Cubasis: Professional Audio Production on Your iPad

It’s time to turn the dial up to 11 on professional iPad audio. We’ve been here before — me telling you that a new app takes audio production on your tablet to the next level — but whereas many successful apps focus on instrument functionality, or creative sound design, the folks over at Steinberg dreamt bigger.

They pushed the envelope to bring us what is nearly a fully-featured Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like Logic or their own flagship Cubase, in a portable and touch-oriented form. Cubasis is the result, and we take an in-depth look at it after the jump.

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Introduction

The future is now and it’s getting cooler by the day for creative professionals. With Cubasis, an interesting world of opportunity is opened for composers, musicians, and producers looking to take a powerful DAW solution with them on the go. Cubasis is not the first app to offer this promise — Auria before it remains a fearsome competitor, and one that we’ll compare below — but with its huge fan-base and tight integration with Cubase on the desktop, Steinberg is hitting the ground running.

The question is whether that will be enough to cement it as the de facto DAW of the iPad world.

Form & Function

Familiarity is key in Cubasis. The visual design is a touch-friendly mutation of what Steinberg fans will be used to from across its new product line, and this works in its favour as the learning curve is very gentle for anyone who’s used Cubase before.

Cubasis looks busy, but is impeccably designed.

Cubasis looks busy, but is impeccably designed.

In general, animation and other unnecessary chrome is kept to a minimum — this is a professional app, after all — and the overall aesthetic generally translates quite well to the iPad. Naturally, things feel a bit cramped even with the good use of space, as buttons have to be big enough to present comfortable touch targets, but panels and tools generally do a good job of staying out of your way.

If you’re a fan of Cubase’s design though (personally, I am not), then you’ll be used to the proliferation of toolbars and panels. On the desktop, this is customizable, but in Cubasis you’re largely stuck with the default, which is perfectly functional but not particularly inspiring to work with as compared to the clean look of GarageBand or Traktor DJ (admittedly less complex apps, but still).

Panels, Toolbars, and Views

There are many different areas in Cubasis, as you would expect from a product with such robust functionality. It all revolves around the central sequencer view though. As in any DAW, your work revolves around recording and editing audio or MIDI data into channels and then mixing it all together into a finished product.

MediaBay

When creating a new song, you’ll need to open the MediaBay, which serves as a kind of internal filesystem for Cubasis containing everything from audio recordings and MIDI clips to project files and exported mixes. It even has its own trash bin!

MediaBay is your storage locker for all project files, audio exports, and MIDI sequences.

MediaBay is your storage locker for all project files, audio exports, and MIDI sequences.

Project View

From there, you’ll be taken to the Project view where you can see your entire sequence as a stack of individual tracks. Tracks can contain either audio data that you record or import or, unlike in Auria, they can be MIDI instrument tracks. Cubasis features nearly 80 different sampled instruments based on their HALion Sonic sampler technology.

They mostly sound decent, though they won’t stand up to close scrutiny or comparison with professional quality samples on your desktop. This is to be expected, and won’t stop you from using them as placeholders.

Both audio and MIDI (instrument) tracks are available in Cubasis.

Both audio and MIDI (instrument) tracks are available in Cubasis.

The persistent toolbar at the top of Cubasis offers buttons for easily accessing the app’s advanced features and tools. Alongside the Media button, which opens the MediaBay, you’ll find buttons for bringing up either the Keyboard panel or the Mixer.

The Tools button brings up a full complement of arrangement editing goodies including a basic drag-to-select functionality, region split/merge tools, an eraser, a pen for drawing in new regions, a mute button, and options to quantize or transpose MIDI data to a selectable grid.

4 toolbar

Naturally, you’ll also find Undo/Redo buttons as well as Copy/Paste functionality.

Keyboard

The on-screen keyboard allows you to breeze through octaves easily, has a modwheel for modulating instrument parameters, has an adjustable range, and can even be converted into drum pads for percussion sequencing. It lacks any customizability for restricting notes to certain scales, but it does have a chord mode that allows you to assign chords to buttons 1 through 10 on the panel using the “e” button.

The Keyboard view packs a lot of functionality into a simple interface.

The Keyboard view packs a lot of functionality into a simple interface.

Mixer

The Mixer offers most of the major features you’d expect, including volume and pan settings; mute, solo, and record enable buttons; labels and meters; and both insert and send effect options (more on these a bit later).

On the other hand, there are no groups or auxiliary buses available for mix routing, and you cannot extend the faders to use the full screen, meaning you’re stuck with a fairly short throw distance.

Surprisingly rudimentary, the Mixer will nevertheless fulfill most users' needs.

Surprisingly rudimentary, the Mixer will nevertheless fulfill most users’ needs.

Those are relatively small concerns compared to Cubasis‘ one major failing: there is absolutely no volume or pan automation available in the app. This is a crucial part of the mixing process and stands as a critical flaw in an otherwise terrific feature set.

Luckily, the developers have indicated that the functionality is in the works, so hopefully we can look forward to it in a future update. In the meantime though, its competitor Auria has had parameter automation from the start…

Sample & Key Editors

When you’re looking at your project file, you can double-tap any audio or MIDI region to bring up its respective editor and unleash the full set of editing tools.

The Key Editor is a “piano roll” style editing interface common to most DAW software, and it’s designed to help you manipulate MIDI data. The grid represents notes, where the X axis is indicating pitch (with a helpful piano keyboard to the left) and the Y axis denotes timing. Below, a series of vertical bars represents the “key velocity” (essentially the volume) of each note.

Within the Key Editor, you can use the Tools button in the main toolbar to access the same editing tools from the project view, and use them to manipulate individual MIDI notes instead of entire regions in the arrangement.

Looks just like the piano roll from its desktop cousin, Cubase!

