Online Review: Cubase SX/SL



It has been a while since last time we reviewed a Steinberg product. In september 1999, to be exact. Why? Well, let's say that Steinberg never returned mail when we invited them a dozen times to send in software for a review. OK, no problem, AudioMac.net can live without Steinberg. It was basically their problem, not ours.

A few weeks ago, an email came in from the Dutch distributor BMI, which in the end resulted in a renewed chance to review Steinberg stuff. Thank you Jan for your efforts. I must say we are happy with that, as this software supplier is a major player in the professional audio industry and therefore should be present in this website. We like to think big over here ;-).

As the last review was a long time ago, we make a giant leap in Cubase version history and dive directly into Steinberg's newest product, Cubase SX, and its lighter brother (or sister if you like): Cubase SL. Both software packages contain a complete digital studio for audio, midi and VST/DirectX, where SX is more heavy equipped. We tested the Mac OS X version, but SX and SL are available for the Windows platform too. For this review, we focus upon SX, as this is the version that is of best interest to professional audio artists and technicians. Which does not count out SL by the way: SL provides a strong collection of tools, but not as complete as SX does. If you wanna know exactly what the differences between SX and SL are: there is comparison chart at Steinberg's website. It's in Acrobat PDF format, so you will need the free Acrobat Reader.

First look.

When firing up SX for the first time, I mumbled "wow" as the user interface came on my G4 screen. It is very slick designed and glows professionally. But another "wow" goes to the fact that basic functionality is still at the same place or key combination as it was several versions earlier. To be exact: I am a Cubase user since the good old Atari times, where only midi was at stake. Certain basic key combinations, such as setting the left and right locator and start and stop playing, I learned by heart at that time, are still valid today. That's the way it should be: renew the stuff, but keep the good and old as well.


* A very well designed user interface (the mixer is shown here) is the first thing you see when firing up Steinberg Cubase SX. Fully aimed at functionality, but well formed as well. This makes a true professional impression.


* The tracks view in SX. All tracks have a + button, used to unfold extra options per track. In this screen shot the first audio track is unfolded with parameters like volume, pan, bus assignment, etc. The values are set by dragging up and down the black line you see in every track. You can insert edit points in the black line for variations, like for example a fade out for a voice over.

What is SX?

SX is basically a complete digital studio for your Mac (or PC), including tools (called devices) for pre and post production, plus a bag full of functions for midi and video. SX has all building blocks to satisfy your wildest needs for creative audio production. Cubase is designed in such a way that a non-tech musician still will be able to use the wonderful techniques of a full digital home studio, though he will have to do some learning of course. The same set of devices can be used for a very serious post production environment, where every minute counts. In other words: a seriously creating musician can do a lot at home in his home studio, take the stuff to a SX equipped studio, and finish the project on a pro level there with the very same software and files. No hassle with conflicting software, translating audio and midi formats. This of course goes for any software installed in both places, but the ease of use of Cubase makes it a serious candidate for such transparent production models, where both the non-tech musician and the high-tech audio engineer can use the same software. Cubase is avery versatile software environment, ready to be used in very different circumstances.

Need for more USB.

SX comes with an USB dongle. Without that, SX will not run. This is where you might get into trouble. As in our case. We already have an USB dongle, namely the one that we need to run the Emagic 2|6 audio interface, reviewed earlier in AudioMac.net. It is attached to the keyboard, left side. The right USB connector on the keyboard is for the mouse. One USB-port on the rear side of our test machine (a G4/500) is occupied by the USB-cable of the Emagic interface (as this is the only USB port it will work on), and the other USB-post is for the keyboard. No empty USB ports left. So: where to put the new SX dongle? There was only one solution: install an extra USB hub. When this little puzzle was completed, all went well: SX ran without trouble. So: chances are big that you will have to do a little extra investment. Little: USB-hubs are not that expensive.

Supported audio interfaces.

We ran into another problem. SX supports a lot of audio interfaces. But: not the one we have in our test studio: the aforementioned Emagic EMI 2|6. This means that recording through the EMI is not possible, and we had to switch back to the G4's built in audio input. Basically no problem, though the so wanted higher quality will not be yours if you own an Emagic EMI 2|6.


