Review: Steinberg Cubase Pro 11
With Cubase gaining support for Apple Silicon, we ask whether this update really “goes up to 11”.
⊕ Pitch-aware pitch bend value editing
⊕ New Squasher plug-in works brilliantly across EDM mixes
⊕ Extensive new metering options courtesy of SuperVision
⊕ Multi-band processors expose multi-channel side-chains
⊖ Would like to have seen RMS and crest metering in SuperVision
This latest update to Cubase ensures that Steinberg’s venerable music production system retains its status as one of the best DAWs money can buy.
Price Pro: £499; updates from £85 | Artist: £284; updates from £68 | Elements: £85; updates from £25
Apple’s new direction in CPUs is causing something of a stir in the world of music production, with software manufacturers working their socks off to ensure their products are compatible with the new Apple Silicon processors. When Apple performed their previous processor volte-face, switching from Motorola (PowerPC) to Intel in the early noughties, they included in Mac OSX an emulation and translation layer called Rosetta that allowed programs written for the old PowerPC chips to run on the new Intel Macs. It generally worked, although not for all applications. Fulfilling the same function this time around is Rosetta 2, and many people are reporting that it’s so good that their new M1 Macs can run Intel Mac code faster than an actual Intel Mac. Impressive!
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Developers still need to do a lot of work to ensure programs written for Intel will play nicely with Rosetta 2, which is exactly what Steinberg has been doing since Cubase 11 landed back in December. The results of their labour have just been released, rendering Cubase 11 fully compatible with Apple Silicon Macs and macOS Big Sur.
Aside from a bit of polishing here-and-there, Cubase 11’s main project and mix windows do not look substantially different to how they appeared in the previous two versions. Still, the visual updates first introduced in Cubase 10 have now spread to more corners of the program.
Other visual tweaks are subtle but useful. For example, the active screen zone – that is, the zone to which keyboard inputs are directed – is more clearly highlighted, as is the active area of a split tracklist. Additionally, markers now draw vertical lines through the entire height of the project window, making it easier to see where objects and events lie compared to markers.
Under the surface, Cubase’s graphics engine has received an update. Windows 10’s variable DPI feature is fully supported, allowing Cubase windows to be scaled independently of screen resolution. On the Mac side, Cubase makes full use of Apple’s Metal graphics acceleration, resulting in faster graphic performance across all Macs.
As has become the norm for Cubase, this new version 11 comes in three flavours – Elements, Artist and Pro – to cater for different user requirements and budgets. We’ve got the Pro edition here, but both Elements and Artist have now inherited some of Pro’s capabilities. Most notably, the new multiple side-chain system, which allows plug-ins to create multiple side-chain busses, is present in all editions (previous versions of Elements had no side-chaining at all), while Cubase Artist has been enhanced with unlimited audio, MIDI and instrument tracks, and the same VariAudio 3 system as found in Cubase Pro.
The Artist edition has also inherited Cubase Pro’s support for ARA 2 plug-ins. This has been put to good use in Artist and Pro with the inclusion of SpectraLayers One, a cut-down version of Steinberg’s SpectraLayers Pro spectral editing system. Unlike regular audio editors, which operate only in the time and amplitude domains, SpectraLayers also provides access to the frequency domain. This means that you can select frequency-specific portions of a recording and apply functions and processes at only those selected frequencies.
At its simplest, such capabilities allow you to remove unwanted noises, such as mic pop or handling noise, in a remarkably transparent manner. It also works well for broadband noise reduction and reverb reduction. The possibilities are vast, but worthy of particular mention is SpectraLayers One’s AI-driven ability to separate a vocal part from the rest of a finished, mixed recording – it’s a mightily impressive trick!
Key editor updates
The Key Editor has been a staple part of Cubase since the get-go, and is an essential aspect of many workflows, but it’s been lagging in a few areas of late. One common complaint is that it can display only a single, basic, time ruler, and consequently, one has to switch back to the project window to view and work with global tracks such as tempo, markers, and so on. Cubase 11 fixes this by allowing you to display and work with global tracks directly within the Editor.
The Key Editor’s method of working with MIDI controller lanes has needed some attention for a while, too, not least because the Editor’s stepped “curves” (which consist of multiple individual MIDI events) can be very awkward to manage and edit. Cubase 11 fixes this by allowing you to switch MIDI controller lanes between “step” and “ramp” modes. The former uses the traditional method; the latter operates in much the same way as automation in the project window, with simple tools and handles that make it easy to draw and modify smooth curves.
The pitch bend lane has an additional improvement: by specifying the pitch bend range of the attached instrument, you can have Cubase draw a semitone grid on the lane, and snap pitch bend controller nodes to that grid. Better still, rather than displaying pitch bend values as indecipherable MIDI values, Cubase can translate and display those values as semitones.
Other workflow improvements include the ability to choose whether double-clicking a note will delete it or open up the note expression editor, and ensuring that existing CC data is overwritten when copy-and-pasting a selection that includes controller automation.
Over in the Score Editor, Cubase now supports SMuFL fonts – that is, fonts that conform to the Standard Music Fonts Layout specification – as found in Steinberg’s advanced scoring software Dorico. This has allowed two of Dorico’s beautiful scoring fonts to be included in Cubase and makes it easier to transfer scores back-and-forth between the two programs. Also inspired by Dorico is a new context-sensitive inspector panel, located in the right-hand zone of the editor, which provides quick access to the most critical parameters of whatever score object you have selected.
