Steinberg's flagship sequencer, Cubase, has seen two major revisions since we first reviewed it. David Hughes looks at what's new.
Competition in all areas of the sequencer market is intense, and to keep pace with a rapidly changing market, software houses must strive to continually update and improve their products. In the main, this is good for you and I because as the various software houses compete for the biggest share of the market, existing users should enjoy the benefits of their efforts in the form of software upgrades.
Cubase, Steinberg's top-of-the-range sequencer package has seen two such upgrades since it was last reviewed in Sound On Sound way back in August 1989, and both releases have incorporated major additions to the package. They have also provided a number of bug-fixes for problems which were not picked up in earlier testing.
Version 1.5 of Cubase arrived about a six months ago and introduced us to, amongst other things, the delights of the Dynamic MIDI Manager, a feature that promised to help the musician manipulate MIDI data more effectively, and to provide an introduction to automated mixdown. The recent arrival of version 2.0 has brought us the grandly titled Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, and the ability to print a hard copy of a musical score.
Simply put, Cubase's new Dynamic MIDI Manager is a means of controlling more MIDI events than just the sequencing 'basics' — note on/off events, key velocity and pitch bend information. It is basically intended to mimic multitrack mixing desk operations, although it allows you to do far more than simply send out MIDI volume messages and patch changes — you can generate MIDI controllers, or virtually any other kind of MIDI data, and map controllers to synthesizer functions such as filter cut-off frequency, enabling complex dynamic and timbral changes to be recorded as an integral part of a song. At a simple level, you can configure the Manager as a software-controlled patch panel, possibly for changing several synth patches or output levels at once, and at more complex levels you could use it as a full-blown automated mixdown system.
Naturally, the Dynamic MIDI Manager is a delight for MIDI hackers, and it greatly simplifies the task of creating complex MIDI messages. I particularly liked the fact that by and large it hides a lot of the 'messy' details of MIDI from the user, leaving you free to concentrate on the more important business of making music.
So how does it all work? At the most basic level, you can define and recall Snapshots of user-defined Pages. Each Snapshot transmits a set of MIDI data (volume, pan, controllers, Sys Ex messages etc.) — you first have to create a series of Objects which can represent, say, a volume fader or a pan pot, each of which corresponds to a MIDI message of some kind. You can group together up to 128 Objects in a single Page, and capture Snapshots that record the states or values of all the Objects, and recall them with a single mouse click.
This approach is very much easier to master than the standard dialogue box/editor page approach, perhaps because it's easier to think in terms of how a Snapshot will sound when it's displayed pictorially rather than as a series of data fields. Once you've mastered the creation of Objects, moving around the Dynamic MIDI Manager is almost child's play. I found that I was able to create relatively complex layouts very quickly, and modifying the layouts became more of a pleasure than the usual chore. However, you would be well advised to read and understand the manual before you attempt to create your first Page, since this part of the process (as opposed to creating and manipulating the Objects within a page) is anything but intuitive.
Having mastered the use of static Snapshots, you can then move on to dynamic MIDI control, where you can record real-time movements changes to the state of a Page. This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Dynamic MIDI Manager, in that it takes you into the realms of automated mixdown and beyond. Despite the power of the facility, it's all very easy to use. To take mixdown as an example, you first create a series of volume faders, one for each MIDI channel. You then select the Write mode in the Manager page, and record volume changes for the instrument on the current MIDI channel simply by moving the mouse in real time during playback of an Arrangement. If you don't like using the mouse you can assign, for example, the modulation wheel on your master keyboard as the volume control. In the same way you can record changes for any MIDI parameters, provided you've created the appropriate Object.
I did experience some problems with the Dynamic MIDI Manager, but these turned out to be the fault of my other equipment rather than Cubase. As your Arrangements become more and more complex, and you make more use of the Dynamic MIDI Manager's facilities, so the amount of data moving around your MIDI system increases. Cubase is quite capable of outputting MIDI data at a rate which is pretty close to the theoretical limit of the MIDI standard. The problem is that many instruments are simply not able to handle a full MIDI data stream, and as a result they behave in ways that are quite out of the ordinary. For example, although my Roland D110 appears to cope extremely well with the torrents of data going its way, my Kawai K1M simply crackles and dies.
Fortunately, there is a solution. You can get around the bandwidth problem by dividing the workload up amongst several MIDI Out ports (so that the MIDI In ports that will receive all this data have an easier time), which basically means using one of Steinberg's expansion units such as a MIDEX or an SMP24. The MIDEX expander supplied for this review eliminated all of the problems which I had encountered earlier. I have to admit that I'm not all that happy with the situation that requires a solution like this: any module which cannot cope with a full MIDI data stream is not worthy of the tag 'professional'.
Overall, the MIDI Manager page is a very strong addition to Cubase although it does have a few minor shortcomings. I would have preferred to see extra facilities which would simplify the recording process. An optional count-in would have been a useful alternative to simply hitting 'go' on the transport bar. Another useful feature would be a way of letting the user specify volume or other controller values at two points in an arrangement, and then have the computer interpolate between the two points to produce smooth consistent changes.
