Users of Cubase seem to be a kind of silent majority. Web data suggests this may be the most popular DAW on the planet, thanks to Windows and Mac support, over 25 years in the business, and the absence of any particular hardware requirements. But the Cubase users I know, while fiercely loyal, just aren’t as evangelical about their choice. “Oh, yeah, I use Cubase.”

One basic problem is that Digital Audio Workstations have been locked for years in leapfrog-style, me-too feature battles. These mature, do-everything, kitchen-sink products add tweaks that evidently matter to their users but are hard to make exciting for anyone else. Digital Music Doctor, echoed by Synthtopia, went so far as to ask if the DAW was dead. Some might wish as much, but I doubt it. DAWs in the last decade were engaged in feature-for-feature competition, but the same was true in the 90s and even, particularly on the Atari ST, in the 80s. Perhaps fueled by an overabundance of smart audio programmers, certainly by the inexhaustible potential of music’s complexities, we’ll never reach the DAW singularity.

Case in point: Cubase 6. There are new features here, but they could only be termed, as Steinberg PR does, “new and revolutionary” if you hadn’t seen nearly-identical features crop up in rivals like Apple’s Logic and Cakewalk’s SONAR. You get automagical features by which audio drum recordings are supposed to be as easy to edit as MIDI, new comping that’s supposed to save you time, and countless “workflow” enhancements. In the never-ending quest to attract more guitarists to music production, you get some built-in amp models and stompbox effects. There’s a tiered set of offerings allowing different features at different prices (here reduced, at last, to two basic choices, a EUR600 full edition or slimmed-down EUR300 “artist” version).

In fact, I’m tempted to copy and paste ad copy from recent updates to some of Cubase’s competitors and see if you can tell the difference.

The reason the DAW isn’t dead – or even this number of DAWs – is that I suspect a lot of these features do work pretty well. And while they look the same on paper, in practice, using Cubase, Logic, or SONAR doesn’t feel quite the same. Music producers are so loyal because they are tuned into those subtleties and naturally creatures of habit, eager to satisfy their creative appetite. So, the cycle of DAW life continues, and the circle is unbroken (so long as something catastrophic doesn’t happen, like Gibson buying Opcode and Studio Vision).

Familiar features, done Steinberg-style

The features, while not unfamiliar in competing DAWs, do look impressive, and they could be good news for Cubase users:

  • Enhanced transient and tempo detection for easier, glitch-free drum editing and more musical detection
  • Phase-accurate audio quantization and drum replacement. (Actually, a key point here – without phase accuracy, you can create some nasty artifacts quantizing audio.)
  • Track edit groups turn comps quickly into tracks. That we’ve seen before, but Cubase does have a nice feature for editing those groups simultaneously.
  • A built-in set of guitar effects called VST Amp Rack.
  • 64-bit support on both Mac and Windows.
  • New time-stretching algorithms. (These seem to crop up in every version upgrade, too.)

Don’t get me wrong – implementation is everything. It’s really impossible to cover a DAW just based on a product announcement. In fact, I think it’s difficult to cover a DAW without spending some weeks in production actually using it, even in terms of an upgrade, which is part of why it’s hard to write DAW reviews.

To Steinberg’s credit, in the promo video included here, they do make an effort to contextualize these features in an actual recording session. While comping is unquestionably terrific, I’m not entirely convinced everyone wants to quantize audio drum recordings. But otherwise, these are fair points, and you can bet the reason these features show up in so many DAWs is in part because users ask for them. User needs are complex, challenging, but also very often similar. DAW developers have little time to analyze their competitors, so I don’t think copying features is commonplace. More likely, users keep asking for the same things.

LoopMash, now fleshed-out and performance-ready

Now we know Cubase has features similar to its competitors, and why that might be, there are additions in Cubase 6 that are unique.

One feature I’d even go as far as calling “weird,” and that’s Cubase’s LoopMash. It’s a really unusual approach to loop editing and slicing. Slicing and looping and new file drop and such isn’t new in and of itself, but Steinberg’s interface is genuinely different. Performance controls mean you really could use LoopMash in a performance for stuttering, sliced-up loop triggering. “Hey, what were you using? Was that Ableton?” “No, that was LoopMash in Cubase 6.” “What? I couldn’t hear you. I’m going to get a vodka and Red Bull.”

