Review – Cubase Pro 9.5 by Steinberg

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Cubase is a legend in the DAW world, and it keeps getting better with age. In this latest incarnation there are many useful improvements, as you will see in this review.

 

by Rob Mitchell, Jan. 2018

 

Cubase Pro 9.5 is Steinberg’s flagship DAW product which has been improved upon over many years. In the world of computer music production, it is one of the most highly regarded DAWs you can buy.  It’s really a complete suite of products aimed at maximizing the potential of your pro or home studio. The two other Cubase products available, Cubase Artist 9 and Cubase Elements, are stripped down versions. They still have the same high quality sound, but they offer fewer tracks and there are fewer features/plugins included depending on the version.

Here are just some of the things Cubase Pro 9.5 offers: unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, up to 192kHz and 5.1 surround audio, automatic delay compensation, 90+ audio and MIDI plugins, improved zones, VariAudio audio editing/pitch correction, VST Connect SE, and much more.

 

Installation and Requirements

For the PC, Cubase Pro 9.5 will work with 64-bit Windows 7, 8 and 10.  For the Mac, it will work with OS X 10.11.  You’ll need a 64-bit Intel or AMD multicore CPU (i5 or better), a minimum of 4 GB of RAM (8 or more is recommended). Cubase requires a USB e-Licenser, and another important requirement to note is that Cubase can only use 64-bit plugins. Also, you will need an internet connection for account setup and activation.

I won’t cover all the basics of how Cubase really functions. To do that, it would require an extensive article that could very long and there is a manual for that in any case.  In general (and I am simplifying it here), audio recording and MIDI input from a keyboard or other MIDI device is nearly same across the many DAWs that are out there. Of course, they each have slightly different ways of getting things started, but all in all it is nearly the same across the board: add a track for audio or MIDI, set a track to record, hit the transport control to start a recording, etc. Rather than going down those familiar paths, I thought it would be better to cover some of the more useful functions and plugins that Cubase Pro 9.5 offers. My hope is that this review will present what makes it stand out in a crowded world of digital audio workstation software. If you’d like to read one of our previous reviews of an earlier version of Cubase, you can check that out here: http://soundbytesmag.net/cubase-8-5-steinberg/

When you launch Cubase, it starts you out with what they call the “Steinberg Hub”. On the Hub display you will get news and updates related to Cubase. The Hub also provides you with many videos showing how to use several features that it has (under “Quick Start” and “New Features”). In addition, the Hub is where you can get to some pre-made layouts to start new projects, or you can load a project you’ve been working on previously.

There are a few steps you’ll want to take in order for Cubase to function correctly. Before you start a new project, you should make sure you have it set up correctly with the drivers, inputs/outputs, etc. To do this, you’ll want to go to the “Studio” menu at the top of the screen and select “Studio Setup”. From there you can click on VST Audio System. This is where you can select different drivers, change the Processing Precision setting from 32-bit to 64-bit, Disk Preload (amount of audio loaded before playback), the interface’s sample rate, and the ASIO-Guard settings. ASIO-Guard (when enabled) provides an increased amount of stability and audio processing performance. There are many other settings here, but again, you can refer to the manual to get more of the details.

 

On Track

There are several different types of tracks in Cubase. These include Audio, Instrument, MIDI and Sampler tracks. The Audio type is usually for recording and/or importing audio (i.e. vocals or other live instruments). Adding a new audio track has some nice functionality built-in which makes the process that much easier. After you click Project/Add Track/Audio, you get a menu bar in which you can configure the type of track you’d like. How many tracks would you like? 1, 2, 10, or maybe 50 new tracks all at once? That is easily done by adjusting the number before clicking Add Track. Other options include the configuration (mono, stereo, surround, etc.) track names, and the output routing. Another feature you might not use as much (but is handy nonetheless) is available by clicking the Browse button. A new display opens letting you look through many selections that can help you set up the new track. Depending on what you choose, Cubase will automatically add certain effect plugins that are suited to the type of track you selected.   

