History and Heritage
Since January 2005, Steinberg has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Yamaha Corporation, one of world’s leading manufacturers of synthesisers, workstations and other pro audio related hardware. However, the Steinberg story started out over two decades earlier, when armed with just a Commodore 64 and a self-built MIDI interface, Charlie Steinberg would develop a groundbreaking multitrack sequencer called Pro-16. A later version (Pro-12) was released as an entry level introduction to the then, industry standard Pro-24 software sequencer on the Atari ST, which was in fact the first music software I ever purchased way back in 1988.
Cubase was introduced the following year, in 1989, although I sadly wasn’t able to get my hands on it until 1990. I quickly became a massive fan of the (then MIDI only) software and watched with great interest as Steinberg blazed a trail through the industry that others could only try to emulate. Innovation after innovation followed and I can still remember my excitement at first using Cubase VST. Hearing synth sounds coming directly out of the software without owning any hardware keyboards at all was truly revolutionary. Those were indeed groundbreaking days.
My Road to Nowhere
Sadly, in 2002 (due to contractual work requirements), I could no longer focus all of my attention on Cubase, as my work demanded compatibility with a growing number of formats. This required me to start using a combination of Pro Tools, Logic, Live and Reason. I don’t have to tell you that trying to use four programs at once while dealing with rapid changes in computer technology and OS upgrades became a nightmare and one that’s continued for the last twelve and a half years.
During that time, Steinberg was acquired by Pinnacle Systems (in January 2003) and then again by Yamaha just two years later (in January 2005). However, it wasn’t until 2009 that Steinberg came racing back to my attention once more with the release of Cubase 5. It finally seemed as though Cubase was back on form and better than ever. Again, I continued to watch as Steinberg reach new heights, set new standards and return to breaking new ground with even greater technological advancements (VST Expressions, CMC Modular Controllers, VST3, VST Connect, the list goes on and on).
In this review, I’m going to share with you my own personal experiences of using ‘other’ DAW software and how the latest version of Cubase Pro 8 stacks up against them, hopefully showing you the advantages of using a single program to get the job done rather than the potential nightmare of using several programs at once, like a circus juggling act.
The software we’re going to look alongside Steinberg Cubase Pro 8, is Apple Logic Pro X, Ableton Live 9 Suite and Propellerhead Reason 8. I have decided not to include Avid Pro Tools 12 in this review, as I stopped using it almost a year ago (around version 11.3) and have not returned to it since.
The points we’re going to covering in this comparison review are:
- The main layout of the DAW – does it help you or hinder you?
- The browser and loop library – instant creativity or creativity killer?
- The included instrument plugins – enough to inspire or sounds stuck in the past?
- The included effects plugins – are they very effective or effectively a waste of time?
- The conclusion – what are the shortfalls – are they listening to their users?
So, lets get started!
Laid on the Line
Cubase Pro 8: For those of you not old enough to remember the days when music software sequencers were pattern-only based affairs that didn’t lay the arrangement out in front of you to freely rearrange at will, you might not be able to grasp the scale of just how revolutionary a concept it was that Cubase first presented us with back in April 1989. While other companies tried to deliver this kind of approach at around the same time as Cubase was launched (such as Opcode’s Vision and MOTU’s Performer), I think it’s only fair to say that Cubase delivered arranging with an unmatched elegance that many music software users at the time (myself included) could only previously have dreamed of.
Anyone familiar with modern music making software would feel instantly at home with Cubase Pro 8. The layout has remained quite constant over the last 26 years, which is a testimony to just how far ahead of the game Cubase was upon it’s initial release. Today, it has a clean, modern GUI, although it’s not quite as flat as some of the other DAW makeovers we’ve seen recently. It also seems to have gotten a little darker over the last few revisions, but as the GUI can easily be customised to the users taste, it’s not a major issue. Steinberg seem to have adopted December as their upgrade month (usually within the first week), which has given their user base a regular seasonal holiday treat to look forward to each year.
Logic Pro X: Re-launched as Notator Logic in 1993, true track based arranging didn’t arrive in Logic for some 4 years after it was first introduced in Cubase. I personally never liked Creator (or Notator) in the Atari days and only really started to look at using Logic just five months before Apple purchased Emagic. I joined Logic at version 4.8 and have seen many interface changes that could easily confuse and bewilder anyone who hadn’t used it for a few years.
