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STEINBERG Cubase SX 1.0.6 (MAC/WIN)

October 1, 2003
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electronic musician webclips additional content Steinberg has taken advantage of two significant system upgrades — Windows XP and Mac OS X — to revitalize its Cubase line of sequencers. The result is a must-have upgrade for Cubase users and a worthy contender in the field of full-featured digital audio sequencing software. Cubase SX is more than just a face-lift; it combines the best features of Cubase VST/32 and Nuendo. Some familiar Cubase features have been left in the dust, but all in all, the new program is more streamlined, easier to use, and more powerful.

Among Cubase SX's most notable new features are its unlimited undo/redo capability for all processes and its permanent Offline Process History for audio files. The former lets you reverse any changes that you've made since the last save; the latter lets you reverse any destructive audio processing at any time. That essentially makes all audio processing nondestructive.

Steinberg's VST System Link is fully supported, allowing, for example, sample-accurate linking between one computer running the company's V-Stack VST-instrument-hosting software (currently for PC only; a Mac version is in the works) and another running Cubase SX. (VST System Link is not platform specific, so a Mac with SX could link to a PC with SX.)

Surround-sound mixing is supported for up to six channels, which is enough for 5.1, but not 7.1 as in Nuendo. MP3 encoding and an improved Apogee UV22 dithering plug-in are provided, and you'll find several new VST plug-ins including DeEsser, QuadraFuzz, and the Waldorf A1 analog-modeled synth. A new MIDI-effects plug-in scheme comes with a number of useful plug-ins, and on the PC, a wrapper lets you use Cakewalk MFX-format MIDI plug-ins as well.

GETTING ORGANIZED

FIG. 1: The arrangement of a Cubase SX song is managed in the Project window. Individual tracks hold MIDI, audio, markers, and automation. The Track Inspector in the upper left shows editable details for the selected track; the Key Editor window appears in the lower left.

The top level of organization in Cubase SX is called a Project. The Project window (see Fig. 1) replaces Cubase's Arrange window, and unlike previous versions of Cubase, SX allows you to have only one arrangement in a Project. You can, however, have several Projects open at a time and freely drag audio and MIDI between them. The Project window must always be open (though it can be minimized); closing it is the same as closing the Project. That can be a bit confusing because VST windows such as the Mixer remain open even though the Project is closed.

When you create a new Project, Cubase SX asks you to select a Project folder on your hard drive. The program creates folders named Audio and Images for use by the Project Pool unless folders with those names already exist, in which case Cubase SX will use them. (That facilitates setting up separate Projects for different versions of the same song, all of which share one audio and video Pool.) Cubase SX then opens an untitled Project. That probably avoids a proliferation of false-start Project files, but I'd prefer automatically naming and saving the Project in the chosen folder.

Cubase SX distinguishes two kinds of objects for data tracks: Events and Parts. Parts are collections of Events, and in the case of MIDI, only Parts can be arranged on Project tracks. Audio Events, which are references to individual audio clips in the Pool, can be arranged individually or can be collected into Parts when you want to treat several Events as a single object for purposes of moving or copying. (Creating an Audio Part doesn't affect the audio clips involved, and the Part can be dissolved into its constituent Events at any time.)

The program offers a handy alternate view of the Project in its Project Browser — a two-pane window in which a Windows-Explorer tree-style view of all the tracks appears on the left and all Events in the Parts selected in the left pane are listed on the right. The nice thing about the Project Browser is that you can numerically edit all Event parameters. You can also sort the list of Events by any of the Events' parameters.

Cubase SX has carried over the window-management scheme from previous versions of the program, allowing you to save any screen configuration as a Window Layout. Window Layouts are stored in the program's global preferences and are available to all of your Projects. You can assign key commands to call up specific Layouts, and an Organize Layouts window lets you add, delete, and rename Layouts and recall them by double-clicking. Oddly, the one thing you can't do is reorder the Layouts; they always appear in the order in which they were created.

Window-specific settings such as zoom and scroll-position are not Part of a Window set — only the window's location and size are saved. One disadvantage of that scheme is that you can't have a zoomed-out version of the Project window with optional features suppressed in one Window Layout and a zoomed-in version with all options displayed in another. In fact, the Mixer is the only Cubase SX window that allows you two views of the same information. Even with the help of key commands and the View Presets menu, I found myself wasting a lot of time adjusting window parameters.

KEEPING TRACK

Cubase SX's various track types fall into three categories: reference (Marker and Video), data (MIDI, Audio, and Folder), and automation (Channel, Group, Plug-in, and Master).

The Marker track allows you to mark individual time positions and cycle boundaries. You can create either type of Marker graphically, and individual Markers can also be created on the fly as the song plays. Pop-up menus let you jump to any Marker position, set the Right and Left Locators to match any cycle Marker, and set the horizontal zoom to match any cycle Marker. The Video track displays thumbnail frames along the Project's timeline; it's a wonderful feature for spotting hit points in a video.

