In the world of desktop music production there are quite a few audio+MIDI music production packages that compete at the top level. Software such as Cubase, Logic, Pro Tool, Reason, Sonar, Digital Performer, Tracktion and Reaper all provide lots of features and, with something available at pretty much every price point, there is plenty of choice to be had.
iOS is perhaps not quite so well provided for but, depending upon quite what form your music production takes, there are still some impressive tools. However, if you want to combine audio and MIDI in your music production (as opposed to audio-only or MIDI-only), there are relatively few serious contenders. Garageband can do it but, for more complex work, lacks a real mixing environment. Equally, BeatMaker 2 and Meteor have a loyal following and both are well featured.
However, I think it is fair to say that Steinberg’s Cubasis is probably the most highly regarded app in the ‘audio+MIDI’ category. Undoubtedly, having the history of Cubase (not to mention a dedicated user base many of whom will also own an iPad) gave Cubasis a head start even at launch. Even so, with the very Cubase-like design (making the app feel familiar to existing Cubase users) and a streamlined but well-balanced feature set tailored for the iPad platform, Steinberg were not just relying upon reputation here; the first release was genuinely good.
That first release appeared in December 2012 and a steady flow of updates since has expanded the feature set. However, good though Cubasis was for the recording and editing of audio and MIDI, as a platform for mixing, it has, up until now, been missing one very significant feature; automation. Steinberg had promised to introduce an automation system in v.1.8 and, pretty much on schedule, that update – and the automation system – arrived last week.
Having experimented briefly with the new update on release, I was more than happy to give it an initial thumbs up. Given that this is such a significant step forward for Cubasis, I thought a more detailed review of v.1.8 might be useful, so here goes. However, before we look at exactly what v.1.8 brings to the party, let’s first recap (briefly) exactly what Cubasis offers to set the new features into a broader context.
The state of the (Cubasis) art
Let’s remind ourselves exactly what Cubasis had to offer prior to v.1.8. Essentially, what the UK£34.99 asking price gives you is the ability to record as many audio or MIDI tracks as you can get your iPad to play back without throwing a fit. Providing you have the audio I/O hardware to justify it, you can record at sample rates up to 96kHz and either 16 or 24-bit (44.1kHz at 24-bit works just fine for me on my iPad Air if I’m using a ‘proper’ audio interface rather than just sketching some ideas out).
Again, hardware permitting, you can record up to 24 audio tracks simultaneously. No, I’ve never tried that either but I have done four tracks at the same time and that was very straightforward. If you do run out of steam then Cubasis includes a very useable track freeze feature that can help free up some resources.
Cubasis includes two virtual instruments; MicroSonic (based upon the desktop Halion Sonic and providing sample-based sounds) and Micrologue (a virtual analog synth supplied with 50 presets and easy to program). While not world-beaters, both provide you with a very useable palette of sounds and, because you can use multiple instances of both within a project (that is, the ‘one instance only of an app under iOS’ rule doesn’t apply), you can easily sketch out a full piece just based on these instruments.
MircoSonic includes a respectable series of drum kit samples going from acoustic through to electronic and, as well as a virtual piano keyboard, there are also a set of 16 virtual drum pads that can be used to playing your own patterns. Equally, you also get a collection of MIDI drum loops and audio drum loops; if you need to slap a quick drum track down to get something started, then Cubasis has you covered.
While I tend to go to apps like Chordion, ChordPolyPad, SoundPrism Pro, ThumbJam or Synthecaster when I want an iOS-sized MIDI performance surface that is easier to deal with than a virtual piano keyboard, Cubasis also includes programmable chord pads of its own. These are easy to set up and perfectly useable. If you want to keep everything ‘in-house’ in this regard then you can do so.
As you might expect given Steinberg’s track record with Cubase, the editing environment – for both audio and MIDI – in Cubasis is slick and, within the confines of the fairly modest iPad screen real-estate, easy to use. No, it’s not as well-featured as on the desktop (and this might be an area that warrants further updates as the app matures), but the basic tools are there.