Looks just like the piano roll from its desktop cousin, Cubase!

The Sample Editor is a micro-scale audio editing zone with a basic set of tools to help you trim, fade, reverse, erase, or normalize an audio clip. You can also export the region to an individual audio file that can then be accessed from other projects via the MediaBay, which is handy if you’ve just made a great drum loop, for example.

Like the Keyboard view, it has a navigation bar above the main editing space that helps you zero in on the region you want to edit and change how much of the audio you can see at a time.

All your basic audio editing needs are available here.

All your basic audio editing needs are available here.

It’s Super Effective…Sort Of

No project is complete without the help of some effects plugins to modify the sound or radically change it for sound design purposes. Cubasis covers this aspect of production admirably, offering three slots for insert effects per track as well as three global FX buses that you can send tracks to, with independent control of send levels per track.

For the finishing touches, the master channel also features three insert effect slots that can house a final reverb, a limiter, or some other polishing element.

As far as variety goes, Cubasis offers a good selection of bread & butter plugins: reverb, chorus, flanger, phaser, filter, delay, overdrive, EQ, an amp sim, a compressor, and a limiter.

Unfortunately, here too we run into the frustrating limitation imposed by the lack of any automation system in Cubasis. Looking to do some filter sweeps? You have to play them in by hand each time. It is a bewildering omission. Similarly, although there is a compressor available, the lack of auxiliary signal routing means that you can’t do any side-chained compression techniques — if you’re after that pumping dance effect, you’re out of luck.

Cubasis has an impressive panoply of effects plugins, though they are each quite simple.

Cubasis has an impressive panoply of effects plugins, though they are each quite simple.

Compatibility and Collaborative Functionality

Once you’ve got a handle on the basics, you’ll be interested to start pushing the envelope. You can connect and use almost any major CoreAudio/CoreMIDI compliant hardware (mics, keyboards, etc.) and, like any serious audio app these days, Cubasis offers a robust AudioBus implementation. This allows you to bring audio in or control virtual instruments from various other apps and record them into your project seamlessly.

Needless to say, exporting options are also quite diverse, with everything from basic audio exporting to the MediaBay, SoundCloud, Dropbox, AudioPaste, and WiFi sharing on offer.

The big selling point of Cubasis is, of course, the fact that it plays nicely with its big brother Cubase on the desktop. If you’re using Cubase 6.5 or higher, you can export your Cubasis projects and continue the sessions back at the studio. In principle this is an excellent feature, but it’s not quite as seamless as it could be: for one thing, you need an additional extension installed on your desktop to make it work.

That aside, the ability to pick up right where you left off is very compelling and will be a tremendous selling point to Steinberg’s legion of fans.

Facing the Competition

To help situate this app in the context of the DAW landscape on iOS, I think it’s important we take some time to contrast it against Auria, its major competitor.

They’re both about $50, which is expensive for App Store standards but is actually worth less than what a single one of Auria’s plugins would cost you on the desktop, which is partly why Auria costs more through IAP purchases of extra plugins vs. the self-contained Cubasis.

One big advantage that Cubasis has over Auria is the presence of MIDI capabilities. The fact that you can create and edit instrument tracks makes it much more analogous to a desktop DAW, and while it is not the only iPad app to offer this (BeatMaker 2 and FL Studio Mobile both do as well) it is without a doubt the best.

Cubasis is up against some stiff competition from Auria and others.

Cubasis is up against some stiff competition from Auria and others.

With that said, if you’re not heavily into using MIDI instruments then you’ll find that Auria quite decisively clobbers Cubasis for functionality. You can link two iPads via AuriaLink to create one huge virtual DAW capable of recording 48 tracks simultaneously (at 24-bit/96KHz resolution!), and it also features subgroups and aux channels for mixing, a portrait mode for long-throw fader manipulation, delay compensation, adjustable pan law and metering modes, track freezing, a 64-bit floating point audio engine, video sync with full SMPTE support, full parameter automation for almost everything in the app that can be controlled, an extensive collection of professional plugins ported directly from their desktop versions by some of the best developers in the world (FabFilter, PSP, etc.)…the list goes on.

Even Cubasis‘ star feature — Cubase integration — is challenged by Auria’s ability to export and import AAF format session files, which allow for seamless project file transferring not just with Cubase, but between nearly any major DAW including Logic, Reaper, Pro Tools, etc. For a Logic user like me, that immediately puts it a step ahead.

All of that does little to diminish the appeal of Cubasis for the majority of people, as the kind of advanced functionality that Auria has beyond it is of interest to a relatively small subset of the audience, and major issues like the lack of automation have already been confirmed as coming in an update.

Conclusion

Without a doubt, Cubasis is an incredibly powerful and versatile app for music production on your iPad. Is it the best iPad DAW? Not for me, no, but for a more Steinberg-centric owner with relatively modest mobile music making needs, it may well be a dream come true.

The presence of powerful MIDI functionality is a huge boon, and the familiar interface and straight-forward navigation makes it feel comfortably native for touch. While a lack of automation sticks out like a sore thumb, the overall collection of features makes Cubasis a strong entry into the iOS music app arena.


Summary

While a lack of parameter automation and truly professional features holds it back, its diverse array of consumer-friendly features, tight integration with Cubase, and welcome addition of MIDI instruments make Cubasis a strong contender for the "Best iOS Music Sequencer" title.

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  • QPsychedelic

    Thanks a lot for the review. It’s nice to see a competitor for Auria, but wish both were way cheaper!!! :)

    • http://www.mariusmasalar.me/ Marius Masalar

      Glad you enjoyed :)

      I think the price is right considering the functionality, but they’re certainly beyond the price range of your average iOS toy app, that’s for sure. Serious audio folks will hardly blink at a price like this though, considering the prices for the desktop equivalents!