Chord Tracks make MIDI tracks follow user-specified chord
changes. Based on the Chord Track, VariAudio 2 can pitch-correct and
harmonize audio files. Revamped mixer looks great and is easy to
navigate. Strips for each mixer channel provide inline EQ, dynamics,
limiting, gating, and envelope shaping—and rival many third-party
plug-ins for sound quality.
Documentation can be skimpy in a few details.
Quite possibly the perfect balance of traditional multitrack DAW and active songwriting companion.
$599.99 list | $499.99 street | $349.99 academic | upgrade prices based on version you own
Today, any DAW can do considerably more than record, edit,
and finish a polished musical project. I can’t think of a single one
among the major players that doesn’t offer a solid set of editing tools,
plug-ins, and features that can get the job done. And yet, come NAMM or
AES, the air is buzzing with updates, and you have no idea how you’ve
lived without some new feature. Steinberg’s latest version of Cubase
shows that there just may be something to buzz about.
When choosing a DAW, you can find sufficient differences
in workflow and “vibe” despite basic similarities in what they all do.
If Cubase 7 has a vibe, it’s that it favors unique instruments and
editing tools geared more towards the composer, arranger, and songwriter
than the audio engineer. Version 6 (reviewed Nov. ’11) expanded on Note
Expression (introduced in version 5), which added polyphonic modulation
capabilities to previously monophonic types of expression, such as
pitch-bend, volume, and vibrato. If you don’t think that’s
revolutionary, try contrary-motion pitch-bend on a MIDI track with any
other DAW. The Padshop soft synth fused granular synthesis with a hefty
semi-modular synth architecture to enable lush, animated soundscapes.
Version 5’s introduction of LoopMash put a novel and animated spin on
groove-oriented loop-creation. Now, version 7 is here with a revamped
audio editing engine, a totally redesigned mixing console, and an
impressive composing and songwriting assistant in the form of a new
If you’re a Snow Leopard holdout on the Mac, you’ll need
at least Lion to run Cubase 7. It might work on OS 10.6.8 as it did for
me for a while—until the menu bar disappeared forever. I bit the bullet
and installed OS 10.8.3, and what do you know, I’m still standing.
Fig. 1. In this rhythm guitar part, MIDI data is re-voiced to fit the new chords I’ve inserted using the Chord Track.
The Chord Track is essentially a tool to remap MIDI notes,
but that would be like describing three-dimensional chess as a board
game. Still, it’s not a difficult concept: You lay out chord events by
clicking in the Arrangement window’s timeline, or you can call up the
chord editor, which lets you place chords at measure boundaries (or
anywhere you want, though they snap to measures by default) and provides
options to edit and name the chord. Although chord events can provide
aural feedback to your entries, they don’t generate sound themselves;
you route the Chord track to instrument or MIDI tracks, which causes the
MIDI data therein to follow the harmonic road map you’ve generated. You
can also simply drag a chord event into a MIDI track, but that produces
rather static performances. The good news is that you can play
practically anything into a MIDI or instrument track, and as long as
your playing is rhythmically solid, the Chord track can provide
satisfying results. You can drop the events anywhere you want—or with
the Snap parameter turned on, land the events precisely on a beat.
You shape the complexity of your chord changes with the
Chord Editor. After you insert your chord events, which are clean slates
at the start, double-clicking on an event invokes the editor, which can
analyze the chords you wish to play. If you’re stumped for intermediary
chords, you can use the Chord Assistant to provide a batch of
interesting choices, based on cadences or common tones. You can select
chords ranging from simple, unadorned triads to increasingly complex
tensions ranging though Donald Fagen to outré clusters of sharps, flats,
tensions, and slashes. Not every track needs to take its cue from the
Chord Track, and for that reason, you can play as inside or outside as
you’d like. The Chord Track can also generate scale information so that
single lines can be constrained to follow the changes.
The beauty of the chord track is its utter flexibility.
Here’s an example. One of the great keyboardist quests has been
realistic rhythm guitar parts, and Chord Tracks make this relatively
easy. Like other tracks, Chord Tracks have an Inspector, and there, you
can choose piano, guitar, or simple voicings. Selecting the latter, I
used my Fishman TriplePlay-equipped MIDI guitar to strum parts, which
expertly followed the Chord Track. This required minimal left-hand
activity—as long as I was in the pocket rhythmically, the Chord Track
had me covered with regard to the correct notes (see Figure 1).
If you save the strums as a MIDI file, you can call them up later as
templates that follow any Chord Track. Likewise, guitarists attempting
to emulate decent keyboard parts can grab a friend’s comping track or
paste data from a MIDI file.
Fig. 2. VariAudio 2 adjusts an audio track’s
pitches according to scales suggested by the Chord Track. Green
represents chord tones, blue is a scale tone, and red is an uncorrected
With the previous version of VariAudio, Steinberg’s
pitch-correction and audio-stretching tool, we could generate pretty
accurate MIDI data by analyzing monophonic lines from audio tracks. With
2.0, Chord Tracks can return the favor with a number of ways to polish
and build polyphonic audio tracks (see Figure 2).