The Instrument type has its own MIDI track built-in, and can be used with plugins such as sampled instrument or synth plugins. The MIDI type can be used for additional MIDI functions, such as controlling an external hardware synth, or separating the voicings from a multi-timbral plugin (each track can be for a particular sound from that plugin you’re using). One example of a synth/sample player with that capability (and included with Cubase Pro) is HALion Sonic SE.

On the left side is the Visibility tab in which you can select/unselect whichever tracks you want to have visible. If you aren’t concerned with seeing everything at once and just want to concentrate on a certain aspect of the music (such as the bass and drums), leaving those on the screen and hiding all else is a simple task. The Track fold/unfold feature lets you quickly open or close any folders so you can view (or hide) all of the tracks within them.


One of the best new features Steinberg has added is the Sampler Track. This was actually added in version 9, but I wanted to make sure it was mentioned here. Once you have it loaded in your project, there are a few different ways to get it working. You can drag and drop a sample from an audio track, import the sound file from your computer, or load it from the Media Bay. In Cubase Pro 9.5, you can now drag and drop a MIDI clip from another track right onto the Sampler track. It will render the audio for you, and that’s it – off you go. You could then play that sample from your keyboard, and you can easily transfer it to Groove Agent, Groove Agent SE, or HALion. To get the sample over to those other plugins, a simple click on the Transfer to Instrument button will give you the choices that are available. If any of those three plugins are not installed, then they will be greyed out.

Once you have a sample you’ve loaded into the Sampler Track, you can make some changes to it. Some of the features let you change the start and end for a section to playback, use fade in/fade out for the selection, set the pitch (coarse/fine tuning), use a filter (select from 24 different types), and adjust the resonance and drive. Some other settings in the Sampler Track to play with are the amplitude, filter and pitch envelopes. Several loop modes are also included for changing the playback in various ways. One thing you can’t do within the Sampler Track is slicing up a sample.

There are several other track types which you might not use quite as much as those first four, but they can be important and very useful depending on how complex your project is. Some of those types are the FX Channel, Control, Group, VCA Fader (more on that one later), Time Signature, Video, Arranger and Chord. Some of those (such as Video, Transpose and a few others) can only be added once per project. Folders can also be added for better organization so you keep it all tidy and easier to work with.

 

MixConsole, Insert Slots and Workspaces


MixConsole is where you can put together a winning mix for your next production. Some of the many features that make this a powerful DAW include drag-and-drop support, a MixConsole History function, and channel strips that include a 4-band EQ, plus high and low filtering, spectrum analyzer, multiple compressors and a noise gate.  The mixing engine can handle 128 physical inputs and outputs, 64 effect sends, 16 inserts per channel and 256 groups/busses. On top of all that, there is no limit to the routing between the groups, effects, audio channels and busses. On the left side of MixConsole you can switch the display between the faders, inserts and send views. This is a nice time saver as it allows you to see all the inserts at once, instead of clicking on each separate channel and then viewing them on the left hand side. Speaking of inserts, in the new version of Cubase these have been increased to sixteen insert slots for each track. Each of these can be pre or post-fader. You can divide them up so (for instance) the top twelve slots can be all pre-fader, and the bottom four, post-fader. To do this, you just drag a green divider line up or down to set where the pre-fader insert slots stop.  Any slots above that line are pre-fader and the post-fader insert slots start below the line.

The MixConsole History that I touched on briefly is a very nice feature. As you make changes to your mix settings, they are recorded to the MixConsole History. It is presented as a list of the changes that were made over time in the settings of your mix. You might think: Wait, what did I do about 40 minutes ago that was working so well? The answer is simple, as you can click on that point in the history to bring it back to the way it was.

