Steinberg Cubase Pro 9 by Diogo C
- Product: Cubase Pro 9
- Developer: Steinberg
- Platforms: 64-bit for Windows (7+) and Mac (10.11+)
- DRM: eLicenser USB
- Price: $690 (US Dollars, MSRP)
- Demo: Fully functional for 30 days (USB dongle required)
Prologue: Reviewing a DAW is always a herculean task, there was so many possible applications and ways to use them and so many angles to look from that it’s very hard to detach ourselves from our own perspective and personal biases to have a neutral evaluation point. Since individual preferences and circumstances plays such pivotal role, I think that speaking a bit about my background is pertinent and helps to situate my review and its eventual criticism or praise.
Background: My relationship with Cubase started on the VST32 version back in the early 2000s when I was doing electronic music and I went through the SXs and subsequent versions, gradually increasing and diversifying my activities to include recording, editing and mixing for music and a bit of general audio and dialog work for video. Up until the early 2010s my own music was still responsible for the bigger chunk of time spent with music production software, and around 2013-2014 due to professional reasons I decided it was time to part ways with Cubase since most of my work at time was about recording, editing and mixing other people’s music - this is when I adopted Pro Tools as my DAW of choice after spending only a few hours with version number 8 (I’ve skipped 8.5 entirely) and realizing it was still the best decision for me at the time. Last year things started to change again and I could get back to my own music again, that’s when I started looking for something other than Pro Tools, dabbling with Bitwig, Tracktion and Logic, but still undecided about which one I’d go for, so I decided to go back to Cubase and see what it is like to work with it again, now under a very different workflow: I ditched most of my soft synths and invested on some key strategic hardware purchases, which is massively different from the VSTi-only workflow that I was used to. Right now I’d say I’m doing 80% of my sounds with hardware synths, sequencers and drum machines and 20% with virtual instruments or samples and loops libraries. I’m still doing recording and mixing for other people, but far less than I was a couple of years ago and for such jobs I’ll probably stick to Pro Tools - even though Cubase would easily tackle those jobs, it’s just a matter of personal preference. Having said that I’m looking for a DAW to call “home” again when it comes to my own music, and I’m sure it won’t be Pro Tools, for many reasons.
So there’s the background - enough chit-chat, let’s do this!
Quick intro: Cubase arrives at its ninth version with more features than ever, most notably a new layout option to organize its main interface. I’ll take a brief look at the new features, then evaluate the core functions and proceed to the scores.
- New interface mode: Probably the biggest attraction of Pro 9 is the new “zone” system, which conveniently gives the user options to show or hide the three accessory sections of the interface. We were used to having the track inspector on the left side and recently the VST instruments and media browser windows found their way to the right side of the interface. Now there’s a new “lower” zone, which can show audio/MIDI/score editors and the mix console, sample track and chord pad editors, which is quite handy.
- Sampler track: A new type of track that works like a sampler, allowing the user to import samples and have sampler-like functionality including pitch shift and playback/loop modes, then play those samples on a keyboard or write them notes in the MIDI editor. This is quite a helpful feature since it frees up the need for a sampler plug-in, and should enable some good workflow options for electronic music producers.
- New plug-ins: Cubase finally gets a feature-rich equalizer, the “Frequency” plug-in, an EQ with up to eight bands, many filter shapes, linear/minimum phase modes, frequency to notes display and a real-time frequency analyzer. The Brickwall Limiter has been revamped with a slick new interface and a new limiter mode that's pretty damn good sounding. AutoPan was also upgraded so it’s more inline with contemporary plug-ins and also a lot more flexible than before.
- Mixer history: The long-awaited “undo” function arrives at Cubase’s mixer. Being able to go back on fader moves, insert and plug-in tweaks is really helpful, but there’s a caveat, as successive edits of the same parameter will register on a single line or undo step. Regardless of that little nag, kudos to Steinberg, they have addressed a long standing issue and I’m very thankful for that.
- Audio inputs on VST3 instruments: This basically turns VST3 instruments into effect processors, which opens up some good possibilities for further sonic mangling, but it remains to be seen how many developers will jump on the concept - hopefully many will, since from the development point of view it seems easier to just add a couple of inputs than to code an instrument plug-in as an effect processor.
- Multiple track markers: Cubase now allows up to ten marker tracks on the same project, which helps to organize complex sessions and also makes handling multiple song sections more easily. Honestly I’m OK with a single track marker, but I can understand the appeal behind this and it might be useful for some folks.
- Effects plug-ins and virtual instruments: Probably the best as it's ever been. Steinberg has been gradually improving on this aspect over the last versions and Pro 9 is easily the best Cubase ever. Padshop is a great creative instrument, Retrologue is fun to play and easy to program, Loopmash is surprisingly fun. Halion and Groove Agent, which are both provided in their lighter “SE” versions, have been greatly improved and are also better than they’ve ever been, but it must be said that they’re still limited and lesser versions of paid products. Cubase probably edges most of the competition when it comes to included plug-ins, but it lags behind Apple Logic Pro’s exceptional offerings.