Seriously, if anyone does try using LoopMash, I’d love to hear about it. Ableton Live is a great product, but having every laptop musician on the planet use the same software is boring.

A revolution in MIDI editing?

Buried among these other features, though, is a new approach to editing notes. It’s called VST Expression 2 and Note Expression. Normally, in MIDI editing, you have a lane of note events and then a separate lane of controller data that determines how those notes are played. The issue with this is that it’s more in line with how a synthesizer works than how anyone thinks musically. In fact, if the two lanes get out of sync, you can easily wind up with a pitch bend happening in the middle of a note instead of the beginning, or the wrong note.

The basic notion of Note Expression is to make expression happen on a note-per-note basis. Cubase even has a nice interface by which you can click a note and edit the controller data for just that note.

Aside from making editing easier, this is really a big deal as far as how Cubase’s editing interface interacts with samples libraries and scores. (That, in turn, may explain why Hans Zimmer is quoted as being so excited on the Steinberg website.) In the old MIDI editing paradigm, you wind up having to do some complex acrobatics in order to get extensive sample libraries to behave the way you want. With some help from VST 3.5 and VST Expression 2, this note-by-note editing can be extended to making MIDI events in the sequencer work better with those big choral and orchestral sample libraries.

Scoring should also be vastly easier, since notation also assumes note-by-note expressions of various kinds. In the past, translating a MIDI sequence to a score has required thinking in two different ways; this helps change that. Accordingly, Steinberg has also added a “Dynamics Lane” so that you can see dynamics (forte!) alongside your MIDI events while sequencing.

Not all composers really want to work this way with scores, period, but for those who do, Cubase 6 is a big advancement.

The question I have is whether this new-fangled editing approach will take place outside of Steinberg. The narration in their promo video attempts to answer this:

“The only limitation is your imagination. Well, that and you do need a VST-compatible instrument. But remember, we invented VST, so we’ve got you covered.”

Actually, the problem is just that – Steinberg invented VST. It’s a de facto standard, one controlled entirely by one developer. It competes with other standards (AU, Avid’s TDM and RTAS, and Linux’s rising star LV2). Third-party VST developers often don’t invest in the latest plug-in standards, especially because other VST hosts that aren’t Cubase often don’t support them. (Cue ranting developers here with more reasons they don’t like VST.) And we’re still communicating with plug-ins not only with VST, but with another de facto standard, albeit one with the input of more than one vendor, MIDI. Phew.

So, “we’ve got you covered” can either mean that Steinberg makes this easy for other vendors to adopt, or that it instead becomes their way of driving more sample library business to their HALion sampler engine and not competitors like Kontakt.

Whether it’s “revolutionary” or not, though, it is a truly new idea in editing. And as should be plainly obvious by now, new ideas in MIDI editing – for better or for worse – don’t come alone that often. So I do look forward to seeing more of this editing concept. It is news, after all.

And I hope some of my Cubase-using friends stop being so silent, and tell us how this all works in practice as they get Cubase 6 in-hand in the near future. Since the DAW isn’t dead, I’ll wager that will be useful information. What would happen if we got past the marketing descriptions and really learned from users? That might well be revolutionary.

All photos courtesy Steinberg.

Cubase 6: What’s new [Steinberg]

  • Ranger Jay

    I am STILL pissed off about Studio Vision!

    If only Apple had been in the market for a Mac sequencer at the time…

  • Peter Kirn

    Ha, I was curious to see if anyone would comment on that. Didn't expect it'd be that fast.

    Years since Gibson bought Opcode: 13.

    Number of seconds before someone complains: under 60.

    Realizing that people are loyal to DAWs the way some people choose entire religions? Priceless.

    (And yes, I was a Studio Vision Pro user, for the record.)

