Steinberg Cubase Audio v2.0
D-to-D meets MIDI - properly this time
The first version of Steinberg's Cubase Audio promised the seamless integration of MIDI sequencing with direct-to-disk recording - and pointedly failed to deliver. Nigel Lord checks out Version 2.0 for the Macintosh to find out if all the bugs have been sprayed with something nasty
We all screw up occasionally. Whether you're an Italian footballer taking the deciding penalty in the World Cup Final, or the chap in the pit lane at the German Grand Prix about to refuel Verstappen's car, the pressure is on and catastrophe lurks just around the corner. For most of us, there's only one chance to get it right.
Software writers are among the fortunate few exceptions. They occupy the rare position of being able to correct virtually any mistake through the release of upgrades. And where there's even the bonus of a few new features at no extra cost to existing users, it's actually possible to emerge from the whole exercise with some credit. On other occasions, though, people end up so naffed off with a particular piece of software that no amount of new features included in the upgrade can pacify them, and the manufacturer is left with a well-nigh unmarketable product.
If Cubase Audio v1.0 didn't actually descend to this level, it came perilously close. I bought my copy at a bargain price from a disgruntled studio owner who had apparently lost a number of important sessions. He'd gone back to using analogue tape.
The program seemed to take umbrage whenever the metronome click was switched on - which, given the fact that the default song automatically loaded with it switched on, meant it was quite some time before I got the thing up and running. When I did, the procession of bugs - both predictable and unpredictable - tripped me up repeatedly, often responding only to a complete restart of my Mac.
What seems like a thousand Macintosh restart 'chords' later, the long-awaited v2.0 of Cubase Audio is now with us - free to existing registered users, free from the tyranny of the dongle... and almost free of bugs. And, most importantly, capable of the kind of impressive results which were always promised from the marriage of a sophisticated direct-to-disk recording system with what is still Europe's leading MIDI sequencer.
Essentially, Cubase Audio offers straightforward integration of recordable digital audio tracks and conventional MIDI tracks within a sequencer environment, which allows you to edit and playback both in similar ways. Not exactly similar, as we'll discover, but comparable to the extent that anyone familiar with MIDI sequencing should quickly feel at home.
There is virtually no limit to the number of audio tracks which may be recorded, though the number of channels through which these can be output is strictly limited by the hardware installed in your Mac. At the present time, Cubase Audio is wholly dependent on Digidesign hardware options (see side panel), which offer 2-16 channels of digital audio, according to the system. What this means in real terms is that you can have as many tracks of audio as you like in your arrangement, but in a four-channel system (for example), only four will sound simultaneously.
There are ways around this. You can mix audio from several tracks down to one (without losing individual track integrity - or quality) and then use the spare channels created to play back other tracks. And providing that the audio on various tracks doesn't coincide (as is often the case, musically) you aren't using up your full channel capacity anyway.
When you record a piece of music on one of Cubase's audio channels, the program creates a 'sound file' which it automatically saves to disk. This sound file does not have to be played in its entirety; smaller sections of the file - referred to as 'segments' - can be defined simply by marking their start and end positions within the sound file.
The Audio Pool, accessed from the Audio menu, contains a complete list of all sound files and their associated segments, together with extensive information about their position, duration, and so on. Segments or complete sound files can be dragged from here onto audio tracks within the Arrange page, where they become parts like any others.
Straightforward as this may seem, it's a bit of an inside-out view of things. Existing Cubase users will feel more comfortable when they learn that creating a sound file involves little more than selecting one of the audio tracks in the Arrange page and pressing Record. When recording is completed, you hit Stop and a part appears just as it does on a MIDI track, and can be moved around in exactly the same way. Cut the part up and you've instantly created a segment which, together with its associated sound file, will be automatically added to the Audio Pool and indexed with a small number to indicate how many times it has been used within an arrangement.
The purpose of this is to conserve disk space by simply 'flagging' the section of a sound file you wish to repeat, so that the computer knows what to replay, without duplicating all the data. The relationship between segments, the parts that appear on the Arrange page and the events they contain, is simply that each event within a part plays back one segment via one channel.
The Audio Pool acts as a distribution centre for your sound files and segments, where it's possible to determine exactly what you have in the system at any one time. It's also used as the reception point for previously recorded files being imported into an arrangement, and uses a neat dialogue box which allows you to audition files before loading them in.
