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Steinberg Cubase VST v3.5

Cubase VST was the MIDI + Audio sequencing sensation of last year on the Mac, offering built‑in digital effects with no additional hardware required. Now, after much work, Steinberg have succeeded in porting VST to the PC — at the same price, and, once again, with no additional hardware required. JANET HARNIMAN COOK is suitably impressed.

It is not difficult to see why Steinberg's Cubase is so popular: its dazzling functional versatility, combined with a great user‑friendly interface and support for the PC, Mac and Atari platforms have made Cubase the favourite of both audio professionals and enthusiasts alike.

Cubase VST v3.5 marks a quantum leap forward for audio on the PC, by providing up to 32 channels of CD‑quality digital audio, each with up to four independently configurable EQs per channel; two fully‑featured professional real‑time effects racks, each with four totally independent effect slots; expandable effects capability with optional DirectX plug‑ins; a fully‑fledged audio buss system for use with the latest generation of multi‑channel I/O audio cards that will also enable interconnection with external rack processor hardware; extensive automation (every VST action is recordable); and an on‑board sample level Wave editor. Add to this the benefits of 32‑bit code and greater Windows 95 integration which sharpen up the overall look and responsiveness of the program, and what we have is something very special indeed.

Features & Compatibility

Cubase VST v3.5 is a true 32‑bit native Windows 95 application, and will not run in 16‑bit Windows (3.1 and earlier). The program supports multiple MIDI ports, and may use not only standard Windows MME‑compatible soundcards, but also the new generation of multi‑driver, multi‑channel I/O cards, like the Korg 1212 and the forthcoming Lexicon and Event cards. Although Cubase VST will recognise multiple Windows MME soundcards, Steinberg do not recommend their use, because of the synchronisation difficulties that can occur between individual cards. Depending on the power of the PC, up to 32 audio tracks are available. Audio can be recorded directly into Cubase VST or imported in Windows WAV or Mac AIFF formats, and support is provided for MTC, MIDI Clock and SMPTE to synchronise external devices such as ADATs, stand‑alone hard disk recorders, analogue tape decks and VTRs. Cubase VST offers an unlimited number of MIDI tracks to work with, and the MIDI timebase can be set to 96, 192 and 384ppqn (pulses per quarter note), which works out at 1/1536th of a whole note at maximum resolution.

The Package

Cubase VST for PC ships with an installation CD‑ROM, two printed manuals, registration documents, and the copy protection dongle that connects in‑line to the PC printer port. The CD‑ROM also contains Cubase v3.05, which is included for those who do not require the VST facilities or wish to run the program in Windows 3.n. Various other utilities are bundled on the CD‑ROM, including Style track resource files, Studio Module device drivers, demo tracks, libraries of drum and mixer maps, Interactive Phrase Synthesizer (IPS) examples; DNA Groove Quantisation templates; and the installation files for Adobe's Acrobat Reader, which is used to view the supplementary electronic documentation. Installation was fast and without incident, and if, like me, you are upgrading rather than installing Cubase from scratch, preferences and defaults will be carried over from your previous version.

Learning The Basics

Despite being a huge and powerful application, Cubase enjoys a well‑deserved reputation for being stable, easy to work with, and highly conducive to creativity. The program is user‑friendly and intuitive, with easy access to the more common functions; newcomers ought to find the basics quick to learn, and should soon be producing musically worthwhile results. But getting to grips with the wealth of features beneath the surface of the program requires a better system of manuals and tutorials than currently ship with version 3.5, and I admit to feeling dismayed when I opened the package and realised not only were the excellent CD‑ROM tutorials that shipped with version 3.0n absent, but the only printed manuals provided were a brief 'Installation' booklet and the 284‑page 'Getting Started' manual. These are well‑written, and will ably guide the newcomer through the preliminary stages of learning Cubase VST, but any further assistance must be derived either from the incomplete and skimpy on‑line Windows Help, or from the retina‑destroying electronic manuals. I feel especially sorry for all new users who attempt to learn the advanced score creation facilities of Cubase Score VST and Cubase Audio VST from the electronic 'Score Layout and Printing' manual, which is over 500 pages long. I can appreciate that the mammoth task of updating, reprinting and distributing the full set of Cubase VST manuals is both time‑consuming and expensive, but electronic manuals are not an acceptable substitute for printed material when you are learning an application, and are only viable as a reference source for occasional use. I hope that Steinberg will reconsider this policy, which is bound to prove a nightmare for both users and their Technical Support department. The alternative might be to supply a white stick and a Labrador with each new package...

