Steinberg Cubase (Part 2)
Atari ST Software
In the second half of this definitive review. Nigel Lord looks into the editing and scorewriting facilities of Steinberg's latest sequencing software.
After the pre-release attention it attracted, Steinberg's Cubase sequencer needs no further introduction. The second part of this review concentrates on the editing functions.
I SUPPOSE IT could be argued that the two halves which comprise this review have appeared in the wrong order. In part one, in addition to a fairly broad overview of the program's structure, we concentrated on the system by which music can be arranged on screen. This month, it's the Edit windows (where all the basic note manipulation tasks are performed) which we'll be looking at. From the musician's point of view, this might seem to be putting the cart before the horse, but it does at least serve to emphasise where the true innovation of Cubase lies. The Edit windows, though imaginatively thought out and immensely useful, were (with the exception of Key Edit), all originally conceived as part of Pro24's architecture and as such don't represent any significant new ground for Steinberg.
Having said that, there has been a considerable amount of re-structuring of the screen layouts, and in its most tangible form this has led to a degree of standardisation being imposed across the entire Edit Window system. Users of Pro24 will be aware that the Grid, Score and Drum Edit screens, as originally conceived, all required quite different operating procedures - a result, no doubt, of the upgrading system Steinberg steadfastly maintained (unlike some of its rivals). On Cubase, though each window preserves its own unique way of presenting note information, there is (where this has been possible), a common thread running through the editing process which makes the program far more accessible particularly for the uninitiated.
THE ADDITION OF Key Edit as a fourth Edit window, whilst certainly a very welcome addition, must, I believe, be seen as an effort on Steinberg's part to get in line with the other software companies who included this kind of facility in their programs some time ago. In essence, Key Edit represents a computer simulation of the piano roll system on the old pianola - except that the holes cut into the paper in the mechanical system are here represented by boxes of varying length.
A graphic display of a standard keyboard on its side is aligned with a grid on which appear the boxes, moving across the screen from left to right in real time (if Follow Song is selected). Some two-and-a-half octaves of the keyboard are visible at any one time, but this can be extended another half octave by losing some of the screen information - and scrolled upwards or downwards to reveal a total of ten octaves from C-2 to C8. The grid itself is also scrollable manually (in much the same way as the Arrange window), and beneath it lies the Controller display in which you will find a graphic representation of velocity, MIDI control and pitchbend information and so on.
In common with all the Edit windows, a Function bar and Info line (above the main display area) contain all the track-specific data such as length, quantise and MIDI channel information, whilst the Transport bar (below the main display) functions in exactly the same way as it does throughout the program.
Manipulation of notes within the grid is extensive, to say the least, and the boxes (representing notes) may be dragged or kicked to a new position, extended, shortened, duplicated, created or deleted. Individual notes may be monitored by selecting the "ear" icon in the Functions bar and clicking on the relevant box on the grid, or by holding the magnifying glass over it.
Magnifying glass? I'm sorry, I should have mentioned last month that at any time, and in any window, a set of tools may be called up by clicking the right-hand mouse button. This gives you access to such useful little items as scissors and glue (for cutting and joining parts), pencil and rubber (for insertion and deletion of notes) - and of course the magnifying glass. I'd have thought a stethoscope might have been a tad more appropriate, but I digress...
The black and white keys of the keyboard reverse their colour in response to notes arriving via MIDI, and where this takes the form of a chord, a box in the Functions bar suddenly springs to life to tell you exactly what it is. I spent a happy half hour watching names being put to some of the more off-beat chords I've used over the years; and I can certainly see this feature coming in useful for settling arguments with truculent guitarists over the composition of diminished 7ths and the like.
The Controller display, as its name suggests, can be called upon to graphically present non-note events (in addition to note velocity) and thus reveal those Jan Hammer pitchbend excesses in all their visual glory. Editing of controller information is also possible here, although much more comprehensive facilities for this are included in the Grid Edit window we'll be looking at shortly.
One highly useful feature is the creation of even velocity increases - or decreases - across a series of notes. This is accomplished using a pair of compasses which reside in the Tool Box. Click with the mouse button at the point in the display where you want the change in velocity to begin and then drag a line to where you want it to end. The velocity level of successive notes then takes on the slope of the ramp" you've created - and voila. instant crescendos or diminuendos. Drawing a ramp across an extended number of notes, of course, would allow you to program perfect fade-ins and fade-outs.
THOUGH QUITE DISTINCT in the way they both present information, there are, nevertheless, considerable areas of overlap in the structure of the Key and Grid Edit windows. Primarily, this is due to the reliance of both windows on a box and grid system of representing note and timing data. Where in Key Edit we find a ten-octave keyboard graphic down the left hand side of the screen, Grid Edit presents us with nothing more edifying than a numerical data list in this position. In this respect, Grid Edit probably represents the least musical of the four main Edit windows.
