As most regular readers here will be aware, I’m a regular Cubasis user on my iPad having used Cubase on my desktop for many years. Since Steinberg introduced their iOS-sized Cubase sibling, it has established itself as one of the most popular DAW/sequencer platforms for iOS music making.
The interface is generally very slick, the feature set is well chosen and it comes bundled with a decent selection of effects and virtual instrument options. All-in-all, with the right additional hardware (mics, audio interfaces, etc.) it can easily form the software hub of your iPad-based recording studio.
And while the Cubasis feature set is obviously streamlined compared to the desktop version (for example, much more limited MIDI editing options), compared to the tape-based 4-track recorders some of us started our recording journey on, this is a space age virtual studio just bursting with features; if your Cubasis recordings really suck, the odds are it’s not Cubasis that is really the problem.
If you happen to be looking for a compact audio interface to use with your iPad, as I posted a couple of weeks ago, Steinberg are now offering you an incentive to buy into one of their (or some of their selected partners) hardware options by offering a ‘free’ version of Cubasis; Cubasis LE.
The new app is a cut-down version of Cubasis and, while it is a free download from the App Store, until you connect one of the approved bits of hardware (and there is a full list on the Steiberg website), then the app only operates in a ‘demo’ mode (you can see it working but can’t actually record anything). However, plug in a suitable hardware device and the app is unlocked to give you the LE feature set…. and, once you are ready, there are IAPs available that move you up to the full Cubasis feature set.
So, if you are looking to get started on your iPad recording studio, would a combination of an ‘approved’ audio/MIDI interface from Steinberg, Yamaha, Line 6, Tascam or Allen & Heath – plus the ‘free’ Cubasis LE – make for a good starting place? Let’s find out what Cubasis LE has to offer.
Slim to super-slim
So, if Cubasis is a slimmed-down version of Cubase, just how super-slim is Cubasis LE as a slimmed-down version of Cubasis? Well, once unlocked with suitable hardware you get a maximum of 4 audio tracks and 4 MIDI tracks, support for a maximum of 2 audio input channels and an audio format of 16-bit/44.1kHz (although internal audio processing is done at 32-bit resolution). All these numbers are, of course, different from the full version of Cubasis where track counts only limited by your iOS hardware’s ability to cope and 24-bit/96kHz audio support.
In terms of effects, Cubasis LE ships with just three effects options (the App Store description implies four?) and, as neither Audiobus or IAA are supported (you can insert Cubasis LE into an Audiobus slot but you don’t get any functionality), you are limited to just these basic effects choices; the Studio EQ, Delay and Chorus. You can, however, purchase the two FX Pack IAPs that are also available in the full version of Cubasis. I reviewed these some time ago on the blog and they remain good value for money.
In terms of virtual instruments you get MicroSonic with 25 virtual instrument sounds but no access to IAA instruments, no Micrologue and no MiniSampler. As far as I can see the bundled MIDI loop collection included in the full version is also absent here.
The Mixer is present and correct and you also get the virtual piano keyboard, the Sample Editor and the Key (MIDI piano roll) Editor, the latter with basic quantize options. However, the Chord Pads are not available and LE does not feature the automation system of the full version.
You do get a reasonable selection of export features though. You can mix down your projects to a WAV file and export MIDI. You can also import audio into Cubasis LE via iTunes so, if you had created an electronic music bed in, for example, Gadget, Oscilab or iMachine 2, you could place that on a single stereo Cubasis LE audio track and then add some other musical parts around it.
Note that all the ‘missing’ options identified above ‘appear’ in the app’s menus and screens.… but when you try to access them, you get a polite reminder that they are not available in the LE version…. and an equally polite reminder that they are available if you buy the ‘full Cubasis’ IAP.
Unlock the box
This last option is actually quite interesting as it is currently priced at UK£22.99 while the full Cubasis app is currently selling for UK£39.99. OK, the saving might not be enough to justify picking one of the Steinberg approved audio devices over some other choice you might be about to make, but if you are going down that route anyway, the ‘LE to full’ IAP would make for something of a saving.
Incidentally, I used my existing Line 6 Sonic Port to unlock Cubasis LE on my iPad Pro test system and, as this device is on the approved list, it worked a treat. Interestingly, once unlocked, it didn’t seem to matter whether I had the Sonic Port plugged in or not and Cubasis LE seemed happy to also work with alternative hardware (for example, an iRig Pro Duo that I reviewed a week or so ago).
