Atari Sequencing Software
Son of Cubase: this stripped-down version of Steinberg's powerful sequencer retains many of its best functions. Nigel Lord and ST, and Cubase makes three.
Retaining many of the features of its sophisticated parent, Cubase, Steinberg's latest sequencer attempts to capture that elusive balance between musicality and affordability.
THOUGH I CAN'T believe it would make any sense for one of the newer software houses to venture into the mid-priced ST sequencer market at the present time, it's perhaps not surprising that a company like Steinberg should attempt to take up any slack by releasing a scaled-down version of their flagship sequencer. After all, when you've invested the time and effort that's gone into Cubase, recycling some of the technology is a sensible move.
Sensible, too, for the punter short of £150 or so to buy the sequencer of his dreams. For them, the prospect of a sequencer from the same stable as Cubase and equipped with many of its more innovative features, may seem too good to be true.
With this in mind, I've resisted the temptation to wax weary about the release of "yet another sequencer..." As cynical as we may have become about ST software, the release of Cubeat will set a few pulses racing.
From the similarity in name and Steinberg's description of "a low-cost Cubase derivative", there's no doubt that Cubeat is being marketed as a cut-down version of its big brother rather than a beefed-up version of anything else (the ageing, but still available Pro24, for example). And this being the case, we're entitled to make direct comparisons between the two. After all, some punters may still be in the process of deciding if it's worth the bread and water rations to save the extra they need for Cubase. Clearly, we need to find out where the cuts in facilities have been made and how much they affect overall performance. But before we get into that, let's look at what is on offer.
THE FIRST GOOD news is that the main Arrange page (around which Cubase is built) appears in Cubeat in exactly the same form. This, in my opinion, is Cubase's greatest strength and will be the single most important factor behind Cubeat's success - if success it has. Forget note editing facilities, forget scorewriting and sync options - if it takes an age to put a song together (as it did on Pro24), software sequencers quickly lose their appeal. With Cubeat, recording couldn't be easier: record your parts (individually or in groups) across any of its 64 tracks and you'll see them appear as oblong boxes of varying length within the Arrange window.
From here, thanks to Steinberg's excellent Visual Song Processing (ViSP) system, arranging a song is a go-anywhere, do-anything relationship between imagination and mouse. Parts may be moved, combined, joined, split, extended or shortened. They can overlap and be moved from track to track; they may be repeated within the same track or copied into different tracks. You can mute them or listen to how they sound isolated from the rest of the music - and if you don't like them, you can delete them altogether. As I said in my review of Cubase, I cannot think of a musically useful function which cannot be accomplished in the Arrange page.
To help you out, you'll find a set of special tools which you can call on (by pressing and holding the right-hand mouse button) at any time. Amongst them are a pencil, scissors, glue, a magnifying glass and an eraser; I'll leave it to you to work out which of them does what. Below the Arrange window, and present at all times in Cubeat, are the "transport" controls which, as with most software sequencers these days, replicate those on a conventional tape recorder. In addition to the standard functions such as play, record, fast forward and rewind, you can cue at varying speeds by clicking the right-hand mouse button at different positions within the fast forward or rewind icons. You can also instantly return to zero by a second click on the stop icon.
Within any arrangement it is possible to set up a cycle using the left and right locators, and this function is used when recording in any of the three Cycle Record modes - Normal, Mix and Punch. In Normal mode (used also in non-cycle recording) you record in the conventional way on the first cycle, but if you carry on playing as recording enters its second (or any subsequent) pass, everything previously recorded is wiped out and only the new data is kept. In Mix mode, data recorded on the second (or subsequent) pass is added to that on the first, whilst in Punch mode recording doesn't start until you begin playing, but carries on from that point to the end of the cycle, erasing anything recorded previously. Incidentally, you can also record conventional punch in/outs using the left and right Locators and clicking on the icons just next to them.
In addition to editing the notes that go to make up each Part (which we'll come to in a moment), it's possible to edit a number of parameters associated with the Parts themselves. This is accomplished by double clicking over any Part icon, then adjusting the parameters presented to you in the dialogue box which appears. These include transpose, velocity, (MIDI) delay, length, and (MIDI) volume. There's also a compression function which restricts the overall dynamic range of a Part, and a program change facility where you can enter a MIDI program change command which will be sent out as the Part is played.
On top of this, information about the Part itself is included - its name, position, MIDI channel and so on - and there's a filter to prevent the output of certain kinds of MIDI data such as aftertouch, pitchbend and program change.
