Cubase 5 Review: Easy Enough for Amateurs

My parameters for evaluating home audio recording software are simple: 1) Can I figure out how to use it without being an audio engineer? 2) Does it have the features I need to get quality results?

These parameters are, of course, totally open to debate by purists, who would say that no, if you don’t understand the finer points of audio mixing / EQ, mastering, etc. then it doesn’t really matter whether the software has them or not, because you’re the problem, not the software.

But I disagree. This blog is all about indie musicians getting stuff done on their own. And so for me, the signs of a quality product are the ease with which I can approach it for the first time and create a quality recording. With
Steinberg Cubase 5 DAW Software Standard
, that’s exactly what I’ve done, and I’ve been pleased with my initial experiences.

The Song / Recording Project

Recently tasked with re-recording one of my songs to a video of me playing it, I had to find a new piece of software to use. The song is about my experiences as a helper/translator on a medical mission to the Dominican Republic.

My Initial Impressions

Having spent years using Digital Performer, and then briefly trying a demo version of Cakewalk before it kept crashing my computer, I was a little put off by the Cubase 5 track controls. There are a million different little icons around the recording/editing screens and I usually count on these to be totally intuitive, which in this case they seemed much less so. When trying Cakewalk, it was as easy as 1-2-3 to take a look and figure out how the major functions worked. Also, Cubase 5 didn’t automatically identify my MOTU 828 audio interface and configure itself for it, which I would have liked it to do. Cakewalk did this no problem, and Digital Performer (also made by MOTU) worked with it like a charm. Some of the track editing tools and features were less than intuitive as well, though I was quickly able to find tutorials online to show me the way.

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Capturing Inspiration on the Fly

caravaggioMany of my best song ideas seem to “happen” during brief windows of creativity, moments where I lose all “thought” and self awareness and just imagine what this unborn song sounds like, trying on different moods, tempos, vibes and vocal sounds. Typically I will have some rhythmic thing or riff on the acoustic guitar, and then just make up vocal sounds that seem to reflect whatever the music is conveying. I don’t bother with real words, just nonsensical stuff, sometimes just vocalizations of syllables.

What I typically do is just let my portable recorder run, and then go off for several minutes on the idea. Stop listen play back see if there are any bits of gold to be found. Once I have essence of something I really like, then I may spend weeks or months trying to polish that vision. But the best part has already happened, the idea has been born, and often times the non-words weird sounds vocal stuff is more appealing to me than actual lyrics, because it is that much closer to pure instrumental expression. But this is coming from someone who hears the music first and lyrics second practically always, and I know there’s a strong camp for the opposite.

Anyway. Not that this is that important. But in the past I would have to setup my laptop to record any small stupid idea I had, and then I bought a crappy dictaphone, which works at least to capture something so you don’t forget the rhythm or whatever entirely next time you sit down to play it. But what I use now is this neat and inexpensive recorder called the Zoom H2 Handy Portable Stereo Recorder that I got as a gift for Christmas. It records at whatever level of digital quality you could want, mp3, wav, etc, is super easy and portable, and has great sound quality for capturing off-the-cuff moments of inspiration.

Sometimes I’ll write out ideas on staff paper so I don’t forget them, but this is usually too tedious for me, since my music notation skills are truly rusty and were never that good anyways.

What do you guys use to capture your rough ideas?

How to Maximize Your First Studio Recording Experience


This is a “guest post” taken from an email exchange with Adam von Gootkin, co-owner and producer at Onyx Soundlab.

How to Maximize your First Studio Recording Experience

You have to have a plan going in. Are you recording to put together your first demo to hand out at shows, or are you ready to start submitting material to record labels?  Will you be selling the material, or just trying to get something simple recorded?  Having a good plan going in leads you to putting together your reasonable budget for a project.  Your expectations should match the size of your budget.  I get a lot of clients that call up and their main question/concern is what is our hourly recording rate.  One of the things I try to educate our clients on, is that it’s better to have a budget in mind before you start calling studios.  If you know you’ve got $1,500 and want to do a demo, then we will customize a package based on that price.  

Pro Studio Rates: Value vs. Cost

It is VERY important to understand that cheaper prices don’t mean anything.  I often say, if you’re primary concern is finding the cheapest recording rate, then we will not be the studio for you. You really get what you pay for in terms of recording.  For example, we include a producer with ALL recording packages we offer to independant artists.  That comes included in our standard recording rate, which is very rare.  And our prices are comparable with other high end studios in the area.  An experienced producer can sometimes charge upwards to $250 an hour, so there is a lot of value there and it definitely shows in the end product.  Remember to shop for studios on a value basis, not necessarily price.  If you find a home or garage based studio and there price is super cheap, recognize it is likely the acoustics are not great, the equipment is cheaper and the skill set of the engineer/producer may not be to the level you require.

One Great Song is More Valuable than Five Mediocre Ones

It is important to look at the big picture.  If you’re a young band with no funding, and your intentions are to get a pro-sounding 5 song demo for $300, the fact is that will not be a reality.  So you have to alter your plan.  I always say having one really well recorded songs instead of 5 songs that haven’t been well mixed is a much better way to go….but again, that depends on your end goal.

Have a Plan

At the end of the day, you have to look at pro recording and a music career as a business venture.  You have only one product, you and your music.  If I was getting started in a band or as a solo artist and had a limited budget, I would spend a few months saving and raising money to do a pro recording. I would look for a studio that could offer guidance and help with production in addition to just recording.  That would ensure I could do the recording once, and have some solid material to hand out, shop out, or sell for the next year or two.  It will save you money over the long run and likely get you where you want to be faster.  Have a plan, know your goals, organize your funding, and have reasonable expectations.  Like they say in construction:  "Measure twice, cut once!"

Thanks again to Adam for giving his feedback. As a pro studio owner, he didn’t necessarily agree with my previous post about sticking with my home recordings for the time being because my limit budget has led to some disappointments in pro studios in the past.

Audio Recording Software – Home Studios

I’m at the point where I want to start putting more demos together of songs that have been accumulating in the back of my mind, as well as record a couple things of decent quality. In the past, I’ve looked at professional studio recording as the most desirable route, and always saw my home recordings as a stepping stone for final studio versions to come down the road.

Home Studio Sounds vs. Never-Good-Enough Pro Studios
In retrospect, however, some of my favorite recordings are the ones I’ve done myself over the years, in various semi-isolated basements and apartment bedrooms, etc. The recordings were solo efforts with relatively simple orchestrations, and perhaps because of that they have a real naked personality and warmth to them. With my pro studio efforts, good is never good enough. If I’m paying a ton of money for something, I want it to be perfect, but it never is. No matter how much I spend, it’s just not going to sound as good as the major label releases I hear. And that pisses me off. There are analog instruments like the drums, for example, that I’m convinced you need huge studio budgets to get top quality recording sounds.

So instead of spending more money I don’t have on pro studio recordings that I will find fault with, I’m going to focus on bare-bones home demos for a while. It’s really just a few songs that I want to focus on, but I love the intimate nature of hearing the full voice, a guitar, some nice subtle effects and maybe another instrument or two. And given my limited technical knowledge, that’s about all I can successfully capture in my home studio. I also want to venture into electronic instruments, which by their nature don’t require nearly the same level of expense to get good sounds.

Audio Recording Software: Which to Choose?
I’ve been researching again the possibilities for home studio audio recording software, so I may post some reviews of what I look at. In the past I’ve used Digital Performer with great success, but my Mac is old and barely running. Unfortunately it looks like my options are limited to PC platforms for now. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I’m considering: Cakewalk, Cubase, Audacity (free open source software for really basic recording), and a few others.