A potent addition to the Score Editor is the new Note Editing Overlay. This allows you to view and edit various aspects of your score’s notes in an intuitive, graphical way. For example, you can adjust both the visual and actual note durations by dragging horizontal bars drawn in the overlay, or edit note velocities by dragging vertical bars, all in much the same way as you would in the Key Editor. This is a significant workflow improvement, allowing you to do in one window what would previously have required switching back-and-forth between two.
For those who prefer to work entirely in music notation, the fact that score symbols were visual cues only and ignored by Cubase could be an annoyance, especially where those symbols should directly affect how a note is played. Not so in Cubase 11, though, which can now map dynamic symbols to note velocity and channel volume so that the symbols impact the underlying MIDI notes.
Improved sampler tracks
When first introduced in Cubase 9, sampler tracks were an undoubtedly handy tool, but were quite limited in their capabilities. This latest release brings some welcome improvements, the most apparent being colour-coding of the sampler’s four modifier modules (pitch, filter, etc.) and clearer indication of when a module or control is active or inactive. You can also now transfer your sampler track creations back to compatible instruments such as HALion, Padshop and Groove Agent. Transferring to Groove Agent works particularly well with the new sampler track beat slicing tools too.
Adding further power to sampler tracks are new modulation options available to the pitch, filter and amplifier modules. Each now has its own independent envelope, and each can be modulated by one or other of the two new LFOs. There’s even key following (aka keyboard tracking) for the filter module.
The sampler engine itself has been updated with selectable processing quality modes that affect the sound of pitch changes that result from playing away from a sample’s root. There’s also a vintage mode that can reduce sample bit rate and emulate the sound of 8-, 10- and 12-bit hardware samplers.
New and improved plug-ins
All editions of Cubase 11 include the new Squasher plug-in, a multi-band up/down compressor aimed squarely at EDM producers. The “up/down” moniker refers to how each of the plug-in’s up-to three bands has two ratios and thresholds each – down and up. Signals that exceed the down threshold are compressed by the down ratio (that is, just like in a conventional compressor), while signals that fall below the up threshold are compressed by the up ratio. When used across a complete mix or submix, this can result in incredibly even dynamics that nevertheless sound punchy and powerful. It’s not an effect that works on all genres of music – while it sounds immense on electronic and dance music, it tends to sound unpleasant when used on rock, indie and other band-based music.
Imager is a new multi-band stereo enhancer that is included with Cubase Artist and Pro. Each of Imager’s up to four bands can reduce, widen and pan the stereo image of that band. You can also adjust each band’s level, while per-band correlation meters help you visualise what’s going on. Imager works best on full mixes and submixes, where it allows you to bring out the space and depth of a recording without also making it sound unfocussed or insubstantial.
Both Squasher and Imager use Cubase’s new multi-channel side-chaining that allows each band within a multi-band processor to be driven by a discrete side-chain bus. This feature is also on full display in Cubase Pro’s new Frequency 2 EQ plug-in, an update on the original Frequency plug-in that adds dynamics to each of the EQ’s eight bands. Frequency was already a very powerful, if somewhat surgical, EQ, and this update which turns it into a dynamic EQ introduces a whole new level of control and utility.
Per-track peak meters are de rigueur across all DAWs, but outside of tracking and mixing these have limited use. Cubase has for some time also included loudness metering, but this has only been available on the main stereo output bus and so, again, is of limited use. What we really need, then, is a flexible metering option that can show various visualisations simultaneously, and that can be attached to any track or bus. That’s is exactly what Steinberg has delivered with the new SuperVision plug-in, included in Cubase 11 Artist and Pro.
SuperVision is stacked with eighteen different visualisation types, including level and loudness metering, spectrum analysis, phase correlation, and more. Up to nine of these meters can appear within a single plug-in instance, with flexible layout, and per-meter configuration parameters. This is a fabulous, if long overdue, plug-in. Still, it does lack a couple of options that we’d like to see, specifically RMS-only metering and a crest/dynamic range meter (that is, a meter showing the difference between the peak and RMS levels).
Up to eleven
As well as the big-ticket changes we’ve run through, Cubase 11 has a whole host of other tweaks and workflow improvements, including export queuing, improvements to the range selection tool, and an updated version of VST Connect SE. All editions also benefit from six new additions to Cubase’s content library: Bloom, Noir, Nightcall Synthwave, Hard Knocks, Dance Floor Tech House and LoFi Dreams.
It’s always something of a wonder that Steinberg continues to conjure-up significant and worthwhile additions to their venerable music production platform. And they do so without fail, as Cubase 11 ably demonstrates. The continual – and continually effective – workflow improvements show how well Steinberg understands its users and how keenly it seeks to please them. You can’t say that about every DAW developer!
Cubase may not be the most affordable of DAWs in the first instance, but you get a tremendous amount of bang for your buck. Once you’re on the ladder, the yearly updates are very reasonably priced, so you do get a lot of value for your initial outlay. Most importantly, though, the cumulative effect of Steinberg’s unceasing inventiveness is a DAW that remains as powerful and state-of-the-art now as it was when launched over thirty years ago.
- Full-featured professional audio and MIDI recording
- Full suite of professional plug-ins and instruments
- Spectral editing exposes new dimension of creative and corrective possibilities
- Ever-expanding library of license-free content
- Three all-new plug-ins
- Frequency EQ can now function as a dynamic EQ
- New side-chaining architecture
- Significant workflow improvements to Key Editor and Score Editor
- Overhauled sampler tracks
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