Digital Recording Studios

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Four music-software titans–Emagic, Mark of the Unicorn, Opcode Systems, and Steinberg–have spent the last several years jockeying for position in the battle of the MIDI/digital-audio sequencers, and three of them recently released updated versions of their applications. Emagic's Logic Audio Gold 3.6, Opcode's Vision DSP 4.1, and Steinberg's Cubase VST 4.0 are all capable digital recording studios, but Logic Audio is the best choice for those who aren't afraid to delve into the nitty-gritty details of MIDI data.

Although the three applications differ in interface, ease of use, and flexibility, they have an awful lot in common. They can all record nearly endless numbers of MIDI tracks as well as a more limited number of high-resolution digital-audio tracks via a Power Macintosh's on-board audio input or through add-on digital-audio hardware. Each program also gives you several ways to enter and edit MIDI data, and each supports Steinberg's VST (Virtual Studio Technology) effects-plug-ins standard. All three also support Steinberg's ASIO (Audio Stream In/Out) standard, which allows users with ASIO-compatible hardware to use VST effects plug-ins. On the downside, all the applications have a floppy-disk-based copy-protection scheme. Worse yet, Logic Audio also requires a hardware dongle that attaches to the ADB bus.

Crammed with just about every MIDI feature you can imagine–and quite a few digital-audio features as well–Logic Audio is undoubtedly the most flexible of the three programs. You can perform some amazing tricks in its Environment window, an object-oriented programming environment that lets you manipulate the minutiae of MIDI. For example, you can string together a series of objects that cause the notes you play on your synthesizer to be transposed up a major third, arpeggiated, and split to other MIDI channels. Logic Audio also possesses the strongest notation component of the bunch, rivaling that of Cubase VST's more expensive sibling, Cubase VST Score. But this power comes at a price–a very steep learning curve aggravated by a thick, inadequately indexed manual. The tutorial-like PDF file called Guidebook is helpful for users starting out with the program, but switching between Adobe Acrobat and Logic Audio is inconvenient.

In contrast with Logic Audio, Cubase VST is nothing if not easy to use. In version 4.0, Steinberg has introduced several interface changes that make it a breeze to edit and control data within the program's main Arrange window. And drag and drop is now well integrated into the program; for example, you can drag audio and MIDI parts on and off the Mac's desktop as well as from some of the program's editor windows to other windows. (Logic Audio's implementation of drag and drop is more limited–you can drag audio from the desktop to the Audio window but not from the window to the desktop.)

Cubase VST not only has the most approachable interface of the three but it's also the easiest application to learn, thanks to Steinberg's comprehensive but unintimidating Getting Started manual.

In my review of Opcode's Studio Vision Pro 4.0 (see Reviews, August 1998), I lamented the program's lack of on-board effects. The problem has been rectified in the follow-up to Studio Vision Pro; the less expensive Vision DSP 4.1 supports VST plug-ins and ships with a fine-sounding collection of effects. Like the other two programs, Vision DSP ships with EQ and supports buses and sends, which let you send a group of audio tracks to a single channel and apply an effect there.

Although Opcode has reserved its Pitch-to-MIDI feature for the high-end Studio Vision Pro, Vision DSP–unlike the other programs–supports the 24-bit audio used with high-end digital-audio hardware. Vision DSP also includes a free copy of Galaxy, Opcode's solid synthesizer librarian program. And Vision still has the most comprehensive and easiest-to-use controller-data-editing feature of any MIDI sequencer on the market.

Cubase VST and Vision DSP are closely matched; when you're comparison shopping, listen carefully to the effects each offers and see how you like working with the programs. The wild card of the bunch is Logic Audio. If you're driven to twiddle with every picayune parameter and won't mind spending weeks struggling with reams of often inadequate documentation, Emagic's immensely powerful digital recording studio could be the most logical choice.


4.0 mice
PROS: Easy-to-use interface; extensive drag-and-drop support. CONS: No 24-bit support; copy protection. COMPANY: Steinberg (818/993-4091, ). LIST PRICE: $399.


4.0 mice
PROS: Powerful MIDI processing; strong notation component. CONS: Steep learning curve; copy protection. COMPANY: Emagic (530/477-1051, ). LIST PRICE: $499.


4.0 mice
PROS: Support for 24-bit audio; strong controller-data editing. CONS: No drag-and-drop support; copy protection. COMPANY: Opcode Systems (650/429-2400, ). LIST PRICE: $495.

March 1999 page: 50

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