"In essence, Key Edit represents a computer simulation of the piano roll system on the old pianola."
Because the data takes the form of a list, and because lists are, by their very nature, composed of serial information, the note boxes in Grid Edit (unlike those in Key Edit) always run diagonally across the screen from top left to bottom right. If you think about it for a moment it makes sense: if time is represented along the Y axis and if note events are listed consecutively from top to bottom, then the note boxes must be placed to the right of one another on the grid (or at least in line). Placing a box lower down the grid further to the left than one higher up would, effectively be positioning it back in time - and even Cubase hasn't got that one cracked yet.
Unlike its counterpart in Pro24, the Grid Edit window in Cubase may contain other forms of information in addition to note data. In fact, no less than six different types of information can be listed - Note, Polyphonic Key Pressure, Control Change, Program Change, Aftertouch and Pitchbend - and depending on which is selected, three "Value" columns display the relevant information. So, for example, Val 2 column will reveal Note-on Velocity when note events are listed, or the degree of pressure if Polyphonic Key Pressure is displayed.
Two of the other columns - Start Position and MIDI Channel number - remain the same no matter what type of data is being displayed, whilst Length provides information applicable only to note events. Finally, the Status column, as you might imagine, details which of the six types of event is currently being listed. Full scrolling of the List and the Grid is possible (of course), but unlike Pro24, this can be done automatically if Follow Song is selected from the options menu.
The Function and Transport bars maintain their respective positions above and below the display area, but the "bar graph" velocity display appears down the right-hand side of the screen rather than along the bottom as it does in the Key and Drum Edit windows. Graphic editing of velocity may still be carried out here, however, though along with all the editing functions, it can also be performed within the columns of the data list.
All the note manipulation tasks - dragging, kicking, extending and so on - are carried out in exactly the same way as in Key Edit, and so too is the on-screen insertion and deletion of notes using the pencil and rubber from the tool box. Incidentally, I should mention the other method of getting notes onto the grid using the paint brush - again selected from the tool box. By painting with the brush icon you can input a series of notes across the grid, spaced according to the selected snap value. They are of uniform length (determined by the current quantise value) and uniform pitch (C3), but of course, can be modified later to the desired settings.
MOVING QUICKLY ALONG (I don't think the Ed would stomach a third part to this review), we come to what I always regard as the cleverest item of software yet devised for music applications - the score-writer. Somehow, I never get tired of seeing my inconsequential doodlings at the keyboard transcribed into full musical notation. Of course, as far as Cubase is concerned, we're not looking at a full score-writing package (though this is promised as an upgrade in the near future), but the Score Edit window does offer some pretty comprehensive facilities nonetheless.
Recorded Tracks are presented in conventional note form on staves which appear beneath one another in the main display area. As every literate musician knows, the same piece of music can often be written in different ways, and in this respect Cubase offers you a number of options, primarily for making scores more legible. Thus, parts can transcribed either on a single staff or split into treble and bass clefs (the split point being set by the user). Where a single staff is used, however, Cubase can be prevailed upon to decide automatically whether this should be in the bass or treble clef.
Notes held down in such a way as to appear as slurs in the score, can be cut off in order to "clean up" the bar and make it easier to follow. (On traditional instruments, keys have to be held down in order to stop notes being cut off, but with the advent of envelope generators in electronic instruments this often isn't required.) Similarly, selecting the Syncope function rewrites syncopated notes so that they are easier to interpret; a pair of slurred quavers, for example, will appear as a crotchet, and thus take up less room in the bar.
Notes and rests can be input straight onto a staff using the relevant icons in the tool box, and as with the other Edit windows, step time entry is also possible. 0n-screen editing facilites are pretty comprehensive, but of course, you have to be mindful of the laws of music notation when attempting certain operations. That said, those unable to read conventional music should find Score Edit an immensely useful teaching aid especially if used with the other Edit windows to study note information in various forms.
ON NOW TO the last of the four main Edit windows - Drum Edit. And here we find, not unreasonably, a display optimised for the creation and editing of drum and percussion parts. On Cubase, it is possible to work with a Drum Map or without it, but as the manual makes clear, the time spent setting up a properly defined Drum Map is time well spent - particularly if you are using more than one machine as your sound source.
"Anyone familiar with conventional drum machine programming should find themselves at home with Drum Edit."
In common with the Key and Grid Edit windows, a grid is used for displaying notes - or beats as they are in this case - and anyone familiar with conventional drum machine programming should find themselves immediately at home here. Unlike Pro24, the Drum Map is on permanent display down the lefthand side of the screen, but once defined, it may be overwritten by extending the grid to the left in much the same way as the Arrange window. Presumably for reasons of accuracy, drum beats appear on the grid as diamonds (the manual calls them "rhombs"), and take on a different pattern shading according to their velocity. As in other Edit windows, dragging and kicking is possible and new beats can be inserted using the pencil/brush method or erased using the rubber (or any of four other methods listed in the manual).