Folder tracks are a housekeeping device that lets you group multiple tracks for display purposes. Once you've created a Folder track, you can drag other tracks into it, and once you have tracks in a Folder track, you can drag individual Parts to them. Folders can be expanded to show their member tracks or collapsed to appear as a single track.

Objects called Folder Parts are created automatically on a Folder track based on the time positions of the Parts within the Folder. Folder Parts can be edited like individual Parts, but the actions apply to all the Parts within the track. Although you can easily use the Glue and Scissors tools to edit the various Parts, I found the automatic creation of Parts within Folders to be more of a nuisance than an advantage.

AUTO CONTROL

Automation tracks are created in several ways in Cubase SX. MIDI and Audio tracks have attached Automation subtracks for all mixing parameters. The subtracks can be revealed to create, edit, and view automation, or they can be hidden to save space. Group and Master Automation tracks are created manually in the Project window. (Channel strips for Groups, which are primarily used for submixes and stereo-effects bus returns, are automatically created in the Mixer when Group tracks are created.) Plug-in automation tracks are created automatically when automation writing is enabled on the plug-in's control panel.

Regardless of how they get there, all Automation tracks work in the same way, allowing you to enter and edit BREAKpoint-style automation for a single parameter. BREAKpoints can be recorded with the onscreen faders or created graphically with the Pencil tool. The Pencil tool has modes for creating individual BREAKpoints, for drawing straight and parabolic line segments, and for drawing square, sawtooth, and sine waveforms with the current grid setting. (Check out the MP3 file AudMix for an example.)

The various drawing tools, while a good start, are sometimes a bit limited. For example, the parabolic-curve tool doesn't allow you to vary the shape, and it automatically controls which way the curve bends. Being able to control the bend direction and the degree of bending (often called the slope) as well as being able draw S-shaped curves would be welcome additions.

Cubase SX provides a flexible and user-friendly method of setting up MIDI remote control for automation. Templates are provided for a number of popular hardware control surfaces, and a generic template lets you customize the MIDI remote setup to match any MIDI device. Once set up, remote automation works the same as using the onscreen controls except that in replace-recording existing automation data is overwritten. Unless you have a control surface with touch-sensitive faders, Cubase SX has no way of knowing when you take your fingers off the hardware control, so it continues to replace data until playback is stopped. A time-out mode would make a nice enhancement, but the existing system works fine.

Cubase SX's automation is time based; you can't connect it to individual Parts for moving and copying. You can, however, lasso-select automation data along with Parts and move or copy them simultaneously. That's a little less convenient than locking them together, but it gets the job done. For MIDI you can partially get around the limitation by recording MIDI controller data directly into MIDI Parts. You have to be careful, however, because MIDI controller data contained in a Part could conflict with Automation data for the same Part.

THE MIDI PART

As mentioned, MIDI Events on Project tracks must be contained in MIDI Parts. MIDI Parts can be recorded in real time or step time using a MIDI keyboard, and MIDI Events can be entered graphically using various tools in the MIDI editors. The four MIDI editors — Key, Score, Drum, and List — are each designed for a specific form of data editing. The Key Editor window provides the familiar piano-roll-style view with optional lanes along the bottom for other types of MIDI data. By default, a single lane shows note Velocity, but that can be changed to show any kind of MIDI data, and as a bonus, additional lanes can be added. The Score Editor window displays notes in standard music notation and offers all the scoring features previously found in Cubase VST/32.

FIG. 2: The Drum Editor window displays individual notes as diamonds (rather than bars as in the Key Editor window). Each row represents an individual drum sound, and the rows can be rearranged for convenient grouping of related sounds.

The Drum Editor window (see Fig. 2) provides a number of nice features for editing drum parts. It is similar to the Key Editor except that its rows are labeled as drum sounds rather than as pitches, and the rows can be rearranged. That's a terrific feature because it lets you group similar drum sounds together and move empty rows out of the way. Notes are indicated by diamonds rather than bars, and click-dragging with the Drumstick tool (which replaces the Pencil tool) creates multiple hits spaced according to the row's quantize setting. Each row can be individually mapped to any output pitch, channel, or port. Drum sounds can be individually soloed or muted, and the Velocity lane at the bottom shows only the Velocities for the selected row.

FIG. 3: The List Editor's three panes give alternate views of the same data. The left pane displays all MIDI Events in numerical form. The middle pane displays Events as bars along a timeline, and the right pane shows data values and note Velocities.

The List Editor window (see Fig. 3) is a three-pane display showing MIDI data in list form, in a time-position bar chart, and in a data-value bar chart. All three panes are interactive; you can adjust any parameter numerically in the list and make changes graphically in the other panes. You can also filter any combination of MIDI data types, making it easy, for example, to edit only notes and Pitch Bend.

