Steinberg Cubase 3.0 (Part 1)
In Part 1 of a 2-part review, Cubase enthusiast David Mellor looks at the fully matured version of one of the world's favourite sequencers.
Yes, I admit it. I think Cubase is great and I don't mind if Steinberg do pinch great chunks of my articles to use in their ads! I wouldn't say that Cubase is perfect yet, even at the new version 3.0 level, but for state of the art sequencing of mainstream music on current hardware, it's hard to beat. Other sequencers I have tried have all had their strong points and have the edge on Cubase in certain areas, but Cubase's visual display provides such a strong link between the sounds you hear and the MIDI data held in the computer's RAM that sequencing can be almost as intuitive as improvising on the keyboard.
Professional digital audio hard disk editors usually have similar displays, involving moving segments of some kind so that you can see the audio as well as hear it. At these higher price levels, faster computing hardware is available and the segments scroll past a fixed cursor rather than the reverse as in Cubase. This is better because there isn't a gap when the cursor reaches the edge and the screen has to be redrawn, but when I remarked in a previous article about Cubase being a link with the future of audio, this is what I was referring to. Sequencers which employ lists rather than graphics, although their ultimate power may be equal to or even greater than Cubase, are limited because if you can't get at that power easily then it is bound to be largely wasted.
In contrast to the usual pattern of software release (good idea presented in bug-ridden form in version 1, debugged and more useful version 2...), Cubase has been usable from the start. Version 1.0 had all the elements in place and, although it was readily apparent that there was a lot of room for fine tuning, you could create serious music with it. Version 3 really does bring the concept fully to fruition, and it's difficult to see how further large scale improvements could be made within the limitations of currently popular hardware. Don't expect there to be vast differences or improvements. Most of the differences between version 2 and version 3 are differences in detail, not major changes, and fortunately they don't seem to get in the way of the Cubase interface at all. It's not unknown for the latest release of a piece of software to be harder to use than the version it replaced, or to have added unwanted irritations.
For newcomers to the program, the bulky Cubase package is lacking in one important respect, and there is also one object in the box whose presence is decidedly unwelcome. Let's start with the omission — there's no tutorial booklet. Cubase is a sophisticated piece of software, and it does a lot more besides MIDI sequencing. How Steinberg expect the average user to get to grips with Logical Editing, the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, and the MIDI Mixer without a tutorial booklet is beyond me. I suspect that less than 5% of Cubase users are taking advantage of these features simply because most of them don't have time to spend on features whose worth is impossible to evaluate and level of difficulty inestimable. I know that all the information is there in reference form in the manual, and there is a rudimentary 7-page tutorial section, but it's hard to piece together all the facts you are going to have to understand when you don't yet know how much you'll need to know to master the system.
The superfluous item I mentioned is the blasted dongle. If I were judging Cubase as a piece of amateur software that people were going to use in their own homes purely for the sake of amusement then I wouldn't mind. But Cubase is meant to be serious professional software, and the last thing you need in professional work is a tiny little box that performs no function of its own but which causes serious problems if you lose it — you can't get your work done, and you have to fork out for a whole new package of dongle, disks and manuals. There are ways and means of discouraging illegitimate use other than by inconveniencing genuine legitimate users.
Looking at the main screen of Cubase 3.0 you won't see many differences from version 2. One obvious change is in the shading of the transport buttons. Not an important point, but it's nice to see that Steinberg are intent on improving the look and feel of their product as well as its features. However, look beyond the similarities and you'll find a multitude of detailed improvements which make Cubase easier to use and more versatile.
• On the left of the track list you will see three columns (where version 1 had one and version 2 had two). As well as the activity display and mute indicator there is a column showing the Class of each track. All the tracks on this example are standard MIDI tracks for normal recording and editing, but there may also be Drum tracks, Group Tracks, MIDI Mixer tracks and Tape tracks (for controlling recorders such as the Fostex R8 and G16) in your arrangement. The manual follows the description of these classes with a telling statement: "If you purchase an extension to Cubase or an expanded version, more Track Classes may appear on the menu". So this is where Steinberg are headed!
