Review: Steinberg Cubase Pro 10
With the latest release of Cubase Pro 10, Steinberg has made use feel a li’l old. No, we’re not showing our age, but what about the software itself?
Cubase Pro 10 key features:
- Prices Cubase Pro 10 – £480 (upgrade from £85), Artist 10 – £265 (upgrade from £68),
- Elements 10 – £85 (upgrade from £25)
- MixConsole snapshots make light work of switching between different mix setups
- VariAudio 3 delivers workflow improvements and new creative possibilities
- Improvements made to audio engine
- New Audio Alignment tool
- Improvements to Groove Agent SEand REVerence plug-ins
- Large library of sounds, patches and samples
- Virtual Reality Production Suite
- ARA plug-in and MPE support
- Clean and crisp new graphics
So, there we were, students and lecturers alike, crowded around a hot, chunky, 12-inch CRT monitor and the beige slab of an Atari ST, ooh-ing and ahh-ing about what we were seeing displayed on that little monochrome screen.
The object of our wonderment was a completely new MIDI sequencer application, designed from the ground up to give super-tight timing, to be simple and intuitive to use and to have the capability to integrate closely with the analogue tape-based studios of the day. It was 1989, the sequencer was Cubase v1 and, boy, were we impressed!
Cubase was a huge step up from Steinberg’s previous flagship product, Pro 24, and in many ways, it defined the template for how music-production software should look and operate.
In fact, that is so true, that if we fast-forward the nearly 30 years since that Spring day in 1989 and take a look at the DAWs that now dominate the market, most follow the same layout and modus operandi that was defined by Cubase v1.
And despite the years of evolution, not to mention the occasional ground-up rewrite, at its heart, the modern Cubase remains recognisable as the same program that supercharged the digital music-production revolution all those years ago.
As you would expect with such a venerable program, there have been many versions of Cubase over the years. In reality, this is about the 20th-or-so version (depending on how you count it), but is the 10th full-version update since Cubase SX, which was the last time the core program had a major overhaul.
As with previous releases, Cubase 10 comes in a few different flavours to suit the different requirements and budgets of users: Cubase Pro 10 (£480), which we’re looking at here, is the full bells-and-whistles package stuffed with features, tools, and piles of plug-ins; Cubase Artist 10 (£265) sheds the most advanced features of Pro, as well as some of the higher-end plug-ins, but retains the application’s core functionality and features; finally, Cubase Elements 10 (£85) is the most cut-down edition, being aimed at casual users, beginners, and those with only basic requirements. A full comparison chart is available on Steinberg’s website if you wish to examine the specific differences.
The thing you notice immediately upon launching Cubase Pro 10 is that it’s received a makeover. The general layout remains the same as in the last few versions, but buttons and icons have been redesigned and given the ‘flat’ look that’s currently in vogue with graphic designers.
This is a brave move, given the arguments that rage online about the comparative merits of flat vs ‘skeuomorphic’ interface design principles (the latter being where icons use design cues, shading and shadows that mimic their real-world counterparts as a way of communicating their meaning and state). Without taking sides in that larger debate, I personally find the new look to be crisp, clear, and perfectly readable – I like it.
That said, the new design approach hasn’t made it into every nook and cranny of the program, with skeuomorphic design still in evidence in the Track Inspector, on track heads, and in mixer windows. I don’t mind this in the mixer windows, as a flat-designed fader or knob would seem wrong to me, but it does jar a little bit in the main Project window.
The channel strip – as in the set of default processing slots for gate, EQ and compression that exists on every channel – has also had a visual overhaul when viewed in a channel settings window. The panels for the various processors have been given a cleaner, less cluttered design, and they can now be rearranged directly in the channel-strip tab.
Yet another visual tweak is to the preset colour schemes. These have been given a bit more contrast, which works really well with new button icons and aids with general interface clarity.