One of the Audio Pool's other major functions is to remove background noise, clicks and so on from segments where this may be evident between sections of music. The oddly titled 'Banish Silence' facility doesn't actually banish silence - it creates it, rather like a noise gate, where everything below a predetermined threshold level is gated out. Misnomer or not, it works well and can prove indispensable when cleaning up sections of audio.
"I wouldn't work without the auto-save function switched on"
Manipulation of waveforms doesn't really begin in earnest until you enter the Audio Editor - which, like Cubase's other editors, comes replete with its own functions bar and its own set of tools.
What you're actually working on here are audio events displayed as boxes, which may or may not display a waveform (it's up to you). The length of a box represents the length of an event, and when highlighted also reveals its position - just as in the Arrange page. Note that a part (on which you double-click to enter the Audio Editor) need not be restricted to playing a single segment. Several segments may be laid out in parallel along what, in Cubase parlance, are known as 'lanes'.
Although Cubase Audio plays back only mono files, a grouping facility in the Audio Editor makes it possible to carry out simultaneous editing of two or more recordings as a single entity.
Because the beginning of an audio event (unlike a MIDI event) may well not occur at any musically significant position, each one is given a 'Q-point' which can be used for snapping it to the nearest quantise position. (The first downbeat in a segment would be an obvious example of a Q-point.) Segments dragged into an arrangement, or into the Audio Editor from the Audio Pool, have their destination positions determined by the Q-point, which may be entered automatically or manually.
If you want to get destructive, then the Wave Editor is where you need to be. Here you can carry out direct editing of a waveform on your disk, to make permanent changes to the audio. This is also where the much-vaunted editing to 'sample-level accuracy' takes place, using the powerful magnification facilities offered by Cubase Audio.
Though all the standard cutting, copying and pasting procedures apply in the Wave Editor, it features a rather more interesting method of performing special tasks such as normalising (bringing low-level signals up to maximum output). The system relies on a series of 'plug-ins' - miniature computer programs designed to perform specific editing functions on your audio files. Third-party developers are being encouraged to produce their own range of plug-ins, and when this happens there ought to be a much broader palette of effects to choose from. It sounds a neat idea (it's already worked well with a number of Mac DTP packages - Ed) let's just hope it works out in practice.
Cubase Audio includes extensive EQ facilities. In addition to full parametric EQ with variable bandwidth control, you'll find low and high shelving filters, and low and high cut filters. Each EQ channel is given four user-defined presets so that you can quickly switch between different EQ setups.
Cubase Audio v2.0 is in every way a major revision of the original program, with a wealth of new features and improvements. Here are the edited highlights...
• The program now supports up to four channels on Audiomedia cards, eight channels on Session 8 systems, and up to 16 channels with Pro Tools.
• Full integration of Digidesign's Digital Audio Engine has been incorporated.
• Editing is now down to sample-level accuracy.
• Audio 'scrubbing' is now possible, as are real-time EQ control and audio track delay.
• Support for QuickTime movies is now included.
Individually these innovations may not seem too important, but collectively they go a long way toward making the program useful and useable in a serious programming and/or recording environment. There are dozens of smaller improvements, and in the nature of software development, more are doubtless already in the Steinberg pipeline.
"Cubase Audio now fulfils everything it promised - and then some"
The best reason for buying a program like Cubase Audio is that it offers - at precisely the right point in the chain - full integration of MIDI and audio, and treats the two in similar ways. As a long-time Cubase user, I came to loathe the process of leaving behind the on-screen, highly visual world of recording MIDI data and moving into the rather closed environment of magnetic tape. I longed for the day I could treat audio information in the same way I was able to manipulate MIDI. With the advent of the new and much-improved Cubase Audio, that day has dawned. Cubase Audio now fulfils everything it promised - and then some. It's a quite superb program which builds on the success of Cubase the sequencer to the extent that the program has become one, seamless whole.
A few bugs are still in evidence, but nothing to lose sleep over. I wouldn't work without the auto-save function switched on, particularly in view of the speed with which a song is backed up to hard disk. But in almost two months' continuous use of Cubase Audio, I can honestly say I've lost no more than a few minutes of work. And in the great computing scheme of things, I think that's pretty good going. Steinberg have laid the spectre of Cubase Audio v1.0 well and truly to rest. Who says you never get a second chance in this life?
Prices inc VAT: Cubase Audio v2.0 - £699
Falcon Audio - £699 (with FDI, £1,089)
Audiomedia bundle - £1,449
More from: Harman Audio, (Contact Details)
Gear in this article:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!