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Steinberg Cubase 6.5 Review
Steinberg Cubase 6.5 remains a cross-platform standard for composing and recording music, both with audio and MIDI, but because of the cumbersome copy protection, it’s best for a desktop PC in a fixed studio environment.
(4 out of 5)
- Intuitive, flexible recording environment
- Comprehensive editing and virtual synth support
- New Padshop and Retrologue are standout plug-ins
- Comping tool combines well with group editing of multiple audio tracks
- Proprietary USB dongle-based copy protection is troublesome
- No downloadable version available for purchase
- Still no bundled sampler plug-in.
Steinberg Cubase has a long and storied history in the music industry, first appearing on the Atari ST more than two decades ago before migrating to Macs and PCs. The latest version, Cubase 6.5 ($499.99 direct), is a powerful, ultra-flexible recording environment. It’s particularly well suited for MIDI composition with virtual synthesizers—and is, in our opinion, the smoothest of the major DAWs at this—although it’s also a capable audio and post-production tool overall.
System Requirements and Copy Protection
For this review, I tested Cubase 6.5 on two machines: A quad-core Toshiba Qosmio 17.3-inch laptop with 6GB RAM and running Windows 7 SP1, and a quad-core Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch with 8GB RAM and running OS X 10.7.4. I also personally own older versions of Cubase (up to version 4) and have had no trouble getting them all running on various machines over the years; Cubase tends to just work in my experience, which is a good thing indeed.
Unlike Avid Pro Tools 10 ($699, 4.5 stars), Steinberg Cubase 6.5 is a full 64-bit app, which is a godsend when using plug-ins with large sample libraries. Another thing that’s great about Cubase is its relative consistency when it comes to audio drivers (ASIO) and plug-ins (VST) over the years. This makes for easier compatibility with third-party hardware and software. As these are such widely used standards, you never have to wonder if you’re using a particularly weird or untested combination.
Steinberg’s copy protection scheme is more annoying than it needs to be. Cubase 6.5 uses a USB dongle, which automatically puts it at a disadvantage next to Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer ($499, 3 stars) on the PC and Apple Logic Pro 9 ($199.99, 4.5 stars) on the Mac. Steinberg goes a step further, though, and uses eLicenser, which only works with Korg, reFX, and Arturia plug-ins. Most plug-ins requiring USB dongle protection, including those from Waves, EastWest, Avid, and iZotope, employ PACE iLok, a competing standard. If you buy Cubase 6.5 and plan on purchasing any major plug-ins, you’ll end up with at least two USB keys, which isn’t a situation you’ll usually encounter when using other major sequencers. On a laptop with just two USB ports, such as with any MacBook Pro, it can be a huge annoyance—especially since many audio interfaces and other peripherals prohibit the use of a USB hub in their user manuals, and since moving the laptop with the dongle attached risks breakage each time.
Another downside: While you can buy SONAR X1 and Logic Pro as online downloads, Cubase 6.5 requires a retail store or mail-order purchase—plus an optical drive in your machine. That rules out all recent Ultrabook PCs and MacBook Airs, at least without an external optical drive attached.
User Interface and Workflow
With all that out of the way, let’s dive into the main program. Cubase 6.5′s strong MIDI roots are evident right from the beginning. The Key Editor is simply wonderful. You can do just about anything during playback, including switching editing tools, deleting notes, and adjusting other notes. The Inspector offers transpose, quantize, length, and other useful tools that are easier to access here than in competing sequencers. A lane across the bottom makes it virtually instantaneous to edit volume or other MIDI control data. The floating Transport Bar is fully customizable; you can pop in or out individual modules as needed, and unlike with SONAR X1, working on a 1366-by-768-pixel laptop screen is actually possible.
By switching between cursor tools using the number keys, and by using Cubase’s various shortcuts that make workflow more quickly, I find it easier to play in, lay down, edit, and arrange MIDI clips with Cubase more than any other. Dedicated buttons let you turn scrolling during playback on and off, and even whether you want the view to stop scrolling when you start editing. Just about anything you can do to a note is intuitive.