Cubasis also includes a sensible set of basic effects covering EQ, compression, various modulation options, reverb, delay, a filter and even a basic amp sim (although don’t delete BIAS et al. from your iPad just yet) and you can have up to four insert effects on a track (the Studio EQ plus three others) and set up three send effects. All this is accessible via the Inspector strip that can be opened/collapsed on the left-edge of the main Project display but the same functionality can be accessed via the slick looking Mixer where the ‘e’ icon buttons on each channel open up the Insert Effects panel for that track. This includes the Master Output channel where you can insert three master insert effects if required.
Of course, you also have Audiobus support, IAA support (for both effects and virtual instrument apps) and MIDI Clock support (as a clock master only but it seems reasonably solid within the somewhat temperamental beast that MIDI Clock is under iOS at present). All this means that Cubasis can work well with other iOS music apps, collecting audio from them or sending/receiving MIDI data to/from them. And as you can also place Cubasis in both the Input and Output slots of Audiobus at the same time, there are also some interesting audio routing possibilities if you have, for example, an audio effects app that you want to apply to an existing track but the effect itself doesn’t yet offer IAA support.
Oh, and amid a bunch of other details the app offers, there is also an export path for your Cubasis projects to bring them over into the full version of Cubase on your desktop computer. Within the obvious constrains of porting projects that use other iOS instruments or effects apps, this process works pretty well; if you simply want to use Cubasis as a mobile sketch pad for ideas that you finish off on your desktop computer system then that’s a workflow that’s relatively painless.
Fix it in the mix
As mentioned above, from day 1 Cubasis featured a neat – if fairly modest – mixer. For basic tasks such as setting overall track levels, pan and toggling mute/solo on/off, it did its job in an unfussy way. However, for ‘proper’ mixing – that is, the kind of mixing most of us actually need to do where you can easily adjust the level of tracks at different points in a project – it lacked the key feature that most modern music producers take for granted; mix automation.
Back in the day of analog we did, of course, manage perfectly well without mix automation; engineers simply kept the faders/pan/effects changes to a minimum and ‘learned’ the mixer control movements that were required as the final mix was recorded out to stereo. It might often have required several pairs of hands on the desk, but it could be done.
Today, very few music producers – even those working in their spare bedroom – would need to do this unless through personal choice because almost every music production platform offers you the ability to automate all those changes – subtle and not-so-subtle – that are required through your project. And once that automation data is recorded, it can be edited and fine-tuned until you are 100% happy and it will be recalled every time you re-load the project. In terms of workflow and the ‘re-producability’ of a mix, automation is a big deal.
Which is why – with v.1.8 – Steinberg have taken such a significant step forwards with Cubasis as it now features a pretty comprehensive automation system. It had been promised for some time but, now the update has been delivered, does v.1.8 of Cubasis mean that the app is now just as capable as a mixing platform as it already was for recording and arranging?
Learning to read and write
While it might not be the absolute truth of what’s going on under the hood, in essence, automation can be thought of as MIDI data targeted not at notes but at controls. Those controls might be anything from the fader on a mixer channel, the send level from a channel to a reverb, the gain/cut level on an EQ effect, pitch-bend on a synth patch or the filter frequency on a synth sound. In a comprehensive mix automation system, you can get to control any of these sorts of parameters and, if required, you get to control them throughout the length of your project, varying the settings through time.
In most situations, this kind of mix automation data is created in either of two ways; by twiddling a control and recording that movement or by drawing ‘automation envelopes’ (or ‘automation curves’; take your pick of the terminology). Cubasis now offers both of these routes and, once the automation data has been created, you can also display the automation envelopes and, via the touchscreen, edit them until you get exactly what you need.
In fact, when it comes to creating the automation data via tweaking controls, in many software recording packages, you actually have two options. First, you can simply keep things completely self-contained and use the touchscreen controls (virtual faders, knobs, etc.) and record those movements. Second, if you have an external hardware device such as a MIDI keyboard with some knobs and faders built in to it or a dedicated MIDI control surface (the new Arturia BeatStep for example with its knobs and pads), these can easily be linked to specific controls within your software and give you a much more tactile experience. In Cubasis, currently at least, the first of these routes is easy but, because the app does not yet provide a MIDI Learn feature, the second – using a hardware controller – is only possible when controlling 3rd party apps running within Cubasis. This is explored more fully below.