• If you position the mouse cursor exactly over the dividing line between the track list and the Part display, a 'grabber hand' will appear which allows you to decide whether to see more of the track list information or more of the Part display according to your preferences. In version 2, the column to the right of the track name was given to a list of instruments. Probably very useful if you had a large collection of them, but not as helpful if your armoury consisted of just a couple of synths or samplers. I decided that the best ploy was to name the instruments according to the MIDI channels to which they were assigned, thereby telling me all I needed to know and conserving valuable space for the Part display. Version 3 does the sensible thing and swaps these columns around so that the first thing you see to the right of the track names are the MIDI channels.
• Something that always used to waste a lot of time in version 2 was the endless opening and closing of Part dialogue boxes. I never complained because I was so glad to have the ability to adjust parameters such as Velocity, MIDI Volume, Delay, and Transposition Interval, in real time as the track was playing. The drawback was that although the track would continue, the track display behind the dialogue box would freeze and Cubase's biggest asset became useless. Now there is a little icon at the bottom of the activity display column. Double click this and an information box, called the Inspector, appears at the left of the screen containing loads of parameters for you to play with while the track and the Part display are both running. Getting from track to track is a doddle — just click the track you want to adjust and make changes that will affect the entire track. Want to change just one Part on a track? Click the Part and the changes will relate to that Part only. The best ideas are often the simplest and this one speeds up the operation of Cubase wonderfully.
• Have you ever thought that the Atari's screen is too small to display all the vast array of tracks you use in your arrangement to full advantage? Up till now there wasn't much you could do, except shell out for a Mega ST and a pricey large monitor. Now you can hide the transport window if you wish. You can do without this quite easily once you are used to the keyboard equivalent commands (but I wish someone would invent customisable key caps for the Atari). With the transport window hidden you can see as many as 31 tracks all at the same time on the standard monitor, without scrolling. My arrangements don't usually extend to such giddy heights of complexity, but the facility's there and plenty of people will use it to the full.
Other new features in the latest version of Cubase include a resolution of 384 pulses per quarter note, twice the resolution of version 2.0, compatibility with the Atari TT, and a new dongle in a pleasant shade of crimson.
If we are looking for real changes in the new version of Cubase, then we had better scan the menus to see what goodies they offer — and why not start with the totally new menu that appears between Options and Windows — Modules. Here you'll find listed the following Modules, each of which is a part of the Cubase program: MIDI Processor; Phrase Synthesizer; MIDI Mixer; Score Editor. There is space in the Module Selector dialogue box for at least another five, without scrolling, so I would imagine that Steinberg are cooking up some pretty hot ideas in their software kitchens. You'll have to pay for these though!
When you first install Cubase, you'll find that none of these modules are loaded, and you therefore can't use them, but you can specify which of the modules are to be loaded automatically in future. You can also load any inactive modules halfway through a session, if necessary.
"Look beyond the similarities between version 2 and version 3 and you'll find a multitude of detailed improvements which make Cubase easier to use and more versatile."
The reason for adopting this modular approach is simple. The Atari ST is a great computer at a great price, considering its power and the quality of the mono monitor. However, technology marches on and improvements in the capabilities of software are bound to make more demands on the hardware. Most musicians' STs have 1MB of memory, which seemed a lot once upon a time. These days it's a bit of a squeeze getting the software into the computer and still leaving room for a few morsels of data. A 1MB Atari isn't big enough for really serious use any more, and an upgrade to 2.5 or 4MB is a worthwhile investment to give you sufficient room to manoeuvre.
However, with Cubase 3.0 you have an elegant way of managing memory more effectively. Why load more software functions into your computer than you need? If you don't need the MIDI Processor, why load it? If you can't read music notation, why waste over 150k of RAM on the Score Editor when the memory could be used to store song data instead?