User Interface

Cubase VST's user interface is a wonderfully creative space in which to work, and places the minimum barrier between the recording musician's ideas and inspiration, and the realisation of these ideas in recorded form. At the program's heart is a classic easy‑to‑use WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) environment of great sophistication: most editors feature a clear graphic layout with drag‑and‑drop editing, and it is possible to perform most edit and file routines without first stopping playback. Cubase can be operated almost entirely with the mouse and menus, although as all power‑users are aware, top speed will only be attained when mouse activity is complemented by the numerous keyboard shortcuts that are available.

The Cubase graphic environment has been given a makeover rather than a facelift for version 3.5, although this is not too surprising, as it was already of a high standard. If you browse around, the first things to catch the eye are the new red Cubase VST icon, the 'brushed silver' transport bar, and the VST windows, which are particularly well designed; I love the simulated plasma level metering and tasty use of colour. The user interface has now shaken off its previous excessive greyness, and windows are generally much easier on the eye, partly because text and window backgrounds now take on the values defined in Windows 95 Display Properties/Appearance. There are still one or two loose ends, however; when you zoom in on the Arrange window, the fonts in the track list do not rescale sympathetically, and consequently names may appear truncated; additionally, Track and Part names are still limited to 10 characters, but at least the program does support Windows 95's long file names, which is a great help.

The Arrange Window

The Arrange window displays the overall structure of your song, and the page layout — which is based on the form of a multitrack tape recorder — displays coloured rectangular MIDI and audio parts arranged as linear tracks that scroll across the horizontal timeline during recording and playback. The Track definition columns determine the track type (you can have MIDI, Drum, Audio, Mix, Group, Chord, Styles or Tape tracks) and its default characteristics. Each Track and its constituent Parts also have an Inspector that provides additional parameter controls; the MIDI Track/Part Inspector contains velocity, pan, offsets and dynamics, together with defaults for MIDI channel, bank and volume, but does not include effects (MIDI controllers 91‑96) or user‑defined controllers. Parts can be cut, copied, erased, merged, muted, and renamed — and as a Cubase song can be made up of multiple arrangements, it is also possible to cut and paste data between these. Cubase also features Ghost parts — the equivalent of Logic's Aliases and Cakewalk's Linked clips. These are a form of cloned MIDI or Audio part, and if edits are applied to one Ghost, the same changes happen to all the sibling Ghosts. This can be very useful; imagine, for example, that you have an audio part containing a guitar theme that occurs several times throughout a song. If you make Ghost copies of the original part, and then apply a reverb envelope to one of them, the reverb will be applied to all the other Ghost parts whenever they are played. Another similar type of control over multiple parts can be achieved by summing the Parts together as a Group; then, edits applied to one element of the Group will affect all the others (this could be used, for instance, to control the overall volume level of the Grouped parts in a chorus).

Global Control

The Transport bar controls record and playback functions, and also displays information about the current status of the two locators, punch functions, metronome, Master track, and the synchronisation, auto‑quantisation, and cycle functions. Cubase VST also has a wide range of global control features that allow you to edit your song data from a number of complementary perspectives; for example, Song sections can be quickly re‑ordered from the excellent macro edit routines of the Structure menu. Another aid to global editing is the Master track. The main function of this is tempo and time signature regulation; if any song has a constant tempo and time signature, the Master track will only contain a pair of entries for these events. However, you may want both parameters to vary during the course of the song, in which case you may edit the Master track either in text form in the Master track list editor, or with simple drawing tools in the Master track graphic editor. The Master track also displays two other types of event: Match Points are used to match the tempo of audio to MIDI and vice versa, and Hit Points are used to align music and audio to visual cues for video and film post‑production, to sync Cubase to live music on tape and finally, to create a tempo map that allows MIDI events to track the tempo changes of music recorded without a metronome. Tracks can be time‑locked to the Master track, to allow events such as sound effects to retain their timing integrity and stay in sync regardless of tempo changes. Last but not least of the global control features is Cubase's usual powerful array of quantisation functions, allowing you to correct the timing of inaccurate playing, or create dynamics changes that affect the feel of your music.