  • http://wiretotheear.com Oliver Chesler

    Thanks for an update on the Cubase world. Although I switched to Ableton years ago it's good to see where Steinberg is at. VST was such an innovation. When I switched stability was a major issue. How are things today in that regard?

  • Brian Stone

    Yeah, I switched to SVP because it offered MIDI and Audio, which at the time was totally novel and like compositional crack. 

    Still, there's almost nothing I miss in SVP. I use Logic Pro 9 for most tasks and it blows SVP away in nearly every possible way.

    The only feature I occasionally long for, but have done fine without, was the mythical Strip Chart editor. These were incredible sculpting and sound design tools for their day.

    Anyhow, Peter, the new version of Cubase is shockingly slim on interesting new features. I'm a fan of Loopmash, but am shocked to see its been elevated to v2 with minor incremental additions.

    Finally, while the price may list for eu600, in the USA, the street price will almost certainly be $499. I was bummed that I wasn't allowed to purchase a download copy of Cubase 6. Looks like they plan to at some point, but maybe are waiting for retailers to have a chance to get in the game.

    For some reason, I thought I'd looked at all of the DAW to see if there were any new version announcements and it appears as though Cubase 6 is the only one. Do you know of any other DAW updates that were announced at NAMM?

  • rondema

    At a glance Loopmash looks to owe something to Looptastic of iOS world…

  • rondema

    Or is it in fact the other way round?

  • http://www.jpcarrascal.com JP

    What about OSC support?

  • Peter Kirn

    @Oliver: I think recent Cubases have been pretty stable as this code base has settled down. I know people doing pretty intensive production work in it.

    @rondema: It's definitely not entirely unique, but there are some twists to how it works. But I think Loopmash came before Looptastic, if I've got my history right. Any similarities, though, probably owe to common ideas about looping more than one copying the other, at least in this case.

  • Peter Kirn

    @JP: No OSC support. So far, production tools with native OSC support:

    Ardour

    Renoise

    Reaper (forthcoming)

    And of course you can use things like Ableton Live with Max for Live, though I don't think that quite qualifies as native.

    None really does OSC "sequencing" yet, partly because I'm not sure anyone knows how it'd work, though it is an interesting concept.

  • http://keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    Why do people love to be the first one to declare something "dead", long before there are any actual signs of it being dead? Does that make them uber-hip?

  • Peter Kirn

    @Keith: I'm not sure, but I fully anticipate MIDI and DAWs will outlive human civilization.

  • http://www.grimmwerks.com Garry Schafer

    I *still* have an old mac laptop I keep around with Studio Vision so I can work on old stuff if need be; it wasn't until Live came out that I found something similar (at least to me) in working with subsections and triggering them on the fly.

    Cubase was the next DAW I tried other than Live; used it a lot for band recordings, but then wasn't in a band anymore! :P

    I might look into this version for the LoopMesh…

  • bb

    I too very much miss Opcode Studio Vision. Indeed it was a disaster when it was destroyed by Gibson. I can't help but think that we would have seen developments like what we are seeing now 10 years ago had it continued on its evolving path.

    Just look at this anemic Wiki entry for the once mighty OMS-

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Music_System

    Sad.

  • bb

    I wanted to mention one more thing about SVP-

    After SVP hit the skids, my biggest problem switching to another sequencer was trying to find one that replicated the SVP's subtleties in how one would interact with the notes in the MIDI (piano roll) editor. I did so much work in the window that everything else I tried after SVP just seemed so clunky. Giant pencil icons, thick 3-D looking note bars, varying ways of moving, lengthening etc etc. It was a brutal shift. Opcode had so many of these little UI features (remember the new "mogrify" menu?) that just seemed to make more sense to me.

    Differences like this are difficult to quantify and compare in a manner like one would do when just comparing features. I would try another DAW and think to myself- eww.. this just "feels" gross. Even though I liked the features it had.

    How would one "review" THAT aspect of a DAW I wonder?

  • Peter Kirn

    @bb: Well, you'd review that by figuring out what matters most, using them, and then writing about it, as you've just done! You're actually bringing back some memories, and I think you're very accurately describing what was fantastic about SVP. It's definitely that MIDI workflow that I missed when it went away. I'm not sure I've been as happy with something since.

