Cubase 5 includes under-the-hood improvements to performance, but many of the new features – like the unusual LoopMash loop masher upper instrument – come in the form of instrumental add-ons. LoopMash is interesting, but it’s more a bundled instrument than a truly integrated feature.

The big traditional DAW announcement at this NAMM show was Steinberg’s Cubase 5. Cubase as a music software brand is now older than some people who read this blog, but never mind: Cubase 5 certainly doesn’t want for new stuff. And Cubase still claims to be the world’s most popular computer DAW.

Computer Music Magazine has the best coverage I saw of the new release (admittedly, I think Cubase is bigger on their side of the pond than it is here in the US):

Computer Music’s first look at Cubase RC for iPhone

Computer Music on Steinberg Cubase 5

The iPhone app, Cubase RC, is just the sort of thing I expected other developers to do, though they didn’t. It offers basic remote control functionality and even triggers arrangements, both of which ought to be pretty useful, since you can sit an iPhone or iPod touch next to / atop whatever you’re controlling or recording. And major kudos to Steinberg for making this free rather than trying to squeeze extra cash out of it.

Sure, the iPhone and iPod touch are a bit small to make your only controller – but they make a pretty nice remote control.

So, what do you get out of Cubase 5 itself? Just about every area of the program has seen improvement, with the major selling points being optimized performance, vocal editing, and new beat creation tools.

There are some good bits here, but – realizing I’m biased as I’ve never been a big Cubase user – I can’t help but notice they’re lagging behind some of their competitors with some of the items. I was always impressed with the basic editing environment in Cubase, and the way it handles MIDI and soft synths. My disappointment here is that, while there are some nice-looking performance and workflow tweaks, much of the functionality comes in the form of add-ons. That means Cubase has to compete with similar efforts by other tools and (particularly) plug-ins. If you’re using Cubase, this may be great news, but if not, I just wonder if it’s capable of even inspiring an twinge of envy from anyone else. (And, hey, while you can’t convert all other users, it is nice to at least make them a bit jealous.)

The good: optimized performance for existing users, some nice monophonic vocal editing integrated with the program, and an innovative, really musical way of dealing with expressions for instruments.

Less impressive: Tacked-on features for mixing grooves I suspect a lot of loyal Cubase users may simply ignore.

I’m happy to be frank over this just to see if people generally agree or disagree – particularly Cubase users. This is all basically on paper, as well, so if there is a loyal Cubase user who wants to review these features when available, we’d love to hear from you. Here’s my (slightly uneducated) take:

Vocal editing is a big push, in the form of integrated vocal editing and pitch alteration and a pitch correction plug-in. The competition: Celemony just unveiled their incredible Melodyne editor. Cubase works with monophonic vocals, but Melodyne can do other instruments, even polyphonic lines on a single instrument. Still, Steinberg’s offering looks as though it may be more impressive than what comes bundled in other DAWs, and Melodyne is impressive enough that it makes me believe integration in DAWs is the future. (It’s too bad Steinberg couldn’t just license Melodyne for use in Cubase, however.)

Each DAW generation, we get closer to editing audio as easily as MIDI. Cubase boasts some impressive-looking editing features – but their monophonic functionality for vocals has to stand up to the just-released, polyphonic instrumental support from Celemony.

Beat creation is the other story, though oddly it’s spread between three included instruments. They’re supposed to work with each other, but they seem to take slightly different approaches, and they’re not fully integrated with the host. The most interesting of the three is something called LoopMash. The idea: mix up different loop lines, intelligently analyzed and sliced up, as an instrument. Aside from that, you get a more conventional (and possibly more widely useful) step sequencer / pattern editor and drum sampler. The competition: Drum racks in Live, built-in tools in software like FL Studio, trackers like Renoise, plus the likes of fxpansion GURU,Spectrasonics Stylus RMX, Digidesign Transfuser, and the upcoming Native Instruments Maschine and MOTU’s new bpm.

Other features:

  • Better performance: Version 5 has been rebuilt on the Cocoa framework on Mac, adds WASAPI and low-latency support on Vista, and 64-bit support. Of course, Steinberg is at a disadvantage as a cross-platform entrant here: Apple and MOTU have led on native support for the Mac, as Cakewalk has on Windows (with this very features). It certainly will be welcome to existing Cubase users, and interestingly lays the groundwork for a future, 64-bit Cubase on Mac and not just 64-bit Windows.
  • VST Expression for scoring: This one’s more unique – Cubase adds sophisticated instrumental articulations to the Score and Key Editors in Cubase. For people working on better mock-ups of orchestral scores or composing for sophisticated sample libraries, that should be great. The problem is, Pro Tools just added the entire Sibelius notation engine to their editor – so you may have to choose between either easier instrumental editing in Cubase or (arguably) more robust notation in Pro Tools.
  • A convolution reverb: You know, like the ones that have been sitting in SONAR, DP, and Logic Studio (for years, in the case of Logic). Nice to have, I’m sure, but not really news.
  • A drum sampling device: Would likewise be big news if people didn’t already have their choice of plug-ins, or built-in features like Ableton Live’s Drum Racks or a nearly identical-looking plug-in that ships with SONAR 8.
  • A virtual MIDI keyboard. You’ve got to be kidding me – Cubase didn’t have this before? It’s in GarageBand, for crying out loud. Couldn’t there have been something more distinctive about Steinberg’s implementation?

Saving the best for last: VST Expressions look like a really musical way of dea
ling with instruments, marking them the way you’d mark a score. You can build your own custom libraries for these, too. But does this substitute for the richer notation tools in software like Sibelius (now also in Pro Tools) or Finale?

If you like Cubase, I’d imagine the performance improvements alone could be reason to upgrade. But if you like Cubase, wouldn’t you want more tight integration of new functionality, rather than just features as add-ons? (VST Expression being one notable exception, and I am curious how people use that. To me, it’s actually the most compelling feature in the new release, as I can’t think of any direct equivalent elsewhere.)

I write frankly on this blog to trigger discussion and learn something, so I’m happy to hear what you think – including friendly disagreement.

From Steinberg:

Watch the press conference

iPhone Controller Announcement

New Cubase 5 Features