When it comes to iOS DAW software the first thing you need to do is understand exactly what you might achieve with it. Can it be the central hub of your music-making or is it a mobile solution to augment a full studio elsewhere? That complete studio may well be equipped with Cubase – now at version 7 – which is a popular and powerful DAW, and in this case it would certainly make sense to load your iPad with Cubasis, the iOS version of Cubase that’s capable of exporting projects to Cubase 6.5 and upwards.
What if you’re planning that all your music will be based on an iPad and there’s no “big” studio anywhere? How does Cubasis shape up?
Cubasis provides unlimited audio and midi tracks, really meaning your iPad’s resources will determine how far you can go. Plenty of standard plug-ins are available to apply to any track or you can route a maximum of three auxiliary sends to either a reverb or delay effect. Included in those plug-ins is an Amp Sim for guitarists. You also get more than 60 virtual instruments and over 300 midi and audio loops. All told, it seems more than enough to whack out a decent tune you’d think.
The Arrange window of the GUI offers the basic tools of any sequencer and some menus slightly grey-out depending on choosing the appropriate clip. For example Transpose and Quantize functions are only possible on MIDI clips, not audio and while this makes perfect sense, initially you may get a bit confused as to why something doesn’t want to work, before you realise that shade of grey isn’t bright enough. Icons to open a rudimentary Mixer window or a Media (Bay) give you the other required workspaces for any DAW plus a Keys button opens a piano keyboard that switches to pads when necessary – but you can use either. Both offer velocity-sensitive playing with the piano keys being a little more playable than the pads – the centre of the pad being loudest and fading towards the edges. However, the pads can be assigned to either single hits of keyboard notes (e.g. piano sounds) or a wide variety of chord shapes like major, minor or 7th types – a very handy cheat for non-keyboard players.
As for those sounds, the virtual instruments are quite basic, although still okay as far as authenticity goes. The electronic synths have only a few in each category that have much wow factor, but hey… this ain’t Native Instrument’s Absynth or Steinberg’s own complete HALion collection. That guitar Amp Sim plug-in is disappointing with a harsh, too-digital distortion that just doesn’t inspire anything. An Overdrive effect isn’t any better. Considering that Cubasis supports Audiobus forget these two plug-ins and get hold of something like IK Multimedia’s Amplitube – problem solved.
When it comes to arranging and edit your tunes Cubasis provides all the usual flexibility across the time-line, plus functions inside an Audio Edit Window like Trim, Reverse, Normalise and Fades. Likewise tapping on an MIDI clip opens a MIDI editing window for adjusting the length, velocity and position of MIDI notes. Particularly in the MIDI editing Cubasis gives you most of what frequent MIDI programmers will ever need without getting into the real Star Trek uber-editing functions that the full Cubase 7 offers. The concept of working on some sequencing away from your main studio is definitely here MIDI-wise.
However in both editing windows it’s the iPad touch-screen work surface that starts to make life a bit frustrating. Selecting things like notes or sections of audio can be tricky and you often need several attempts to grab what you want. Unless you zoom in close – but then you begin to lose perspective of the overall track. The unfortunate answer is a lot of patience, constant changing of the viewing area and practising those touch-surface skills.
On its own Cubasis is a capable iOS DAW that can do a great job of audio tracks that are recorded well, or at least don’t need too much tweaking. Of course, you’re always going to get a better mixdown result exporting those tracks to a bigger, better DAW, but at the same Cubasis has all the plug-in tools to provide a taste of what that mixdown can be. The MIDI tracks and virtual instruments are a little limited (as you’d expect), but still okay for sketching out programming ideas to be used elsewhere. Obviously, if you have Cubase in a larger studio setup too then exporting those ideas across to that will be even easier, however you can still do the same for other DAWs.
Like other similar iOS apps, it’s the iOS environment and work surface that always discourages centring your music-making solely on an app like Cubasis. The more clever and full-featured apps like Cubasis are, the more complex the workflow on an iOS device becomes. It kind of defeats the idea of being spontaneous and having a mobile DAW to capture those inspired ideas.
The bottom line for me is that Cubasis is an iOS DAW that has a lot to offer for song writing and song development with its virtual instruments and mixing facilities beyond what you’d call just a sketch-book approach – but still don’t get too ambitious. Leave that for the likes of Cubase 7.
Developer: Steinberg Media Technologies www.steinberg.net
Cost: $51.99 (Australian App Store)
Reviewed with: iPad 4, Avid Fast Track Duo audio interface