Jazz musician and producer, Steve Rose, reviews Steinberg’s Cubase 9.5.
- Title: Cubase 9.5
- What it is: Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
- Developer: Steinberg
- Available from: local retailers and the Steinberg website
- Extensive audio and MIDI manipulation
- Integration with other Steinberg products
- PC and Mac compatible
- Ability to collaborate with other Cubase users over the internet
- Steep learning curve, especially with Cubase Pro
- Virtual Instrument sounds can be a little unrealistic
These days, choosing a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) has become a major investment – not only in money but also in the time needed to learn the considerable feature sets that today’s software offers.
Each has a similar overall concept albeit with variations, providing the ability to record both audio and MIDI information, together with extensive editing and creative possibilities that grow ever more sophisticated with each software version.
So why is Cubase 9.5 a good choice of DAW?
While Logic Pro X has become very popular due to its strong MIDI instrument set and editing possibilities, it still runs on an Apple-only platform – so if you have a PC, you’re out of luck.
Cubase runs on both platforms and because it has been around since 1989 (when it was then only able to record MIDI information), it is a mature and well-featured piece of 64-bit software. It is equally suited to recording a large acoustic ensemble, creating loop- and sampler-based modern music genres or making a film soundtrack.
Complete beginners might be daunted learning the workflows associated with such sophistication but Steinberg has various versions in its Cubase 9.5 range, starting with a very basic cut down DAW in the shape of Sequel (currently £68 from the Steinberg online store here), which provides a selection of loops and a basic ability to record audio & MIDI. Here, a beginner can get up and running in a relatively short space of time but they might feel the limitations of the software after only a few weeks of use.
For more sophistication under the Cubase banner comes Steinberg’s Cubase Elements (£85), followed by Cubase Artist (£265), with the flagship Cubase Pro (£480) offering a dazzling array of features. The system requirements obviously grow as the power features increase.
As its name suggests, Cubase Pro is aimed at audio professionals and consequently has the biggest learning curve.
As a recording musician for over 30 years, I began using various tape machines at my home studio back in the 1990s but gradually incorporated computers as their power grew. I used an early incarnation of Cubase in about 1998 together with the revolutionary Yamaha DSP Factory sound card – revolutionary because at last computers could record audio reliably, which was a major step forwards.
Now, 20 years later, I was curious to see how quickly I could become reacquainted with the software which has grown out of all recognition since those early days.
Initial setup took me hours when I expected it to be minutes – I can’t say Cubase Pro is very intuitive on this. The relevant ‘Audio Connections’ page required me to enter all the inputs and outputs of my Universal Audio Apollo sound card before I could hear anything at all.
Fortunately, the internet is full of useful videos and advice from many users who have come up against the same problems plus the Manual is pretty clear. Dedicated learning Music Technology sites such as Groove3 also can be worth the subscription fee for the time it takes to thoroughly familiarise oneself with a new piece of software.
I always say learning the idiosyncrasies of a new DAW requires similar dedication and patience to learning to play an instrument. Both can be very frustrating!
What can it do?
Having at last got everything working, I began testing out the capabilities of Cubase Pro.
There are thousands of good-quality audio loops already loaded in a variety of styles, together with the ability to slow them down and speed up, fit to a given length, play backwards, drop into a sampler for playback on a keyboard plus anything else the user can imagine.
Recorded audio can be similarly treated, tuned and quantised and Pro offers over 90 high-quality plugins to tweak things still further.
The ability to take a piece of recorded audio and replace it with MIDI blurs the barrier between the two and allows such things as the replacement of drums at a later stage of production.
I like the idea of online collaboration using Pro’s VST Connect software – getting a musician anywhere in the world to play on one’s own track in virtually real time is now a possibility thanks to Steinberg’s groundbreaking features.
While not primarily score-writing software, Cubase Pro can produce decent-looking scores and parts (although they can’t be refined as much as dedicated engraving tools such as Sibelius or Steinberg’s new Dorico).
However, writing basic parts for live performance from, let’s say, a MIDI track can be handled easily even in Elements and Artist but Pro adds more functionality.
I hear there are plans to integrate Cubase Pro with Dorico, which would be an amazing achievement, but as yet it hasn’t happened.
MIDI instruments built into Cubase 9.5 are largely centred around their HALion software, a sample player that incorporates over 3,000 instruments in Pro.
I find some of the sounds a little uninspiring when compared to, for example, Logic’s excellent Alchemy but nevertheless, there are plenty of useable sounds, especially when complemented by Steinberg’s other Virtual Instruments.
Certainly, Cubase has a full set of textures on offer right out of the box but for really excellent pianos, strings and other acoustic emulations, 3rd party VST instruments would be better.
Cubase Pro has excellent Video writing facilities: finished soundtracks can be exported to video directly from Cubase, which uses the same engine as Steinberg’s Nuendo (a DAW dedicated mainly to video and game audio production).
I like iC Pro’s ability to use an iPad or iPhone as a remote control for Cubase, which ends running to and from a computer when recording on one’s own.
Also worthy of mention is the seamless linking to Wavelab, Steinberg’s mastering software, for example, allowing the use of forensic editing tools to get rid of that fire engine that went past during the perfect take at the click of a button.
Who’s it for?
I would say that Cubase 9.5 Elements or Artist has a good balance of features to usability/learning time, perhaps something school students aged 14-18 might put to good use.
For University level, Cubase Pro 9.5 has all the features that would ever be needed while Steinberg’s Sequel might be ideal for younger children to learn the basics of Music Technology.
You can compare the features of each package here.
There are too many facets to Cubase 9.5 to cover in this review but I’m very impressed with the overall feel and unique workflows that Cubase offers. I’m even starting to use Cubase over my familiar Logic Pro X for some recording projects, which must mean I’m a convert!
Header photo: Students using Cubase © Steinberg
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.