There’s no shortage of music-production software that specialises in electronic musical genres, but few put the emphasis on recording live instruments.
Steinberg’s Cubase is our favourite of the latter type, but at £440, it’s too expensive for most amateurs. This is where Cubase Essential steps in. It includes the core features of Cubase, jettisons various advanced tools and costs a quarter the price.
This is excellent news for anyone who wants a mature, dependable recording environment rather than lots of sonic gadgets. Features such as flexible snap-to-grid options, crossfading between audio objects and support for tempo are among the highlights. Mix automation is also included and works like keyframe editing for video, allowing you to vary mixer settings gradually over time. Meanwhile, a 32-bit audio signal path, the ability to record from multiple simultaneous sources and sophisticated signal routing (where you can pre-mix subgroups of audio streams) distinguish it from most home-oriented recording software.
The downside is that a program of this depth isn’t quick to master. You have to configure the software to your sound card for the best results. There’s also music-production jargon to contend with, and advanced techniques such as mix automation won’t come easily to casual users. The PDF manual is well written, though, and after a few initial hurdles, the software is fairly easy to get up and running.
Many people considering Cubase Essential 5 will be more interested in what it lacks compared with Cubase 5. Limitations of 64 audio tracks, 16 instrument plug-ins and eight global effects will affect only the most ambitious producers. Meanwhile, support for up to eight insert effects (such as bass boost) per track is just as generous as in the flagship version, and a far cry from the two per track of previous cut-down versions.
Other omissions, such as integration with external hardware, multiple mixer views and surround sound support will make little difference to non-professional users. However, it’s a shame that stacked recording is also absent. This mode records multiple takes to a single track, making it easier to combine them into a single best take later. We’re also disappointed – but not really surprised – that the powerful VariAudio vocal editor is absent.
The most significant differences lie in the bundled plug-ins. Cubase’s highest-quality reverb, compressor and EQ effects are missing, as are other more specialised effects, but those that are included cover all the bases and their quality is far from disappointing. The instrument plug-ins follow a similar vein: there are only two compared with Cubase 5’s eight, but together these virtual-analogue and general-purpose synthesizers provide a broad palette of sounds.
Cubase is worth the high price for those who can afford it, but Cubase Essential isn’t lacking in the areas that really matter. Yet another version, Cubase Studio, sits in the middle at £270, but its feature list is much closer to Cubase Essential’s than Cubase’s. Compared with rival cut-price applications such as Cakewalk Sonar Home Studio, Cubase Essential 5 is easily the most polished and capable music-production software currently available for hard-up musicians.