Cubase 6.5′s Score Editor is another winner, with enough notation tools that many people could get by with this program alone and not need a separate notation program. In addition to comprehensive symbol support, it also supports lyrics, drum notes, guitar tabs, and lead sheets, and can import and export XML files. The Drum Editor and List Editor also do their job well for editing rhythm and MIDI events, respectively, though the main Key Editor is so good that I rarely find myself bringing these windows up.
Recording and mixing audio, either from live instruments or virtual plug-ins, is also a pleasure. The audio engine supports 5.1 surround sound and 32-bit, 192KHz recording—overkill for just about everyone—and has no instrument, MIDI, or audio track limitations. You can quantize audio material, and even distribute sound to different musicians with Control Room, which supports up to four studio sends. VariAudio is good enough to patch up off-key vocal lines at least via the Sample Editor, if not in real time, which is more accurate anyway.
For version 6.5, Steinberg beefed up Cubase’s lane comping with a dedicated, drag-and-drop-based Comp Tool, which speeds up assembling takes and lets you create new tracks on the fly. Combine this with Cubase’s relatively new group editing, and you can make quick work of backing vocal edits, or even multitracked drums. There are now separate track and lane solo functions, plus a wonderful Cleanup-lanes command to eliminate event overlaps in one shot. Cubase’s collaboration tools have also been given a bump, with the ability to export projects directly to SoundCloud. Cubase 6.5 now supports FLAC, an excellent, lossless compression format that will help save plenty of space when archiving projects or sending them to others online.
With Cubase 6.5, Steinberg finally addresses Cubase’s long-running lack of virtual synth plug-ins. The latest version brings Retrologue, a classic virtual analog synthesizer with two oscillators, 12 filter types, eight voices, a sub and noise oscillator, and a modulation matrix and basic effects section. There are 300 presets, with plenty of thick pads, analog-style detuning, and fat bass and lead sounds. There’s not enough room here to go into too much depth here, but “Replicant Pad” is straight out of Vangelis-era Blade Runner, while “Warming Fireplace” has smooth, gradual attacks and decays for a thick layer of analog. There are some great saw wave patches, too, including “Rock Monster Saws” and “Poly Saws,” in case you want to cheese out on the 1980s (hey, don’t knock it).
The new Padshop, meanwhile, is a 400-preset granular synth dedicated to atmospheric and evolving pad sounds, with two layers of up to eight grain streams each, plus built-in distortion, modulation, and decay. Cubase 6.5 also adds a DJ-EQ plug-in, which offers three bands with kill switches for breaks and twists, and MorphFilter, which models low and high-pass resonant filters and morphs between them—throw this one on a weak synth preset and watch the fireworks. Guitar players pick up 50 new VST Amp Rack presets, plus a new maximizer and limiter and new level meters.
Cubase’s other plug-ins are still worth using, of course. Spector is a granular synth with some serious kick. “Contemplate”‘s built-in delay lets you create instant Sasha textures with the right chords, while “Assault” sounds like several 1970-era analog oscillators are exploding in your speakers with each key press. In addition to the usual loop editing and slicing LoopMash offers, it comes with a library of pre-sliced loops you can mess with just by fiddling with the random and intensity sliders. This was a lot of fun right out of the box, and unlike with some other tone generators, you can just set this one, trigger it, and forget it. Guitar players should give VST Amp Rack another close look, as Steinberg has significantly upgraded it for Cubase 6.5. The new version now includes 50 new presets across the board, plus new Maximizer and Limiter stomp box effects for adding punch and definition, complete with oversize input and output level meters.