    Now, of course, this raises another point – there's plenty *not* to miss about SVP, and it'd look horribly dated today. So why haven't MIDI editors gotten better?

    I will certainly keep an eye out for just this as I look at those tools again.

  • Peter Kirn

    OMS, of course, lives on in Apple's MIDI implementation in Mac OS X, which is without question the best in the business. (And, in turn, that lives on in iOS. And it's a whole lot better than OMS ever was. So OMS is dead; long live OMS.)

  • http://cooloutmusic.com christopher

    It seems like every time Gibson buys up a brand that's not guitar or acoustic related they fail. Didn't they also have Oberheim and Echoplex at some point?

  • http://routeit.noisepages.com gbsr

    well that note expression midi thingamajig is just too damn sexy.

  • Jamsire

    I am a Cubase user – I decided before NAMM that I would update from SX3 (I just love the way it works). I too use Ableton for that creative on the fly stuff, and PT9 for class instruction, but Cubase VST 24 is that "1st DAW" that I got after I relinquished my trusty ol' Tascam 388-8 8-track. This update for me will make studio situation – quite pwoerful (especially when I get that damn Korg Kronos!).

  • bb

    @peter

    "So why haven’t MIDI editors gotten better?I will certainly keep an eye out for just this as I look at those tools again."

    yes please do!

    For me- doing MIDI editing back then on SVP was like having my "Blackwing pencil".

    See:&nbsp ;http://www.pencilpages.com/articles/blackwing.htm

    It just hasn't been the same since!

    Yes, SVP scars run deep- I knew musicians who practically had nervous breakdowns dealing with the looming transition from SVP to -insert your new editor/DAW here- and all that went along with it. There's a certain "creative" part of you that gets ripped out as well when things like this happen. A part that you have to "regrow" from the bloodied stump. It can be tough going.

    Imagine if Ableton's Live for example were to just go "buh-bye" one day and stop working on newer computers? How would that effect you? I bet a few would sacrifice Mary's little lamb (and maybe even Mary as well) PRESTISSIMO to get back to "normal" heh heh ;)

  • malaka

    A real giant leap, featurewise, would be to get rid of their dongle and switch to an authentication system that doesn't disable the fair use (X computers, but a single one in use at the same time) while not loosing all your expensive softs when your stuff's been robbed at a gig.

    "But remember, they acquired eLicenser, so they’ve got you covered" ;)

  • Bendish

    cubase se was my first daw…..loved that shit….the offline processing is the nuts…the editing is ridiculously awesome….

  • http://www.ghmetcalfe.com Graham

    (so long as something catastrophic doesn’t happen, like Gibson buying Opcode and Studio Vision)…amen to that! B@st@rds! I have to admit I still have a G3 laptop setup with the last version of SVP, but I haven't used it in a long long time.

  • Bryan

    I was having a really good day until you mentioned SVP…sigh. One feature I sorely miss is the ability to tap out a MIDI track against an audio track using different notes for downbeats. The MIDI track could then simultaneously create a tempo map and meter map with one command. Is there anything out there today that does this? 

  • ElmerJFudd

    Hi, Bryan.  I really enjoy working with MIDI too.  Years ago I started on the Commodore 128, then migrated to Master Trax Pro on an Amiga 500 with a Passport interface.  Did a lot of great stuff striping the 8th track on a reel to reel machine with SMPTE, ah those were the days…  but I digress, when audio started appearing in the sequencers I was a Cubase user until SX came out.  Steinberg was charging a lot of money to get over to OSX and I had an opportunity to get in on Logic for half that and transition to OSX for free.  

    In Logic I create a MIDI track, tap out quarter notes to whatever vague audio track I am following and tell logic to follow those notes for tempo.  I haven't done a job like that recently, so I would have to look again with regard to setting changes in the meter.  

