Cubase rebrands its consumer music production software again, with successful results.
For those in the business of designing low-cost creative software, taking a professional application and stripping out some advanced features is often a recipe for success. However, striking the right balance between features and price can be difficult.
For Steinberg, this challenge seems to be taking its toll. As the full-price version of Cubase 6 goes from strength to strength, version 6 marks yet another rebranding of the entry-level version, now going by the name, Cubase Elements.
It's a little cheaper than Cubase Essentials 5, which it ostensibly replaces. However, there's no discounted upgrade for existing users – hardly surprising when you consider that, in some respects, moving from Essentials 5 to Elements 6 constitutes a downgrade. Many of the maximum track counts have decreased: audio tracks from 64 to 48, MIDI tracks from unlimited to 64, group channels from 256 to 16 and physical inputs from 32 to 24. We were able to open projects created in Essentials 5 but any elements that exceeded these thresholds could not be modified.
Cubase Essential users will need to upgrade to the mid-price Cubase Artist 6 in order to avoid these limitations. At least this upgrade is reasonably priced at $129.
While Cubase Elements is a non-starter for existing users, there's plenty here to tempt people who are looking to move beyond consumer-orientated recording software.
The interface is fundamentally identical to the full version of Cubase, with smart graphics and responsive navigation controls that zoom from a project overview to sample-level editing in a fraction of a second. The core recording, editing and mixing tools are well specified and refined, with sophisticated MIDI quantising, variable time signatures and tempos, plus lots of smart design flourishes that help users keep on top of complex projects.
Audio fidelity is just as high as in the flagship version, with projects running at up to 96kHz with 32-bit floating-point processing. There are other factors that might affect the quality of recordings, though. Cubase's best time-stretch algorithm is absent, and the lack of side-chain inputs for effects prohibits certain advanced mixing techniques.
Most significantly, the effects plugin bundle is scaled back, with Cubase's best effects notably absent. Still, there's enough here to cover all the key tasks and their audio quality is up to scratch. As usual, the effects are easily augmented with third-party plugins in VST format.
The virtual instrument bundle is excellent for the price, with three capable plugins for drums, analogue-style synthesis and sample playback. The latter comes with just 185 built-in sounds but they cover a broad spectrum from orchestral, ethnic and pop instrument emulations to abstract synths.
Most of the other omissions probably won't be missed. Some, such as surround mixing and integration with hardware effects processors, simply aren't relevant to the majority of users. Others, including the VariAudio vocal pitch editor, audio quantise functions and Stacked Recording for handling multiple takes, are ancillary features – useful but not essential.
There are a couple of areas where we feel Steinberg has trimmed back too far. The Mixer window just shows a fader and a few buttons for each channel, with most mixing controls only available, one channel at a time, in the Channel Settings window or Inspector panel. This approach works fine for EQ and insert effects, which are usually handled on a per-channel basis, but there's no way to get an overview of how the various mixer channels are routed. Signal routing is tricky enough for less experienced users without Steinberg denying them an overview.
Meanwhile, the track count limitations listed above – particularly 48 audio tracks – will be off-putting for those who like to layer up lots of sounds or want to record a live band. However, for many people, the increase in virtual instrument tracks, from 16 in Cubase Essentials to 24 here, will be more significant.
Finally, there's also a lot of jargon and complex recording techniques for newcomers to contend with. The Project Assistant helps by providing template projects such as Piano + Vocal. However, while they save users the trouble of naming individual tracks and adding a plugin or two, the trickier tasks of composing, recording, editing and mixing are still waiting to be done.
That's as it should be, though. This software is best suited to musicians willing to embrace the techniques used by professionals, instead of software that delivers instant gratification but limits precision and creative freedom.
Cubase Elements' features may be a little too restricted in places, but there's enough to produce high-quality recordings in any genre. And with a clear upgrade path to our favourite professional recording software, it's the best choice for ambitious users on a tight budget.
You can download Cubase Elements 6 from the Steinberg website.