Steinberg Cubase has a long 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 7 (which retails at £488), is a powerful, ultra-flexible recording environment. It's particularly well suited for MIDI composition with virtual synthesisers – and is, in our opinion, the smoothest of the major DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) at this – although it's also a capable audio and post-production tool overall. Its new mixing console is exceptional; just plan on setting it up with a big monitor to get the most out of it.
For this review, I tested Cubase 7.0.3 on a quad-core 2.93GHz Xeon Mac Pro running OS X 10.7.5 (Lion) and a quad-core MacBook Pro 15in running OS X 10.8.3 (Mountain Lion). I also 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, Steinberg Cubase 7 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 7 uses a USB dongle, which automatically puts it at a disadvantage next to Cakewalk SONAR on the PC and Apple Logic Pro 9 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 industry-standard ones from Waves, EastWest, Avid, and iZotope, employ PACE iLok, a competing standard. If you buy Cubase 7 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, this 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 and Logic Pro as online downloads, Cubase 7 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.
With all that out of the way, let's dive into the main program. Cubase 7'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, quantise, 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 customisable; you can pop individual modules in or out as needed. The new harmony tool helps out with putting together chord progressions, which is a useful idea I bet other DAW manufacturers will soon copy.
By switching between cursor tools using the number keys, and by using Cubase's various shortcuts that make workflow quicker, I found it easier to play in, lay down, edit, and arrange MIDI clips with Cubase compared to any other DAW. 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 7'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 in terms of 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 quantise 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. Still, no DAW comes close to Digital Performer 8 with regards to bundled pitch correction tools.
For version 7, 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 multi-tracked 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 7 now supports FLAC, an excellent lossless compression format that will help save plenty of space when archiving projects or sending them to others online.
Bring up the mixing console for the first time and prepare to be surprised. Simply put, it's huge. Mercifully, it starts off with oversized faders, meters, and pan controls, plus mute and solo buttons, and not much else. There's a new full-screen mode, but even better: The console adjusts with the window size automatically. You can make it as small or as large as you want, and the faders, meters, and controls contract or expand accordingly, which is brilliant.
That said, it's also pretty tough to decipher, with poor labelling across the board (no pun intended). And there's not a lot of room once you start expanding the EQ and other panels. I tested Cubase 7 using a 1,680 x 1,050-pixel display and was constantly running out of real estate, to say nothing of my MacBook Pro's 1,440 x 900 panel. On the plus side, the mix window resizes all of the elements automatically as you drag the corner of the window around.
A new channel strip can handle just about any EQ or compression task right from the console. There's a noise gate, and a compressor with standard, vintage, and tube modes. There’s a 4-band EQ with a spectrum analyser, a transient shaper for percussive material, tube drive and tape saturation, and even a brickwall limiter and level maximiser. It comes with 150 track presets set up by Allen Morgan, who has produced NIN and Taylor Swift. You also get Voxengo's CurveEQ for matching spectrum plots with other tracks.
The last version, Cubase 6.5, brought forth Retrologue, a classic virtual analogue synthesiser 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, analogue-style detuning, and fat bass and lead sounds. There's not enough room here to go into too much depth, 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 analogue. 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).
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. A DJ-EQ plug-in offers three bands with kill switches for breaks and twists, while MorphFilter 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 get a host of VST Amp Rack presets, plus a maximiser, minimiser, and 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 analogue 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 7. The new version now includes 50 new presets across the board, plus new Maximiser 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 enough – 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 synthesiser plug-ins.
Large Strings VX even has keyswitches; hold down one of the keys near the bottom of the keyboard, and you'll switch between long, short, trill, and other articulations. Opening the filter on Vintage Strings doesn't add any resonant bite beyond the default setting, although you can close the filter at least. There are also nice acoustic basses, plus plenty of organs, keyboards, and lush pads to play with. Two other weaknesses: A near-total lack of world sounds other than some percussion, and drum sounds that are varied but too compressed and forced-sounding.
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 with the package at all, such as Logic's EXS24 or Cakewalk's Dimension Pro (which lets you load new samples and SFZ files, although it's primarily a sample playback synthesiser first and foremost).
For this review, along with Cubase 7, I also gave the bundled free 60-day trial of Halion Sonic 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.
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 7 is pretty solid now, with plenty of reverb, compression, EQ, delay, and mastering tools, although many date back almost a decade and could use another UI refresh. Electronic music producers will find much to like in the 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.
Achieving professional results with Cubase is never a problem. I had no trouble mixing down an entire album's worth of songs in Cubase, mostly using Cubase's built-in plug-ins, plus iZotope Ozone for mastering purposes. I even left Ozone's dithering off in favour 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.
The new, built-in mixer channel compression sounds smooth and punchy as you turn up the ratio and pull down the threshold. With one project, I was able to achieve a nice mix glue across the master bus with the ratio set to 1.3 and the threshold low enough to grab everything (roughly -40dB).
Finally, overall performance was blistering on both Macs. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a veteran user of Cubase SX and Cubase 4, both of which were known to be exceptionally sluggish on the Mac side, and I often ran them both on a PC instead. But there was zero trace of any performance issues here.
Steinberg Cubase 7 has always been a powerhouse digital audio workstation, but the new mixing console takes it to even greater heights. I'll always balk at the intrusive copy protection, because several competing programs get by without any, not to mention almost the entire rest of the PC and Mac software industry. Thanks to a major shift toward laptop computers over the past several years, Steinberg's copy protection scheme can be a real inconvenience if you eschew desktop systems. But Cubase 7 is good enough to warrant a desktop system purchase, and if you've got the room and the means.
Otherwise, while Cakewalk SONAR isn't as polished, it arguably offers better value. SONAR is a bit cheaper and 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 – along with robust drum and piano plug-ins.
However, my top pick for PC-based recording software remains the similarly priced Avid Pro Tools 10, which 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, my prime choice on the Mac side, is great value for money, has no physical copy protection, and comes with a still more robust plug-in bundle that includes a real sampler, although Cubase edges out Logic Pro slightly in terms of MIDI, score, and automation editing.