Cubase 6 has been around for the better part of a year now, and after a couple of months of getting to grips with it, we decided to give it the Oh Drat review treatment. It seems like Some of the updates in Cubase 6 are reactive, others proactive, but after a period over the past few years during which the big DAWs’ designers seemed to be trapped in a mass group think, churning out updates that brought their feature sets closer and closer in design to each others, things look to be specialising once again. Read on…
I think the odds – in an alternative dimension where bookmakers are inclined to take bets on potential features in professional music software updates – of Steinberg adding guitar amp simulations in Cubase 6 update were pretty high, considering they’ve been added to just about every other DAW in the past couple of years (and they sound and behave just like the rest). An improvement to the inline time stretching, which now runs Elastique Pro, brings it into line with the competition too. It’s the things that Cubase does that the others don’t, like the drum replacement, inline pitch and harmonic alteration, and some beefy advantages bestowed upon the software by VST 3.5 that give it the most strength.
VST Note Expression allows per note message editing of instrument parameters
Perhaps the biggest incentive to going Steinberg is the integration of the VST 3.5 standard. Don’t forget that it was Steinberg that introduced VST in the first place, and their periodic updates to the technology have allowed greater integration between the plugin and host as time’s gone by. With the advent of Apple’s acquisition of Logic and their introduction of Audio Unit technology, non-Cubase Mac users don’t tend to deal much with VST as until you get deep into the technicalities of the two formats, the two produce the same end result, with AU being better supported and thus more convenient. VST 3.5 changes all this though, as there are some pretty big breakthroughs in the integration between host and software, that currently Cubase 6 is the only DAW to take full advantage of.
VST Note Expression allows per note message editing of instrument parameters. Single notes in chords can be modulated, bent and so on on any instrument that supports the VST 3.5 standard, meaning things like orchestral patches can be worked with in the same MIDI editor for much more natural sounding programming; string quartets no longer require every virtual virtuoso to play exactly the same way when it comes to pitch bends and pressure modulation, and synth parts that use different voices can have different filter sweeps. It’s a really great feature, and perhaps the major thing Cubase has over its competition. The only caveat is the requirement for the plugin that you’re using to have been programmed with VST 3.5 in mind.
An aspect in in which Cubase shines is audio editing. It has a suite of editing tools that allow inline pitch, timing, and slicing, and for the most part they’re very good – things can be fiddly, but more on that later. The addition of the Elastique Pro audio tools unfortunately isn’t compatible with the real time nature of the warping tools, which means that you’ll have to fall back to the standard Cubase rendering and bounce tracks to new audio (or ‘apply’ changes and lose the original) to get the best of both worlds, but this isn’t that much of a hassle.
slicing and tempo detection is now more accurate
Much of the editing options debuted in Cubase 5, but Cubase 6 introduces a couple of important improvements. There’s been something of an overhaul of the detection algorithms, meaning that slicing and tempo detection is now more accurate.
It’s still not perfect when it comes to audio with lots of harmonics and very smooth waveforms –pads, for example – but it’s almost always spot on when it comes to drum loops and staccato sequences, and its defaults can be massaged with its semi auto controls if it’s a little out and of course you can go in manually if it’s just not getting it.
If you record multiple mic setups for drums and other audio, the phase stable quantisation is handy. It allows you to specify which of your tracks you want to take priority for quantisation and moves audio in all corresponding tracks along side them to make sure that there are no phase issues. There’s also an improved multi take comping mode which works in much the same way as the design that Propellerhead Software used with Record and Apple introduced into Logic.
hitpoints can now be sliced to MIDI
In addition to VariAudio’s ability to create MIDI tracks from the pitch data it finds, hitpoints can now be sliced to MIDI, which is designed to make layering drums with plugin sounds easier. In reality we didn’t find it that useful, as the hitpoints are simply exported as MIDI notes in much the same way as groove quantise, leaving you to rearrange them to different notes manually. Different transients can be assigned different velocities, but it’s up to you to switch those velocities to different notes, which seems a little like giving up on the home straight.
The audio warping system, whilst powerful, doesn’t really come close to the ease of use of Ableton Live’s, and editing can be fiddly as moving warp markers can only be done at the top of the screen with no keyboard shortcut to allow dragging with the mouse from the centre. It’s possible to set the warp markers from the hit points, which is a nice touch as it allows you to precisely set the hit points from the transients, but it also feels a little like there are some unnecessary steps in the process – what else would you want to base your warp markers on if not the hitpoints of the audio? Furthermore, swing can only be adjusted in Musical Mode, which can only work from the default beat grid.
The extra warping features aside, Cubase 6 hasn’t added any modes which contend with Ableton Live’s ‘live play’ workflow, and I for one am not in the slightest bit disappointed. Live’s niche is that it has been developed from the ground up to be used as a Live tool, and when other software has tried to get in on the action – for instance Apple’s Mainstage – I’ve simply come away wishing they’d spent more time developing features that the core audience use the software for.
Whilst Steinberg are keen to point out that Cubase 6 has some ‘snazzy’ (their words, not mine – kudos, Steinberg) interface improvements, they’re mainly cosmetic, focusing on smoother and more harmonious colours.
Cubase’s workflow and basic interface hasn’t changed radically in over a decade
Cubase’s workflow and basic interface hasn’t changed radically in over a decade, and whilst we generally applaud this, as Cubase’s sleek sequencing environment has in many ways been the blueprint for new contenders, there are one or two areas where competitors have the drop on it. Cubase 6 does have some more things in the inspector panel for each channel than the previous version, with quantise and transpose now a couple of clicks closer to you, but we’d have loved to see a channel strip that actually looks like the strips in the mixer, and a split pane design for the main window would also be welcome. As it is, windows can be positioned to where you like on screen, forced to stay on top, and multiple workspaces can be defined and locked to allow you to set up and switch between your most oft used work screens, but on smaller screens every pixel counts and the title bars that sit on top of every window do add up, as does the time spent dragging and moving the edges of multiple windows.
A review is always most objective in the context of the competition, and one obvious difference between the Mac and Windows platform is the availability of Apple’s Logic DAW on Mac. For PC users, Cubase is probably the premier DAW on the market. It’s stable, clear, and extremely powerful. Many Mac users will point to Logic when it comes to crowning the king of DAWs – especially those that are attracted to Apple for its GUI ruleset – but Cubase 6 can definitely stand up to Apple’s creation in most aspects, and even beats it to others. One area it’s definitely not quite toe-to-toe with Logic on is included instruments, but the included HALion SE is a much more user friendly sampler than Logic’s aging EXS24.
All in all Cubase 6 is a great DAW with a few niggling issues, mainly with the fiddliness of the audio warping and pitching system, but its clear GUI and VST Note Expression 2 make it absolutely worth checking out as a potential centre for your sonic activities. It’s more evolution than revolution from Cubase 5, but upgrading will endow you with a nice handful of workflow and creative features.