Cubase SX implements a MIDI plug-in scheme similar to Cakewalk's MIDI FX (MFX), and on the PC, Steinberg has a wrapper that lets you use MFX plug-ins. MIDI plug-ins manipulate MIDI data in real time during live input or track playback. The factory plug-ins range from common effects such as arpeggiation, chord construction, and step sequencing to more arcane offerings such as Transformer, a real-time version of Cubase SX's Logical Editor.

FIG. 4: Cubase SX's MIDI plug-in scheme provides a variety of MIDI processes that can be applied either as insert or send effects. Up to four inserts are possible, and they apply in series.

Each MIDI track has four insert slots and four send slots. Using the sends, you can route the same track through different effects to different MIDI devices. In other words, you can have a single MIDI data stream play several instruments simultaneously and in different ways. Fig. 4 shows a Project using only MIDI insert and send effects to play four Cubase SX plug-in instruments. The processing starts with the Step Designer plug-in, so the MIDI is completely self-generated. You can hear the results in the MP3 example MFX.

THE AUDIO PART

As you'd expect, Cubase SX offers an ample selection of audio-editing tools. Audio Events are easily arranged and grouped in Project-window audio tracks. An Audio Part Editor window provides nondestructive editing of Audio Events within an Audio Part. (As mentioned earlier, Audio Parts serve as containers for multiple Audio Events.) A full-featured Sample Editor window lets you manually edit waveforms on a sample-accurate basis (as does the Project window). The Sample Editor and Project windows also let you apply various DSP processes. You can zoom in to the sample level for accurate positioning in any of the Editors, but the Sample Editor window offers the most detailed editing capabilities.

A number of convenient editing features are available from Cubase SX's Audio menu, and they can be applied in the Project and Audio Part Editor windows. You can bounce any selection of Audio Events to create a new audio file. A Detect Silence command lets you automatically cut up an Audio Event into slices based on a threshold and time settings. That's ideal for BREAKing a drum clip into individual hits. Three high-quality time-stretching algorithms are provided to accommodate a variety of material. You can time-stretch graphically by changing the length of an Audio Part in the Project window, or you can open a dialog box that lets you set the parameters numerically.

Other DSP processes available in the Audio menu include enveloping, fading (in, out, and cross) with editable shapes, normalizing, pitch shifting, reversing, flipping stereo channels, and merging with audio data that has been copied to the clipboard. Enveloping is a particularly useful feature, allowing you to create a BREAKpoint-style gain curve and apply it to the selected Audio Event. Finally, you can apply any available VST (or DirectX in Windows) plug-in effect to create a new Audio Event. Cubase SX even asks if you want to apply the process to only the selected Event or to all copies of the Event used in the Project — nice.

FIG. 5: The Sample Editor's Hitpoint mode can function as a beat slicer similar to Propellerhead's ReCycle. Once you've arranged the hit points to your liking, the program converts the Audio Event into a Part made up of the individual slices.

Cubase SX's full-function Sample Editor window offers most of the main features found in standalone sample editors. You can edit audio data graphically, and you can apply any of the processing from the Audio menu to the selected part of an audio clip. The Sample Editor window's Hitpoint mode (see Fig. 5) functions as a transient-detecting beat slicer in the style of Propellerhead's ReCycle. Once you've set up hit points, Cubase SX automatically replaces the Audio Event in the Project window with an Audio Part containing the individual slices. You can slice the Event into separate beats or create a MIDI groove template corresponding to the hit points. Although it doesn't offer all the bells and whistles of ReCycle, having an integrated beat-slicer is a big plus.

FIX IT IN THE MIX

FIG. 6: Cubase SX offers two very flexible Mixer views. Each channel strip can be narrow or wide, and individual channel strips can be hidden as can all channel strips of any type. An optional second pane above the channel strips shows EQ, insert effects, or send effects routing for each channel. The insert at the upper left shows the Reverb-A plug-in control panel.

The Cubase SX Mixer (see Fig. 6) includes a channel strip for each track in the Project window, and the channel strips appear in the same order as the tracks. That's the approach used by most software sequencers, but I'd like the option of rearranging the mixer channel strips.

You can open two Mixer windows at a time with entirely different configurations. (A track's channel strip can also be viewed in the Track Inspector at the left of the Project window.) Space-saving configuration options include suppressing all channel strips of any track type, designating individual channel strips as hideable, toggling the display of hideable channels, and toggling individual channel strips between narrow and wide display. (Narrow channel strips have smaller controls and no VU meter.) You can also toggle the display of the Master Output channel strip.