When you are recording this automation data you are said to be in ‘write’ mode; writing the automation data (basically as MIDI continuous controller information) into your project as the project plays back and that data is then stored alongside your audio files and MIDI note data. Once you have recorded the data (and maybe edited it also), on subsequent playback, your recording software will ‘read’ the automation data and reproduce it. And, as you might therefore expect, both in the Track Inspector and the Mixer, Cubasis now features ‘Read” and ‘Write’ buttons (R and W) so that it is easy to engage these two modes when you want to use the automation features.
Make me automated
To do the detailed management of your automation data Cubasis has now acquired an Automation Editor window. You can access this from a number of different locations but each track now also includes an Automation panel within the Track Inspector so that provides one route. In a new project with no existing automation data, you get prompted to ‘Open editor’ here but, once you have created any automation data that might apply to the current track (including any data for send effects that could apply to all tracks), this list is populated with any parameter for which automation data exists.
The Automation Editor itself is nicely implemented. On the left is a panel that, as well as containing R and W buttons, serves two functions. First is allows you to select which parameter you wish to create automation data for. This is achieved by a comprehensive nested list and you simply scroll down the list to find what you are after. Second, once you have selected a parameter, the panel switches to show a series of tools for selecting, drawing, and erasing, etc. automation data.
The central portion of the window shows a portion of the timeline for the currently selected track. As with the Sample and Key Editors, you can zoom and scroll within this area independently of what’s going on in the main Project window timeline. It’s here that, with the Draw tool selected, you can just swipe across the touchscreen to create your automation data. Tapping also allows you to create individual automation data points.
Finally – and easy to miss at first glance – on the right-hand edge of the Editor window is a single narrow slider control. On playback – and with automation Write engaged – this control allows you to enter automation data by simply adjusting the slider value. Note that you do not have to have Cubasis set into ‘record’ mode to create automation data; normal playback with Write enabled is all that is required.
What’s the target?
The format of the Automation Editor is identical for both audio and MIDI tracks (although I’ll come back to a catch here in a minute) but, of course, the list of parameters offered to you for automation will be different. The more generic volume, pan, mute and solo are ever present but the rest of what’s offered depends upon what insert and send effects are active on the track or in the project and, for Cubasis’ own virtual instruments – MicroSonic and Micrologue – which one is being used.
For MicroSonic the choices are fairly modest. You can automate volume, etc. and any insert of send effects being used but nothing to do with the sound itself (hardly surprising as the instrument only really offers you control over the volume envelope). Micrologue offers more; there you get access to an extensive list of the synth’s parameters including the various filter controls.
The first limitation of the new automation system – and this should not be a surprise in any fashion – is that parameters for 3rd party synths or effects inserted via IAA are not available within this list for selection. In some (many?) cases there is still a way to create and edit automation data for these apps but you can’t do it via the Automation Editor; it requires the Key Editor. I’ll come back to this in a little while.
Riding the curve
Having identified the parameter you want to automate, using the Automation Editor features to create or edit that data is then a very straightforward – and quite slick – process. Drawing data in by hand is easy and, as you create a curve in this way, data points are added at a resolution that matches the current quantize resolution.
If you add automation data using the slider located far-right of the Automation Editor window you can create much denser (more detailed) curves. This is helpful if you need some very precise control over key parameters but it does, of course, come with a trade off; more detailed curves mean more data to be processed and that, in turn, will eventually create a CPU overhead. Thankfully, the automation tools include the very nifty ‘Reduce’ option; one tap on that and the nodes on the curve are simplified to reduce the quality of automation data without (hopefully) losing the key changes. You can tap this option repeatedly if you wish and, each time, the data are thinned a little further.
On playback, all of these automation data are then faithfully reproduced (providing, of course, you have the ‘Read’ button engaged for the required track) and you can watch the various controls dance around under software control as Cubasis moves through its timeline. This is great to see….
Not fade(r) away
You don’t have to be within the Automation Editor itself to create automation data. You can, for example, create automation data from within the Effects window, the Mixer Window or within the Track Inspector (for example, automating the send effects levels or the channel fader/pan). Incidentally, this doesn’t seem to include the power on/off buttons for things like Insert effects. At present these don’t seem to be automatable.
