', 'Show Tracks with Data between the Locators', 'Show Tracks with Selected Events', and 'Hide Muted Tracks'. Pretty useful.
If the Track Visibility Agent of your dreams hasn't been provided, however, Steinberg have even made it possible to create your own by using the Project Logical Editor. Visibility-related Project Logical Editor presets appear in an Advanced Agents submenu, and a few example have been provided to get you started, including 'Invert Visibility Status for Non-Audio and Non-MIDI' and 'Show Tracks containing Drum in the Name'. This is an incredibly powerful feature, especially since it's easy to assign Key Commands to Project Logical Editor presets.
When VST Instruments were first added to Cubase way back in 1999, the usage paradigm very much mimicked how one would work with hardware MIDI instruments at the time. You'd have a rack of instruments, and you would trigger them from MIDI tracks in Cubase; with VST Instruments, the rack (and cables for that matter) just became virtual, in the form of the VST Instruments window. When Cubase was reborn as Cubase SX in 2002, Steinberg kept the paradigm of a VST Instrument rack, and it remains in the program to this day. However, in Cubase 4 Steinberg introduced Instrument tracks as a new way to work with VST Instruments.
When you add a VST Instrument to the rack in Cubase, you end up having to work with at least two different tracks: one to manage the MIDI going into the instrument, and one to manage the audio output coming from the instrument. Instrument tracks allowed you to manage both the input and output of an instrument using just one track, but there was a slight limitation in that the instrument could only utilise one output. If you had a drum plug-in, for example, where you wanted the bass and snare drum to come out of different outputs, you'd have to put that plug-in in the Rack rather than on an Instrument track.
Cubase 7.5 removes this limitation and lets you have multiple outputs from an Instrument track. Assuming you have a plug-in with multiple outputs, you can now activate these outputs by clicking the new Activate Outputs button that appears to the right of the plug-in's name in the General section of the Inspector. As you enable outputs, extra channels will appear in the Mix Console window, and these can be accessed in the project window as sub-tracks.
In addition to being able to have multiple audio outputs, Instrument tracks in Cubase 7.5 can also have multiple MIDI inputs. If you have an Instrument track selected and add a MIDI track, Cubase will automatically route the new MIDI track to the plug-in hosted by the Instrument track and increment the MIDI channel. It's also possible to perform this routing manually, since Instrument track plug-ins now appear in the list of possible MIDI outputs, just like Instruments loaded in the VST Instruments rack. In the light of these developments, you might be wondering what point the VST Instruments rack now serves. In many respects, the answer is that it serves no point at all, although it too has been redesigned in Cubase 7.5.
The VST Instruments window now shows all loaded VST Instruments — including those on Instrument tracks — in rack slots. Track Instruments are shown first, followed by a Track/Rack divider, and then the Rack Instruments. This is kind of annoying, given that you'd assume the Rack Instruments might appear first for the sake of familiarity, and there's no way to change this, or indeed to tell the window to show only Track or Rack Instruments. The rack slots themselves have swollen — from a mere 40 pixels in Cubase 7, to 99 pixels in 7.5 — and without adding any really significant functionality. The only nice addition is that it's now possible to select the MIDI track (or tracks) in the project window that are routed to a given slot.
The main reason for the VST Instruments window now showing all Instruments in the project is a new feature called VST Quick Controls. These are similar in concept to the existing track-based Quick Controls, allowing quick access to commonly used parameters; but, as the name suggests, VST Quick Controls are used exclusively with VST Instruments. To see the VST Quick Controls for a slot, click the Show/Hide VST Quick Controls button on a given slot (you can also toggle the visibility of VST Quick Controls for all slots via a handy toolbar button). The slot will expand to a height of 174 pixels (for those keeping count) and reveal eight knobs with an expanded display to tell you what each knob controls. Right-clicking a knob makes it easy to jump to the appropriate Automation track in the project window for the parameter being controlled by that knob. And you can assign MIDI controllers to the VST Quick Controls just like you can the standard Quick Controls, using the Device Setup window.
To assign plug-in parameters to the VST Quick Controls, you open a plug-in's editor and right-click the control you want to add to a Quick Control. There's just one problem, though, as this right-click assignment method only works in Steinberg's own plug-ins. For third-party plug-ins, you'll need to use the Remote Control Editor to change the way parameters are mapped to the VST Quick Controls. It would seem that the VST Quick Controls for plug-ins are mapped to the first eight Cells in the Standard Layout.
At the end of the day, I remain slightly unconvinced about the new VST Instrument window. For one thing, its design suggests that Steinberg would really rather you didn't use Rack Instruments any more. While there's a toolbar button in the window to add a Track Instrument, there's no button for adding a Rack Instrument; this has to be done via a pop-up menu command or by clicking the Rack Instruments button in the divider. I'm also curious about the new VST Quick Controls feature as well, since it seems duplicative of what could already be done with the existing track-based Quick Controls.
Overall, Cubase 7.5 is an impressive release, and one almost gets the feeling Steinberg could have gotten away with calling this new version Cubase 8! It's not Cubase 8, of course, but there are many substantive features here for a relatively inexpensive upgrade fee, Track Versions and Visibility being the obvious ones. Cubase 7.5 is also quite a dramatic improvement over Cubase 7, especially compared to the first 7.0.0 release, and this is largely thanks to the 7.0.x releases mentioned at the start of the review.
A few changes continue to niggle, such as the appearance of more and more cryptic dots in the user interface. In 7.5, the project window's Visibility tab is a good example of this, but prior to 7.5, these dots had also started showing up in places like the audio insert slots in the Inspector. Where, in the original Cubase 7 release, inserts would display a power button when the mouse hovered over them, in recent versions all you see are three dots, and you can only discover the purpose of these dots by moving the mouse over them. While I suppose you quickly learn the left dot is the power button, the bottom dot accesses presets, and the right dot lets you select a different insert, it just seems unnecessarily cryptic.
Niggles aside, if you're already using Cubase 7, there's really no reason not to upgrade. If you're still using a previous version, I'd say this would be a good moment to move to the latest and greatest. And if you're using software from another company, Steinberg's release schedule must be starting to sting!
- Steinberg are going to make a great many users happy with Track Versions — finally!
- Track Visibility caters for every imaginable method to hide and show tracks.
- Instrument tracks now offer multiple inputs and outputs.
- With the new Instrument track functionality and VST Instruments window, Steinberg are potentially complicating things by providing too many features that perform the same or similar jobs.
- The use of dots to indicate functionality when hovering over different areas of the user interface is risible.
Cubase 7.5 builds on the foundation of Cubase 7 with powerful new features that help users streamline their working methods, and adds a great deal of polish and refinement.
- HP Z800 workstation with dual Intel Xeon X5690 processors, 48GB memory, Nvidia Quadro 6000 graphics and RME HDSPe RayDAT interface, running Windows 7 SP1.