VCA Faders let you control several channels at once in the MixConsole. Once it’s configured, it is a linked group and can adjust the settings for the volume, mute, solo, listen, monitor and record functions. The VCA Faders can be set up in MixConsole or the Project window. It is simple to setup: Select the channels, right-click on one of those that you’ve selected, and then select Add VCA Fader to Selected Channels. The faders can also be nested, meaning if you (for instance) have several faders that are set to a few different groups, you can add another fader which will control all of those faders at the same time.

Workspaces allow you to set up windows in your project the way you’d like, and you can have more than just one of those saved. You can have several of these configured, e.g., with one window opened maximally for editing and most others tucked away, or several of your most used features all visible at once. These layouts can be defined globally for all projects or per-project. In addition, there is a setting you can configure to allow you to use a default workspace when opening a project.

 

Metronome, Offline Processing and Improved Zoning

In every DAW on the market today you will find a metronome. It provides you with a way to (hopefully) keep your timing steady and stay in sync with other tracks as your project rolls along. Most metronomes are rather simple, and they use basic time signature and speed settings. Another feature they will sometimes support is a Tap function for which you can click on a button at a certain tempo, and the speed for which you are striving will be automatically determined. You may think that’s enough for most situations, but the new and improved metronome in Cubase 9.5 is way beyond what I had ever used before.

Several time signature presets are ready for use, but you can also create your own. You can choose the type of sound it will use for the first beat, and the rest of the beats can use something else. For instance, the first beat could be a stick sound and the other beats can use a tambourine. On top of this, you can have it use a different sound on every single beat, and several presets are already included. Using the Accent Editor, it is possible to use one of four different accent levels for every click in a pattern. Instead of just accenting the first beat, maybe you want (for example) to have the first beat be loud, the next beat to be quiet, then use a medium level for the third beat, and a slightly quieter level on the fourth beat. In addition, time signature changes are no longer a problem. In Cubase 9.5, the metronome will automatically follow along with any time signature changes you have set up in your project. 

Enhanced offline processing allows more flexibility and some CPU savings at the same time. Normally you might select a clip and right-click on it to add a plugin to affect the clip, which can take resources away from the CPU if you multiply that many times throughout a project.  After selecting a clip (or many audio events) and selecting an offline process to apply compression, delay or other effect, you aren’t stuck with those changes in a destructive way. You can undo the changes one at a time, or can remove all the changes you’ve made. The order of the effects can be switched into a different order if you’d like. The Audition button will let you hear how it sounds with the settings you just applied using a plugin. You are also able to extend the tail of an effect (useful with reverb) if the clip itself isn’t quite long enough. Offline processing can definitely be convenient if your computer is slightly older, or even if you’re getting close to maxing out your newer/faster system that just happens to include loads of tracks and effects.

In the upper-right you can select between some tabs with handy functions. There is a VSTi tab to access your plugins, but you also get a Media, CR (Control Room) and Meter tabs. From the Media tab you’re now able to get to your computer’s drives for quick access to whichever files you need while you’re still in a project. The VST Sounds directory, User and Factory content are all within reach. Selecting one directory (such as a Sounds directory) will open the contents of that folder in the lower pane. The CR tab lets you access the Control Room features so you can setup the monitoring, room and booth settings. Some controls in the Control Room section include an independent level for monitoring, easy switching between different monitors you may have set up, access to Downmix presets, four separate cue mixes, and much more. The last tab up at the top of this section is for metering. It provides access to the loudness and master meters (click at the bottom to switch between them), and you can click the CR button at the top-right to use Control Room settings. The CR settings will then appear along the bottom of the meter display.  The available Meter settings include numerous broadcast standards, such as Digital, DIN, EBU, British, Nordic, K-20, K-14 and K-12 scales.  Three different alignment settings (18, 20 and 24-dBFS) are provided for the DIN, EBU, British, Nordic scales. The Digital and K-scales do not have those choices available. For the Loudness settings, Cubase can switch between LU or LUFS configurations. “LU” stands for loudness unit, and “LUFS” stands for loudness unit in reference to the full scale.  Several loudness amounts are displayed which provide a good deal of feedback on the levels in your project including Momentary, Short-Term and Integrated. I won’t get into all the details for those as the manual covers them quite thoroughly if you wish to gather more knowledge on the subject.  It’s very handy to have so much at your command, and it’s simple to use. This is much better than switching to a floating Meter or Control Room window just to make some quick changes to some of the settings.

