Choosing audio processing software can be a little like wandering around Sears trying to choose a washing machine. They all have what it takes to get the job done but each has a little extra that sets it apart from the rest. So what do you look for, and more importantly what do you ignore as unnecessary?
Making the choice even more difficult is the fact that each manufacturer puts out a different make and model on almost a yearly basis, and Steinberg is no exception to this rule. So what sets Cubase SX apart from the rest?
For starters it is one of the first professional grade audio tools to market that takes advantage of Core Audio, the engine with Apple's Mac OS X which promises to revolutionize the way in which audio is processed. This is in and of itself significant.
To put its significance in perspective we must look at the current state of the professional sequencer market. For the PC there is Cubase and Cakewalk's Sonar, and for the Mac there is Cubase, Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer and Emagic's Logic. There are others, but these must account for 95 percent of those in professional studios and serious bedroom studios, too.
Until recently, Logic was also available for the PC but as avid industry watchers will be aware, Apple, in a surprise move, bought Logic developer Emagic and decided to stop development on the PC platform.
The mass of disgruntled PC Logic users this created now have to decide whether to swap their PC for a Mac or look for a new PC sequencer. Neither is an easy decision but it does mean that there are only two pro sequencers on the PC to choose from and three on the Mac.
Even though Apple's move came after Cubase SX had appeared, Steinberg could have continued to sell Cubase updates to the faithful. However, as most software developers know, you can only update a program so many times before it has more bits hanging off it than Frankenstein's monster, so full credit to Steinberg for this new development.
In truth, Steinberg had already paved the way for SX with its high-end Nuendo program designed for post-production and video work, and SX uses much core Nuendo code. It doesn't have all its post-production features but it has much more MIDI support. Steinberg has gone on record as saying that SX is a direct replacement for Cubase VST and other than some minor upgrades including support for VST System Link development on Cubase VST will cease.
So will seasoned Cubase users want to upgrade, will they have a long learning curve and will SX tempt users away from other sequencers?
First things first. SX will only run on Windows XP or 2000, and on the latest version of the Mac's new OS, OS X v10.2. These Operating Systems have been proven to be more stable than their predecessors (OS X v10.2 is new but OS X has proved very stable) so if you want to upgrade, you may also have to upgrade your OS, too. It's also worth taking a very close look at the recommended machine specs. Forget the minimum requirements - if you want to do serious audio work you need some power under the hood.
Copy protection is by way of a USB dongle. This shouldn't present a problem as all PCs and Macs released in the last few years have had built-in USB. However, it does tie up a USB socket so if you want to use a USB interface, another USB device or run other software that also uses a USB dongle, you may have to fork out for a USB hub.
The first thing you notice is the stylish interface. It's neat and clean and reminiscent of Nuendo. There are enough similarities to give Cubase users a sense of deja vu but much of the system has been redesigned. You can point and click your way around a lot of it but you will want to read the docs, too.
When you first run the program you must create a (Nuendo-like) Project which specifies a folder containing the audio and edit information and so on. Already a vast improvement over Cubase where files could sprawl all over your hard disk. You can import your old Cubase songs although you might have a little tidying up to do in SX.
The Arrange page is seriously different with a new layout and a new Transport Bar. It shows more information per track using Track List boxes on the left and an improved Inspector now has tabs to show even more information about the currently selected track.
In particular, you are now able to see effects, EQ and the track's mixer channel making it so easy to adjust settings. You can now do so much more from the Arrange window than in VST - this is good stuff!
The Mixer has also been overhauled with a much better layout and you can configure it to show just those items you want to see such as VST instruments, ReWire channels and so on. Normal mode shows basic mixer controls such as pan volume, mute and solo buttons, while the Extended mode shows effects and EQ settings.
In addition, the Mixer automatically adjusts to the number of tracks in the project, and channels appear in track order making it far, far, easier to find your way around.
Mixer automation has been radically improved and virtually any VST instrument or effect can be automated by twiddling knobs or by drawing in data. There are several shapes such as sine, square, triangle and parabola to help draw in curve settings. A sine or triangle wave, for example, can be used for filter sweeps and a square wave for on/off effects, volume gates or pan.
Audio files are handled slightly differently. The original files are stored on your hard disk and "edits" are not performed on them directly but on copies of them. This allows an unlimited number of Undos and Redos and you can even go back half way through the editing process to Undo a single edit in the middle of the chain. Very neat.
The audio editor no longer relies on lining up hit points, which were rather fiddly, to sync time and tempo. Now hit points can be applied automatically to divide the audio into slices in a process not unlike that used by Propellerhead's ReCycle. This gives you far more power and flexibility over editing samples and loops.
We must not forget MIDI. This has been overhauled, too, with better integration of audio and MIDI. SX now also supports MIDI FX (catching up with its competition) which include MIDI echo, chord processing, and a compressor. There's also a step sequencer which can be used for many creative effects.
There are virtual instruments, too. As well as a revamped LM drum machine and virtual bass guitar from VST, there's a brand new analogue synth called the A1 created by Waldorf.
There are 25 effects, many from VST but also some new ones including a new reverb, a new vocoder, and a de-esser. There's also a surround sound plug-in, and SX can be configured with up to six outputs for surround sound mixing. vThe MIDI Key editor has also been revamped and each Controller can be viewed in its own lane, a most welcome improvement. You can also draw in Controller data using the shape tools such as sine, triangle and square. However, dedicated MIDI-philes will still find areas for improvement here.
One of the innovations in SX (and soon to be added to VST 5.1) is VST System Link. This allows several computers to be networked via a digital audio connection. It allows the main controlling computer to access the processing power on other machines. This means, for example, that you could use one machine to play audio tracks, another to run VST virtual instruments, a third for virtual effects, a fourth for mixing and so on. It also allows several people to work on the same project at the same time.
If you upgrade from Cubase VST 5.1, you can run 5.1 and SX on the same or different machines so as and when you buy a new computer you can link it to your old one for an instant music network.
We've only scratched the surface of new features in Cubase SX. It shouldn't take existing users long to become familiar with it and the improvements and enhancements certainly make it a Must Have upgrade. Take advantage of the excellent upgrade prices now and remember that you get to keep your existing version of VST, too. Apart from anything else it's Steinberg's new sequencer and any new developments will take place with SX rather than VST.
SX must also tempt first-time users looking for a serious professional sequencer, and users of other sequencers thinking of changing. With Apple pulling the rug from under Logic PC users those who want to stick with the PC now have less choice.
There's no doubt that Steinberg has produced a cracking program and it's impossible not to do anything other than recommend it highly.