* The SX Device Setup does not mention the Emagic 2|6 EMI audio interface. A petty in our case, since this is the only interfacing device for ADDA conversion we have in the test studio. We understand all about competition, but this won't help Steinberg to pull over Emagic users.

VST.

SX supports VST, under OS X that is. VST virtual instruments or effects, programmed for the OS8 and OS9 environment, will not run. That is not Steinberg's fault but mere a stupid decision by Apple: OS9 audio is simply not supported under Classic mode in OS X, where (the far much better equipped CoreAudio) rules the (audio)waves. On one hand, buying SX and thus choosing for OS X, it's better audio and thus the future, is a very wise decision. On the other hand: the disadvantage is that SX buyers will have to wait until VST plug and instrument manufacturers like Waves, Prosoniq, Native Instruments and all the others will have translated their products to OS X. Until that happens, the SX user can use only those VST plugs and instruments that are provided by Steinberg. Or -no laughing now please- by the biggest competitor Emagic, namely the plugs that come with Logic Platinum 5 for OS X, reviewed earlier in this site. Since it is not very likely that one will buy both Logic and SX, your choice is somewhat limited for now. So: choosing for the better quality future also means you will have to wait for "the true" VST plugs under OS X. All manufacturers write on their web sites they are working very hard on porting from OS9 to OS X. Which is a big job, by the way: programming for OS X (which is Unix in fact) is something totally different then building software for OS9. But: most manufacturers have announced OS X versions of their well awarded plugs for the upcoming months, so the solitaire life will not last very long.

This all sounds as if the plugs, that come with Steinberg, might not be good enough. Such is absolutely not the case. The quality of the plugs is OK, and you can do the pro job very well with them. It is just that the ones, we got used to under OS 9, are not available yet, and you will have to live without them for a while if you go for OS X. Plus that we do not like to be forced to one brand by the software suppliers: we'd like to keep free choice, right? To avoid the impression that SX has no VST plugs at all: here is the info screen that gives VST info within the application:


* The VST plug in-list of SX. Though not all suppliers have translated their products into OS X, this collection will give to enough to fill the gap for the time being. Click to enlarge and read.

Steinberg included a new analog virtual synthesizer powered by Waldorf in addition to a 24 Bit drum machine, and a great-sounding bass synth. Cubase SX also features an extended range of high-quality VST virtual effect processors such as the SPL De-Esser and the QuadraFuzz distortion unit. So: more than enough to get you on the road. Here are some screen shots of some of the VST stuff:


* A1.


* Stepfilter.


* Vocoder.

Now, for some other appealing features.

Now, for some other appealing features of Cubase SX. One of the stronger features of SX is the unlimited undo and redo. All activity is recorded, and of halfway a production you decide to go back to a much earlier state, no problem. This is not only important for money saving in your studio (in case of mistake you do not have to redo all the work, but you simply grab back to an earlier state of the production process and restart from there) , it also a handy tool for the creatives amongst us. If you got driven too far on your musical dreams, return back to earth and restart from where it got too weirdo ;-). Very good.

Another feature in the same category (very good) is the offline process history. I copy some text from Steinberg's website which explains very clearly what this feature can do for you.

With Cubase SX you have total control of your final production, even if you have 'finished' the project. One of the great new features included in Cubase SX is the off-line processing of individual audio files which allows effects to be 'stamped' onto them layer after layer. The off-line process history lets you can jump back to any individual process such as a reverb and edit it, remove it or replace it with any other effect you desire.

Do you understand the impact of this feature? If so, you'll understand why we at AudioMac.net like this one very much. Any so called final project can be altered and re-used if needed. Another time saver of great importance for those who want to keep an eye on their bookkeeping account (at least we do ;-). And for the creative ones this feature opens very interesting possibilities too. And -maybe even Steinberg did not think of that, as we could not find any text about it on the website): this feature enables us to re-produce finished projects for multimedia purposes way after closing a project. Until now, we had to think ahead and generate the e.g. internet copies at the same time when mastering. No longer needed: more flexibility in our production flow. Very good!