EDITING AT THE level of individual notes is a fundamental requirement of all sequencers. Previously, this was an area in which Steinberg software excelled; on Cubase, for example, it's possible to edit note information in any of five different pages - Score, Drum, Key, Grid, and Logical - the last three of these having found their way onto Cubeat in virtually identical form.
Key Edit is probably the most intuitive, and features a piano-style keyboard running from top to bottom down the left-hand side of the screen and a large grid alongside it. Like the Parts on the Arrange page, the notes appear on the grid as oblongs of varying length and lie opposite the corresponding notes on the keyboard. Visually, it's reminiscent of the old player-pianos, except that the notes are not scrolled in real time as they are in that (century old) technology but remain stationary and sound as a cursor line passes them. After the notes in each grid have been played (amounting to perhaps three or four bars of music) the screen is updated with the next grid, and so on, to the end of the song.
"In day-to-day use, I frequently found myself forgetting that it wasn't Cubase I was working with but Cubeat - the programs are so similar."
If you wish, the velocity level of each note can be represented in bar graph form in a display beneath the main grid. Alternatively, this may be used to provide a visual representation of other forms of MIDI data such as pitchbend, aftertouch, modulation, breath or foot control.
Editing on screen is broadly similar to that on the Arrange page: notes can be inserted, deleted, lengthened or shortened, but calling up the toolbox reveals a few changes to the tools you have at your disposal. The pencil, eraser and magnifying glass are still there but joining them are a paint brush (for writing multiple notes on screen) and two "feet" for kicking the notes (in either direction) along the grid. The size of each kick is directly related to the current quantise level.
Editing in the Key edit page is very intuitive, and Cubeat assists you at every step with a huge array of features designed to keep it as musical an exercise as possible. For example, clicking the mouse over any of the keyboard notes on screen sends that note via MIDI to your keyboard. If you want to change or insert a note, then, you can "play" the on-screen keyboard to determine which note you require. Also, though most recording will probably take place on the Arrange page, there's nothing to stop you recording in Key edit (or Grid edit for that matter), and here you can watch your notes appear, in real time.
Grid edit is in many ways similar to Key edit, but instead of identifying notes by placing them alongside a piano keyboard, it does so by displaying an event list containing position, length and pitch. You can, if you wish, include other types of event in the list - polyphonic key pressure, aftertouch, pitchbend, program changes - and it's for this reason that three of the parameter columns are labelled, simply, Val(ue) 1, 2 and 3; the information they include being dependent on the type of event listed.
Graphically, events are plotted on the grid itself in sequential order; this means they run diagonally across the grid from top left to bottom right. As the grid is plotted against time along its horizontal axis, two events may appear one above the other (when two notes are played simultaneously, for example), but it isn't possible for a note lower down the grid to be plotted further to the left of one higher up.
It takes a bit of getting used to at first, particularly when you're manipulating events on the grid itself (which you can do using the toolbox), but you soon get used to it. And for many editing operations (increasing the length of a note by a precise amount, for example) it's actually much quicker.
I wish I could be as positive about the third editing page - Logical Edit. Despite Karl Steinberg's personal assurance that this was a laudable enough inclusion on Cubase, I've never really got to grips with it, and was less than elated by its appearance on Cubeat. Simply, it offers a method of editing based not on musical criteria but on mathematical and logical functions. There isn't room here to explain its full operation, but a couple of examples might shed a little light.
You could, by entering the necessary data, double the duration of a series of G#2 notes which occur on the third beat of each bar within a given section of music. Thus, if you had recorded a repeating bass riff, and decided one of the notes cut off too sharply, you could use Logical Edit to lengthen it throughout a Track. Similarly, if you decided you'd been heavy on the pitchbend during a particular section of a song, you could, after identifying the notes, use Logical Edit to lessen the pitch shift for all of them by a predetermined amount.
These examples are simplistic, but they put you in the general area of what Logical edit is about. Personally, I find it the kind of feature which leaves me thinking "is this what music is all about?" after a heavy night's editing.
LET'S GET EXOTIC. Cubeat, like its big brother, is multitasking. In other words, it can do a number of things at once. With enough memory in your ST, it will allow you to run two or more programs simultaneously. The key to it all is Steinberg's M.ROS operating system, developed originally for Cubase and making another dramatic appearance here. How else would you describe a multitasking sequencer for well under three hundred pounds?
"There's no doubt that Cubeat is being marketed as a cut-down version of its big brother rather than a beefed-up version of anything else."
