With Cubase and Notator fighting it out at the top end, Steinberg appear to have left Pro24 to defend its once dominant position in the mid-priced ST sequencer market. Now reinforcements are available with the release of Cubeat, a cut-down version of Cubase. David Hughes takes it into battle.
The professional sequencer market for the Atari ST is more or less divided between two camps: Steinberg's Cubase and C-Lab's Notator. Both are highly professional programs offering a host of features that make either program an ideal choice for the serious musician. At the lower end of the market there are a number of sequencer packages, some of which are highly professional in their approach but occasionally lacking in features. Although the middle ground used to be the almost exclusive domain of Steinberg's Pro24, at present there doesn't appear to be a clear leader. In response to this state of affairs Steinberg have released Cubeat, which is essentially a cut-down version of Cubase. Does it offer the power and flexibility of Cubase or have too many functions been sacrificed to keep the cost down? Let's find out...
A brief glimpse of the main arrangement page immediately gives away the lineage of Cubeat. It is very difficult to tell Cubase and Cubeat apart at a glance. Technically, they are very similar — both boast 64-track operation with a resolution of 192 ticks (pulses) per quarter note (ppqn). But appearances can be superficial and closer study gives away some interesting differences.
However, a feature-for-feature comparison between the two isn't really of much value to you, the reader, so let's start from the beginning and explain the important features of Cubeat itself, and then see how it stands up against other sequencer programs on the market.
Cubeat essentially sets out to emulate a 64-track tape recorder, although its main strength (and therefore selling point) is its user interface, which Steinberg have dubbed 'VISP' — an acronym for Visual Song Processing.
Essentially, VISP mimics the sound engineer's 'track sheet' that we all know and love. It's a highly intuitive system to work with, being based upon the familiar GEM window environment — that is, you open a window onto an arrangement and use the icons and pulldown menus to manipulate the song data.
This has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that the program is easy to operate, nothing is further away than a few mouse clicks and there are, in theory, no complex keyboard commands to learn. The disadvantages are that the complex graphical routines which refresh the screen — that is open, close, and re-draw the arrangement and edit windows etc — all take time to execute and this can, occasionally, be very tiresome; especially at three in the morning when the coffee machine is on the blink!
The main screen page within Cubeat is the arrangement window, and this is essentially a graphical representation of the current song. The fundamental elements within Cubeat are the individual MIDI events, and these are grouped together to form a Part. Each Part is represented as a rectangle within the arrangement window, and Parts may be copied, deleted, split, merged, and so on, all from the front panel using the familiar GEM 'click and drag' functions and the 'toolkit' feature lurking beneath the right-hand mouse button.
"Cubeat lacks both a Score Edit page and a Drum Edit page... Both of these pages were very highly valued features of Pro24."
In common with many sequencers of the day, Cubeat employs standard 'tape transport' functions to move you around a piece. These are always visible in the display and you can therefore start, stop, fast forward, and rewind an arrangement from any point in the program, be it from the main arrangement page, an edit page, or even whilst accessing the disk. In fact, Steinberg make a great deal of the real-time nature of Cubeat and, in particular, their proprietary multi-tasking operating system, MROS. MROS is the foundation on which Cubeat is built, and it's this which supports many of the real-time functions that are available.
A clear demonstration of the power of MROS's real-time operations is the ability to load a song arrangement into the computer 'in the background' whilst the 'foreground' (current) arrangement is playing away for all it's worth. This facility is an absolute boon in a live situation, because it gives that 'seamless' quality to a performance. I tested this aspect quite rigorously by taking the biggest Cubase file I had available and attempting to load it into Cubeat whilst, at the same time, it was playing another, somewhat complex, arrangement. Happily, Cubeat took it all in its stride without the slightest glitch in the playback tempo.
You can run Cubeat as part of a multiprogram environment using the MROS 'switcher' program supplied. This allows you to load multiple programs into the computer's memory (provided it is large enough) and subsequently hop (ie. switch) between them at will. Another advantage is that you can 'pipe' the output data from one program, via MROS, into the input of a second or third program — that is as long as you've enough memory to accommodate all of the programs.
Although all this sounds great in theory, it's a more complex situation in practice. As I discovered, you very quickly run out of available memory. An Atari ST with two megabytes of RAM is the minimum requirement to run two or more programs, and even then the memory seems to disappear at an alarming rate.
Lurking behind the main arrangement page are the editors which give Cubeat its power and flexibility. It is possible to carry out all of your processing from the arrangement page, but then that would be wasting an awful lot of the potential of the Cubeat system.
"What I do like about the Cubeat edit pages is the ability to undo any accidental changes you've made to a Part."
There are only three edit pages implemented within Cubeat — Grid Edit, Key Edit, and Logical Edit — and this, sadly, is my first real criticism of the program. Cubeat lacks both a Score Edit page and a Drum Edit page which, to me, is a serious omission on the part of Steinberg. Both of these pages were very highly valued features of Pro24. Depending upon your own priorities, you could possibly forgive the omission of either of these pages, but not both.
