DAW updates can be a tricky emotional ride. Along with the excitement of new features, bug fixes and program tweaks, there is also the anxiety of "Will this work, did they break anything, what did they change?" All that comes into play as we're faced with Steinberg's Cubase 6.
There are a handful of visual and performance tweaks to the mixer and main workspace, and functional updates like 64-bit OS X Lion support, tweaks to existing plug-ins and such. Aside from those, the bulk of the new features of Cubase 6 are these three: Improved editing/workflow, MIDI expressiveness, and new toys for guitar recording.
Drum editing workflow
Fast intuitive editing is the name of the game in C6, with significant changes to drum editing, and to the way in which multiple performances are comped and edited.
Cubase's new and improved hit point detection is similar in the way it functions to the program's detect silence feature, with visual threshold bars to determine which beats are selected, and "hit pointed" rather than the older practice of placing a hit point at every transient spike and then making manual substitutions and corrections. Once the hit points are detected, we can proceed to two of C6's most exciting new features: drum replacement and track quantization.
Replace it, time it, make it groove
Drum replacement is nothing new; it is the practice of augmenting or replacing recorded drum hits with sampled hits. Usually this requires third-party software, but C6 adds it as a stock feature. Once you determine your hit points for, say, kick or snare, you simply convert them to a MIDI note of your choosing, which can then be used to trigger your favorite drum sampler -- or, easier still, Cubase's own built in Groove Agent One VSTi drum machine.
It's worth noting here that since C6's hit point detection is an audio process, it detects not only each beat but its velocity as well, which is crucial for realistic sounding hits. Overall this process is akin to the Auto-Tune style pitch correction added in Cubase 5; it may not be as tweaky as a third-party plug-in, but in my environment, workflow and integration beat tweaky every time.
It's no secret that Cubase has lacked a groove editor/Pro Tools-style Beat Detective feature for years now. Well, thanks again to the improved detection, hit points can become split points, which can then be easily quantized to the grid. What's more, thanks to a new Group Edit feature, once you find the hit points for the snare, kick, hi-hats, toms and so on, you can split, quantize and then crossfade out the gaps all in one easy window. You can even specify track dominance like Kick > Snare > Hats > Toms and it will keep the phase and timing issues the same across all of the specified tracks.
I am simply blown away by how well this works-I contrast this with the (in-)famous, largely manual and time consuming "Cryptaglobe Method" we used back in the day. I was expecting numerous clicks, double hits, and gaps. Clicks? None. Double hits? Nope. Gaps? Well, sometimes, and I will fix them out of principle... even though 90% of the time I can't even hear them in the mix due to Cubase's auto-fade settings!
Another new gem in the land of groove is the new feature of advance tempo detection, which works on a single track or even on an entire mixed-down song file. This is handy for songs not played to a click, when a tempo map is required for syncing BPM-based effects, further overdubs, etc. Recently I recorded a non-synced line from an analog synthesizer sequencer and could not find the exact tempo, which was like 59.21 BPM and took almost 3 hours to truly nail manually without drift. C6 took less than 8 seconds!
Better lanes, better folders, better group workflow
Cubase has always worked with lanes (essentially a track that houses or nests multiple tracks of successive takes), but it was a klutzy process of moving lanes up and down as only the top lane played in the track, having to make cuts and watching out for clicks and fades, etc.
While tracks are still nested and stacked on top of each other when you're editing in lanes, now any cut made to one take applies to them all and you don't need to drag your favorite bits manually to the top for your comped take. Simply click on the one you want in any lane and highlight it and it is magically placed visually and sonically into your master take. Each lane drops down in a similar fashion to automation lanes, and as such each one can be soloed individually.
Many DAWs work with the concept of folder tracks to make sense of and keep track of audio files in large sessions. Now putting your tracks in a folder is as simple as selecting said tracks and clicking on the "move to new folder" tab. Also, it is even quicker to edit groups of channels, like multiple miked guitars and such, because each folder track contains a new Group Edit button that allows you to treat and edit as one all of the tracks in said folder in terms of cuts, fades, deletions and more.
The next category of new features lies in the development of Steinberg's latest protocol: VST 3.5 (remember -- these are the guys who invented both VST and ASIO). Hand-in-hand with that is a new feature known as Note Expression 2.
If you have ever composed tracks with MIDI, you will know that it can be a very rigid and cold process, especially with orchestral scoring. Adding realism involves the use of vibrato, note bending, playing style, and as such usually requires recording one note of an instrument at a time, often with multiple sound sources or plug-in instances on separate MIDI channels, as controller data has always been MIDI-channel specific.
