Music app review – Cubasis by Steinberg

Download from iTunes App StoreAs regular readers here will be aware, the iOS platform already has a wide range of music apps aimed at musicians. Yes, amongst the masses on iTunes, there are some to be avoided but the best of the bunch are very good indeed. And while this is still undoubtedly a music making environment that has plenty of room to mature, apps like Auria by WaveMachineLabs have very clearly demonstrated that an iPad can, in the right hands and with the right audio I/O hardware, be used to make some very credible and sophisticated recordings.

Auria is a brilliant implementation of a multitrack audio recorder and, while not without its quirks, also has considerable depth; pitch correction built-in, for example and the very respectable Overloud guitar amp sim available as an in-app purchase. However, in its current form at least, Auria doesn’t provide support for MIDI or virtual instruments (although my understanding is that this is something planned for future versions).  Of course, Garageband – the granddaddy of all iOS music apps – does do virtual instruments (and very good they are too) but you have a limited track count so, if you want to build something more elaborate then some track bouncing is required; doable but not ideal from a workflow perspective. That said, Garageband is a brilliant introduction to music making under iOS and more than capable of capturing song ideas.

So, what about something to sit between these two excellent – but differently specified – recording apps? Something that gets close to the sorts of depth and track count that is available in Auria but includes the MIDI/virtual instruments found in the likes of Garageband? Well, at first sight at least, now we seem to have it, as Steinberg – makers of Cubase, one of the leading cross-platform (Mac and Windows) desktop DAWs – have now released a cut-down version of that DAW for iPad; Cubasis. And if you know anything of the history of Cubase, you will know that a few years ago Steinberg used to have a streamlined version of it’s flagship Cubase that went under the Cubasis name. While this was an entry-level product, in terms of bang-for-buck, it punched well above its weight. So, what exactly does the new iPad-friendly version of Cubasis have to offer?

Cubasis features

Cubasis Project window

On paper, the feature list is promising. The number of audio and MIDI tracks is ‘unlimited’ (although this really means ‘limited only by the processing power of the host device so it depends upon which generation of iPad you are using). Virtual instruments are catered for by a set of 70 sounds based on Steinberg’s HALion Sonic desktop VST instrument. The sounds cover a broad palette containing pretty much what you would expect – drums, percussion, bass, guitar, orchestral instruments, organs, pianos and a variety of synth-based sounds covering leads, basses and pads – and overall the quality is good, although they obviously lack details given by multiple sample layers in modern desktop software instruments. A collection of 300 MIDI and audio loops are also included

While you can use an external MIDI device to create the MIDI for these vitual instruments, Cubasis includes both a virtual piano keyboard and a set of virtual drum pads. ‘Velocity’ response is available but not by hitting these virtual keys or pads harder but, instead, based

Cubasis includes a virtual keyboard but also the excellent Chord buttons.

upon where on the key or pad you play. This requires a bit of practice but for single note entry (rather than chords) is easy enough to adapt to. The velocity response can be switched off under the Setup options if you prefer. One other brilliant feature of the virtual keyboard is the automatic chord function. This is accessed via the ten buttons that run along the top of the keyboard display. Each one can hold a different chord and while these are loaded with a default set, by pressing the ‘e’ button you can program in your own chord to a particular button if required. These buttons can then be used to play a chord-based part with a single finger; much easier than playing a complex pattern on a virtual keyboard. The chord collection is track-specific so you can have one set of chords of one track and another set on a second track. Basic quantize functions are also provided for MIDI tracks.

There are also a set of drum pads.

The main Cubasis screen is a very familiar (well, familiar to a user of any f the mainstream DAWs and particularly familiar if, like me, you are a regular Cubase user) compact take on the Cubase Project window, with tracks arranged vertically and the timeline running horizontally. MIDI and audio parts are displayed along the timeline and you can pinch to zoom or swipe to scroll as required to focus in of particular section of your project. The usual left/right locators are provided so you can loop a section of the project for playback of recording if required.

The Cubasis Inspector panels provides access to all the key controls and settings for a track. You can toggle the display off if you want to see more of the project itself.

By default, the ‘Inspector’ panel is displayed down the left-hand edge for the currently selected track. This gives you quick access to the key settings for the track including the track name, the instrument (if it is a MIDI track), the insert and send effects and the channel fader with the usual mute, solo, pan and record buttons. Again, very familiar to most DAW users and particularly so for Cubase users.

Tapping on an existing MIDI or audio part selects it while double tapping opens it in an editor. Given the confines of the iPad screen, these work brilliantly. For audio parts you can do the usual trim, erase, add fades, reverse or normalise. For MIDI, you can move notes, change their length and adjust the note velocity. Yes, it an be a bit fiddly at times but is certainly works. By default, these editors open in the lower half of the iPad display but you can expand them to fill the full screen if you wish and these can make detailed editing more finger-friendly.

The Cubasis Mixer – small but beautifully formed.

