Jazz musician and producer Steve Rose reviews Steinberg’s Cubase 11.
- Title: Cubase 11
- What it is: Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
- Developer: Steinberg
- Available from: local retailers and the Steinberg website
Special educational pricing is available for all Steinberg software products. There is further discount on site license orders, updates and upgrades.
- a major update incorporating a whole host of new features
- education pricing reasonable
- lower priced versions have been significantly upgraded
- PC and Mac versions
- still a steep learning curve for newcomers
Cubase has become one of the top choices for Digital Audio Workstations (DAWS) over recent years for professionals and students alike. Its latest incarnation – Cubase 11 – adds a few more bells and whistles to what is already a comprehensive tool for music production.
Building on a solid set of features on both Mac and PC platforms, we ask if the update is worth buying for existing users and if its a good choice for people venturing into the audio digital world for the first time.
Steinberg offer three flavours of Cubase 11 – Elements (currently £85, or Education Edition £57), Artist (£284, or Education Edition £172) and Pro (£499, or Education Edition £310). All three editions have upgrade prices from earlier versions whether bought originally as an Educational product or not. Education establishments with more than five licences get additional discounts by writing directly to Steinberg. For a comparison of each, see https://new.steinberg.net/cubase/compare-editions/.
What strikes me as a long-time computer musician is that even the most basic Elements version is extremely powerful, allowing 48 audio tracks, 64 midi tracks, nearly 50 audio plugins and over 1000 instrument sounds included. Only a few years ago this would have been a respectable specification for a flagship DAW. How times have changed!
What’s new in Cubase 11?
In the process of refining and adding new capabilities, Pro has a variety of time-saving features and new plugins, and the Artist and Elements editions contain significant new feature sets. Time to dive in and examine what improvements have been added, in particular for students and teachers alike.
Whilst not a music engraving tool as comprehensive as Steinberg stablemate Dorico, Cubase has been tweaked to produce better looking scores and workflow improvements when editing scores. In particular I like the independence between the written note and what is performed by the software. For example, when performed in a DAW, legato string parts often naturally sound behind the beat when played due to the long gradual attack portion of the string samples. In order to compensate, we often move the whole part forward in time (maybe by even as much as a quarter note) in order to reproduce what real string players would sound like, although they would need the score printed without this compensation. This is now easily achieved – the composer can have their cake and eat it!
Cubase 11 has added the Bravura & Petaluma music fonts (used in Dorico) when writing a score, but don’t expect finished scores to be identical to a Dorico score. Cubase’s less sophisticated engraving engine will, however, still be amply capable of producing clear, legible parts.
In all three incarnations, Cubase 11 now incorporates a way of aiding melodic and harmonic writing by organising MIDI information by scales. The software can analyse existing material and ‘correct’ notes that do not belong to the existing harmony. I found this feature particularly fun when creating harp glissandi using all the white (or black) notes on a keyboard. By choosing different modes and scales, the pedals of a harp can be recreated so that only the next note within the chosen scale will be played when running a finger up and down the keyboard. This is much easier than ‘playing all the white notes’ and changing everything by hand to, for example, an A diminished scale, the way I used to!
Scale Assistant can be used creatively to produce new harmonies and melodies, so its potential is considerable – it’s not just a ‘note corrector’ for dummies.
Steinberg has provided a few notable new plugins in 11 – Frequency 2 is an eight band dynamic EQ plugin that competes with third party EQs such as Fabfilter’s popular ProQ plugin. Think of a dynamic EQ as being the ‘lovechild’ of an EQ and a compressor where we can compress specific bands as well as shape sounds in the frequency spectrum. For example, a singer who becomes too ‘shrill’ when they sing high notes can be tamed only when the offending frequencies are triggered. Multi-band compression is a similar tool, but dynamic EQ allows much more precise control. Side-chaining allows a sound to be altered when other tracks in the mix get in the way sonically. Bass drums and basses often compete for the same frequencies and using Frequency 2 they can coexist in a mix more naturally.
Another notable new plugin in Cubase 11 is Squasher, a multi-band compressor used often on whole mixes in Electronic Dance Music (EDM) productions to get a ‘wall of sound’ type mix. Together with an expanded library of built in drum loops and electronic samples, Steinberg has obviously targeted younger dance music producers in particular with this update.
Integrated with Cubase 11 we have a new spectral editor (which is in fact a cut-down version of Steinberg’s SpectraLayers 7). With this ‘magical’ tool, audio can be edited to remove specific elements buried in an audio track or mix. SpectraLayers 1 is easily accessible in Cubase (using ARA technology) and perhaps its most talked about feature is its automatic ability to de-mix vocals from an existing song. To hear original Beatles songs separated into vocals and instrumental backing tracks at the press of a button is an impressive feat, but this is really a bit of a gimmick in my book. More useful is being able to get rid of that passing ambulance siren or dog bark that ruined the otherwise perfect take.
I used SpectraLayers 1 to remove the instrumental spill from a lead vocal recorded in the same room as a band with quite a degree of success. There is some degradation, but even on a lead vocal I found the end result acceptable. After removing the band spill on the track I tried tuning the vocal using the included VariAudio 3 (Pro and Artist) – Cubase’s answer to Melodyne – and the overall result was a clean, in-tune track that got rid of that ‘all recorded in the same room’ feeling that often results when using multiple mics in one room. Guitar amplifier hum removal is another use that I can foresee, among others. SpectraLayers 1 comes with Cubase11 Pro and Artist versions only.
SuperVision and Imager
No, unfortunately Cubase hasn’t acquired the ability to look after an unruly class of students whilst the teacher takes a sneaky break, but SuperVision (in Pro & Artist) is a suite of audio analysis tools to monitor up to nine aspects of a mix. More useful for professional use, it nevertheless offers multiple ways to visually balance a final mix. Imager arrives in Pro and Artist and is a means of widening or narrowing the stereo width (usually of a final mix) in up to four frequency bands. Using these tools, you can ensure a phase free, coherent and balanced end result.
Other notable improvements
Pro’s track (stem) auto-export has been vastly improved, allowing easier sharing of projects (or for professionals, perhaps uploading to production houses). The Sampler can now treat drum loops more sensibly by being able to slice them up automatically, ready for further processing. In Pro, Global Tracks have also been given a welcome makeover. Across the board, optimisation for the latest multi-core processors (both PC & Mac) plus numerous smaller refinements make this a substantial improvement over Cubase 10.5.
As audio production moves the bar ever higher, Cubase 11 more than keeps up with the latest production tools available. Educators need not worry when choosing Cubase as it is a leader in the music production industry, alongside Apple’s Logic and Avid’s Pro Tools and is consequently a good investment
Cubase has its foibles, as I’ve pointed out in a previous review of 10.5. Initial setup is slightly convoluted and one can spend considerable time trying to work out how to do simple tasks, which can be frustrating at times. Learning shortcuts is important to get the most out of the software and there are extensive internet tutorials available which are well worth the time.
For students wishing to make music using a computer, I think the Artist edition takes the prize – enough features but without the unnecessary ‘Pro’ level depth. For anyone with an existing copy of Cubase, it’s a solid, worthwhile upgrade.
About the author
Steve Rose is a freelance double-bass player, pianist, composer and educator with over thirty years’ professional experience.
He has worked primarily as a jazz performer, both in the UK and at festivals across the world, playing with the Jonathan Gee Trio for over twelve years and as a bass sideman for Joe Lovano, Benny Golson and numerous other musicians.
As a keyboardist, he played regularly with Paul Weller, the Fine Young Cannibals and Samantha Fox while, as a session player, he is to be found on numerous film and TV soundtracks.