The GUI of Logic Pro X is dark and somewhat larger in scale than version 9. Although it can be customised, it’s in an extremely unofficial way that I’m sure Apple themselves would NOT approve of. You can only officially change the brightness of the piano roll window and that’s it. Almost every major revision of Logic (with the exception of version 9) has looked completely different to the previous release, which has often met with great opposition from its long term users. Also, there’s no predictable update cycle for Logic either – sometimes it’s 2 years, sometimes it’s 4 years – you never really know when the next version’s coming or (as there’s always continual rumours that Apple will abandon Logic altogether), if it will arrive at all, so that will really keep you on your toes!
Ableton Live 9: Live is the youngest of the DAW’s on test here and was launched in October 2001. Track based arranging and sequencing in Ableton has been there and I’ve been used Live since the very beginning. Live started out as an audio-only “performance instrument” (which was actually why I went on to buy Reason, as I ReWired them together, so that Reason could provide the instruments that Live didn’t have). Once instrument plugin tracks arrived, Live changed yet again and it’s popularity continued to grow.
Live was previously updated on a regular yearly basis (with x.5 updates sometime every half year), until Live 8, which then took two years to be released. Then (for various reasons), even more time passed until we saw the release of Live 9 (which took 4 years, so twice as long).
Propellerhead Reason 8: Released in December 2000, sequencing in Reason was a little tricky in version 1, due to the fact that there was no step entry method and everything had to be played in real time and then quantised (or edited) later. In 2002, they released version 2 and I’ve used it from that point on and again, have seen many changes over the years – especially when they introduced Reason’s sister program, Record. Propellerhead then subsequently merged the two programs into one and called it Reason 6, scrapping the Record name completely, after a few, short years. However, you are still (in essence) buying ‘Reason and Record Duo’ by any other name.
Propellerhead took the opportunity to completely flatten the main GUI of Reason 8, which was met with divided reaction from the Reason community, partially down to the fact that all the rack instruments (and the SSL emulated console) are still 3D and look more than a little odd next to the ironed out, brilliant white GUI. As for updates, Reason now seems to be receiving small, yet significant, updates on an somewhat irregular basis, with Propellerhead’s previous mid-yearly announcement of a new version (which normally arrived to their users in either late August or September) now seemingly abandoned, so again, you’ll never really know when to expect a new version.
Browse, Click, Audition, Repeat…
Cubase Pro 8: The browser in Cubase Pro 8 is called Media Bay and takes on many shapes and forms (four to be precise), which are the standard Media Bay Browser, the dedicated Loop Browser and Sound Browser and then last but not least, the Mini Browser. Not only can it now be permanently docked on to the right of the project window, it’s also available as a separate standalone window, as are all of the aforementioned browsers, which is good news for those users who have multi-screen setups, as you can drag the browser onto a separate display, if you wish to do so, which isn’t something that can be said of any of the other software we’re looking at here.
The provided content is very diverse and covers a lot of ground. There’s a vast selection of MIDI loops as well as audio samples and as the browser in Cubase is so customisable, you’ll find it very easy to navigate though everything it has to offer. If I were being extremely critical, I’d say a small portion of the content is perhaps a little dated now and could do with a welcome influx of more contemporary styles, but the older content has to be kept as part of the library to ensure backwards file compatibility with previous versions. Other than that, it’s a good selection and more than enough to keep you entertained for quite some time.
Logic Pro X: Since version 8, the browser has been permanently docked to the right of the arrangement window. The browser in Logic is an odd one, as it’s auditioning speed depends on if your song is currently playing or not. What do I mean? Well, when your song is not playing, the browser is fast and snappy, with instant auditioning of loops and samples. However, if your song is playing, Logic’s browser will take at least one and a half bars to move from one loop to the next! I have never understood this and have always thought that it should move to the next loop at the start of the next synchronous bar, but it doesn’t. If you’re a remixer, then you’ll be happy that your iTunes library shows up directly in Logic’s browser (though as you can add your iTunes folder to any of the DAW’s browsers we are looking at here, it’s not such a big deal). It does the job, but it’s not a ‘patch’, if you excuse the pun, on Media Bay in Cubase Pro 8.
Content wise, Apple have arranged the provided media into categories which you can choose to download or not. There’s around 35GB of it, though quite a large portion of that is legacy content from versions 8 and 9. The content again covers a lot of ground, but most of it will be very familiar (maybe too familiar) to most of us, which can be off-putting when actually trying to be creative. The newer content provided for version 10 is what most people will be interested in, which is subdivided and covers more contemporary musical styles. There’s a lot on offer and it will certainly keep you going for a while.