"Mixing is an art in itself" says Steinberg on their website. Absolutely true. And: a good artist needs great tools to accomplish this artful task, right? Well: SX provides you with an adaptive track mixer, which is so to speak a digital copy of the better and best mixing consoles you will find in real life professional studio's. It's all there in a brand new designed 32-bit floating point mixer, which has a well designed interface with ergonomics in mind. And for those of you that are in the DVD world, the mixer can handle 5.1 surround sound providing mixing and panning controls that can handle this multi-dimensional audio environment. The lay out of the mixer can be adjusted to just the way you like to work. Very good. Here are some examples:


* Narrow.


* Normal.


*Expanded.

VST System Link.

In the past, Steinberg introduced VST and ASIO, techniques all serious audio producers use today. With Cubase SX/SL, Steinberg comes up with yet another revolution: VST System Link. We -once again- "steel" some text of Steinberg's website:

VST System Link is a system for networking computers using Steinberg Virtual Studio Technology (VST) software and Audio Stream Input Output (ASIO) hardware. VST System Link enables the transfer of synchronization, transport, and audio data between two or more workstations equipped with compatible software and hardware over standard digital audio cabling systems such as ADAT, TDIF, AES/EBU, S/ PDIF etc. And because it uses the audio stream itself, synchronization is completely sample accurate, even across multiple workstation configurations. VST System Link uses a single bit of the audio stream as a carrier for transport and synchronization information, plus (optionally) other bits of the audio stream for MIDI information. Several computers can be linked in a daisy chain configuration, each one passing on the accumulated information to the next via standard digital audio cables, with routing to the various systems controlled by a master software "patch bay" running on the first computer in the chain.

So basically it comes down to this: you can hook up computers endlessly and divide tasks between these machine. For example: the audio tracks are on machine 1, the virtual VST instruments on machine 2, the effects on machine 3 and the final mix procedures on machine 4. This widens the horizon of your processor possibilities far enough to perform even the most heavy tasks, provided you've got enough Macs or PC's of course. Less heavy tasks can be assigned to older Macs that were replaced earlier, and since then are dust biting in a corner of the studio. VST System Link brings them back to life again and lets them play a new role in your studio, e.g. as a mixing console. We at AudioMac.net were not able to test this in real time production, since our test studio -being a small project studio for this website- is only equipped with one Apple G4. But we've seen some very positive reactions on the internet of studio owners, using this new technology. Very challenging.

Score.

Ever since score editing was introduced into the Cubase series, it was widely appreciated for it's accuracy and fine print outs. In SX, this tradition is continued. And enhanced with the multiple undo and redo functions already mentioned above. As if it seems that in today's music, score writing is an ancient activity of freaky music oldies, the opposite is true. Pretty sure about 60 to 70 percent of music productions is still written in score, and a lot of the pro's who keep this old "craft" alive use VST Score to do this job. In education, Steinberg is big name too for it's score functionality.


* The score functionality is maintained in SX. Click to enlarge screenshot.

Effects.

Cubase SX comes with a strong list of effects. We tried most of them and can report to you that the quality is fine. It's a complete set which enables you to perform most thinkable tasks to be performed in an average studio. Brand name diehards, that already live with brand names like Waves, Native Instruments and Prosoniq, will in the end most probably turn back to these effects when the OS X versions are released. But it most certainly is not needed: the effects are of very good quality. But OK; also plug ins are most of them time a matter of the users taste, right? We give you some screen shots:


* Reverb.


* VSTDynamics.


* Symphonic.

These are just a few of a long list of effects that come with SX. Owners of earlier Cubase VST versions will see to their surprise the old plug ins (designed for OS 9 environment) back in the OS X environment. Steinberg does not guarantee good working of these plugs, but we could not detect strange behavior. So: Steinberg managed somehow to arrange a marriage between OS9 and OS X plug in environment. We are most likely to see more of this trick in the near future, at least that is what we hope for over here.