The Mixer also opens in the lower half of the display. You get eight faders on screen at once and can swipe across to see a different set of eight channels. I couldn’t find a way to expand this view so, at present, I suspect this is al you get. It would be nice to see the faders filling the full height of the display, for example (giving more detailed control over their exact setting) or the option to show the insert/send effects above each channel. You can get at the insert effects for a track by pressing the ‘e’ button alongside the fader but to access the send effects you have to go back to the Inspector panel in the Project view. Maybe this is something that might get added in future releases? One other feature obvious by its absence is any mixer automation; even if it was just the ability to add fader level adjustment, it would be a welcome addition so, hopefully, that might also be something for Steinberg’s development team to work on :-)

The Amp Sim effect – only a few controls but, like all the included effects, sounds pretty good.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted the lack of EQ in the mixer. There is, however, an EQ effect included amongst the 11 plug-in effects supplied. The others include reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, phaser, filter, limiter, compressor, amp sim and overdrive. Having had a quick play, these all sound pretty god to my ears and the key difference between these and their desktop equivalents in Cubase is that they don’t offer you the same level of detailed control. So, for example, with the EQ, all you get is the ability to add or cut both a high and low frequency filter, with the frequency points being fixed; there is no parametric EQ available. Similarly, the amp sim provides a choice of eight amp/cab models and then drive and treble controls. This might not challenge Garageband’s amp sim or something like Amplitube in terms of features or range of tones but the sound itself is actually pretty good and it is a doddle to use.

Like Auria, Cubasis supports a range of suitable external hardware. Steinberg suggest that devices such as the Alesis IO Dock, Tascam iU2, iM2 and iXZ, Line 6 Mobile In, the various IK Multimedia iRig devices and Focusrite’s iTrack Solo are amongst the compatible hardware while other USB Core Audio/Midi compliant devices ought to work via the Apple camera Connection Kit.

The MIDI editor has enough features to get the job done.

Cubasis also provides a range of import/export options right off the bat. You can export projects to a desktop version of Cubase, Dropbox, SoundCloud or AudioCopy or via email. When creating a mixdown, you get the choice of WAV, M4A or a MIDI file and you can also create a separate

The Sample Editor is equally functional.

file for each track. Cubasis will also run in the background so, if you want to create some synth or drum parts in another app and bring these into Cubasis, that is also possible (although I haven’t yet tried this for myself). You can also import audio via your iTunes library, iTunes itself or via AudioPaste.

Final ‘First’ Thoughts

Having played with Cubasis for a day I’m sure I haven’t explored all the features in depth but, in terms of first impressions, they are overwhelmingly positive. The feature set seems very well balanced and, while there are a few things it would be nice to see added in future updates (mix automation would be top of my own list), as a first release, Cubasis is an impressive app.

The Media window provides access to your projects as well as any MIDI or audio loops and the mixdown options.

If I was a budding iPad musician looking to move beyond Garageband, Cubasis is most certainly a very well featured – and easy to use – next step. Yes, it has a very able competitor in Auria but, at present, their different feature sets mean they are perhaps best for slightly different tasks; Auria as a deep but audio-only environment while Cubasis will appeal if you know you need to combine audio and MIDI but it perhaps lacks some of Auria’s depth in certain (although not all) areas. Cubasis and Auria are, incidentally, both priced at £34.99 (or the equivalent $/€ prices); in app terms at least, these are expensive apps but they are also serious tools aimed at those serious about their recording technology.

If, like me, your desktop DAW of choice is Cubase, then Cubasis is brilliant addition to your music-making toolkit; my mobile recording rig is now very compact (iPad, small audio interface, one half-decent mic and a guitar) and, if I record in Cubasis, I know I can then pass my work to my desktop to flesh it out. Like Garageband and Auria, Cubasis is another example of why the iPad is a seriously useful tool for a recording musician.

So, at the end of day 1, it is a very definite thumbs up for Cubasis on the iPad. Hopefully, when I’ve had a chance to explore in more detail over the next few weeks, I’ll post a follow-up to see how I feel after more extensive use. At this stage, however, Cubasis comes highly recommended and I sincerely hope Steinberg can continue its development to build on what is a very promising start.

 

for readers in North America
for readers in Europe

 

Updates

Feb 1st 2013; Steinberg posted v.1.1 and, aside from ome audio engine tweaks and a few bug fixes, the highlight new feature was support for Audiobus. You can see some more details of that here.

March 11th 2013; Steinberg have posted v1.2. This includes a long list of minor tweaks and improvements in response to user comments/bug reports so the overall operation of the app is now much more solid. The highlight new feature is that Cubasis now supports up to 24 physical inputs and allows simulateous recording of 24 tracks. I have not had a chance to test this but, if it actually works, that is a pretty impressive track count considering we are talking about an iPad-based DAW. Posts on the Steinberg forums suggest that the focus in this update was on consolidation and improved performance while the next update with bring additional features. Fingers crossed.

April 17th 2013; Steinberg have posted v.1.1. See the details here.

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    Comments

    1. Sheridan Kamal says:

      Nice review, i wonder does the drumpad sounds like a real drum. Does it fit for rock/metal.
      Thanks.

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