Curiously, Cubase lacks a markers system: the Cubase locators are great as far as they go, but are simply positional markers and do not include the text descriptors that could be used to distinguish cue points and song sections. A partial fix is to build a dummy Track and use its Part names as marker tags, but of course this is only visible from the Arrange window, and is a poor substitute for a good set of markers that would also be visible in the edit windows.

MIDI Editing

Cubase VST's recording and editing facilities are astonishing, including Editors to perform everything from simple recording procedures to sophisticated information‑rich editing functions. MIDI can be edited as a text‑based event table in the List editor, and the Logical editor enables you to make changes based on mathematical criteria. The Score editor presents MIDI note events as standard Western notation and the famous Cubase Drum editor lets you build a custom super‑kit using mapped drum voices from multiple instruments on any MIDI port or channel in your rig. In fact, the only things that let down the Drum editor are the irritating dialogue box that informs you that there is a double‑defined note in the drumset, but does not tell you which one it is (!), and the measly maximum eight‑bar view that makes it difficult to see at a glance the relationship between the drum pattern that you are currently editing and its variations throughout the remainder of the song or song section.

The Key editor is very powerful, makes good use of colour, and can include MIDI data from multiple tracks — note information appears as rectangular blocks on a piano‑roll grid with MIDI controller data displayed in the graphical pane beneath.

The MIDI Mixer is a versatile editor which can be configured to emulate the control surface of a multitrack mixing console with MIDI mix automation snapshot/recall functions, and can even act as an editor for MIDI devices such as synthesizers and effects units. The MIDI Mixer provides an invaluable real‑time overview of MIDI controller activity, but can be rather fiddly to set up. To help you get started, Steinberg provide a good selection of mix templates on the installation CD‑ROM.

The remaining editors are the General MIDI editor, which includes extended parameter control features for Roland GS and Yamaha XG instruments, and the aforementioned Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, which is a species of super‑arpeggiator and can be a useful ambient composition tool.

Audio Recording

Cubase VST has extensive audio recording and editing facilities, and all audio appears in the Arrange window as mono tracks — stereo sound files occupy consecutive linked tracks, and are distinguished by an asterisk following the channel number in the track channel list. This differs from the way that audio was handled in previous versions of Cubase, where mono or stereo audio parts could co‑exist on the same track. All audio parts in a song must share a common sample rate, and audio in WAV and AIFF formats can be imported from the File menu. The Import Audio dialogue provides the opportunity to audition the sound file before it is loaded, but no information about file size is given, and Cubase VST can neither read nor edit the text embedded in WAV files, which is a pity, as this would enable details of edit procedures and other session information to be stored with the audio data. Recording audio from a single mono or stereo source to a standard Windows soundcard is a simple affair; you create a new track (just double‑click on a blank area at the foot of the track list) and, if necessary, change the track type to Audio from the C column. Next, select the incoming channel and file format (mono or stereo) from the Inspector, and cue your source, then hit Record. If you are recording to a soundcard with more than two inputs, the procedure is the same, but you set the incoming channel to 'Any'.

Audio Editing

When audio is recorded or imported into Cubase, it appears as Parts on audio tracks in the Arrange page, and it can be edited in the same way as ordinary MIDI tracks. If you double‑click on an audio Part, the Audio editor opens automatically. This is where your recorded audio is assembled and edited into finished tracks. It consists of a graphic view of the audio track split into sub‑divisions known as Lanes, in which the audio event waveforms are displayed. The use of lanes strikes me as unnecessarily cumbersome, as in practice usually only the top lane (or lanes if the Track is stereo) will contain events (although I do tend to use the lower lanes occasionally during editing, as temporary storage areas for split wave segments that I am not ready to discard; the only thing to remember is that if audio events overlap across the lanes, then the first segment to play will mute all subsequent events until it has played through, as only one audio segment can play at any time).

