Review By Marty Cutler
I've enjoyed Cubase since the introduction of VST technology in the mid-’90s.
As plug-ins became widespread, I moved on to include other DAWs in my workflow. Cubase 4 rekindled the romance with the addition of several terrific sounding synths that had a unique sonic stamp. Version 5 introduced a great-sounding convolution reverb called Reverence, along with LoopMash, a one-of-a-kind loop-construction kit, and a brilliant pitch correcting and warping engine, all of which helped cement the relationship. Enter Cubase 6. Its advances might seem more evolutionary than revolutionary, but as it turns out, there are some genuinely innovative new features, particularly in the domain of expressive instrument performance.
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Cubase now neatly arranges track details and adjustments horizontally at the top of the Arrangement window, along with the selected track’s controls, inserts, and routing parameters along the side. Despite the neat reorganization, things can still get a bit busy visually, so Cubase can alter the display to suit your needs. Control-clicking on a Mac or right-clicking in Windows opens a contextual setup menu in which you can reorder or hide parameters as you see fit. For instance, open an instrument track, and you’ll find a vertical series of tabs for Cubase’s standard track-inspector settings and below them, tabs that open VST expression Maps, Note Expression parameters, MIDI and audio inserts, and a neat new Quick Control window for manipulating virtual instrument parameters. Quick Controls have been around since version 4, but in 6, new commands will fetch any VST instrument’s controls immediately. For all the information and control provided, it’s good to know you can clear it out of your way at any time.
Audio Transient Detection
Cubase 6 can analyze and slice audio files according to their transient peaks, instead of an arbitrary, measure-determined grid, adding ease and creative possibilities to such tasks as extracting a “drum kit” of MIDI-triggerable hits from a single audio loop or replacing hits with other samples. This same analysis technology can also match your session tempo to any audio file that has clear enough transients—anything with a beat you can head-bob to (including the 120bpm wah-wah guitar tracks I dropped in) should work fine. To ramp up the head-bobbing factor, you can add a bit of swing, or loosen the groove up a bit with a soupçon of randomness.
Cubase finally gets its own stompbox and amp plug-in, and it’s packed with useful presets and easy programmability (see Figure 1 on page XX). Oddly, it’s hidden under the Distortion category in the audio plug-in menu.
Whatever your musical bent, if you don’t find something you like right out of the box, you’re seconds away from a useful tweak. Because some patches suggested certain artists or guitars, my Roland GR-55 guitar synth came in handy; I dialed in an initialized GR preset that let me select from a batch of unprocessed electric guitars to play through Cubase’s Amp Rack effects. Some effects fare better when mated with single-coil virtual pickups; others, with humbuckers; still others with keyboard sounds.
Customizing Amp Rack is easy; six tabs across the virtual rack’s top access effects, amps, cabinets, and mics. First in line, the Pre Effects section inserts effects before the amp. Don’t expect complex emulations of things like Mu-Trons at this stage; the effects sound quite good, but all have stompbox-like interfaces, which include a power switch and bare-bones controls, so the flanger (for instance) has Rate, Feedback, and Mix, but no cutoff frequency or other synth-like stuff. Any MIDI control change (say, from an expression pedal) can modulate the wah effect, but I’d like to see a velocity-sensitive wah as well. You also get a compressor, chorus, reverb with a selection of five types (surprisingly, no spring), an octave-divider, delay, tape delay, gate, and more. A Leslie-type effect would be a worthy consideration for a future update.
Cubase lavished a bit more attention in the Amplifier section, dishing up seven different amp heads, each with Bass, Middle, Treble, and Presence knobs, and a Gain and Master knob. I’m no guitar-amp maven, but the amp models imparted recognizable tonal characteristics of the assorted Fender and Marshall amps emulated here, most likely due to their convolution-impulse modeling sources. You can mix and match amp heads and speaker cabinets at will.
The Post Effects section harbors the same devices as the Pre Effects area. If you need to keep tabs on Pre and Post processing, clicking buttons on the lower left and right respectively reveal their effects configurations. Then, the Microphone Position section lets you place a graphical mic (condenser or dynamic) in relation to your graphical amp. You get three fixed distances each for on-axis or off-axis placement. The condenser had a more pronounced bottom and warmer midrange: the dynamic offered a snappier high-end and crisp transients. The mix knob lets you crossfade between these two mic characteristics—a nice touch. Finally, the Master section comprises a no-frills Equalizer with Low, Middle and High frequency and gain controls; a tuner; and the Master switch with a gain knob. Amp Rack can build some sweet, production-ready tones, but if you already have favorite amp modeling software, you can of course incorporate it as a VST plug-in.