The original Grid Edit page was one of the main strengths of Pro24 and it has continued to figure prominently through all of the ensuing versions of Pro24 and Cubase. Essentially, the Grid Edit page comes in two halves. On the right-hand side of the page we have the grid upon which MIDI events are depicted as a series of rectangular blocks. The length of each block indicates the duration of the event, with time running along the horizontal axis. On the left-hand side of the page there is the 'event list', which describes in some detail all of the relevant information for a given MIDI event. The border between the two regions is not fixed and can be changed to reveal more or less of the edit grid, should the need arise. MIDI data can then be modified by clicking over the appropriate field in the event list or, alternatively, by clicking/dragging within the grid window. There is also a step-time note entry facility, which is a great help, and on the whole the Grid Edit page provides a very neat and quick method of manipulating data.
The Key Edit page is similar, in that notes are depicted on a large grid with time running along the horizontal axis. The vertical axis is laid out in the form of a piano-style keyboard. Notes are again displayed as small rectangular boxes, with the horizontal length indicating the duration of the note. As before, notes can be individually manipulated by the usual drawing/dragging operations. Whole groups of notes may be selected and manipulated collectively as one event, which is quite a powerful technique.
At the base of the page is a further window. This displays MIDI controller information such as pitch bend, modulation amount, and key velocity data. It's also possible to modify controller data from within this window. Now although it's relatively straightforward to modify individual key velocities — you just draw in the new value using the 'pencil' icon from the toolkit — changing continuous controller information (such as pitch bend data or modulation levels) is not so easy. You can edit existing data, again using the pencil option, but drawing new data from scratch with the mouse isn't easy. It takes time and patience to figure out how and why things work. At present, this is not a feature I enjoy using.
What I do like about the Cubeat edit pages is the ability to undo any accidental changes you've made to a Part. I've found it a particularly valuable function to have since, on a few occasions when I've been tired or managed to get one's proverbials in a twist, I've deleted the wrong part or generally made a mess of things. Clicking on the 'Undo' option restores everything to its former glory. This, as I'm fond of pointing out, is not something that you can do with a tape recorder!
"You can run Cubeat as part of a multi-program environment using the MROS 'switcher' program supplied."
The preceding text only scratches the surface of the facilities on offer within Cubeat. There is, like Cubase, an awful lot of depth to this program and you certainly won't exhaust its possibilities in a single session.
One of the most important aspects of Cubeat is its compatibility with Cubase and Pro24. I tested this thoroughly during the review period and concluded that Cubeat is almost, but not entirely, compatible with Cubase. I encountered the odd problem when a song made use of the MIDI effects processor, which Cubeat does not implement (shame!), and the MIDI data on such a track disappears into the depths of MROS never to be heard of again. This is an easy one to fix — you simply redirect the output to another MIDI port.
I also discovered that Cubase files, when loaded, initially prevent Cubeat from seeing MIDI data from the standard Atari port. This took some tracking down. I initially suspected a dodgy MIDI lead but later discovered that the Record option in the 'Options' menu was only accepting input via MROS. Again, simple to fix but irritating and time-consuming to find.
Cubeat is also 99% compatible with Pro24. The only difficulty I experienced was when I attempted to load an old Pro24 song and discovered that, although MIDI information was being generated, it wasn't emerging from the Atari where I expected, namely via the Atari port. This is a problem with which many Cubase users will be familiar. A quick peek at the output destination fields, lurking behind the main arrangement window, revealed that all of the outputs had defaulted to 'NODEV'. Once the destination was correctly specified, the problem disappeared — although it is extremely tiresome to have to do this with every Pro24 song that you load in.
Cubeat represents something of a paradox. In terms of price it is a more obvious successor to Pro24 than Cubase. However, in real terms it offers considerably less than Pro24. The omission of both the Drum Edit page and the Score Edit facility is a serious flaw in an otherwise excellent program. It's true that you can accomplish most of the functions of the Drum Edit page from within the Grid Edit or Key Edit options, but it's more difficult, less convenient, and time-consuming.
It appears that, in designing Cubeat, Steinberg have had to make a number of choices between what features to include and what features to omit, so that there is a clear distinction between Cubeat and Cubase. I believe that they may have omitted just a bit too much when one considers that many other software houses incorporate, as standard, many of the features that Cubeat lacks. However, Cubeat does give you an outstandingly simple user interface, three highly versatile and effective editors, multiple arrangements in memory at once and, above all, real-time operation. Couple these features with the expanding range of peripherals from Steinberg and you have a versatile and effective package which is capable of carrying out the majority of studio functions without any fuss and bother.
The final choice depends very much upon your own priorities and how much you are willing to compromise. If you can't live without the Score Edit and Drum Edit pages then you'd best look elsewhere. If you can live without these features then my advice would be an unreserved 'Go for it!'
£285 inc VAT.
Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details).
Review by David Hughes
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!