Each audio event has draggable graphic Start and End Inset handles, which provide a quick method of removing unwanted portions of audio from the beginning and end of samples. Audio events may also be grouped, so that edit operations carried out on one event affect all members of the group, the same as MIDI events. As in previous versions of Cubase, audio events can be scrub‑auditioned, looped, resized, copied, tempo‑matched, muted, assigned Q‑points (these are used to determine quantisation and snap position), and repositioned by dragging or kicking.

The only complaint I have about the Audio editor concerns the ruler numerics, which are a tad hard to read and need clearer divisions, but I was pleased to find that the bug in the Audio editor in previous versions of Cubase has now been fixed; the cursor now remains in view when you zoom in or out (previously, it would often disappear).

Cubase VST also has its own sample‑accurate Wave editor, which is opened by double‑clicking on the waveform display in the Audio editor. If several parts on different tracks are selected, the Audio editor opens as a multitrack display, and it is then possible to edit between tracks. Beneath the wave display is the dynamics pane, which displays volume and pan curves, and the aforementioned Match points.

It should be noted that edits performed to a selection, segment or file in the Wave editor are destructive (ie. they make permanent changes to the audio data on the hard drive, and cannot be undone if the processing is unsatisfactory); consequently, it is good practice to make a backup first! Off‑line processing can similarly be applied to selected parts in the Arrange window, events in the Audio editor, and to files or segments in the Pool or in the Wave editor. The processing functions are selected from the Audio menu/Processing list, and consist of Reverse, Silence, Fades, Invert Phase, Quieten (a ‑6dB cut), Normalise and Pitch‑shift/Time‑stretch (sadly, DC Offset correction is not included). The remaining audio editor is the Pool, which acts as Cubase's sample manager and keeps tabs on all the audio files and derived segments that are used in the song.

A handy new feature introduced in version 3.5 is the Prepare Master function, which discards any unused sections of the original audio source files and creates new packed sound files, thereby conserving disk space. A further innovation is that audio events can be viewed and edited in the List editor; this could be used to edit a sequence of completed songs for transfer to CD via a stand‑alone CD Recorder such as the HHB CDR800.

VST — Effects & Automation

The VST (Virtual Studio Technology) architecture sets out to make your PC the command centre of your entire studio, and marks the debut on the PC platform of non‑destructive, real‑time audio effects parameter automation — a facility that was previously the domain of high‑end Macintosh TDM systems (and the Mac version of Cubase VST, of course!). The VST modules, as on the Mac version of this program, are visually very appealing — congratulations are due to their designer Frank Simmerlien. At the heart of the VST functions is the Monitor Mixer, which displays multiple audio channel strips, each consisting of Volume and Pan controls, Solo, Mute and MIDI mute switches, and routing controls to the main outputs and the system busses, together with shortcuts to the VST effects modules, the channel EQs, and the mix automation Read and Write buttons.

If you click on the last of these buttons and start sequencer playback, any changes you make to the volume, pan, mute, solo, MIDI mute and VST effects parameters are recorded as individual Audiomix events — and by enabling Write and Play together, it is also possible to play back and overdub or replace events. During playback of previously recorded automation, the virtual sliders, switches and knobs animate to reflect the recorded changes. Mix automation events appear as an Audiomix track in the Arrange page and can be edited in the Audiomix track List editor, but the lack of mix event filters and graphical editing makes this a very difficult task to perform with precision, although it is possible to achieve more accurate results with the Logical editor. The system busses are used with audio cards that feature multiple I/O, and enable you to connect to your favourite outboard hardware effects, and return the processed output back into Cubase VST.