 

Bezier Curves and Snap to Zoom


Automation is part of nearly any DAW on the market these days. Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of one that doesn’t have that feature. It lets you make changes to various parameters over time. Some of the changes you might use in a project are for the panning, effect and track levels, or the cutoff setting in a synth plugin, etc. In the latest version of Cubase, a new feature to enhance the automation has been added. Normally you’d use the pencil mouse tool to draw in changes to a segment in an automation lane, or use straight lines for manipulating values of volume, filter, panning, etc. Now you can use the new Bezier curve function to add smooth transitions however you’d like. Say you have a segment of automation that has been added on a track. With a simple click on the scaling handle at the top of the segment, you can drag it up/down and it will raise/lower that segment’s level.  Clicking and dragging on the center of the segment itself lets you freely move it up/down and left/right to add a smooth curve to the segment.

While you’re working on automation in a project, you may need to zoom in to get better view of the fine details. A new feature they’ve added is called Snap to Zoom. This is found under the Grid Type menu, where the Bar, Beat, and Use Quantize snap settings are located.  It works as follows.  As you zoom in or out, it will adjust the snap target. For instance, if the horizontal bars you see are for every quarter beat of a measure, it will then snap to the closest quarter-note beat. When you zoom in farther, and the vertical lines are for the eighth beats (or zoom in even farther, and they are for sixteenth beats), it will snap to those lines instead. This is very easy to use, and it’s a nice feature to have for sure. Also, even if you don’t have “Read” or “Write” selected on a track, you can choose the tool to draw in some automation on that track and it will start working right away. This saves you the extra step of enabling it before going to the drawing tool to add the automation. Nice!

Another small but useful feature is a new way to make the cursor’s position easier to find. What I mean by that is that normally it’s not very easy to line up where the cursor is in relation to the material that’s on the screen down below it. You can hold the mouse along top border of the tracks, and you’ll get a line that moves along with the mouse (going from top to bottom through the tracks), but when you move it down towards the middle again, that helpful line just disappears. Now when you use a key combination (Alt-Shift) that guideline will always appear on the screen. Very handy!   

 

Plugged In


In most moderns DAWs, you normally get a few plugins added to the package. As I mentioned earlier, Cubase Pro 9.5 has over 90 audio and MIDI plugins of various types. Some of these are synth plugins such as Retrologue 2 (a virtual analog synth plugin), Padshop, and HALion Sonic SE 3 which has more than 1,200 sounds included. It is a reduced version of their full HALion Sonic 3, which was reviewed in a previous issue of SoundBytes Magazine. Make no mistake, the Sonic 3 SE version with the included libraries is still powerful and should be considered as a very capable sample-player/synth plugin. Flux is a new wavetable-based synth that has been recently added to it, and it really shows off the underlying power of the HALion Sonic platform.  Just make sure you have the latest update to Cubase Pro, because there was a fix added recently that corrected a problem with Flux showing up in HALion Sonic SE. There are some manual instructions online that you can find which temporarily corrects the issue, but you should just update Cubase.  I would highly recommend updating your software on a regular basis for both the bug fixes they provide, and any new features that have been issued.

Back to those plugins: There are also several types of EQ, dynamics plugins such as compressors, a brick wall limiter, de-esser, and a multi-band expander.  Others that are included are amp simulators, Quadrafuzz 2, a bitcrusher, several reverbs including REVerence, modulation plugins: flanger, chorus, Transformer. Delays, stereo enhancer, pitch correction, VariAudio 2.0. 