- Samples and loops: Perhaps one of the biggest improvements in recent versions, the number of samples and loops has substantially increased, and Steinberg has done so without compromise, providing high quality content but once again it’s still a bit behind Apple Logic Pro in this department.
- Composing: There are no new features aimed specifically at composing and music writing, but those users using Cubase mostly for such tasks will benefit from the new interface features. Cubase was already great in this aspect, so it’s even better now with the key/drum/score editors available on the same window. I know some people are not fond of the chord track/assistant ideas but since I’m not that versed as a musician I found them pretty useful. There are other apps and even websites especially designed towards such tasks but having them inside the DAW is a good thing in my book with all the ease of use it provides.
- Editing: Cubase has always been one of the finest DAWs when it comes to audio and MIDI editing and with the new lower zone editing is even better and most importantly, faster as we don’t have to switch windows for most operations. Along with the info line, which is one of Cubase’s most lovely features, the new zone allows enables a great single-window workflow that gets things done fast. Fades, clip gain (which Cubase has since forever), length, pitch and most common adjustments are easily made. Time-stretching is also great, with nine élastique Pro and nine standard algorithms to cover basically any situation. The render in place feature is also worth mentioning, since it allows us to quickly consolidate tracks and commit to plug-in settings with ease, not to mention that it also helps to save precious system resources.
- Mastering: If we’re only talking about the sonic aspects of mastering Cubase has it covered. For this particular task this current version is probably the best ever, with its new brickwall limiter and well-featured EQ, which combined to the existing tools makes up for a pretty decent mastering rig, which can obviously be improved with select third-party plug-ins. The big meter on the mixer is a highlight, it’s really useful and cover most industry standards while also providing excellent visual feedback. Perhaps the only thing I really miss is a compressor that is as good as the new EQ and limiter, that would leave everything inside Cubase which would be great, but on the other hand it’s not that much of a problem since there’s no shortage of great compressor plug-ins out there.
- Mixing: Steinberg did a pretty radical change to the mixer a couple of iterations ago, and I was on the “I love the new mixer” camp, although I could understand the frustration expressed by some users regarding the mixer’s layout/organization and its impact on their workflow. It’s easy to jump ahead and call the mixer “cluttered”, but there are more than enough ways to customize it and have it clean and tidy. On the new features front Steinberg has some treats for the mixers, most notably the new (EQ and Limiter) plug-ins and the Mixer history, which is probably the best news that version 9 brings when it comes to mixing. Another notable new feature is the that we now have five slopes on the HP/LP filters, a very worthy addition since it frees up the four remaining EQ bands for shelves and parametric bells. I personally found myself using the channel EQ more than ever and that’s mostly due to the new filters, which along with onboard phase/input trim makes the mixer quite fast for basic operations like gain staging and balancing. For the dynamics I’m still relying mostly on third party plug-ins but the onboard compressors/gate are pretty useful and will suffice for basic tasks. Same for other effects, including reverbs and time-based processors - although Revelation is a capable reverb and the delays are useful, an update feels necessary on this department and some plug-ins could use the same treatment applied to Auto Pan. Nevertheless, there’s one big problem with mixing on Cubase which is the complete absence of a proper channel grouping system. Currently there’s the only channel link function, which is severely limited in functionality since it doesn’t allow for individual grouping of inserts or sends, channel can't belong to more than one linked instance and bypassing those links is not necessarily straightforward - there’s a way to bypass all links but not individual links, which is a bummer. In that regard, VCA faders are also hindered in their functionality and from someone coming over from Pro Tools they feel awkward. A partial remedy to this grouping problem is the quick link function, which can be easily engaged/disengaged and works quite well, but it’s far from a proper grouping system like Pro Tools provides. This is something I’d like to see addressed at a certain point, but it’s not a “game breaker” by any means and won’t stop great mixes from being made with Cubase.
- Performance and stability: Most of my time was spent on a Mac this time, where Cubase had been notoriously problematic in the past. Fortunately things are way better and Steinberg has definitely improved the performance and stability, allowing me to enjoy a mostly trouble-free experience on the MacOS Sierra. Some crashes occurred but they were mostly related to some plug-in rogue and not really to down to Cubase’s fault. I think this is the best iteration ever of Cubase on the Macs in all regards. In order to have some sort of measuring stick I did some limited testing on a Windows 7 machine and although the overall performance and stability were similar I felt like the graphic performance was noticeably better. I wouldn’t say I could run more plug-ins or instruments but the interface definitely felt a bit smoother, as the frame rate was more constant with fewer dives and slowdowns. Windows 7 might be an aging operational system that’s bound to be replaced at some point but it still lives on as a fine platform, and seems like Cubase really likes it. Nevertheless, Cubase works very well on both fronts and the differences are small as they ever were.