Ignoring the somewhat grandiose title, the principle behind the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer is actually quite simple. Basically, you give the IPS a Phrase (sequence) to work with, along with a series of rules which tell the machine how to manipulate it, hit Play and listen to the results. The great thing about the IPS is that you can make changes and hear their effects on a sequence in real time, using data generated by your master keyboard. In many ways, the IPS is like the MIDI effects processor in the Options menu.
The first step in using the IPS is to select a suitable Phrase as a source. You then select the IPS window from the Options menu, and the chosen piece is waiting for you in the input buffer of the IPS. The most complicated aspect of the IPS is the Interpreter, which effectively tells the IPS how to reorder and sort the incoming MIDI data (the Phrase and the keyboard's MIDI data), so that when the two elements are combined a new piece of music is created. An example will probably prove helpful in understanding what the Interpreter does.
One of the Interpreter's simplest modes is Transpose Re-trigger, in which the Interpreter merges the data from your master keyboard with the data from the original Phrase in such a way that when the original Phrase is played back it is transposed to the pitch selected on the master keyboard. The situation becomes more complex when you hold down more than one key at once. How the Phrase is affected can depend upon several factors such as key velocity, which key was played first, or which is the lowest note, depending on the Sort Mode. There are a number of different Sort Modes, which define ways of reordering the note information in the source Phrase starting with, for example, the lowest or highest note, or the note with the highest velocity, etc. The results are generally fairly predictable if you use a rhythmically even Phrase as the source. Obviously, things get more complicated if you use a more complex Phrase as the source.
The output from the Interpreter module is then passed over to three treatment modules which act independently on the pitch, rhythm and dynamics of the modified source data. Each module can each be used in one of three ways. Firstly, it can be disabled altogether. Secondly it can be made to adjust each incoming MIDI event by a fixed amount, so that the overall effect might to transpose pitch by a number of semitones. Thirdly, it can be controlled by one or both of the two modulation generators implemented in software within the IPS.
These modulators are in fact the heart of the IPS, allowing you to vary several parameters over time. The outputs from the two modulators can be patched through to any one of several possible destinations, including each other. The routings are pretty flexible although some are more musically useful than others.
So, how does the IPS measure up as a creative tool? Well, experimentation is the name of the game with this facility. Although the manual is very thorough in the way it guides you through the various pitfalls — Steinberg also provide a number of specimen Phrases and configurations to play with — nothing beats simply mucking about. After a few hours you develop enough experience to predict how a particular Phrase will sound once it's been through the IPS, although this isn't always easy, and you do find the odd surprise.
The nearest equivalent to the IPS is Intelligent Music's M (SOS August 1988) which also allows you to create cyclic variations based on a set of rules. Like M, you need to spend some considerable time using and abusing the package in order to see something useful at the end of the day. I certainly enjoyed using the IPS, even though the results I obtained sounded a little too reminiscent of Tangerine Dream circa 1978.
The Score Edit page, which displays your music data in standard notation, has seen a number of significant improvements in this revision of Cubase. The lack of a score print facility was a major shortcoming in the earlier releases, and that problem has now been addressed.
Although the fundamental operation of the editor remains the same — you can still perform all of the usual copy, move and delete note functions which are available in the other edit windows — the main addition to the Score Edit page is the ability to dump your score to a printer. This feature can be accessed from Page mode in the Score menu, upon which the selected Parts are displayed as they would appear on paper in true 'WYSIWYG' style.
You can then add to the score symbols such as crescendo, diminuendo etc, and even lyrics. It's important to point out that the symbols themselves have no effect upon the actual MIDI data. Each symbol is added simply by clicking over the Symbol button, selecting the appropriate element from the pop-up menu, and dropping it into place on the score. To actually obtain a hard copy of a particular score you need to tell Cubase what type of printer is connected. The printer drivers provided cover the majority of the popular types. The appearance of the score depends largely upon the quality of your printer — the higher the resolution, the better the final copy will be.
Despite the obvious improvements made in the Score Edit page, I have to say that this is actually my least favourite feature of Cubase. Firstly, it's not very intuitive to use. Step-time entry is a chore and the screen updates take too long. Secondly, it's not possible to shrink or expand the edit window so that you can display more or less of a bar or Phrase, as you can in the other windows, and the only way that you can edit a fully 'exploded' part is to invest in a large screen monitor.
The latest additions to Cubase show that Steinberg have not been content to simply sit back on their laurels. The new features make Cubase a very exciting program to work with indeed. The overall value of the Dynamic MIDI Manager and the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer depends very much upon the individual musician, but to me they are both very useful tools, although you do have to sit down and think hard about what you want to accomplish and how to manipulate the program.
One of my main worries was that Cubase would require more memory to run than was available in my ST. This is not a major concern at the moment, since Cubase now allows you to remove several of the non-essential features, thus increasing the amount of memory available for song data. Cubase v2.00 is also very much more stable than its earlier forebears — most of the bugs and programming 'funnies' have been removed, and there are fewer of those irritating crashes.
So, all in all, the new Cubase gets the thumbs up. It provides everything that most sequencer users need right now, and has potential for expansion. If you're already a Cubase user and you're not on the software registration scheme, I suggest that you get registered as soon as possible. If you're not a user, but you're in the market for a new ST sequencer, then this program just has to be seen. If your budget stretches to £550, you won't regret investing in the new Cubase.
£550 inc VAT.
Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details).
Review by David Hughes
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