  • dave

    Well, I'm a Cubase user; it's still the DAW that works best for me – not least because sometimes I need notation. But I won't be a Cubase 6 user in the near future because it's Windows 7 only…

  • JonYo

    Heh, Opcode.  I was a SVP user at that time too, but my thoughts about that fiasco aren't from the user side, but from the other side, as I worked at Opcode when Gibson bought them.  It was all very Dilbert-y at the time, with long periods of no one at the bottom (where I was) or the middle knowing WHAT was going on when the rumors started with accelerated instances of hush hush meetings between the execs and mystery guys that would show up at the offices, followed by the occasional "everything's going to be just suuuuuper" pep talk meeting with no actual informational content after the first official announcements went out.  Prior to the announcements, before and during the rumor time, the SVP bugs were REALLY piling up and stuff was not getting fixed and a really bad general malaise had fallen over the place as we could all tell that something was wrong with the dev situation.  After the news of a buyout got out, we, the tech support and QA people, were thinking at first "cool, we can stop LYING to all the customers about the imaginary progress being made fixing the gorwing list of bugs once stuff starts actually moving again".  And then… nothing got fixed, nothing happened, and even the phony pep talks stopped.  We knew it was over well before we actually got the boot.  I'm not sure if anyone from Opcode actually became a permanent Gibson employee.  Certainly no one I knew from the tech support and QA areas.  I think they were going to use some of our HW guys to make their "MaGIC" guitar interconnect thing, which went NOwhere, but I'm not sure what's what there.  The Opcode execs sued the Gibson pres Henry J, or maybe it was the other way around, and I think the founders/head devs David O and the other guy whose name escapes me sued Opcode's CEO as well, though I'm not sure what that stuff was all about, way above my pay grade.

    Gibson has seemingly wrecked every company they've ever acquired, and not just the techy companies.  Trace Elliot amps for acoustic instruments, remember them?  They were great, then Gibson bought them and they were gone.  Steinberger, Oberheim, Echplex, the list goes on.  I mean, it's one thing to buy a company for its IP and let the brand go, but what IP from for example Steinberger is Gibson using in current products?  None that I can tell.

    To add at least something positive to the above whiny bitter ramble, I should mention that one of the best bits of the job was being the sole Max tech support guy, as Opcode was the publisher of Max at the time, before David Zicarelli took it over and cycling74 came about after Opcode's demise.  I actually got super excited on the rare occasion that I got a Max tech support call.

  • Bryan

    Hey ElmerJFudd

    Yea…I go back to C64s (forget the software now) and something called MIDIPaint by SouthWorth on a souped up Mac512. I'm not sure I'd agree that those were the days!

    The tap tempo feature you mention is pretty common. The meter map saved a lot of time. I currently use DP, but if it's in Logic it would be worth the jump for me.

  • Kim

    @Peter Kirn

    It would be fun to have a round up of old Daw software that can be run on emulators. Maybe there's an article in that. I know I would be curious.

  • http://www.onesmallclue.com Shannon

    I guess the note expression enhancements are only for VST 3.5? It'd be awesome if note expression could be used with VST 2.4.

  • Darren

    Loopmash was new in v5 I believe and it does work pretty well. It doesn't replace some similar features in Live but it does make me think a little differently and can be inspiring when I'm stuck in a rut. I tend to write in Ableton because it's fun; but the "engine" doesn't sound as accurate as Cubase's does so I mix in Cubase. Also, the studio I work in during the day runs Nuendo which is similar enough I can switch back and forth without too much thought.

  • http://www.authenticfilms.com Charles

    MIDIPaint! (and JamBox, or somesuch?) It was buggy and painful to use, AIRC, but it was my first experience with graphical / piano-roll note editing – for some reason Performer didn't have that yet.

    I had a similar reaction to others here re SVP and Gibson, but mine was much less polite than Bryan's.

    Sorry, Cubase. This is your party and everyone keeps talking about your rival who died years ago instead.

  • http://www.authenticfilms.com Charles

    AIRC = AIR met IIRC, they got drunk, and someone forgot the birth control.

  • quantize

    An ever rarer kind of Cubase user here…

    a Mac one…all Logic's nice plugins etc have never once made me want to ditch the audio and midi editing of Cubase. It's the real HEART of MAKING music.