- Recording: Another area where Cubase excels, with a solid clip comping feature that’s one of the best out there. Now with the multiple track markers it should be a breeze to easily go back and forth between the regions to be recorded, quickly selection a part and have it queued with basically a single click. I’m still not a huge fan of the Control Room and nowadays I’d rather use RME’s TotalMix to provide the necessary headphone mixes, but I wouldn’t have a problem using if it was the case. In that regard, I really like the fact that Cubase has a dedicated monitor button on each channel, coming over from Pro Tools I realized how under-appreciated that small detail is. I also appreciate the fact that input channels have their own fader and inserts, which is handy when working with synths where I can give up on latency in order to have some plug-ins on the way in.
- Online features: I wasn’t able to test the online collaboration and remote recording features, although I do find them very appealing and I’m willing to give them a fair shot at some point. The infrastructure where I live isn’t great, so I’m also not getting my hopes very high for now.
- Sound quality: I’m not a huge fan of the “all DAWs sound the same” proposition, but on the other hand I also don’t believe that one sounds better than the other. I really believe that it’s down to us to make them sound great. Having said that, Cubase Pro 9 gives the user all the tools he needs to produce great sounding records. Of course most of us will resort to our favourite plug-ins, our dearest reverbs and equalizers and compressors and so on, but if you wish to produce something using nothing more than the tools that Cubase provides you’ll likely make something that sounds great. On the specifics, Cubase is up to par with the competition on most aspects - the time stretch algorithms are very good, VariAudio can hang in there with Melodyne, the bundled plug-ins and virtual instruments are as good as most options out there - so it’s down on us to make Cubase sound great, because if it doesn’t sound great it’s definitely not its fault and we are solely to blame!
- Ease of use: Cubase might not be as appealing and adequate as DAW X or DAW Y are to certain audiences, and depending on what your goal is you may have a harder or an easier time according to your skill level and the needs of your productions. Nevertheless, it’s not a cryptic DAW and as far as this type of software goes it’s relatively approachable and mostly intuitive to use. One thing that I’d like to highlight is the new contextual help, which highlights functions as you type a search string. Cubase always had solid documentation and this new system helps further and along with all the videos that Steinberg provides it should ease the way for newcomers to find their way.
- Features: The current version is a mature, feature-rich DAW, but I can still see some lacking areas, both on the mixing side and on the music production side. On the first aspect I’d highlight that the Cubase still lacks a proper channel grouping function, which reflects on its poor VCA implementation. As it stands, VCAs are far from full realized in their full potential - I’m looking at a Pro Tools-like system, which to me is the reference for properly implemented grouping/VCA systems. On the second aspect I strongly feel like Cubase needs to incorporate more contemporary aspects of music making like clip launching and internal modulation or macro systems. There are some hints of clip launching on the LoopMash plug-in, but obviously it doesn’t fully explore the concept like Bitwig and most notably Ableton Live does. Other than that, Cubase offers quite a lot, with good instruments, a decent sample/loop pool, good effects plug-ins, useful tools for composition such as the Chord Track and Chord Pads. It’s really well-rounded and there’s a good sense of completeness to it.
- Bang for buck: Priced above Studio One and Logic Pro (Mac OS requirement notwithstanding) but below Pro Tools, Cubase Pro 9 isn’t really cheap but also not prohibitively expensive at its current retail price. Another aspect that we should take into consideration is that DAWs are likely to be upgraded at some point and staying current will inevitably come at a certain cost, although that can vary wildly due to the fact that each DAW has its specific regime and life cycle - Reaper and Logic Pro being the notable exceptions when it comes to paid upgrades year-basis, which is what Cubase sort of does with the “dot five -> new version” cycle that’s been established since Cubase version number six. Also, important to note is the fact that you can start on the two lesser versions of Cubase (Elements and Artist) and get to the full-blown version at roughly the same price, which can work like a financing option in case you’re not ready to pony up for six hundred bucks. Once you have it, prepare yourself for a cycle that will very likely ask you around fifty bucks for a 9.5 upgrade and roughly a hundred for the next iteration. Last but not least, I have to answer the question on the synopsis and my answer is a resounding YES - Cubase Pro 9 is the best Cubase ever.
Recommended for: producers, musicians, mixing and recording engineers at any level and/or anyone looking for a complete DAW that covers basically all aspects of modern music production. Cubase has many facets and it’s one of the most well-rounded DAWs out there, so it’s easy to find yourself at home with it. It’s a complete package for basically any task related to music and audio production, with a plethora of tools to address almost any situation.
- Still one of the very best DAWs when it comes to music production, with highly efficient tools for composing and editing
- Highly customizable, with many ways to set up workspaces, mixer visualization, custom shortcuts and per-project color layouts
- The new zone displays and true single-window layout are welcome additions
- Great sounding new equalizer and limiter plug-ins
- Good quality content with a decent number of instruments, samples and loops
- Improved performance and stability
- Could be a bit more affordable
- Needs a dongle other than the iLok
What I’d like to see on Cubase Pro X and onward:
- An integrated clip launching system
- Proper grouping system and therefore truly useful VCAs
- Generic “AUX” channels instead of the redundant Group/FX
- Macros to map multiple parameters to a single controller
- Allow feedback loops
- Multiple hardware inputs per channel
- An internal modulation system a la Bitwig