Finally, there’s Halion Sonic SE, Steinberg’s bundled workstation synth plug-in, which offers a nice jump in sound quality from the earlier Halion One. It’s packed with fat basses, smooth pads, and useful leads, and is a solid sample playback plug-in for anyone who needs something to get started with. Most of the sounds are quite useful, including a slap bass that amazingly isn’t cheesy. The distorted guitars are, though; you’ll still need a third-party library to avoid “crappy guitar sound disease,” a common affliction among synthesizer plug-ins. And while the aforementioned LoopMash is technically a sampler, you can’t load new samples into Halion Sonic SE. There’s no all-purpose sampler plug-in in the package at all, like Logic’s EXS24 or Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro (which lets you load new samples and SFZ files, although it’s primarily a sample playback synthesizer first and foremost).
For this review, along with Cubase 6.5, I also gave the bundled, free 60-day trial of Halion Sonic ($249.99 direct) a whirl. Sonic contains plenty of usable bass sounds, guitars, synth leads, pads, and acoustic and electronic drum kits. The Fender Precision Bass and grand piano samples are true standouts, and I couldn’t get enough of the Independent Rock Kit sound. Sonic isn’t perfect; you can’t create your own drum kits, and samples don’t load quite as instantaneously as they did with the older, Wizoo-powered Hypersonic (which I was a huge fan of). There are virtually no “ethnic” or “world” instruments, and as with most workstation plug-ins, there’s a dearth of orchestral articulations. But despite those downsides, at just 12GB, Sonic strikes a near perfect balance between sample size, instrument set, and load times. Better yet, if you already own Hypersonic 2 or even 1 (which is nine years old!) you qualify for an upgrade to Sonic for just $99.99.
In addition to the lack of a sampler plug-in, Cubase still lacks dedicated drum and grand piano instruments, and while its various virtual synths contain most of what you’d need for any basic production, there are fewer dedicated tools for electric pianos and other specialty needs. On the effects side, Cubase 6.5 is pretty solid now, with plenty of reverb, compression, EQ, delay, and mastering tools, although many date back almost a decade and could use a UI refresh. Electronic music producers will find much to like in the new DJ EQ and MorphFilter plug-ins, which can add serious kick and resonant filter effects to their productions. In short, despite a few holes here and there, Cubase’s plug-ins are at least up to snuff for serious composition and mixing work.
Testing and Conclusions
Achieving professional results with Cubase is never a problem. I had no trouble mixing down an entire album’s worth of songs in Cubase, using mostly Cubase’s built-in plug-ins, plus iZotope Ozone for mastering purposes. I even left Ozone’s dithering off in favor of Steinberg’s ultra-smooth UVR22 dithering plug-in, which I’ve always liked the sound of. Recording automation moves is equally smooth, with its easily triggered read, touch, write, and latch modes.
Overall, Steinberg Cubase 6.5 is a powerful digital audio workstation that’s enjoyable to use, and thanks to its stellar audio engine and newly upgraded plug-in bundle, sounds fantastic. If you’ve got a desktop PC or Mac, it’s a shoo-in. Thanks to a major shift toward laptop computers over the past several years, Steinberg’s copy protection scheme can inconvenience you if you eschew desktop systems. But Cubase 6.5 is good enough to warrant a desktop system purchase, if you’ve got the room and the means.
Otherwise, while Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer isn’t as polished, it arguably offers more value; not only is it usually $100 less expensive (at least on the street; the MSRPs are the same), but it comes with a full version of Dimension Pro, a workstation plug-in that rivals the extra-cost Halion Sonic’s scope, if not its sound quality, plus robust drum and piano plug-ins. Our Editors’ Choice for PC-based recording software remains Avid Pro Tools 10, which is $200 more expensive than Cubase 6.5, but features the smoothest audio recording, mixing, and post-production in the business, plus the ability to scale to the largest of professional studios in terms of integrated hardware and service and support policies. Apple Logic Pro 9, our Editors’ Choice on the Mac side, is an unbelievable value at its new, reduced list price, and comes with a still more robust plug-in bundle that includes a real sampler, although Cubase edges out Logic Pro slightly in MIDI, score, and automation editing.
By Jamie Lendino, PCMag