I suspect this could be the start of a major trend in music software. As in the motor industry, perhaps we'll soon be offered different versions of Cubase or Notator, or any other software for that matter. There will be a Cubase standard model, a Cubase GL, and a sporty Cubase SRi. And since this is software, you won't have to trade in your package for an upgrade; you'll buy an extra module or modules to convert it from a safe and steady family saloon to a go-faster sports model. There could even be third-party modules too, and assembling a sequencer might become a bit like assembling an effects rack. I think that is something to look forward to.
I doubt whether anyone will use all of Cubase's facilities and modules. The MIDI Mixer and Phrase Synthesizer obviously have much to offer. Briefly, the MIDI Mixer offers snapshot and automated control of seemingly as many MIDI parameters as your knowledge of MIDI extends to. The Phrase Synthesizer can take a recorded MIDI input and modify it in an immense variety of ways. But neither of these fall into the category of mainstream sequencing so I propose to leave them until next month. Score editing is a different matter, however, since many sequencer users are interested in putting their thoughts down on paper as well as on tape. (The other forms of Cubase editing are still available, although Grid Edit is now called List Edit).
The score editing feature of Cubase has been extensively improved, with features such as full page overview and edit, drum notation, chord symbols, guitar tablature, enhanced printer support, improved accidentals and beams, extended text option, and polyphonic voices per system. Producing an acceptable printed score from a MIDI sequence is never going to be an easy or straightforward task, but it is important particularly now that electric and acoustic instruments are being used more and more alongside synthesised and sampled material.
Score editing has two purposes: one is to edit your MIDI sequence, the other is to get a printed copy of your work. There are therefore two modes of operation, Edit mode and Page mode. In Edit mode, the object is to get as clear a display as possible so you can move notes around according to what you hope to be able to hear eventually. To this end there is a dialogue box which offers a number of flags. Auto Quantise, No Overlap, Syncopation, Auto Clef, and Clean Lengths were best set to On. I found I didn't need to bother with No Part Name, No Beams, and No Half 3lets. The result is a score on screen that is almost always neat enough to play from without any manual tweaking whatsoever. And if you want to fix a bum note, just drag it with the mouse to its correct position. The only drawbacks to this are that the screen isn't big enough to show all the music you might want it to — I would recommend editing just one part at a time — and the ST is too slow to update a whole screenful of notation quickly enough. Time to trade up to a TT perhaps?
Printing out a score properly involves a lot more fine tuning. Steinberg advise working on a copy of your music, so that whatever you recorded stays the way you meant it, yet the printed score is clear enough for a musician to play straight away without having too much difficulty with strange syncopations or densely black patches of notes. This page shows a section of raw printout from the score editor, without any manual tweaking. I printed it on my Hewlett Packard HPIIP laser printer, and as you can see the result is pretty good.
If you are already a Cubase owner, you may be asking yourself whether version 3 is worth the cost of the upgrade. Consider also that you'll probably have to install some extra memory in your computer to take full advantage of it. (My ST has 2.5MB, and I couldn't load some old Cubase files I had created before I had the memory upgrade. 'Out of Memory', the screen informed me.) I would say that nearly always it's best to upgrade your software when you have the opportunity. Technology is constantly on the march and unless you keep yourself at the cutting edge then inevitably you'll get left behind.
Cubase 3.0 is the fully mature version of Cubase, and although I expect there will be a few tweaks yet to come, this is the version to have rather than the now outdated version 2. One of Cubase's advantages is that it is very simple to use at a basic level and get good results. There are also many levels of complexity — so that if you feel the spirit of adventure coming on that, especially with the MIDI Mixer, Logical Edit and the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, there is probably no limit to the the possibilities available.
Next month: Logical Editing, Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, and the MIDI Mixer.
Cubase 3.0 £575 inc VAT.
Upgrade far registered owners £75 inc VAT.
Upgrade for non-registered owners £94.02 inc VAT.
Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Mellor
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