Cubase 10 contains much more than cosmetic changes, though, with a raft of new tools, productivity enhancements, updates to plug-ins, and even an updated audio engine. This can operate internally with either 32-bit float or 64-bit float precision, and can also now record, import and export audio files with 32-bit integer and 64-bit float sample depths, with other sample depths, such as 24-bit and 32-bit float, being supported since previous versions, of course.
Welcome though this is, especially if you have very high-end audio hardware that can work at high bit depths, most of us won’t notice any difference with the new engine: it was highly accurate and efficient before, and it still is.
One of the more obvious improvements is to Cubase’s VariAudio system, which allows detailed interactive pitch and time adjustments to be made to monophonic audio sources such as vocals. As before, VariAudio analyses audio for pitch and timing information and displays the results as an overlay on the audio waveform that you can manipulate in the editor.
But this latest incarnation, VariAudio 3, has simplified this by adding more handles and widgets to the note segments it draws, and by packing all interactions into a single cursor tool. Before, there were two, which you had to continually switch between.
As well as being editable via the overlay, the coarse pitch and micro-tuning for note segments can be adjusted via the sliders in the VariAudio tool panel, as previously, but now there’s a new Shift Formant slider, too. This can be used correctively to make pitch-shifted segments sound more natural or, if used as a special effect, it can make things sound more unnatural instead. Either way, it’s a great addition to the VariAudio system.
Another welcome extra is that the pitch of segments can now be set via incoming MIDI notes. This can be done in a Step-input mode, where each note you play on your controller will set the pitch of subsequent segments, or in Static mode where only the selected segment(s) is affected. You can also assign a MIDI track as a guide, causing its notes to be displayed as an overlay in the VariAudio editor – very handy.
Cubase’s AudioWarp features are invaluable when working with stacked vocals and the like, providing the means to adjust the timing of one part to match that of another, but doing so can be a very time-consuming process, especially if you have a lot of takes stacked up. Enter Cubase 10’s new Audio Alignment tool.
This analyses a reference part and attempts to automatically warp the timing of a destination part so that it matches as closely as possible… or, at least, that’s the theory. In my testing, however, I struggled to get good results with the vocal parts I tried it with – indeed, even in places where the timing was very close before processing, it was sometimes knocked way out afterwards.
This may just be down to the specifics of the vocal parts I used, and hopefully it’s something Steinberg will improve upon in future patches and updates. If it can be made to work reliably, it will save hours of fiddling around with the AudioWarp tools.
My favourite new feature in Cubase 10 is actually one of the simplest, and can be found over in the MixConsole: Snapshots. At the click of a button, the mix settings for your entire project, including insert plug-ins and their parameters, are stored in the Snapshots list (shown in the left zone of MixConsole windows). Snapshots can be named, have notes added to them, and be recalled with a further click of a button.
You can also choose to recall only certain settings – inserts or EQ, for instance – and specify the console channels that will be recalled. The only fly in this ointment, however, is that insert automation data will be deleted if you recall a snapshot in which the insert in question has been removed from the mixer channel.
Another notable addition to the MixConsole is that each channel can now show a readout of its individual plug-in latency value. While Cubase does, of course, manage latency in the background so that the user rarely needs to think about it, the readout can be very useful when working with effects sidechains and gives a good indication of how much strain each channel is placing on your system.
Instruments and effects
The number of plug-ins that Cubase provides out-of-the-box has grown steadily in number and quality over the years, and cover all the bases – reverbs, dynamics, delays, modulation effects and so on. This time around, there’s only one wholly new plug-in: Distroyer.
This saturation/overdrive generator does a good job of adding a touch of warmth to instruments and mixes, but as the name suggests, it’s more at home when it’s stomping all over your audio with great big dirty boots on. It provides a number of parameters that
let you hone and tune the effect to your liking, and these help the processor to deliver surprisingly musical results and a lot of character, even when using extreme drive settings.
While that’s it as far as new plug-ins are concerned, there are also a couple of significant updates to the existing suite. The excellent REVerence convolution reverb, which is included in the Pro version of Cubase, has been given a visual overhaul and some workflow tweaks, as well as 20 new vintage-themed reverb impulses. Also you can still import your own impulses, a feature that gives huge creative potential.
