It’s been a while since I last checked out Cubase, but bearing in mind that a very close homee of mine recently wrote a triple platinum album with it and that it’s recently undergone a major update from version 2 to version 3, now seemed like a good time. Turns out I was right too, as Cubase SX 3 has much to offer.
Right from the get go, it proved its user friendliness with one of the easiest installations I’ve ever experienced, automatically recognising all of the music related software on my system and giving me immediate access to every rewireable application (including the VJ apps). A few simple clicks in the ‘Device Setup’ menu and it was hooked up to the excellent Emu 1820m interface I’m currently testing and ready to go. What’s more, unlike the rest of my music apps, which, every time I load them, give me the same tsorres about expired plug ins that I haven’t got around to registering, Cubase didn’t kvetch once.
Screen layout, like the software itself, is clear and straightforward, with the majority of functionality accessible from a main arrange window. Double clicking on an audio or MIDI track opens the sample editor and key editor respectively (reeeespectively), hitting F3 opens and closes the mixer window and clicking the ‘e’ button in the mixer window or in the arrange page opens the ‘audio channel settings’ window which offers four band parametric EQ, flanked on either side by a column of four send effects and four insert effects (for each track). Unfortunately neither of these columns are labelled, which means you have to remember which column is which…added to which, the method of setting up send effects seems slightly…convoluted and although there’s an ‘e’ button to take you to this window directly from the arrange page, there’s no button to take you directly to the mixer from the arrange page, which seems like a bit of an oversight (how about making the tracks double clickable?).
Aside from these minor complaints however, things work pretty much as you’d expect, making Cubase, on the whole, easy to use and easy to figure out…which is just as well because the manual ain’t all that (even with a bag of chips…and a salt beef sandwich)… In fact it seems to have more appendages than an octopus with extra appendages… There’s a main manual (800+ pages), a getting started manual (250+ pages), 2 different MIDI manuals, a score layout and printing manual…in fact there’s almost as many manuals as there are legacy windows hanging off a certain rival’s sequencing package… Added to which, despite the enormous box in which Cubase ships, none of these manuals (apart from the getting started manual, which unlike its fellow appendages is actually quite good) is printed, instead appearing as PDFs, which is something I have a real problem with. Some people say save the trees (or in this case the forests). I say save the eyestrain and the RSI by writing and printing one clear, concise, easy to follow manual, that uses real world examples of the program’s functionality and that doesn’t, every few paragraphs, refer you forwards or backwards by several hundred pages…or better still create a DVD tutorial that shows you how to do everything, which is exactly what Ask Video have done. In fact they’ve created a series of three starring Cubase Guru Steve Kostrey.
Available individually or as a set, the first (level 1) teaches you workspace and interface basics, the second (level 2) gets into mixing, automation, and editing, while the third (level…guess…) deals with the advanced stuff such as scoring, audio processing, MIDI devices, surround sound and audio warping. Having only been sent the level 2 DVD, I can’t comment on the other two. What I can say is that the level 2 DVD is excellent. It provides a quick and easy route to understanding the complexities of Cubase and is a must have for anyone who is serious about getting the best from their software. If it’s any indication of the other two then I reckon Steinberg should bundle all three with Cubase.
But getting back to the software, highlights for me are fivefold. First there’s the automation, which is some of the easiest to use I’ve encountered and the facility to apply pre made curves (and more) to automatable parameters is excellent.
Secondly is the audio warping. Not only does this version of Cubase have buttons for e…it also does acid…loops that is, which it can now import, automatically extracting tempo and length information in the process. Or if you prefer, you can create your own Acid style loops, using the new ‘musical mode’ to change tempo without affecting pitch. Of course, as we all know, this approach is great for short loops, but as mash up artists will testify (testify), longer loops and especially whole tracks, tend to drift out of sync regardless of how much Acid is used (and sometimes because of it…) which is where audio warping come in. Wherever ‘warp tabs’ are placed, they create nano time stretches to drag the track onto the beat and you can use as many as are required…cool huh? Of course the holy grail would be an algorithm intelligent enough to dispense with the need for them entirely, but until someone comes up with one, this has to be the next best thing…and better than anything else currently on offer!
Third up are ‘stacked cycles’. Cubase offers a staggering array of ways to create an overdub, but this is my favourite method. Set up a punch in and punch out point, enable stacked cycling and start recording (audio or midi). Cubase will continually cycle between your punch in and out points, creating a new sub track for each take. Edit these takes into one ‘perfect’ track and, at the touch of a button, Cubase will delete the chaff. Of course, since I’m perfect, I only ever need one take, but for collaborating with mere mortals, this is a godsend. It’s also incredibly useful for building up rhythm tracks.
Fourth is the ‘repeat’ function, which is a real time saver. Instead of recording a few bars of something and then making it repeat by copying and pasting it…again and again…ad tedium, you just select it once, choose the repeat command and specify the number of repeats you want, et voila…instant track. Perfect for anyone working with pattern based music. Talking of which, fifth on my list of fave functions is the play order track which is a special track in the arrange window, in which you highlight and name sections of your arrangement. You then open a the play order window in which you specify the order in which you want each of these segments to play, which they then do…seamlessly. This is a killer feature for anyone who grew up with old skool hardware or software sequencers as it lets you emulate their way of working, which is, of course, ideally suited to making dance music and electronica. But this function doesn’t end there…it goes one better by allowing you to ‘flatten tracks’ which translates your chosen play order into a ‘linear’ arrangement in the arrange window…and so the process starts over…wicked!
The more I’ve used Cubase, the more I’ve gotten into it. It always was the most user friendly of the old skool software sequencers and although it could learn a few things from Logic about bundled plug ins (as could practically every other sequencing package), ironically it could teach Logic a few things about usability!
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