I’m not sure how long this ‘unlock once, use forever?’ might apply or whether you get occasional prompts to re-attach the hardware used for unlocking? I’d need to work with the app for longer to test this issue but the unlock didn’t survive a delete/re-install cycle of Cubasis LE as I had to repeat the unlocking process once the app was re-installed.
My only other concern with the IAP is whether it would just unlock the current full version of Cubasis or whether it would also unlock any future features added as the full version of the app gets updated. Perhaps that is something that Steinberg might clarify for users at some stage so they can make a fully informed decision about which route to take?
Of course, what you do still get is the very polished (and very familiar if you happen to be a Cubase user) interface. Aesthetics are a mater of personal taste but I think Cubasis (and therefore Cubasis LE) is one of the slicker music apps we have under iOS; perfect no, but very good indeed and while it brings very much a conventional take on the DAW/sequencing environment, it does make good use of the touchscreen.
All that said, given the super-streamlined feature set of LE, is it still a useable platform? In essence, what you are getting here is a four-track audio DAW (mono or stereo tracks) with four MIDI tracks that are confined to the small collection of included MicroSonic sounds. You can send MIDI from a track to an external synth but, of course, without IAA or Audiobus, it is less easy to then capture that external audio back into Cubasis LE as part of a final mix.
You also get basic mixing, a very modest selection of effects and basic audio/MIDI editing… although all the usual tools for arranging audio or MIDI clips along the timeline are available.
OK, so let’s rewind 20 or so years…. If you were starting out in the world of home/personal recording in the mid-1990s, a four track audio recording environment with some MIDI support, a few effects, and convenient editing and mixdown options would actually have been a pretty capable starting point. Lots of budding musicians would have spent a great deal of time thinking about just how they could afford such a system and just how many musical options it might present them with.
Today we are perhaps somewhat blasé about track counts, endless effects and virtual instrument options and mix automation. Yes, just as 20 years ago, you still need a hardware basis to accommodate that virtual studio software, but the fact that you can get that functionality in software costing under UK£39.99 (yep, the price of Cubasis), is pretty remarkable.
Those just starting out, however, can easily find all this ‘stuff’ just a bit daunting and there is quite a lot to be said for keeping things simple while you find your (recording) feet. I think that’s exactly what Cubasis LE is intended for. If you are can find one of the supported audio devices that fits your needs/budget, the fact that you then get a stripped-back DAW/sequencer as part of the deal is going to be very attractive.
I think the feature set is just about right for a user to get a taste of what the Cubasis/Cubase product line is about without getting drowned in a sea of features that, for a beginner, would simply be confusing. And when you are ready to move on, Steinberg have plenty of options further up the food-chain including, of course, the full version of Cubasis. That is, of course, all part of the marketing strategy but it doesn’t stop it being a decent starter package.
That said, even a more seasoned recording fan could have a lot of fun with Cubasis LE and, if you just needed a few audio/MIDI tracks to knock out compositional ideas or capture a strummed guitar/vocal demo of a song idea, Cubasis LE would be more than up to the task. In addition, if you run out of tracks, you can always resort to the old-school method of track bouncing (remember when we needed to do that?)…. except, of course, it’s much easier to do in an environment like Cubasis (LE or otherwise) as you can make a copy of your project, ‘audio mixdown’ a few tracks, delete the original tracks to release some tracks for re-use, and import the mixed version of those original tracks on to a single stereo track before you continue to add more stuff. Yes, it comes with all the downsides of old-school track bouncing but not the tape hiss and can be done in seconds.
If you are an experienced iOS recording fan then I suspect you will already own a DAW/sequencing package that is more fully-featured than Cubasis LE. However, for those just starting out, Steinberg have put together a stripped back feature set that will ease you in to the wonderful world of personal recording without too much of a headache.
Yes, this is a sweetener to encourage you to buy into the Steinberg hardware brand (or one of the partner brands) but the list of approved devices has something for pretty much everyone, from the very iOS-friendy/portable Line 6 Sonic Port through to Steinberg’s more upmarket models in the UR range.
Oh, and speaking of the UR range, I’m hoping that a review unit of the new UR22 mkII is going to arrive at Music App Blog HQ shortly. At €159, the spec does look very good indeed.
I suspect that most folks who make a start with Cubasis LE will, at some stage not too far down the journey, think about moving up to some more powerful software but, as a starting point, this is a perfectly respectable place to begin. All singing and all dancing it is not…. but solid, slick and reliable it certainly seems to be. And as a freebie with some hardware that you would need anyway, there is little not to like about the overall deal.