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 Chord Track.
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 pitch.
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 partner.
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 tuning.
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 closely.
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.