For starters, VariAudio can now generate harmonized
tracks. Once I specified the number of voices to create from a solo
vocal track, a click of the button generated three harmonized tracks:
soprano, alto, and tenor, all with the option to open the audio editor.
The parts sounded a bit static and although the program did its level
best to provide a useful harmony, it needed work. Once again, Chord
Tracks came to the rescue; I assigned the Chord Track as an input in the
inspector, and all the lines took their marching orders from a complex
progression I built (see Figure 3). My R&B vocal now sounded
as if it took its clues from Claude Debussy. Because the Chord Track
also generates an appropriate scale for the chords, I was able to create
more embellished movement within individual vocal tracks. Choosing to
derive the color-coding from the Chord Track and selecting Pitch and
Warp as the editing tool in the inspector, I could drag individual vocal
segments to new pitches; the event changed color indicating whether I
played a chord tone, a scale tone, or if I was totally off the mark. To
cap this off with a feature from an earlier version, I can then derive
MIDI data from my results and create padding with harmonic movement that
doubles the vocals. Kudos to Steinberg—this is powerful stuff that
elevates Cubase from a “recording platform” to a proactive creative
Fig. 3. Complex Chord Track voicings on a single vocal track generated soprano, alto, and tenor vocal tracks.
Fig. 4. Cubase 7’s new mixer now has inline channel strips that both sound great and are easy to customize.
The redesigned mixing console is a joy to look at, but
even more of a pleasure to navigate. Editing anything is a breeze. I can
get to any track with the left-and right arrows. The up and down arrows
send your cursor to any of the routings or inserts in that track’s
virtual rack of channel strip parameters (see Figure 4). Once you
select a channel strip, hitting your Enter key brings up the strip’s
processors: EQ, gates, compressors, transient shapers—all per channel,
with no menu to wade through. You just use the up and down arrows to
select one of the processors, hit Enter once more, and the parameters
for that processor open up. Importantly, all this inline processing
sounds good enough that much of the time, it’s what you’ll reach for
instead of a third-party plug-in when you want to tweak the EQ or
dynamics of a track—in a large part because you have immediate visual
access and don’t have to open up a plug-in window to see what’s going on
with the processing.
Compared with other DAW mixer windows that can leave me
squinting and with a headache, Cubase is a balm for the eyes and brain.
Color-coding immediately tells me whether I’m looking at MIDI, audio,
ReWire, or any other type of track. As with most DAW mixers, I can
choose tracks or track types to show or hide, but the panels that enable
this are always accessible. I’ve often had to jump through hoops to
rearrange my mixer landscape onscreen, but not here. I can also resize
individual board sections, so for instance, if I don’t need or want to
see the inserts, EQ, or channel strips, I can grab the upper border and
drag downward until it’s all hidden. This happens without resizing the
entire board. As mentioned in my review of Cubase 6, Steinberg has done a
remarkable job of presenting a lot of functionality with a minimum of searching and mousing; nowhere is this more evident than in the mixing console.
One complaint about MIDI and synthesizer-driven tracks
concerns how equal temperament tuning tends to sound unnatural,
particularly with emulation of strings and fretted instruments. In order
to preserve a natural sound between certain intervals, string players
continually adjust their intonation based on the key.
Fortunately, Cubase 7 includes Hermode tuning, a
technology that fine-tunes the temperament of MIDI notes in real time
based on the type of material in the track. Employing these gave me
audibly beneficial (though often subtle) changes based on the keys and
voicings I used, as well as the type of adaptation I chose. Among
others, setup in the project menu includes presets for pop and jazz
(suitable for sax and other monophonic instruments), Baroque (which
retunes based on the harmonic progression), and “Classic” Hermode
All this said, the documentation needs to spell out some
things more specifically. With Hermode Tuning, for example, you select
the type of tuning from a project window, but you activate it from a
subsection buried in the Inspector, and I had to “show all” in a menu at
the top of the Inspector to see it. For the most part, it’s
surprisingly easy to find your way around Cubase, but now and then you
can tell that the documentation needs to follow the feature creep more
I’m tempted to cover more new features, such VST connect
(a free tool that lets you collaborate remotely, with “through the
studio glass” webcam video and sample-accurate sync) and Steinberg Hub,
which lets you access tutorials, support, user forums, and cloud-based
project starter templates from within Cubase itself. As usual, it would
take at least an entire issue of Keyboard to catch up on the wealth of less touted but equally impressive updates.
What’s most attractive about Cubase 7 is its outstanding
bent for providing tantalizing, one-of-a-kind creative tools that are
aimed clearly at the “musician who wants to compose a song” more than
the “engineer who wants to emulate a huge console and rack of outboard
gear.” Both of those are legitimate approaches to designing a DAW, but
for anyone who identifies more with the former, Cubase 7 will cut
through the utilitarian tedium of modern-day recording and inspire your
muse in all the right ways.