Steinberg Cubase 4 review
In the two years since Cubase SX3, Cakewalk Sonar and Ableton Live have cast shadows over Steinberg’s well-established but expensive sequencer. This latest version drops the SX moniker, but adds some big new features and a major update to the underlying engine. It’s also the costliest version of Cubase ever. Cubase Studio 4 (£279 inc VAT) takes over from Cubase SL3 as the mid-price alternative, although it’s quite a different package, ditching features rather than restricting mixer channel counts (see www.steinberg.net/1051_1.html for more details).
Central to many of the new features is the new VST3 audio engine. It carries various improvements, including native Intel-Mac support and automatic switching of plug-ins between mono, stereo or surround sound. However, it isn’t fully compatible with older VST plug-ins. Steinberg assures compatibility with those that comply with VST 2.4, but older ones “must be tested and potentially updated”. Support for DirectX plug-ins has been abandoned altogether, which is irrelevant or a complete disaster, depending on your existing library, although there are “wrappers” available.
The up-side of VST3 is a brand-new set of instruments and effect plug-ins. The effects cover the usual suspects plus a few unexpected treats, including a “vintage” compressor with plenty of character, and an envelope shaper for adjusting the attack and decay of percussive sounds. The quality of these effects is a significant improvement on those bundled with SX3 or, indeed, most competing software packages – the only disappointment is that there’s no new reverb plug-in, as the SX3 hand-me-down simply can’t compete with Sonar’s bundled reverbs.
We’re relieved to see that you can finally move or duplicate VST plug-ins by dragging and dropping. But other mixing limitations remain: you still can’t route effects return channels to a group, or solo them without hearing the originating channels, and there’s no side-chain support to trigger gate compressor effects from alternate sources.
There are some big changes to Cubase’s VST instrument library too. HALion One is a general-purpose synth based on sounds taken from Yamaha’s Motif keyboards. Its 600 presets cover a wide range of acoustic simulations and abstract synth sounds. Editing is limited and it sounds a little pedestrian in places, but the drum samples are above average. For analogue-style synthesizer sounds, there’s the Prologue instrument. It doesn’t have the warmth or grit of the best emulations, but it’s highly flexible and capable of some great noises. The remaining two instruments, Spector and Mystic, each take a refreshingly different approach, and excel at complex, ethereal washes and abstract weirdness. They’re unlikely to see much mainstream pop action, but they’re perfect for experimental electronica.
The new Instrument Tracks behave like MIDI tracks in the Project window and audio tracks in the mixer. This cuts out the rigmarole of setting up VST instruments, although it also limits instruments to stereo output – it’s still the older, convoluted approach for those who need multiple outputs. However, the real advantage of Instrument Tracks is access to SoundFrame, a powerful new preset management system. SoundFrame allows the user to browse presets by type, genre or tonal character, and audition presets from different instruments side by side. It’s vastly more efficient than wading through long lists of presets, although it’s only available for the bundled instruments until third-party plug-ins are updated with the relevant metadata tags.