Ableton Live 9: Live has always had a great browser, but in version 9, Ableton changed the way it worked, which inadvertently caused a great deal of frustration from its user base (much like when Ableton changed the way the warp engine worked in version 8). Having used Live since day one, it took me quite a while to become accustomed to the new browser, but I now find it very easy. One of the things that first attracted me to Live was that I’d moved over from a PC to a Mac and was a big user of Sonic Foundry’s revolutionary ACID Pro (now owned – and seemingly abandoned – by Sony Creative Software), so I wanted something that featured automatic tempo synching in the browser. Like Reason, the browser is permanently docked to the left of the display.
As for content, Live 9 Suite comes with around 30GB of downloadable sound packs, which is around 5GB less than Apple’s Logic Pro X. The content is not quite as varied as either Cubase or Logic, but does still manage to offer a wide range of included sounds. There’s also some excellent orchestral content, which you might not be expecting to find in a program that has mostly become associated with DJ’s and remixers. All in all, it’s a fair selection and one that Live’s target market will no doubt enjoy.
Propellerhead Reason 8: As with Logic Pro, Propellerhead also chose version 8 to create a permanently docked browser, but in the case of Reason, it’s to the left of the arrangement window (as with Ableton Live). At the time of writing (late August 2015), there’s a glaring omission from the Reason 8.3 browser that no modern DAW should be without – the syncing of audio loops to the project tempo – yes, as unbelievable as it may seem, Reason does not support this feature. Auditioning loops from the browser will play them back at their original tempo, NOT at the tempo of the project. This makes Reason extremely hard to use if you create loop-based music or if loops are used in any way, shape or form within your song, as you’ll have to convert them into REX files and audition them via a rack device, such as Dr. OctoREX. This can be frustrating if your samples are in AIFF or WAV format. Other DAW’s (such as the aforementioned ACID Pro) have had this feature since 1998, so it makes Reason seem very behind the times to not have this feature in 2015.
The provided content is okay, but it’s starting to show it’s age and if you’re the kind of person who wants a lot of contemporary loops and samples “straight out of the box”, then forget it. Reason comes with the smallest loop library content (not including the preset patches for the rack devices or the Combinator) of the DAW’s we’re looking at here. Don’t get me wrong, there’s enough to get you going, but you’ll be buying REX file ReFills very soon afterwards.
Plug In, Switch Off?
Cubase Pro 8: One of my greatest attractions to Cubase Pro 8 is the quality and uniqueness of the included plugin instruments. Loopmash 2 has become one of my most used creative tools in a very short space of time. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like it included with any other DAW (although I have noticed quite a few ‘Loopmash inspired’ plugins appearing recently, though none of them have impressed me anywhere near as much). Retrologue and Padshop are amongst the other gems (Retrologue especially, as even though it may seem like a simplistic synth at first glance, it’s actually very capable and is one of the only plugins I’ve come across that can identically recreate sounds from an old Oberheim synth I acquired over a decade ago). HALion Sonic SE 2 is also surprisingly good for an included synth and Groove Agent SE 4 goes way beyond what’s expected of a free drum machine. The filters and the vintage emulation modes are nothing short of staggering, even better than some dedicated hybrid drum machines I’ve owned.
I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that Cubase has struck me more than any other DAW I’ve used for the sheer diversity and wide sonic pallet of its included synths and drum machines. You can get extremely creative without having to spend yet more hard earned money on adding endless 3rd party plugins. In fact, my advice here would be stay with Steinberg and move up to the full versions of Padshop Pro, Groove Agent 4 and HALion Sonic 2 (or go even further and buy HALion 5). They are very reasonably priced and have soundest and features that will really surprise you for the asking price!
Logic Pro X: I’m going to say from the outset that I felt very disappointed with the instrument plugins included with Logic Pro X when it was released a little over two years ago. Many Logic users were expecting the possibility of an updated ES2 or the much talked about (but yet to see the light of day) Redmatica revamped EXS24 (which is now an unbelievable 15 years old), but no. Instead, we get Drum Designer and Drummers (which may or may not be useful to you, depending upon your musical style). The revamped Vintage B3, Vintage Electric Piano and Vintage Clav were mostly just GUI makeovers for the EVB3, EVP88 and EVD6, meaning that Retro Synth was the only new keyboard plugin, but it really wasn’t terribly exciting.
With the recent 10.1 update, electronic music makers finally received something remotely interesting, though the excitement soon wore of when it turned out to be nothing more than a shell program/smart controller for the (never updated in a decade) UltraBeat drum machine. I’m sorry Apple, but this is simply unacceptable.