What this does mean, of course, is that you can switch to the Mixer window and, providing you engage ‘Write’ for the appropriate mixer channels, you can use multiple fingers in a single pass to adjust the relative levels of each track. This is perhaps THE most fundamental task you might use automation for; actually balancing the different tracks within your project. Yes, you still have to scroll left/right in the window to see all your faders (well, if you have more than eight tracks in your project) but this really is a very simple process and beautifully implemented.
Oh, and you don’t have to tap across engaging all those Read/Write buttons individually; there is now a ‘Global’ strip to the right-edge of the mixer that contains (surprise, surprise), global controls for Mute, Solo, Read and Write; very useful.
For all of the controls internal to Cubasis this automation system works very well and is a huge step forward for the app in terms of what you can do. At this level, Cubasis now offers the essential elements you need to create an automated mix.
However, as mentioned above, the system is not without some limitations. The first of these is that parameters for 3rd party apps can not be automated within the Automation Editor system. All is not lost however. If the app concerned can transmit MIDI CC data when it’s controls are tweaked, you can record that MIDI data to a Cubasis MIDI track. You can then open the MIDI event in the Key Editor and, in the controller lane beneath the MIDI notes themselves, you can select the appropriate parameter for editing.
In principle, this is fairly simple; in practice it probably means you need a 3rd party app that has a decent MIDI feature set and, preferably, a MIDI Learn function. Let’s take Arturia’s iMini as a good example of how it might work. This works well under IAA so can be inserted on a MIDI track within Cubasis. iMini also has a very flexible MIDI Learn feature so I was able to use that to link a few of the hardware knobs on my Alesis QX25 MIDI controller keyboard to some of iMini’s controls. Then, as I recorded my performance within Cubasis, both my note data and my controller data were recorded.
Opening up the MIDI event in the Key Editor provides access to the automation data that has been stored as MIDI CC data. Providing you don’t – as some stage down the line – change the MIDI Learn connections for the target app (in this case iMini), these data will then drive the same parameters in the target app on playback.
This process works well enough to be useable but it is not the same as a direct link from Cubasis to a specific parameter in the target app. A further limitation is that, while you can use the general Draw, Erase, Select tools from the tool strip at the top of the Cubasis window to edit these MIDI CC data, you don’t get the Automation Editor’s toolset to work with. And this means you don’t get the rather excellent ‘Reduce’ option to thin out your MIDI CC data in the same way as is possible from the Automation Editor.
While the above example uses an instrument app, the same principle can be applied to an effect app providing, of course, it allows you to control it’s parameters via MIDI CC numbers. For example, the excellent AUFX series of apps allow just that so I was able to automate AUFX:Dub’s settings by simply creating a MIDI track dedicated to holding that data. The app itself was being used as an insert effect on a vocal track but happily received the MIDI CC data from a different (MIDI) track. Again, this is perhaps not an ideal workflow but it does work.
There is another limitation to note within this first pass at automation within Cubasis and, in this case, the MIDI CC data created and editable within a MIDI clip fairs better than automation data created using the Automation Editor. In the Automation Editor, data created is held relative to the timeline rather than being ‘linked’ in some way to the audio or MIDI event it may (or may not) coincide with. What this means is that, if you move the event (or copy it to another location), the automation data within the Automation Editor doesn’t also get moved (or copied). You can select and copy automation data but this is a separate process requiring, therefore, an additional step.
This ability to link automation data to an audio clip is a feature that Auria has only just added in a recent update but, at some stage, it would obviously be good to have the options to ‘move automation data with’ or ‘copy automation data with’ when moving/copying audio or MIDI clips. By contrast, MIDI CC automation recorded for a 3rd party app using the process described above is held within the MIDI clip itself; it therefore does get moved and/or copied with the clip.
Don’t get me wrong; while it is possible to identify things that this initial implementation of an automation system for Cubasis can not do, I’m still jumping around with joy at what it can. As a means of crafting the most important brush stokes of a mix, the system is excellent, simple to use and beautifully executed.