    I don't need to re-learn everything because Apple made a new wheel. This new version is without doubt the strongest and most powerful mac version of cubase to date.

    How many years have we had audio units? And VST is still going strong on both platforms. Format Wars result in nothing good for end users.

    I wont even start on the incredibly lame and silly Appleloops concept (hey a midi file with instrument associations!)

  • Random Chance

    @quantize: It's ok if you stick to what you know. After all it's about knowing how things work. That's been the case with the last few versions of Logic mostly. I don't know what you mean by having to "re-learn everything because Apple made a new wheel".

    And the reason why VST is still around should be pretty obvious: It works on Windows. People still use Windows and even Windows-only software and will continue to do so. And then there's people who know the ins and outs of VST because it was there first but would have a comparatively hard time to make a jump to AU. All in all it's econonmically (and technically) feasible to develop your plugin as VST (or even use a framework like the polymorphic plugin thingie in the JUCE library that does multiple different plugin formats from one source code base), and then use a wrapper or even port the guts to AU. As far as I can see there are no format wars going on.

    If you wanted to criticise Apple's business decisions in the music sector how about you ignore Apple Loops and concentrate on: Apple buying Emagic and making Logic Mac-only (to this day I think it was not the best possible decision, but understandable from a technical and strategical point of view, at least if you try to put yourself in Apple's shoes) while also killing of Sounddiver. I really did hope that Apple would release a new version of Sounddiver or something similar in function. A tool for talking to MIDI gear that integrates into Logic. 

  • http://cooloutmusic.com christopher

    @JonYo That was a total thread hijack, but such a good read. I love this site.

    Peter, you should do a full interview with JonYo containing more stories from the trenches

  • JonYo

    @christopher – Haha, yeah, I'm sorry for hijacking the thread.  It was all a very long time ago, and I haven't worked for another music-specific tech company since then, so…it's all just complainy-old-man type stuff at this point.  "Oh back in MY day ya whippersnappers!"  Mmmkay, that's the end o' that…

  • Visitor

    "Linux’s rising star LV2" <– I got a good laugh out of that!

  • Gordon

    that video was so damn awkward

  • http://mensunion.org Bob Gren, Jr.

    If I upgrade to Cubase, can I load it on my two computers, (a desktop, and a laptop) or will it only be licensed to one computer?  Don't laugh, I still use sony's acid program to record some stuff, but, I upgraded with Studio One, in a box combined with a little mixer,  condenser mic, and headphones.  It doesn't have a complete DAW, but it does use a USB cable to my computer instead of using audio jacks to the computer's sound card.  My more important upgrade was from a MO6 to a Motif XS.  I'm blown away by the XS.  Unbelievable.

  • http://www.soundcloud.com C.LYDE

    @Bob Gren Jnr. 

    It uses a dongle to authorise, so you could install on as many machines as you want and move the dongle around. Some people like online activation, but my experience with that has been that one is limited to the number of installations. 

  • http://www.soundcloud.com C.LYDE

    @Peter Kirn

    Call me crazy, but why are Cubase reviews always 'critical' yet many other DAW's especially Pro Tools get away with a scant mention of its "sameness", less-than-stellar, midi engine and until recent acquisitions scoring and instrument plug-ins of ..eh..note. Logic is Mac only and has a lots of plugs..well it was bargain then, when Apple switched.. but what else? I have used several DAW's and continue to do so – Cubase still INMHO is the most versatile, one-stop shop for mixing, scoring, recording and control of one's outboard even if it only is Yamaha equipment…sigh

  • http://donothaveone Pissed too

    I just wanna chime in for my "under 60 seconds"…Someone please write something like Studio Vision! Open Source?

    Its sad how much this stuff has not improved, While Cubase and Reaper seem to be the best so far….even these got unnecessarily complicated, messy and the human interface is just sad. Would it be too much to create a program for the all around composer? The "yes I can read AND play music" and yes I prefer piano scroll sometimes for things like sound files and instruments I don't play etc, but I like a finished readable notated score. And yes I think the basic functions should be easy to find and operate! So easy its FSM forbid fun………. Sigh…….