Live 9 Suite: It difficult to talk about instruments in Live, as you know they’re there, but because all of the included plugins take on the look and feel of Live itself, you tend to forget about them as actually being individual instruments as you think of them more as parts of a summed whole. This might be a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view, but personally speaking, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about instrument wise until Max4Live started to be included for free with Live 9 Suite. Even now though, Live could still be described as a little on the ‘lean’ side when compared with other DAW’s on the market, especially ones like Cubase Pro 8.
Reason 8: Since the launch of the Rack Extension format, I’ve noticed a marked decline in new (read ‘free’) instruments appearing within subsequent releases of Reason. Propellerhead just don’t seem to be giving much away these days, as they can now sell you their latest and greatest inventions in the Prop Shop. Admittedly, they do offer some attractive bundles for new customers, but loyal, existing users seem to be left out in the cold somewhat. There’s been no new free instruments offered since the ID8 in Reason 6, which was a basic, 36 preset sound module and that was four years ago now. Yes, the Combinator will always come to the rescue to help you get extra mileage out of the provided sounds, but it can be a little longwinded if you’re in a hurry.
Cubase Pro 8: The effects in Cubase Pro 8 are some of the best I’ve come across in recent years. I think it’s more than fair to say that the effects included in some DAWs just aren’t worth having and are only ever used as a last resort or if you don’t have the money to spend on adding 3rd party plugins. I’m particularly impressed with the new Quadrafuzz v2, as I was a user of the Craig Anderton original and always loved it, and both REVerence and REVelation reverb plugins are extremely noteworthy, especially the silky smooth tones of the latter. Also, being a fan of Loopmash, it was great to see Loopmash FX along with other remix and DJ friendly offerings, like DJ-EQ. On the dynamics side, the new Multiband Compressor, Multiband Expander and Multiband Envelope Shaper are nothing short of fantastic. It might be an overused phrase, but there really is something for everyone here and the quality is a benchmark by which others should (and will) be judged.
Logic Pro X: The studio effects in Logic haven’t changed for a long time. While we’ve recently seen a revamped Compressor plugin in the latest 10.1 update, it seems that only Pedalboard was actually updated with seven new stomp boxes along with the introduction of the new Bass Amp Designer. Other than that, well, your stuck with the effects that Logic has had for years now, as I think I’m correct in saying that the last new studio effects plugin introduced into Logic was Delay Designer almost eight years ago in 2007. I hate to keep repeating myself here, but I’m sorry Apple, this just isn’t acceptable.
Live 9 Suite: Effects in Live have always been fairly basic until the introduction of Max4Live. That doesn’t mean they weren’t useable, in fact quite the opposite, they were exactly what was needed at the time of Live being introduced and have evolved and grown in both quality and functionality over the years. The aforementioned Max4Live only adds to the functionality and usefulness of the effects on offer and (should you be able to learn the programming involved for their creation), you can always add to them yourself, if you feel brave enough! Live 9 saw the addition of The Glue compressor and an improved Compressor, Gate and EQ Eight. As with the included sound content, you can always create a Rack to stack multiple effects for even greater sonic diversity.
Reason 8: When Reason first hit the shelves, it’s effects were very basic indeed, but these were early days – both in regards of computer CPU power and the dawn of software based effects – and as the Reason rack has grown over the years, so have the effects on offer. Happily, newer versions of Reason still seem to benefit from new, free effects, although they are mostly part of an upgrade offer from the previous version, normally requiring you to update within a few months, or you’ll then have to pay for them. In recent years, we’ve seen the excellent Pulveriser, The Echo and Alligator in Reason 6 and Pulsar in Reason 6.5. In Reason 7, we saw Audiomatic and Synchronous while Reason 8 only replaced their previous Line6 guitar and bass amps with new emulations from Softube (which were excellent), but sadly nothing else was offered.
Conclusions with NO Confusion
Cubase Pro 8 is a formidable DAW. It’s constant evolution pays tribute to its rich heritage while at the same time, constantly moves forward, setting new standards with some truly unique innovations.
- Cubase Pro 8 feels snappier and faster thanks to a complete software engine rewrite.
- Projects now use up to half the CPU they previously consumed with Cubase 7.5.
- Large projects open up to 4 times faster and the MixConsole is now twice as fast.
- ASIO Guard 2 uses low latencies just on the tracks where latency matters.
- VCA faders for complex mixing are a great addition.
- Render in-place bounces MIDI and audio parts quickly and easily.
- Virtual Bass Amp, Quadrafuzz v2, Multiband Expander and Multiband Envelope Shaper effects.