There aren’t any completely new instruments in Cubase Pro 10, but the Groove Agent SE drum sample and pattern player has been updated to version 5. This delivers tweaks to the layout to improve the workflow, and the plug-in window can now be resized (although this is only marginally useful). On top of this, there’s a new multi-sampled acoustic kit, called simply The Kit, and 20 new Beat Agent kits with accompanying patterns.
While all of this new content is of the same high quality as we’ve come to expect, The Kit is particularly nice, delivering a very convincing acoustic drum-kit emulation.
Staying with plug-ins for a moment longer, Cubase now supports ARA (Audio Random Access) plug-ins. Where conventional plug-ins work by being continually fed with audio data from the current playback position, ARA plug-ins have complete access to the entirety of the audio stream they’re processing, and so can fetch whatever audio data they require, as and when they require it.
This is particularly useful for time and pitch processing, and will allow specialists such as Celemony to offer its most powerful technologies to Cubase users.
There’s loads more that’s new in Cubase Pro 10 than space constraints mean I can’t list in detail here. One of the more curious and fascinating is the Virtual Reality Production Suite,a set of tools designed to aid in the production of VR content.
At present, this is only likely to appeal to a very small number of users, but as the take-up of VR systems continues, so the number of people who require the tools to produce VR content will increase.
Steinberg has also included support for another burgeoning technology: MIDI Polyphonic Expression, or MPE. This allows controller devices to create and transmit detailed and nuanced expression data – pitch bend on a single note, for example – which compatible instruments can then respond to, but that incompatible instruments can safely ignore.
It works by creating new MIDI channels on-the-fly when a note-on message is received, and directing controller data for specific notes to those dynamic MIDI channels.
Steinberg has added a lot of new goodies in Cubase Pro 10. Some of them are more obvious than others, to be sure, but all are useful and as well-thought-through as ever. However, I did run up against some stability issues with this initial release, and a quick look through Steinberg’s help forum shows others experiencing similar difficulties.Bugs are to be expected in a DAW as complex as Cubase and I’m in no doubt they’ll be ironed out quickly enough (they may even be fixed by the time you read this review).
But it does imply something we’re seeing more and more of in recent times, namely, companies releasing software based on predetermined deadlines, as opposed to the actual full readiness of the product. It may be what we’ve been forced to accept from the likes of Microsoft, but it goes against the grain of what we’ve come to expect from Steinberg.
Temporary bugs aside, though, Cubase Pro 10 is yet another triumphant update to this most long-lived and venerable DAW. It’s hard to believe it’s been around for nearly 30 years, especially as I remember the arrival of its first incarnation so vividly.
But whatever the impact of those 30 years has been on me, it’s fair to say that Cubase isn’t just looking good for its age, it’s actually looking better than ever.
Do I really need this
There’s an awful lot packed into Cubase Pro 10 in terms of plug-ins, instruments, samples and patches. It really is a one-stop shop for making music, and one of the best DAWs on the market. Existing users shouldn’t be asking if they need the update, but rather when they’ll get it. Steinberg’s update pricing is attractive, and there’s more than enough in this latest version to justify the small cost.
A new licence for Cubase Pro 10 is at the more expensive end of the DAW market, but it still represents good value for money when you look at the features packed into the software. The two lower-priced editions offer an excellent way into the platform for the budget-conscious, too, and can be updated to Pro when desired.
Logic Pro X (Mac) £199
Logic was released in 1993, and has been one of Cubase’s main competitors ever since. Originally developedby C-Lab, who later became Emagic, it was acquired by Apple in 2002. Now available only for Mac, Logic remains a powerful and popular choice for music producers and has a huge amount of content and plug-ins for the asking price.
Pro Tools (Mac & PC) £249 per year
Pro Tools was originally developed by Digidesign, which was acquired by Avid in 1995 and then was gradually absorbed into that larger brand. The software was one of the first viable hard-disk recording systems on the market. While it now has extensive MIDI support, it remains noticeably an audio system at heart.
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