With VST 3.5 and Note Expression 2, you can now simply play or score out a chord with one instrument patch, and you can alter any control parameter, one note at a time, on the same MIDI track. Favorite setups can be saved as expression maps. I am describing this in the simplest of terms, but if you do any sort of orchestral scoring or sound design, you need to check this out!
The only downside of this -- for now -- is that the process requires a VST 3.5 instrument, and as of my writing this, so far only Steinberg is making them! It's just that new.
Luckily, a brand new lite version of Steinberg's HALion Sonic workstation is included in C6. This lite version, designated with an SE, is still a full-fledged multi-timbral workstation with basic editing and great sound, and should cover most basic compositional needs. Beyond that, Steinberg also includes a fully functional 90 day trial of its HALion Symphonic Orchestra sound set if big time scoring is your thing.
VST Amp Rack
The last really big addition in Cubase 6 is known as VST Amp Rack, and if you are thinking that Cubase already has an amp modeler plug-in, this is a whole new beast. VST Amp rack is not just a plug-in. Like products such as IK Multimedia AmpliTube and Native Instruments Guitar Rig, this is a complete guitar suite, featuring multiple effects pedals, amp heads, speaker cabinets, mic choices and placement, and even a guitar tuner.
It is not as deep, tweaky, or open-ended as many of the more expensive stand-alone choices out there, but it holds its own and exceeds expectation as an inclusive DAW plug-in, and for many folks it may be all they ever need. I appreciated its simple layout and ease of use when compared with many VST modeling programs.
You get amps and effects that will take you from surf-rock and blues to punk and metal and most styles in between. Some of the effects, taken on their own, are a tad digital sounding when pushed hard, and, oddly, there is no "spring" setting on the reverb pedal or on the amps, but when taken as a larger whole, VST Amp Rack sounds quite nice.
I was especially pleased with the room modeling and the variety of tones possible when changing between the dynamic and condenser mic models, and more so their distance and angle from the virtual speaker cone. When auditioning all of the choices with my guitarist partner Chris Short, we both had an "oooo that's nice" moment as we stumbled on some of the tremolo-laden classic rock setups.
Visuals and more
A few significant changes have been made to the look of C6, to do with its boldness and contrast, and it is nicely adjustable. One change that caused quite a stir upon the program's initial release was the removal of the option for transparent tracks (necessary to see the grid through). Steinberg listened, and a solution/compromise was reached, in the form of making the actual grid tweakable and visible above the tracks. Also, tracks do become momentarily transparent during slip-editing (dragging a file along the timeline), which is necessary to line up waves for crossfading and such. Speaking of the grid, it is now also much more customizable for different beat divisions.
Another like-it-or-hate-it change was the loss of colored track styles in the mixer window. Gone are customizable track colors for instrument, effects and group channels. Now you get a colored fader cap instead. Effects are purple, groups are blue, and VSTi/MIDI instruments are orange. For the many more new features that I can't get into here, you need to check out Steinberg's website for a full list of details, computer specs and so on.
Conclusions and final thoughts
I tried out C6 on a 6-year old MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard, a brand new top-of-the-line MacBook Pro (one week old) running Lion, a Quad-Core PC running Windows 7, and even my old single-core studio PC running XP (even though XP is no longer supported). I tried it out in both 64-bit and 32-bit modes (*FYI - I am sticking largely to 32-bit until all of my favorite plug-in manufactures go 64-bit native) and the only issue I had was an occasional blue screen of death on my Win7 PC during prolonged periods of inactivity. I do not know how or why that happened, but the issue resolved itself with the latest update to Cubase 6.0.5 in October. While I know the Internet is awash with posts of computer-vs.-DAW issues, those were my only issues in weeks of testing.
Two significant free updates since the initial release have not only fixed some initial bugs, but also sought to satisfy many of the complaints and gripes on the Cubase user forum, such as the transparent track issue. In the olden days, Steinberg had a reputation for poor customer service and communication. Since the launch of the new user forum, those days are gone-it's like they are a new company! They answer questions in a timely manner, fix what they can, as fast as they can, and often if they can't they communicate that as well. The forums now have a very positive attitude and Steinberg needs to be commended for that renewed vigor for customer service.
For me, Cubase 6 is a peak experience. It feels like the best version of Cubase since the revered SX3 version from years back, and reminds me again of why Cubase is my favored DAW. If you're new to Cubase, version 6 will impress you to no end, and if you're not, the upgrade will rock your world.
Price: $499.99; upgrades start at $199.99
More from: Steinberg, www.steinberg.net