We're talking mucho memory for even the most modest attempt at running two programs together (not to mention a key expander such as the MIDEX or MIDEX+ - reviewed MT, December 89), but M.ROS does earn its keep at a more fundamental level on Cubeat by allowing you to instigate most operations (say, changing editing pages and adjusting part parameters) whilst the sequencer is still running - in fact, without it even breaking step. Understandably, this makes working with Cubeat immeasurably less tedious than most sequencers (soft or hard).
If you have the wherewithal to make Cubeat the centre of a multitasking system, you'll find the Switcher program needed to get the system up and running included on your program disk. With it there's an Installation program which selects the driver files required for various hardware devices (SMP24, Timelock, MIDEX), at least one of which you'll require in this expanded setup. There's also a program called Satellite which allows you to edit the basic parameters of any one of a dozen or so of the most popular synths, as well as load, send or save banks of sounds compiled using one of Steinberg's Synthworks programs. And, under M.ROS, you can do it all in real time with Cubeat still loaded.
Cubeat has an extensive range of synchronisation options built around M.ROS. Full compatibility with SMPTE and MIDI clock sources is offered, as is MIDI Time Code - this makes Cubeat only the second software sequencer (after Cubase) to include this method of synchronisation. Human sync is also possible: you can tap in a tempo using some kind of MIDI key whilst syncing to time code in any format. For example, Cubeat may be synced to existing recordings which have not been striped with sync code in order to change the instruments and add other parts - or to salvage a favourite synth or bass line.
On the subject of righting wrongs, if your playing tends to wander when set against the unerring pulse of the machine, you'll be relieved to hear that Cubeat comes equipped with a variety of quantisation options. Besides quantising to dotted and triplet values down to 1/64 notes, there are no less than five different types of quantise available. In addition, a quantise freeze function may be used to freeze a part corrected in Over Quantise mode, for example, before attempting an Iterative Quantise to create, say, a shuffle feel.
Match Quantise, as its name suggests, allows you to match the feel and dynamics of one part with those of another. Thus, if you've recorded a drum track with a happenin' groove, you can use Match quantise to impose this on a synth bassline. Results sometimes don't turn out as you planned, so unless a part has been deliberately frozen, all quantising can be undone with the ST's Undo key.
IN DECIDING WHAT to include on Cubeat from the features in Cubase, Steinberg have not gone in for a lot of nit-picking. Rather, they've taken a large pair of scissors (or the software equivalent) and cut four major features in a calculated guess that what's left will be enough to make it a success in the mid-priced sequencer market. The features of which I speak are the Score and Drum edit pages, the MIDI Manager and the MIDI Effects processor - in many ways, the four most advanced/innovative areas of Cubase.
Has the gamble paid off? With one exception, I think the answer is yes. As far as the MIDI Manager and the Effects processor are concerned, you could say if you haven't got them, you won't miss them. And to a lesser degree, the same is true of the Score Edit page. As sophisticated and easy to use as the system is - there isn't really anything that cannot be accomplished in Key edit and in certain circumstances, Grid edit.
The real problem as I see it, lies in Steinberg's decision not to include a Drum edit page. This isn't a reflection of my preoccupation with things rhythmic, but a genuine note of concern about the absence of what has to be regarded as one of the pillars on which software sequencers are built. Put simply: programming rhythm tracks on a conventional sequencer is a pain in the butt and is one of the reasons why people buy software sequencers, it is, therefore, likely to be the reason why some people, who might otherwise be tempted, will not buy Cubeat.
The assumption may be that these people will opt for Cubase instead, but with so many other challengers in the market place, I wouldn't feel happy about making such an assumption. Surely there were other features which could have been omitted? I accept that a differential has to be maintained between Cubase and Cubeat in terms of facilities, but is it not equally important to preserve a sense of wholeness about a program? And without Drum Edit (which even Pro24 boasts), Cubeat does not, to me, feel whole.
In every other respect, the program is difficult, if not impossible, to fault. In day-to-day use, I frequently found myself forgetting that it wasn't Cubase I was working with but Cubeat - the programs are so similar. And that, I suspect, is likely to be a very powerful argument for those still weighing up the pros and cons. In a nutshell, those not involved (or likely to be) in the creation of rhythm tracks need have no second thoughts about Cubeat. It's not a sequencer you'll quickly outgrow, and you're likely to find it a tremendous spur to your creativity. Those who do write rhythm tracks will either have to work with Grid or Key edit, save up the extra for Cubase - or pray that, upon reading this, someone at Steinberg will include Drum edit in version 2.
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Review by Nigel Lord