The full column list when the Drum Map is in use comprises the Sound Name column (entered by the user), the Quantise column (individually set for each sound), the I-Note column (to determine the note on which the sound is input), the Length column (for use with sounds that may be altered in length), the 0-Note column (to determine the note on which the sound is output), the Instrument Name column (entered by the user), the Chn column (the MIDI send channel) and the Output column (the MIDI 0ut port). Additionally, columns LV1 to LV4 allow you to preset the four velocity levels at which beats can be input on the grid using the pencil or brush tools.
Selection of the "foot" icon in the Functions bar allows you to enter beats in step time, and monitoring of individual beats is possible using the ear icon (again in the Function bar) or the magnifying glass from the tool box. Non-note events such as velocity and Program Change messages may be edited graphically in the Controller display, and this, like Key Edit, is situated beneath the main display area and above the transport bar.
Though I've tried to keep it to a minimum, it should be obvious by the repetition in this review the degree to which Steinberg have managed to standardise operating procedures In the Edit windows. And indeed, there are a number of features I haven't yet mentioned which take this standardisation even further. For example, selecting the pop-up Goto menu from the Functions bar in all four Edit windows allows you to move straight to a prescribed position in the display (such as the first or last event in an active Part or the beginning of the next Part). Changing note data by MIDI Is also possible in all Edit windows - a selected note may be given new pitch, key-on or key off values simply by playing the relevant key on a keyboard.
Another universal feature is the Loop which allows you to set up a kind of mini-cycle (inside the main Cycle, if necessary) to repeat a specified Part or series of Parts. It's particularly useful when you're working on a small section of music which needs to be repeated more frequently than the main Cycle Is set up for.
Also useful is the pop-up Functions menu where you have access to such time-saving commands as Fixed Note - which gives all notes the same pitch as the selected one; Delete Note which deletes all notes with the same pitch as the selected one, and Keep Note which keeps all notes with the same pitch as the selected one and deletes all others.
This menu also contains commands for repeating a section of a Part (as many times as it takes to fill that Part), and for fiIling a whole part with C2 notes (spaced according to the Snap value and of length determined by the current quantise value). Instant reversal of selected events is possible here too, and there's also a delete command should anything need to be dumped. Finally, each Edit Window is given a further pop-up menu which allows you to select precisely which events you wish to be affected by the editing functions. Thus you can opt for All, Looped, Cycled or Selected events to be included - or those which have been Looped and Selected or Cycled and Selected.
FOR THE SAKE of completeness, I should mention the fifth window in which editing can take place on Cubase - Logical Edit. Again, it's a feature which first saw the light of day on Pro24, and as such, will probably be known to users of that program - though I cannot believe it would ever have been used with the frequency of the other Edit windows. Indeed, Steinberg themselves seem to adopt a warning tone in their introductory spiel to the system. Primarily, it offers a method of editing based on logical - or mathematical - criteria. As a result there are no interesting graphics to keep you entertained and mouse activity is restricted to moving around columns of data where numbers are entered, and (if you know what you're doing), the desired result is produced.
I have to say that in two years of using Pro24, I've felt no compulsion to get to grips with the Logical Edit system - and neither have I felt restricted in anything I've wanted to do because of it. Its importation from Pro24 would seem to indicate Steinberg's belief in it as a valid system for manipulating data, but I think they're going to have to brush up on the way it's presented, both on-screen and in the manual, if it's ever going to be seen as anything more than a hacker's system of editing. You don't believe me? OK, try this for size:
"I can see the Functions bar settling arguments with truculent guitarists over the composition of diminished 7ths."
"The two '=> A' and '=> B' fields are the Variables. 'A' can be dragged to the Value 1 field and 'B' to the Value 2 field in the Result area. If you, for example, drag '=> A' to the Value 2 Result field, you are 'patching' the result from the operation in the Value 1 column to the Value 2 result. If we talked about notes, this would mean that the result from the note value (pitch) operations would be used for velocity."
S'funny, but the little gnomes in my first piano tutor never mentioned anything about dragging '=> A' to the Value 2 Result field.
On the subject of clarity (and excepting the more indecipherable aspects of the Logical Edit chapter), the Cubase handbook is a model of clearly-written English in comparison to Pro24's quite dismal attempt at an instruction manual. Which isn't to say it's exceptional in any way - simply that it does the job. That said, I do like the way Steinberg have been happy to repeat parts of the text as they apply to each window. There's no need to have to refer back to previous chapters to find an explanation of a particular function just because it has already been described in another context.
