Steinberg Studio Case II review

£170
Price when reviewed

Most low-cost music software is designed to take the toil out of the production process, but if you need precise control rather than instant gratification there’s no substitute for a grown-up audio sequencer such as Steinberg Cubase. The flagship version, Cubase SX3, costs more than £500, but for those of humbler means SE3 sheds a few features and costs nearer £100. Studio Case II bundles SE3 with six VST instrument plug-ins for those who want to combine MIDI synthesis with their audio recordings.

Steinberg Studio Case II review

The suite of instruments remains largely unchanged since the original Studio Case. They’re all fairly straightforward too, and as each one is a cut-down version of one of Steinberg’s professional plug-ins, their quality is generally first-rate. Our favourites are The Grand SE, a high-quality grand piano emulation, and D’cota SE, a virtual analog synth that, despite lacking the warmth and depth of certain pricier competitors, still offers a range of interesting sounds. Groove Agent SE is a novel drum machine that presents its drum kits and preset rhythm styles on a timeline from 1950s jazz to post-2000 Nu RnB. A complexity slider and various buttons give some customisation to the supplied rhythms, but you can also perform your own with a MIDI keyboard and mix-and-match drum sounds.

HALion SE is a simple-to-use sample playback module. It comes with a reasonable collection of bread-and-butter sounds, but can also load libraries created for the full version of the HALion sampler. Virtual Guitarist SE is also based on samples, but deals exclusively with electric guitar riffs. It’s essentially an auto-accompaniment instrument, playing chords in time with your track, with the key determined by sustained single MIDI notes. It makes some fun noises, but with only six styles to choose from there isn’t much mileage to be had from it.

The new addition to the suite is Virtual Bassist SE, which, predictably, provides authentic-sounding bass riffs in time and in tune with your tracks. There’s reasonable potential for customisation of the sound and, despite only including five playing styles, enough flexibility within each one to find plenty of usable bass line patterns. However, we’re disappointed to find that you can’t perform your own bass lines directly using a MIDI keyboard – this hands-off approach seems at odds with Cubase’s otherwise precise way of working.

Cubase SE has jumped straight from version 1 to 3 to bring it in line with the version numbers of SX and the mid-price SL, but as with the plug-in bundle it remains largely unchanged since its first incarnation. Its limitations to the number of channels and plug-ins it supports remain unchanged, with 48 rather than SX3’s unlimited audio tracks, five rather than eight insert plug-ins per track, 16 rather than 64 VST instruments and so on. However, these limitations are unlikely to be an issue except in extremely complex, extravagant productions.

SE3’s key areas of improvement lie under the surface. It now uses the same VST 2.3 audio engine introduced in SX2, which means its 24-bit recordings are now processed through a 32-bit floating point mix architecture for improved audio quality, particularly in complex multistage processing such as reverberation effects. SE3 also includes full plug-in delay compensation. This feature, again first introduced in SX2, counteracts the timing errors incurred when plug-ins add a small amount of delay to sounds passing through them. The result is tighter timing, and for multiple-microphone recordings such as those of drum kits or acoustic ensembles it’s an essential feature that you won’t find in any other software at this price.

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