As I write this article, the date is December 5th. That's significant in two ways: 1. I'm realizing how woefully behind I am in my holiday preparations, and 2. Cubase 7 ships today. Whenever a new iteration of Cubase is released, I get very excited because I know the artisans at Steinberg have improved on an already powerful and irreplaceable tool in my music production kit.
But is 'artisan' too lofty a label for a software engineer? Hardly. You see, creating art from technology is hard enough, but creating highly functional art, like a DAW program, is a very tall order. Yet with every new revision of Cubase, Steinberg ups their game to a whole new level. And with Cubase 7, it seems that Steinberg knew both what users were looking for, as well as what we didn't know we needed.
Note: Cubase 7 also comes in a lighter version called Cubase Artist. But for this review, I'll be using the full version of Cubase 7.)
The Mixer Becomes the MixConsole
The Cubase mixer has always been a functional and highly capable tool. But Steinberg has completely redesigned the mixer to such a degree that they even changed the name to MixConsole. It still does what the mixer did, but is now capable of a wide array of customizations.
Perhaps the most significant of which is the full screen mode, which is helpful for both single- and multi-monitor users. But Steinberg recognized that high-resolution displays (1920 x 1080 or higher) have dropped in price exponentially, and therefore many Cubase users have added at least one extra display to their computer. When the MixConsole is placed onto any display in full screen mode, the entire area (or in some cases, acreage) will be filled with meters and faders and knobs. (…oh, my.)
Figure 1 - The MixConsole in Full Screen Mode.
As you can see, full screen mode truly gives the user a more analog desk-like look and feel, in that there are many more controls under your virtual mouse-driven fingertips. In fact, the Hardware (for Steinberg-branded audio interfaces like the UR and MR-series), Pre section, EQs, the new Channel Strip (more info below), Sends, Cues, Quick Controls, and Device Panels can all be viewed and edited on the MixConsole without the need to open any additional control panels. It reminded me of the time I spent behind that big ol' Amek console from which I learned the basics of mixing.
Another feature I really appreciate is the integration of the Control Room Mixer into the MixConsole. The Control Room Mixer was (and if desired, still is) a separate window. But now that it's part of the MixConsole, the result is you needn't open an additional window to alter any of the four Cue (formerly Studio) settings.
How Loud is It?
The MixConsole also has a new Loudness Meter, which provides you with information about the perceived volume of your Cubase project. It works with many loudness scales including the popular K-System developed by Bob Katz. The Loudness Meter also offers AES17 levels for adherence of different loudness standards.
Figure 2 - Standard, K-System, and Loudness Meters.
At first glance, the Loudness Meter might be a little intimidating to new users. In that case, Steinberg also added separate peak and average meters and displays to the Master Meter for basic loudness analysis.
The aforementioned MixConsole controls are located in Racks. The Racks contain all of the channel controls that are visible above the faders. These include not only the MixConsole controls, but also the Inserts and Routing Racks. When you click on the Select Racks button, you can choose which racks are visible.
Figure 3 - The Select Racks window.
On a high-resolution monitor, you can open them all, which gives you a lot of controls to work with. (See Figure 1)
Let Me See You Stripped
Cubase 7 has a new Rack called the Channel Strip, which contains a noise gate, various compressors, the EQ position, transient settings, saturation effect (both tube and analog tape simulations), and various limiter effects. The idea of the Channel Strip is to give users many of the plug-ins used in the Insert slots, which will leave the slots open for more specialized effects. There are three compressors: standard, tube, and vintage, and all of them sound very much like the analog models upon which they're based. The Channel Strip allows you to edit the critical controls of each compressor, but there are also plug-in versions that have full-blown control panels.
Figure 4 - The Tube and Vintage Compressors.
I did find a little bug in the beta version that made me laugh. The Punch button on the Control Strip version of the Vintage Compressor was labeled “Punsh”. It kind of looked like 'Punish', so I decided to punish a drum track. The result was very punchy and completely disciplined drum recording.
The Transient section holds the EnvelopeShaper plug-in and when used on percussive recordings like drums, pianos, and comp synths can produce some very intriguing results. I like increasing the Release control on a drum track to bring out more of the ambience or microphone bleed. That gives drums a very Led Zeppelin-esque treatment.
The Saturation effects are both very realistic. The Tube Saturation added smooth thickness to guitar and bass tracks, whereas the Tape Saturation certainly added a very pleasing magnetic tape quality to any track. I was initially a little disappointed when I found you couldn't 'group' all of the controls. But then I discovered the new Quick Link feature that provides the same capabilities. All you do is select the channels, then while holding the Shift - Alt/Option modifier keys (on your computer keyboard), making an adjustment to one control will adjust all the channels simultaneously, including the Channel Strip controls.
Longtime Cubase users will recognize the popular Standard Limiter and Maximizer in the Limiters section, but Steinberg has added a new Brickwall Limiter that will tame the maximum output of any MixConsole channel. And I should mention that the Channel Strip is also available on the Stereo Out, so you'll be able to add any Channel Strip effect to the mixdown including the compressors, EnvelopeShaper, and Tube or Tape Saturation for more mastering possibilities.
New EQ For You
Cubase 7 retains the same 4-band fully parametric EQ users have enjoyed for years. But now, the EQ has an integrated spectrum analyzer that gives you a visual representation of the tonal shape. The EQ controls are then superimposed over the spectrum giving you a new way to craft your tone.
Figure 5 - The EQ Spectrum Analyzer.
