If you bemoan the absence of a Mac OS X-native version of QuarkXPress within earshot of a Mac musician, be prepared for a chorus of abuse. Such Mac users have waited nearly two years for the tools they primar-ily rely on-software-based digital-audio-production applications (once known as sequencers)-to appear in OS X-compatible form. With the release of OS X 10.2 and its underlying audio and MIDI components, modern-day professional music applications are finally making their way to OS X. First out of the gate was Emagic’s Logic Platinum 5 (Reviews, January 2003), a highly capable (and rather complicated) application. Not long thereafter, Steinberg released Cubase SX-a complete rewrite of its flagship Cubase digital-audio-production application-which was compatible only with OS X. Though not as powerful as Logic (and, at times, not as stable), the version we tested, Cubase SX 1.051, boasts a host of desirable features, as well as an ease of use that Logic lacks.
First among those desirable features is the program’s ability to play back as many audio tracks as your Mac’s processor can handle. If your Mac has what it takes to pump out 256 simultaneous bouzouki tracks, you can rock on.
Steinberg has taken a hint from Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU); like MOTU’s Digital Performer, Cubase now includes unlimited undo capabilities and an Edit History feature. Edit History allows you to undo a series of actions in one step, so you don’t have to go back through each action.
Cubase SX includes a new time-stretching feature called Hitpoints, which is similar to Propellerhead’s ReCycle application. Hitpoints lets you automatically slice audio tidbits (a drum groove, for example) so that the program recognizes the major beats within the audio file-a snare drum that falls on beat 2, for example. Then you can change the tempo of the track, and the audio bit will also speed up or slow down to match that tempo. But the resulting groove sounds better when you increase-rather than decrease-the tempo.
Automation has also been improved. In past versions of Cubase, you could record fader movements to automate your mix. You still can, and Cubase SX also lets you draw automation within each track (known as vector automation). To do so, just click on the + (plus sign) button within a track to reveal one of the automation subtracks. Select the parameter you want to automate-for example, volume-and you’ll see a line that represents the unchanged parameter. Then you can click on the line to add points to it and drag each point to create an automation event. For example, in a volume subtrack, you could add two points to the beginning of the chorus and drag the second point down to automatically decrease the volume. If you add another two points to the beginning of the next verse and drag the second point up, you can increase the volume.
Like Logic Platinum, Cubase SX supports surround-sound mixing. Unlike Logic, Cubase SX also supports Propellerhead’s ReWire 2.0 standard, a technology that allows you to play external software synthesizers such as Propellerhead’s Reason 2.0 from within Cubase.
Cubase is a cross-platform application that, in previous versions, reflected its PC roots in an interface that featured slightly garish graphics. Steinberg has toned down the color palette and redesigned the interface, so Cubase SX is easier on the eyes and easier to use.
Functions are grouped in a logical way. For example, when you select a track in the main Project window, most of the functions you’ll need-Inserts, Equalizers, and Sends-are immediately available in the tabbed Inspector pane on the left side of the window. To edit your audio or MIDI, just click on the tab of the function you want to edit, make your changes (transpose a MIDI track, for example), and click on the tab again to hide the editing fields.
Another convenience is that MIDI and audio faders are now found in the same mixing console-no longer must you click between separate MIDI and audio consoles when mixing. And fades can be added graphically by clicking and dragging handles within audio tracks (though you must open a separate window to edit the curve of the fade).
Cubase SX makes MIDI and audio effects operate in similar fashion. Clicking on the Insert tab with either an audio or MIDI file selected provides access to audio and MIDI effects. For audio tracks, you can choose from among the more than 40 included VST effects plug-ins (including such standards as reverb and chorus, along with more exotic effects such as Quadrafuzz and Grungelizer) and apply as many as eight effects per track. (Note that some of these plug-ins are carryovers from the older Cubase 5.1, and Steinberg has not extensively tested them with Cubase SX. In our tests, they worked as expected.) You can apply as many as four effects to MIDI tracks, choosing from among such Steinberg-created MIDI processing effects as Arpache5 (an arpeggiator) and MIDI Echo. There are 14 MIDI effects in all.
Link with the Past
Our mention of VST should prick up the ears of people who follow the state of audio in OS X (see “OS X in Tune,” January 2003). Unlike Logic, Cubase SX doesn’t currently support Apple’s Audio Units effects standard, though Steinberg has expressed an interest in supporting Audio Units at a later date. (Logic supports Audio Units only). This gives Cubase SX users access to a greater variety of effects and instruments (software synthesizers), because Audio Units-compatible effects and instruments are currently few and far between.Cubase SX includes four such instruments: A1, a two-oscillator virtual analog synthesizer from Waldorf; VB-1, a virtual bass synthesizer; Neon, an analog synthesizer found in earlier versions of Cubase; and LM7, a drum sample player. Excluding Neon, which is a little on the thin side, the included instruments produce rich sounds and are versatile.
Considering the program’s power and its more than 700 electronic pages of included documentation, making music with Cubase SX is remarkably easy. But there are bugs to squash. On several occasions, audio tracks stuttered as we played back (on our 933MHz Power Mac G4) a project that contained fewer than a dozen of them. This aberrant behavior was usually triggered by our switching applications or mucking about in the Dock during playback. In most of these cases, we had to close and reopen the project to make it play properly.
Like Logic Platinum 5, Cubase SX is copy-protected, requiring a USB dongle to operate. You can use the program on any compatible Mac the dongle is plugged into, but you may have to pay a substantial price to replace the dongle should you lose it (although Steinberg says it will attempt to work out an amicable solution on a case-by-case basis).
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Cubase SX is a substantial bug fix away from being a solid contender for your digital-audio-production dollars. Logic Platinum is the deeper program, but Cubase SX packs plenty of punch and is easy to use. When a stabler version ships, people with earlier Cubase iterations should upgrade in a hurry. If you’re new to music on the Mac, you may want to wait for the OS X-native version of MOTU’s Digital Performer before you make a decision.