In addition to this outboard effects buss, effects can be applied in real time to the individual channel and Master outputs. Each audio track has its own Channel Settings window, which is opened by clicking on the audio Track Inspector or the FX/EQ buttons in the VST Mixer. This window contains a duplicate of the channel strip from the VST Mixer, plus four effects busses and four bands of full parametric EQ each with Gain, Frequency, Level and Q controls.

VST ships with six high‑quality, on‑board mono‑in/stereo‑out channel effects modules: Wunderverb, a surprisingly good reverb with simple three‑parameter control; Espacial, a second reverb with a greater degree of parameter control; Choirus, a stereo chorus; Stereo Delay; Autopanner; and Electro‑Fuzz, a virtual footpedal‑styled guitar distortion unit. However, as Cubase VST supports DirectX, you can in theory patch in any DirectX‑compatible third‑party plug‑ins to both the Channel and Master effects sends. In practice, it will take a little time before software developers update their plug‑ins to run in the VST environment — my PC crashed when I attempted to run effects from the Cakewalk CFX range and QTools/AX — but the Cubase VST‑compatible Waves Native Power Pack appeared on the Internet whilst this review was being written, and there are VST versions of Steinberg's own Loudness Maximiser, DeClicker, DeNoiser, Magneto and Spectraliser in the pipeline. Patches can be edited and saved as user presets in all effects and the current parameter settings are saved with the song automatically.

To reduce processor overheads, effects and automation can be added to an incoming signal during recording, and the resultant mixed and effected audio mixed down (possibly with other tracks) to a new composite sound file, freeing up tracks and effects processing. This is performed using the Export Audio function under the File menu, and any required file‑format, bit‑rate and sample‑rate conversion can be carried out at the same time.

Apart from the all‑important master faders, the VST Mixer's Master Section also includes four stereo insert points that access the Master Effects, and the buss sends . Only two Master effects modules are included with Cubase VST v3.5, the Stereo Wizard, a stereo‑width enhancer, and the Scorpion which displays a real‑time, single‑channel waveform display in a wacky retro oscilloscope cabinet, complete with rust stains on the case screws! It is not possible to patch the VST channel effects into the Master section, but DirectX‑compatible plug‑ins (those that work with VST, that is...) can be patched in, and it was a real thrill to run Waves' L1 Ultramaximiser and TrueVerb, and Sound Forge's Acoustics Modeler (see Figure 8, above) under Cubase VST.

The Final Word

I really enjoyed running Cubase VST during the course of this review — it's lovely to work with, and is surely destined to become the planet's favourite sequencer. However, its unparalleled configurability and processing power do come at a price; you need a very powerful PC to make the most of it. I also encountered the occasional bug — my test PC crashed on two occasions when I attempted to switch from the Master track List view to the Graphic view. The most required improvement is some way of saving the positions and activity status of the VST windows, which are currently lost whenever the song is closed, and must be re‑opened and repositioned from scratch with each boot; the answer could be the introduction of user screen sets, like those in Emagic's Logic Audio and IQS' SAW Plus, but even a simple 'Save workspace' facility would be fine. A more modest improvement (but a nonetheless exceedingly useful one) would be a simple 'Save as next' keyboard shortcut function, which would take the last saved file, eg. 'Song01.all', and automatically increment the last file digit to save it as 'Song02.all', for example.

Still, Cubase VST's shortcomings are few, and (apart from the manuals issue) they pale into insignificance in the context of the package's low price and the features it offers. In short, wow!

Many thanks to Simon O'Donnel and Marco Paris for additional testing.

New Features At A Glance

  • A maximum of 32 channels of digital audio, each with up to four independently configurable EQs (a maximum of 128 in total!).
  • Two fully‑featured professional effects racks, each with four totally independent effect slots.
  • Expandable effects capability with optional DirectX plug‑In effects.
  • Fully‑fledged audio buss system for use with the latest generation of multi‑channel I/O audio cards.
  • Extensive VST automation — every VST action is recordable.
  • 32‑bit native code and greater Windows 95 integration.