While your mileage might vary, I could easily identify a few additional features I’d love to see added to this impressive automation debut. First, it would be great to see a MIDI Learn system within Cubasis. Being able to link a hardware controller to specific target parameters would – for many folk – make the whole process that bit more tactile. I’d even take the ability just to be able to MIDI Learn the ‘master’ automation knob displayed at the right-edge of the Automation Editor. Linking this to a single fader or knob on your MIDI controller would mean that (one parameter at a time) you could then use a hardware control to create automation data for any of the internal controls within Cubasis.
The other thing that would be great is to be able to add a generic MIDI CC number – and create automation data for it – within the Automation Editor for a MIDI track. If this was able to transmit that data on whatever MIDI channel the MIDI track was routed to, this would open up some useful additional workflow options. Equally, a ‘Reduce’ option for controller data within the Key Editor would be good to see.
And for v.1.9+?
Developers must have a love/hate relationship with their users when they launch a new update. It is great to see your favourite apps get new features and, in the case of Cubasis v.1.8, this is most certainly a very welcome update. But, of course, as soon as us users have one thing we have been asking for, then we can think a another one we would like….. So, without wishing to tick off the Cubasis development team before the dregs of the champagne have evaporated from the bottom of the glasses of the v.1.8 launch party, what might me on my own personal wish list for v.1.9 and beyond?
The tweaks to the automation system already mentioned aside, I think my own ‘top of the to do’ list would be two related organisational features; Folder tracks and Group Channels. Both of these exist in Cubase and both bring considerable workflow benefits once you get beyond a few tracks….
The first of these – Folder Tracks – would, I suspect (in my ignorance), be easier to implement in terms of the complexity of the coding involved. What this allows you to do is simply to place selections of tracks into a ‘Folder Track’ which you can then close (hiding them from view) or expand (so all the individual tracks within the folder are visible). As a means of working your way through complex projects – and particularly when working on a system with a relatively modest amount of screen real-estate – this make keeping things organised so much easier. Done with working on the 10 tracks of bass parts? Then just close the folder and get them out of your way while you do something else.
The second – Group Channels – is, I suspect, more complex to create as it involves a whole set of new audio routing functionality. Group Channels (also known as Bus Channels in old money) exist on traditional hardware mixers and the concept has been ported over to virtual mixers in software (most desktop DAWs have this feature and, under iOS, so does Auria). A Group Channel can be thought of as a ‘summary’ channel and you can route the output signal of any other channel in your project to a group channel – and the output from the group channel is then sent to the master output.
What this allows you to do is, for example, to route all your guitars to one Group Channel, all the drum tracks to another, and all the vocal tracks to a third, etc…. When it then comes to doing to basic level setting in your mix, you can then just focus on this relatively small number of Group Channels. This makes that initial pass of level automation much easier to do and also means fewer virtual faders to deal with at any one time. It is also possible to apply some processing options to the Group Channel rather than to each individual channel and this can bring some CPU savings.
Without wishing to get too greedy (difficult I know), the other obvious additions I‘d love to see would be further quantize options, a tempo track (so you could apply changes in tempo through a project), tempo-matching for imported audio loops, a pitch-shifting effect (in real-time) and pitch correction (like the VariAudio in Cubase but not necessarily processed in real-time). OK, I know I am being greedy here…. still, if you don’t ask then you don’t get. Bring on v.1.9 and beyond.
Cubasis was already a great platform for iOS recording; slick, streamlined and yet well featured enough for you to create sophisticated audio and MIDI recordings under iOS. The v.1.8 update – in bringing a well-thought out automation system – means Cubasis is now also a very respectable mixing environment. As a big new feature, this first iteration of the automation system is very impressive even if it is not, as yet, packed with every feature that you might like to see.
I’ve no insider knowledge about what kind of return Steinberg are getting from their Cubasis development. Whether they are getting enough sales to make it self-sufficient, or whether they see it as a bit of a loss-leader to encourage a user base that will eventually move up to the (more expensive) desktop version, I’ve no idea. Either way, I seriously hope that the development programme keeps progressing. This is an impressive music app and, at UK£34.99, packs a lot of features for a modest financial punch.
If iOS is your first serious foray into the world of DIY recording and music technology, and if you want to use a combination of both audio and MIDI in that recording process, Cubasis is a fabulous platform to cut your teeth with. Highly recommended and, like a fine wine, maturing well with age.