- Chord pads are a really great way to compose with chords.
- No support for Full Screen mode on Mac OS X.
- The Mini Sampler included with their iOS Cubasis app would make a nice VSTi.
- The Quadrafuzz 2 revamp is so good, you’ll want them to give every older plugin a makeover!
Compared to Logic Pro X: I’ve been an “Apple Fanboy” for longer than I care to remember, and a Logic user for over 13 years now, but there’s been a lot of unrest recently due to persistent bugs that Apple’s team just don’t seem to be addressing. While the new Drummer feature was useful for some users (thought not for me), there seems to be a general lack of innovation within Logic, with supposedly ‘new’ plugins (such as Drum Machine Designer) being nothing more than just a front end smart controller for older, somewhat tired instruments that are (IMHO) in desperate need of a ‘real’ update.
I’ve submitted feedback to Apple on Logic over the years (there’s a dedicated page on Apples website for this as well as a direct link within Logic itself), but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any of the things I’ve suggested actually become implemented into Logic, which is kind of disappointing. Over the last decade, it may have seemed as though the balance of power had moved in Logic’s favour, but it seems to me as though Cubase Pro 8 has reclaimed the crown from Logic and is once again the undisputed King of the DAW’s.
Compared to Live 9 Suite: I’ve been an Ableton Live user since day one, but one thing that has always been a major pain for me with Live is the backwards nature of it’s arrange page. I just don’t like it. I understand why the track headers have to be on the right (due to the permanently left docked browser), but the transparent clips with just a small strip of colour at the top have always made song arranging unnecessarily awkward. Yes, the can be folded into a coloured strip to make them easier to see, but then you can’t see the content of the clip anymore, which further adds to the problem.
I’ve had a good relationship with Ableton over the years and they are a very easy company to communicate with, so I have been able to put forward these points (and more) on occasion and know that many others have too, but the fact that nothing has changed in over two years tells me Ableton’s attention is engaged elsewhere. In Live’s defence, it becomes far easier to make an arrangement “on the fly”, with a controller, such as Push or one of Novations excellent LaunchPad series, but in this review, we are looking at the softwares ability alone. The trouble is, I really like Live, but I don’t love it and I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable using it by itself, mostly due to the arrangement issues mentioned above.
Compared to Reason 8: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Reason, although in recent years, the relationship I’ve had with it has turned into a love/hate one. I love the fact that the Rack Extensions (RE’s) format opened up the Reason rack to 3rd party developers for the first time, and they have produced some truly amazing things, but what I don’t like is that you can only ever try an RE once for 30 days and then that’s it. Even if the developer brings out a new version, you can never try it ever again. Also, there’s quite a lot of repetition in the RE store and some of the content isn’t that good. Then, there’s the strange absence of developers who you’d think would be perfect for the RE format, such as Native Instruments, but they seem to have stayed well away, while others, such as G-Force, ported over the excellent M-Tron Pro as the Re-Tron, but haven’t converted anything else in their entire range.
My other issue with Propellerhead, is that in recent years, they seem to be giving their users the impression that they’re ‘downsizing’ – they axed Balance (an exceptionally good USB audio interface) very unexpectedly and t-shirts, bags and other apparel have almost completely vanished from their online store. More recently, we’ve seen the official forum removed from their website as well. Trying to talk to Propellerhead has always been tricky – I’m sure they’re are interested in what users think – but you can tell that they have their own agenda and don’t stray too far outside of it, if at all. Sadly, there’s still too much missing from Reason for me to be able to comfortably use it by itself, without it being ReWired into another DAW. I’m pretty sure that day will come, but it just doesn’t seem to have arrived yet.
My Road Back Home
So, we have now come to the end of my story and this comparison review of Cubase Pro 8. There’s so much to Cubase Pro 8, that there just isn’t the space here to do it justice, as this review is approaching almost five thousand words, so I urge you to try it for yourself and download the free 30 day trial version.
I’d like to state that this is a personal account of my experiences between 1989 to 2015 and cannot be applied as a rule of thumb for everyone – your opinion may well differ and your experiences will no doubt have been different to mine – but, I make no excuses for my happiness at rediscovering Cubase and all the wonderful music making tools that it has to offer. I only regret that I ever had to leave it in the first place!
You can download a free 30-day fully functioning demo of Cubase Pro 8 by clicking here.
You will need a USB eLicenser to run the demo.
You buy Cubase Pro 8 directly from Steinberg’s web shop by clicking here or from your favourite music store.