Sorry to break up all the negativity for a moment… I must sing the praises of Cubase! I used Cubase for the better part of a decade back in the middle ag… I mean, the 1990s; all the way to 2003 when I started my company and put music on hold for a while.
Well, after a 10 years break I spent the last couple of months building a new studio and I started writing music again (yeah!). Since I was in no rush I took my sweet time and researched all I could in significant detail (I wrote at least one quick piece in each of my “candidate” DAWs). The candidates were Cubase 7, Digital Performer 8 (beta for Windows), Studio One 2.5. Several other offerings were discarded because they obviously don’t fit my needs (FL Studio, Reaper, Sonar). I write orchestral soundtrack type stuff and I have specific requirements, VSTis and lots of huge sample libraries are what I deal with most.
Anyhow, after all of the above I find that Cubase is on other level when it comes to features and workflow. There are certain things it does that nothing else comes close to emulating. Example one: freezing of VSTis! Almost all DAWs support freezing tracks to various extents, but nothing that I found does it the way Cubase does, where one click on the little freeze icon on the VST Instrument slot does the following: all unmuted MIDI tracks targeting that instrument render to a hidden file (optionally with the VST inserts), are then muted and locked, and optionally all samples used by the VSTi are unloaded.
Best of all, one more click and the whole thing is undone! When dealing with libraries where a SINGLE program can take 3Gb of memory it is impractical for most of us to keep all instruments in memory at once. The freeze VSTi feature allows me to use much larger instruments and get more out of my libraries than I could otherwise and with minimal fuzz – it is so practical to freeze/unfreeze I do it all the time so that when I need to load the project file times are minimized. This one feature alone would be enough to make me stay with Cubase for good.
Another example are the amazing time warp tools. The way I work is by recording a performance of a piece on the piano to create a “conductor track,” then use time warp to polish the beats and generate a tempo track. In a matter of minutes I can create a full tempo track, with smooth, live-performance based tempo of any complexity (including time signatures), and then start scoring to it. It is so damn BRILLIANT and well implemented I am speechless!
Cubase definitely presents the most challenging discovery phase and the most “retro” user experience of the candidates I tested (with DP being the best and Studio One the most intuitive and streamlined), it’s even a bit anachronistic with the single window approach – I wish I could at least have the workspace cover multiple monitors instead of just one. I hope Steinberg modernize the UX part of the program for the inevitable version 8 (nothing TOO drastic, but rethinking the workspace in terms of more than one window would be a start). Still, even if they don’t as long as the features are so awesome, so complete I will stick with it.
So, let me share the results of the Cubase “learning project” I mentioned earlier. Since I was rusty in my sequencing and I needed to get deep into Cubase again I decided to do a mockup. It was a chance to experiment with technique and workflow without the “distraction” of having to, you know… compose!
I chose the Preludio to Verdi’s opera Attila, which I think is just impossibly beautiful. It was also very challenging because it is so lyrical – and ahhhh those strings in triple octaves!
No quantization anywhere, tempo created from tapping a virtually conducted performance, then polished into a tempo track. I think this is the most important factor of all for an expressive performance – can’t play concert music on a metronome! Just for fun I restricted myself to libraries from EastWest, so that’s all that’s used. There is no “cheating” or layering anywhere either. It’s not perfect (at all) but I am just amazed by how far along sample libraries have come in the last 10 years. An instrumental mockup like this would have been damn near impossible a decade past, without some serious trickery and massive expenditure at least. Here of trickery there is none and expenditure was minimal.
The sound I was going for was that of a live orchestra - I wanted the dynamic range associated with concert music, as opposed to the squelched, mega loud stuff that people expect these days, even with orchestral music. Anyhow, here it is:
It was a fun experiment, now back to writing music and feeling like an insignificant nullity in the shadow of composers such as Giuseppe Verdi. Cubase never crashed on me (although EastWest’s Play VSTi certainly did – one more reason Freeze VST saves your butt, buggy VSTis are not stressed as much). Sure Cubase has a few bugs here and there, but nothing that I could not work around with a bit of experimentation, and I am sure Steinberg is going to address the issues eventually. I really like the new mixer (but then again, my mixing needs are fairly basic).
At the end I really appreciate a lot of what Steinberg has done to Cubase in the decade that I spent away from it. I am glad to see that it is still THE program to beat when it comes to innovative features and workflow optimization.