The Frequency EQ plugin (introduced with version 9) is very powerful. Eight separate bands are available and each of those offers four different types of equalization. Frequency (20Hz-20kHz range), Q and Gain controls are here, and each of the eight bands can be switched to an M/S mode. A handy Inv button lets you easily invert the frequency gain for each band. Each of the bands can be enabled/disabled, and band numbers 1 and 8 have five extra cut filters to choose from. These include 6, 12, 24, 48 and 96-pole cutoff settings.

Some of the plugins (Tube, Vintage and Magneto compressors) received a nice visual upgrade to their GUIs, and a couple of the compressors now also feature a dry/wet mix knob.


VariAudio allows you to fix audio that may be out of tune or maybe is in need of some basic timing editing. It is similar to some other “tuning” products you might be familiar with (Melodyne is one such product). After you have some audio in a track, either something you’ve recorded or imported, you double-click on the audio in the track. In the Inspector on the left side you’ll see VariAudio. Clicking on that opens up a few choices to select from, and one of those is Segments. Clicking on it will make Cubase analyze the audio, and gives you a new segmented view that you can work with.

Slight adjustments can be made, or you can get a real robotic effect (like you may have heard in pop songs during the last fifteen years or so) if you’d like. It works well with monophonic tracks, and typically you’d use it on vocals, but it can be used for other types of tracks as well. When you use it on a track, it splits up the audio into segments. This lets you visualize what is going on much easier, and correcting any issues is that much more intuitive. If you load a stereo file, it will still show up as mono in VariAudio. When you see the segments on the screen, there is a piano keyboard along the left side that gives you a quick reference as to which segment is at what pitch. The segments can be played back in a few different ways: Play from the beginning to the end, set the segment to play in a loop, or play one by one. The segments can be deleted, muted, or moved horizontally (left or right) and their length can be adjusted as needed. Dragging one up or down will change the pitch of a segment, and using the Pitch Snap settings will set it to adjust by semitone or cents. There are several other VariAudio functions that can be very useful when editing your audio. Of course, the manual is your friend and I highly recommend checking it out. Have I mentioned the manual enough times yet?

Just don’t forget, you can’t use any of your 32-bit plugins in Cubase. Some other DAWs have a built-in bridge capability to give you access to some of those older 32-bit gems. Not so with Cubase, as from now on 64-bit is the name of the game.

 

Conclusion

I briefly want to mention that another major music softare developer has recently announced they will not be updating their DAW software from now on.  Basically it may be the end of the road for that competing product. For anyone who owns it, you know which company I am talking about. For those looking to jump ship and get started with another DAW, Cubase should be at the top of your list. It has such a huge potential just waiting to be tapped that it could fill up a whole issue of SoundBytes Magazine and it would not even cover half of that potential. Here are just a few other items I wanted to briefly highlight before I close this review: Cubase now has 64-bit floating point processing, giving you double the precision in the VST Audio System. VST Connect SE and VST Transit (located in the VST Cloud menu) let you exchange projects and ideas remotely, enabling you to share your musical projects with others from other parts of the world.  In the Preferences menu there is an improved color menu where you can easily switch the color scheme Cubase is using. Picking one of these automatically picks other colors that work well with the primary color you selected. You could also dive in and change certain colors that are for individual parts of the application. Cubase also offers an improved video engine, and works with external video cards and more of the current video codecs.

Cubase has a long legacy of dependability and improvements that have been added over the years. If you are looking for a professional-level DAW, I suggest you look no further than Cubase Pro 9.5. You can purchase Cubase for $579.99 USD, but you may find it for a bit less on some other websites if you shop around. Upgrading from v9 to v9.5 is only $59 USD, and upgrades from other versions are also available as well. You can get more info and a 30-day demo version from their website here:

https://www.steinberg.net/en/products/cubase/cubase_pro.html

 

 

 

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