Modules are supplementary Cubase applications that you have the option of loading should you choose: Cubase VST has eight of them, including the new Arpeggiator, SysEx editor and CD Player; the Styles module provides auto‑accompaniment‑type features; the Studio module enables you to load the patch names from your MIDI instruments so that they appear in the Inspector; the MIDI processors allow you to create MIDI‑based delay effects; the AVI Monitor lets you sync Windows AVI video files with Cubase playback; and the SMPTE Display provides a scalable SMPTE time and Measure window.

Cubase Score VST & Cubase Audio VST

Cubase Score includes all of the functionality of the standard Cubase VST package, plus professional scoring and printing with up to 32 staves per page (64 split). Other features include:

  • 8‑voice polyphony per part.
  • Full‑page editing.
  • Scaleable overview and printing.
  • Text and lyric modes.
  • Lead sheet mode.
  • Drum notation and guitar tablature.
  • Auto‑layout graphics and text with over 100 dynamics and articulation symbols.
  • Graphic note heads and accidentals.
  • Editable brackets/braces.
  • EPS file‑format export facility.

Cubase Audio XT v3.05 has all the features of Cubase Score v3.05, but adds extended support for the following legacy digital audio I/O recording hardware systems: the Akai DR8 and DR16, Digidesign Session 8 and Audiomedia III, and Yamaha's CBX5. Although ASIO drivers are being developed for Audiomedia III, it is unikely that the other devices will be capable of VST support. The current Cubase Audio VST v3.5 package consists of Cubase Audio XT v3.05 (with continued hardware support) and Cubase Audio VST v3.5 (which is functionally identical to Cubase Score VST and does not support the hardware). Got it?

For a limited period only, Cubase Audio VST is bundled at £599 in the so‑called Producer Pak, together with a full version of Steinberg's superb WaveLab v1.6 (which includes sophisticated audio editing and Red Book CD burning), together with Waves' AudioTrack — the versatile compressor and EQ plug‑in. The usual cost of this lot would be well over £1200 so this is an unmissable deal, but hurry, as stocks are limited!

System Requirements

Cubase VST requires a PC with a Pentium 133MHz processor or faster, with a minimum of 16Mb of RAM (32Mb is recommended). The review PC was an Intel Pentium 200 with a VX motherboard, 256K pipeline burst cache, 48Mb of RAM, a 3.8Gb hard disk and a 2Mb Trio+ PCI graphics card running 1024 x 768 pixels in 64,000‑colour mode. The review machine ran 18 tracks of audio before slow screen redraws made the addition of further tracks impractical.

ASIO Hardware Support

ASIO — Audio Stream I/O — is the proprietary Cubase VST audio card driver system, and it is supported by various I/O devices, such as Digidesign Audiomedia III, the Korg 1212, and the forthcoming Lexicon Studio. For this review, I used a Turtle Beach Pinnacle, Turtle Beach Fiji, Creative Labs AWE64 Gold, and the Creamware TripleBOARD audio cards, while running the ASIO Windows MME driver that ships with Cubase VST. Only the twin I/O TripleBOARD proved problematic — I had to adjust my video card settings to prevent stuttering when playing back via the analogue output. I contacted Creamware UK who acknowledged the problem, and promised a fix in the next driver update.


Cubase VST v3.5 will synchronise to external devices using timecode (SMPTE, EBU, MTC and VITC) or MIDI Clock, and can act as either master or slave. Steinberg recommend avoiding sync when running audio tracks, as drift will inevitably occur between MIDI and audio.


  • Stunning VST audio facilities.
  • Excellent MIDI recording and editing.
  • Fantastic value for money.
  • Great fun to use.
  • Wonderful real‑time DSP effects and DirectX support.


  • Many manuals in inconvenient electronic format only.
  • Needs VST window save function.
  • Initial compatibility problems with some soundcards and older versions of DirectX plug‑ins.
  • Needs a very powerful PC to get the most out of VST functions.


Steinberg Cubase VST is a music production powerhouse that positively purrs with power. When you consider the features it offers for the price, you have to conclude that it's also stunning value for money.