BEFORE SUMMING UP, there's one final carrot I'll dangle in front of you - just in case there's anyone out there who might still be unconvinced. The carrot in question is Satellite, a utility program included on the main Cubase disk which boots automatically on power up (though it can be loaded as a normal program). In Steinberg's words, it provides the missing link between sequencing software and synth editors in as much as it allows you to transfer (in either direction) banks of sounds and MIDI dumps for 50 of the most popular instruments. In conjunction with Cubase, however, it does a whole lot more...
For example, whilst most conventional software sequencers will allow you to store Program Change Information with each track, Cubase, in conjunction with Satellite, will actually record the sound data for a particular voice and send it to the synth along with the track on playback, So, if a track uses a slightly modified synth voice, you don't need to use up synth memory saving it - all the sound data gets dumped to disk along with the song. And speaking of editing voices, one of the things I've often been In need of is a quick way of tweaking the more common parameters (like attack, brightness, release level and so on) on synths like the DX7II. Messing around with a whole series of parameter controls on a DX never was my idea of fun, and even using Synthworks, things can prove very long-winded. With Satellite's Macro Editor to hand, it's possible to alter attack and release levels, the degree of brightness and fatness, and the velocity sensitivity and vibrato levels for the whole sound - instantly. It really is an incredibly useful utility to have around, and like so many things on Cubase itself, it's great fun just to doodle around with.
Sounds may be transferred individually or in banks, and selecting the Configuration box allows you to assign separate MIDI data fiIes and Program Change numbers for the different Instruments. Join this to a Cubase song and on loading, it will send up to 50 data banks to your synths. Additionally, you can store drum maps for the Korg M1 or Roland D10/20/110/MT32, and there's a MIDI Controller facility for generating MIDI Control Change data of any type. Oh, and I mustn't forget the option of three different kinds of files which may be saved standard MIDI fiIes, SysEx files and Pro24 format fiIes...
I HAVE TO call a halt. I haven't run out of features to describe - either on Cubase or the Satellite utility - but I have run out of space. And after some eight thousand words I'm beginning to run out of steam too. In the course of reading this review, you will have perhaps noticed how little time I have spent passing opinions on those features I have described. Quite simply, there wasn't room. If I was ever to reflect the sheer scope of this program, all the available space had to be used in detailing the kind of features which give it the state-of-the-art status I referred to last month. Rest assured though, the superlatives were never far from my mind, and would have required a sizeable proportion of the text had they been included.
Quite honestly, this is the most impressive piece of music software I have yet encountered for the ST. And I certainly cannot conceive of it being possible to develop a more sophisticated sequencing package for that machine. As with most genuinely worthwhile designs, the transition from well-crafted tool to creative instrument is quite seamless - the features which give it a claim to both these titles being universally well thought-out and meticulously presented. Not only that, but it's a delight to use and one of that increasingly rare breed of technologically advanced designs which positively encourage the user to experiment and get to grips with it. To use but one example: it is the work of a few minutes to produce a handful of songs of differing feel and structure from the same set of individual parts. With Cubase on stream, the days of feeling loath to remix or re-arrange a piece of music simply because the original version took so long to put together are at an end.
Without wishing to pour cold water over its more exotic multitasking facilities, I honestly believe that its potential as the centre of a complex multi.program system is going to be limited to professional studio use where the cost of a Mega-ST could more easily be justified. From my understanding of the situation, the Mega simply hasn't taken off as a mass market computer, and without its vast memory reserves, full multitasking on Cubase is simply not on. It is, of course, possible to increase the memory in a 1040ST, but given the sheer quantity of RAM required to run even two or three programs concurrently, I'm not sure this is a viable option.
So where does that leave us? Well, as I've endeavoured to point out, it still leaves us with a hell of a lot. The multitasking capabilities within Cubase itself really do make working with any other sequencing seem like dreadfully hard work. Not having to interrupt the music to select any other command or function doesn't sound like a big deal until you return to a sequencer on which this would be impossible. Similarly, looking at a piece of music in two or three editing windows at the same time might sound rather OTT, but it has the effect of making any other sequencer seem as if it's hiding something from you - even one as "open" as Pro24. I suppose we're back to this concept of "transparency" I mentioned last month. Once loaded, it's incredibly easy to forget Cubase exists, and anyone who has spent time working with computer-based sequencing systems will know just how high a recommendation that is.
Of course, software companies will always have a problem asking hundreds of pounds for what amounts to no more than a couple of floppy disks and a dongle. And indeed, at some five hundred pounds, I don't think Steinberg are going to have a particularly easy time convincing people just what kind of value for money Cubase represents. But convince them they must, for this is something very special indeed.
Price £500 including VAT
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Review by Nigel Lord
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