The Spectrum Analyzer is certainly a powerful new feature, but my favorite new EQ feature is the Pre section found in either the main EQ window (see Fig 5) or on the Pre rack of the MixConsole. It contains variable high- and low-cut filters as well as Phase Reverse and Pre-gain controls. But it's the low-cut filter that has me doing backflips! In previous versions of Cubase, you had to install a plug-in to get a low-cut filter to remove unwanted rumble and bass effects. That meant you had to dedicate one of the Insert slots to the low-cut plug-in. But now you can assign the low-cut to the channel and leave the Insert slots free. Plus, the filters are variable, which allows you precision control over the frequencies you wish to remove.
And the new EQ possibilities don't end there because Steinberg has included a popular 3rd-party plug-in known as the CurveEQ from Voxengo.
Figure 6 - The Voxengo CurveEQ.
The CurveEQ is a spectrum EQ and allows you to draw the tone curve right on top of the spectrum analyzer. But my favorite feature of the CurveEQ is spectrum matching, which allows you to analyze the EQ of one audio recording, and then apply that curve to another recording. The first time I used spectrum matching was when a client supplied me with a list of CDs to help me understand what sort of mastering they wanted on their project. They were big Metallica fans, so I spectrum matched The Black Album to their project. My clients were very happy with the result, and the process was done in both record time and within their budget.
The Chord Track and VariAudio 2.0
The extremely popular VariAudio editor has been updated to 2.0. The new version allows you to edit multiple parts simultaneously in the same window, whereas before you had to open several editor windows.
Figure 7 - The VariAudio Editor.
Need harmonies? VariAudio 2.0 can use any monophonic audio track to create up to 4-part harmony. That takes advantage of the terrific sounding transposition capabilities of VariAudio in a very cool new way. I've tried it on several vocal performances and found the process works very well. While it won't suddenly transform you into a gospel choir, it does make for some great background harmonies.
The VariAudio editor gets those harmonies from the new Chord Track, which allows you to pre-define the chord progression of your project. Then the MIDI, Instrument, and Audio tracks can follow the Chord Track making fast work for lead sheet fiends. The Chord Track editor can even suggest chord variations for you and allows you to hear them in context with the rest of your project. While the results can occasionally be humorous, I've also found the majority of the suggestions to be very useful.
“Mr. Watson. Come here. I need you.”
Cubase 7 has a new peer-to-peer plug-in called VST Connect SE, which allows you to collaborate musically with anyone, anytime, anywhere, all in real-time. The producer runs Cubase 7 and the person being recorded (the performer) runs a free program called VST Connect SE Performer on their Internet-connected computer. Then the producer can configure the performer's audio interface settings, apply monitor EQ, compression, and reverb all via remote, and then record the performer into their Cubase project.
Figure 08 - VST Connect SE in action.
I've tried a few sessions with different people and I have to say that the results were very exciting. However, you might have to configure each router by creating a port forwarding range for 51111 through 51113 and you might also need to alter the firewall settings, too. The quality and speed of both Internet connections has a significant impact on the session and the recording thereof. I'm lucky enough to have a 100Mbps Internet connection at my studio, but my one friend with the 3Mbps connection made session much more challenging. But the worldwide collaborative possibilities offered by VST Connect SE are staggering and I'm looking forward to tracking other performers who live in different states and different countries.
A new feature called ASIO-Guard employs a new caching scheme that allows for lower buffer settings and playback without popping and clicking. The VST Performance window has also been upgraded with both Peak and Average meters, which allow you to fine-tune your buffer settings for smooth playback.
Hermode tuning is also new and somewhat esoteric. It allows the user to retune the 3rd, 5th, and sometimes 7th intervals of virtual instruments (that are Hermode-compatible) to various microtonal scales. The results are sometimes subtle, but can create overtone content that can be more pleasing than equal-tempered tuning.
There are also new features like the Remote Control editor that users of hardware control surfaces will love, as well as improvements to the Scrub tool and a great troubleshooting mode called Safe Start. They've also injected a healthy dose of new sound, presets and loops into the various Cubase plug-ins. Many of the best ones come from Allen Morgan, a talented and highly sought-after producer who's worked with R. Kelly, Limp Bizkit, Art Garfunkel, and others of their ilk.
Time To Upgrade?
To make the transition to Cubase 7 from previous versions much quicker, I've already produced our first in a series of tutorials called Moving Forward with Cubase 7. It's almost 3.5 hours in length and covers the major new features. Check out the preview videos when you have a moment.
I feel Steinberg has a real winner on their hands. But that's not to say I don't have a few quibbles. As far as the MixConsole, I wish the four storable Channel and Racks configurations could be saved both systemically and per-project. As of version 7.0.0, they're stored per-project. Granted, a template would allow you to save and use the configurations for new projects. I just wish I could access those from projects that weren't started with a pre-defined template.
Steinberg also reassigned one of my favorite key commands: Shift-G. That used to place the left and right locators around a selected event, start playback from the left locator, and put the transport in cycle mode. But now Shift-G adjusts the Rack height. Sure I could reassign it, or just make my own key command. It's just a little off-putting for a key command junkie like me to make changes.
I also experienced a few crashes when using a few 3rd-party plug-ins. Some companies are slow to update their products, so I would definitely recommend testing Cubase on your system and with your 3rd-party plug-ins and visit their websites regularly for updates. (Note: Never, ever switch over completely to a new version of a program without testing it thoroughly.) And with any new version of any software, there will be some growing pains, so keep your current version of Cubase installed on your computer, just in case.
But overall, I can't see any current user of Cubase being anything but excited about Cubase 7. Steinberg has made the upgrade pricing quite attractive for users as far back as Cubase 4. For me, the MixConsole alone is worth the price of admission. But considering all the other features and enhancements and the question of upgrading is certainly not 'if', it's 'when'.