Cubase 5’s delightfully quirky LoopMash plug-in is now LoopMash 2 (see Figure 2 on page XX). The basic premise is its ability to layer and slice loops to build rhythms on the fly. By making one loop the rhythmic center, all others adapt to its groove. Any beat can be mutually exclusive, and randomly substituting a slice of one loop for another can drastically affect the character of the loop. You can adjust the randomness and add selection criteria based on timbral characteristics that the plug-in analyzes from the file’s spectrum.
New features include stutters, slurs, scratches, turntable-like backspins, and lots more. You can use a MIDI keyboard to change “scenes” as you would with a series of looped samples, and you can manually substitute slices from one loop to another, drag loops in from the finder, from an audio track within Cubase, or from the Media Bay, a comprehensive browser of Cubase-related audio files and presets. Whatever the tempo of the loop I dropped in, LoopMash quickly analyzed the audio and locked in. AIFF, WAV, or REX2 files are compatible. LoopMash is tons of fun, and you can create some astonishing composite grooves. It’s like a construction kit with a psychedelic sense of humor.
Note Expression and HALion Sonic SE
HALion Sonic SE represents a significant upgrade from the HALionOne sample-based soft synth included with previous versions of Cubase. It has a sparkling sound set, vastly deeper editing, multitimbral capability, and compatibility with Steinberg’s VST3 Note Expression—arguably the most ballyhooed feature in Cubase 6. What makes the new Note Expression unique is that it can apply discrete controller events to individual notes, not unlike polyphonic aftertouch on a keyboard (see Figure 3 on page XX). Double-click on a note in the Key Editor, a window opens, and you can paint in VST3 controllers in any shape you desire, including freehand, parabola, sine, square, or triangle. The payoff is that you can record a part (say, brass or woodwinds) and then add realistic nuances after the fact more easily and musically than by other methods.
Currently, HALion Sonic SE offers a selection of Note Expression-ready patches. Appropriately, not all instruments offer the same expression types; you can sweep a filter on one or change tremolo on another, and Halion Sonic SE allows no customizing of Expression types—for that, you’ll need the full HALion 4 soft sampler. If you’re working with other software (or hardware) synths, VST Expression—a different feature than Note Expression—lets you paint the standard set of MIDI Control Change messages, albeit without the polyphonic operation Note Experssion and HALion Sonic SE achieve. With VST Expression, though, you can explode notes to multiple MIDI channels and then apply different expression to each channel.
When I got comfortable with Note Expression, I painted tonal changes on the upper note of a two-note brass part while I panned the lower note independently. A tutorial video at the Club Cubase YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/clubcubase) shows what you can do when you master this feature; an especially dramatic before-and-after example of a sax solo sounds like the difference between a cheesy MIDI part and a real sax player.
Mystic and Spector
Mystic and Spector have been on the scene since version 4, but the synths haven’t received the love they deserve. Mystic uses elements of impulse-response modeling along with comb filtering to create a broad and brilliant spectrum of sounds. You’ll find some truly breathtaking stuff filled with an inner life, many of which remind me of my dear, departed Kawai K5000 additive synth. As with Mystic, Spector excels with animated, glassy, and bell-like tones, but has greater timbral variety still. Each of its two waveforms derives from an array of up to six oscillators, configurable in a number of harmonic series and with variable degrees of complexity. Kudos for straying from the conventional analog-modeling and sample-playback path!
Cubase 6 is a mixture of the amazing and the occasional head-scratching moment. I love the synths, LoopMash 2 is a flat-out hoot to play with, and the audio transient detection will find a fan in anyone who works in loop-heavy styles such as hip hop or electronic dance music. The presentation on the Arrangement screen and the ability to reduce informational clutter are the best I’ve seen. Note Expression is a boon for making acoustic instrument parts more realistic, and I look forward to more VST3-compatible instruments that work with is as seamlessly as HALion Sonic SE. I remain inordinately fond of Cubase.
Improved onscreen organization. Amp Rack sounds terrific and is simple to program. LoopMash 2 greatly expands its MIDI control and adds new processing features. VST Note Expression can add incredibly realistic articulations to instrument parts in the included HALion Sonic SE plug-in
Note expression could use more printed documentation. Amp Rack could use more models, room design, and a multi-mic setup.
CONCEPT Full featured DAW software with included virtual instruments, time and pitch correction, VST3 support, and loop processing.
SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS Mac: OS 10.6, Intel dual-core CPU. PC: Windows 7, Intel or AMD dual-core CPU. Both: 2GB RAM, 8GB free disk space, dual-layer DVD-ROM drive for installation, USB port and internet connection for licensing.
PLUG-IN FORMATS HOSTED VST instruments and effects, including VST3.
PRICE List: $599.99 | Approx. street: $500 | Upgrade from previous version: $149.99 | steinberg.net