The Mixer has an optional upper pane for viewing send-bus routings and effects inserts. Each audio channel has a 4-channel parametric equalizer whose settings can also be viewed in the upper pane. Only one of the options can be viewed at a time, but which one can be set individually for each channel. Alternatively, you can open a separate Edit VST panel for any channel to show all views simultaneously. The Edit VST view also provides enhanced graphics for the EQ settings.

For a complex Project, setting up the Mixer (in both appearance and content) can take quite a bit of time, but a number of aids have been included to simplify the process and limit its repetitive aspects. You can save and recall View settings using a drop-down menu at the bottom-left corner of the Mixer window; you can copy and paste settings between channels; and you can save selected channel setups or entire Mixer setups to disk. As I mentioned, you can also set up MIDI remote control of all Mixer parameters, and you can link channel level, mute, solo, monitor, and record-enable settings. Relative levels are preserved for linked channels, and you can use the Alt (Option on the Mac) key to alter an individual setting on a linked channel. The mixer-setup tools — especially the presets feature — are invaluable time-savers.

Cubase SX has two send-effects busing schemes. You can apply up to eight effects plug-ins in the VST Send effects window and use a channel's send controls to bus a mono mix of its output to any effect. The effects are automatically returned to the Master Output, and you need to use the effects' settings to control the wet/dry mix and return level. However, Group channels provide a more robust scheme. When a channel send is routed to a Group, the send is stereo. You can also route the output of a channel to a Group, allowing you to use Groups as submixes, and you can route the output of lower numbered Groups to higher numbered ones. In short, you can set up just about any effects and submixing scheme you can think of.

Cubase SX includes a sizable collection of effects plug-ins in all the major categories as well as a few “trick” effects such as my favorite, the Step Filter. It's a resonant multimode filter with a built-in 16-step pattern-sequencer for controlling filter cutoff and resonance. It's especially good for mangling straight-ahead percussion loops by filtering alternate eighth-note or 16th-note hits. You're also given the option to install all the original Cubase 5 effects and synths.

THE MISSING MANUAL

Cubase SX comes with a small 182-page printed Getting Started manual; unfortunately, most of the documentation is provided only as PDF files, which you can read onscreen or print out yourself. If you prefer to do neither, you can buy Mark Wherry's excellent (but poorly indexed) 808-page Cubase SX/SL Reference, which includes tutorials and a good intro to Cubase SX. If you've never used digital audio sequencing software before and you're working on a PC, Wherry's Quick Start Cubase SX is also worth a look. Both are published jointly by Wizoo and the Music Sales Publishing Group (2002).

Another excellent reference, which covers all aspects of Cubase SX and contains many useful tips, tricks, and step-by-step explanations, is Simon Millward's Fast Guide to Cubase SX, published by PC Publishing. Keith Gemmell's Get Creative with Cubase SX/SL (Musca and Lipman, 2003) and Cubase SX/SL Tips and Tricks (PC Publishing, 2003) are also useful guides.

MORE IS MORE

Cubase SX is an enormous program; I have highlighted only some of its more salient features here. If you're currently a Cubase user, there's no question that the upgrade is worth it, and in a nice gesture, Steinberg lets you keep using your old Cubase VST dongle, so you can have the best of both applications. (You can also use the earlier version of the program as part of a VST System Link setup.)

If you're new to digital audio sequencing, don't need a lot of advanced features, or are working on a tight budget, you might want to check out Cubase SL ($499.99). It has the same architecture and philosophy as Cubase SX, but is less expensive and omits some features. It doesn't support surround sound, allows fewer VST plug-in instruments, is missing some of the Cubase SX effects plug-ins, and doesn't include all of the scoring capabilities. If you start with SL, you can upgrade to Cubase SX for $299.99, and the total cost will be the same as buying Cubase SX in the first place.

For high-end music production, Cubase SX certainly packs a lot of powerful features into a well-designed user interface. With its impressive family tree that includes Nuendo and with its professional-level processing, notating, film-scoring, mastering, and editing tools, Cubase deserves some serious consideration.


Len Sasso can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

Minimum System Requirements

Cubase SX

MAC: G3/733 MHz; 512 MB RAM; Mac OS X 10.2; USB port for copy-protection key (dongle)

PC: Pentium III/1 GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; USB port for copy-protection key (dongle)

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Steinberg
Cubase SX 1.0.6
digital audio sequencer
$799.99
upgrade from Cubase VST/32 5.0
$149.99

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.0
DOCUMENTATION 2.5
VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Very flexible, full-featured Mixer. Extensive MIDI plug-in collection. Powerful and easy MIDI remote setup for Mixer and plug-in control.

CONS: No printed manual. Window layout management is a bit limited. Graphic automation editing has some limitations.

Manufacturer

Steinberg North America
tel. (818) 678-5100
e-mail info@steinberg.net
Web www.steinbergusa.net

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