All?

Is that all there is ;-). Hell no. SX is a surprise bag full of new or redesigned stuff. Let's grab around a bit and put the spotlights on some of them. For example the project automation, which can be performed up to per sample resolution. By simply inserting point and dragging values, you can create a complete automated mix (the colored lines on the automation tracks in the screenshot below).


* Project automation lets you produce a full automated production, all parameters saved for later reuse of course.

Midi features.

Speaking of midi... With all this audio, effects, instruments and automation force, you'd almost forget that SX is a complete midi studio as well. SX is stuffed with all kinds of midi effects and processors, a strong point of Steinberg's software since ages so to speak. And: automation is not only applicable to the audio section, but to the midi section as well. Here are screen shots of some of them:


* Step Designer.


* Midi Echo.

The midi section of SX provides musicians with all thinkable and needed midi features, ready to manipulate your real time of virtual instruments just there where you want to go. We will not dive too deep into this part of SX: just trust us when we state here that it's all OK and complete in there.


* Import functionality for older Cubase VST midi productions.

You can import midi productions from previous versions of Cubase VST. We checked this out by importing a production we did earlier for another review in this site.


* An imported production from Cubase VST v5.

All seems OK. All midi info including parameters and names popped up in SX correctly. The assigned VST instruments however did not: not a surprise since this production was made under OS9 and (as stated before) these instruments do not function under OSX (yet). The upward compatibility of the midi information however is 100%. Very good.

Choice.

Now, what will you choose when you want to start working in a professional way under OS X? Cubase SX? Or Logic, reviewed in this site as well. The answer is equal simple as difficult. Logic users will most probably stick to their home brand as they got used to the structure and general approach of this software. And the very same goes for users that are glued to Cubase for many years, like me. Since we do some reviewing ;-) here we're very lucky to have both packages installed. Comparing the two I really cannot determine which one is better or worse. I think both environments are strong and complete. Steinberg has at least one advantage over Logic at this moment: the VST System Link. If you are so lucky to have more than 1 computer ready for audio production, Steinberg SX is most certainly a very strong choice. For the rest it's a matter of taste. And money of course ;-).

Conclusion.

Steinberg has pushed some edges again with the release of SX and it's smaller counter part SL. Maybe the most important renewal is VST System Link, that will let you spread your power demands over several machines, that will act as one. This powerful feature will most probably not be the most important one for the average buyer, since only few of them will work in an environment filled with Macs. However, also for those with a smaller environment, VST System Link can be very handy: hook up the older dust eating Macs and PCs (yes, even cross platform) and give them a new life. Steinberg once again succeeded in keeping the old and adding the new, like they did earlier with the introductions of VST and ASIO. SX is a true versatile digital studio environment, ready to be used by both the non-tech creative musician, and the much more demanding high tech audio engineer. And all kinds of users in between.

The performance of SX under OS X is very smoothly and steady. We gave SX a very hard time during testing, but it never gave a shrink. Controls respond as they should, without delay, even when playing a production with a lot of audio tracks and an interesting pile of effects running. Very good. One drawback at least in our case was that we could not use our Emagic 2|6 audio interface, since it was not recognized by SX: no drivers available on the CD, and not on the Steinberg website. Since we do not have other audio cards in the testing environment, we had to switch back to the standard inputs of the G4. That went well, but gave us of course less quality.

Rating.

Nevertheless this drawback in our particular situation, we rate SX a strong 9. The same goes for SL, which is a very luxurious starters kit so to speak. The pros however will go for SX and it's endless possibilities and great flexibility.

Example.

Cubase SX comes with an example production on the install CD. Since we could not record, we used the samples of this production (and some extra from other sources) to exercise the functionality of SX. This resulted in a small production called Nineteen. We used only the plugs that came with SX. Just for the fun: enjoy.

Nineteen.mp3 (2,6 MB).

More info at www.steinberg.net.


All reviews in AudioMac.net are written by Peter J. Bloemendaal. All rights reserved.

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10.02.2003