Cubase 8.5 Pro First Impressions
I've been a user of Sonar software since back in the days of Twelve Tone Systems when Cakewalk was a midi sequencer (no audio). I have written, scored and performed 2 plays and various other works in the midi sequencer version of Cakewalk software. When I decided to concentrate on orchestral music using Virtual Instruments, it was a natural progression to move to the current version of Cakewalk Sonar Digital Audio Workstation. My first album "Into the Misty Forest" was completely performed using Sonar Professional. Cakewalk and I have had a good run. But for me, Sonar lacks important functionality in a few areas. I've been considering moving to Cubase for some time and last year when Steinberg had a great deal on version 7 with free upgrades, I almost took the plunge. Recently I finally made the move to Cubase and so far have been very pleased with my decision.
Here are several things that impress me about Cubase 8.5 compared to the similar feature in Sonar.
Great midi editing tools Since the majority of my time is spent entering and editing midi data, powerful and flexible midi editing is important to me. The key editor in Cubase (known as the piano roll view in Sonar) has some very helpful features. You can see note names on each bar. This really helps when editing notes, especially when you are not near the piano keyboard at the very left of the screen. The bars can be colored in different ways, not just by channel or track. This is useful when you are working with certain parameters like velocity or when working with expression maps. The editing cursor and tools are easy to set and change. But here is the big difference for me: editing Continuous Controllers. In Sonar the editing is so difficult to do that I convert all CCs to automation envelopes. That takes extra time and if I want to rerecord a CC, it is difficult to update the envelope. In Cubase it is a breeze to draw CC envelopes in the key editor.
Expression Maps Expression maps are a feature of Cubase that lets you work with articulation and volume changes in a way that is easy and powerful. Many sample libraries use keyswitches to change articulations. But who can remember what notes do what? Each library and instrument usually has unique keyswitches. When you look at the track in the PRV, all you see is a really low (or really high) note. There is no way to tell what the keyswitch note does. With Expression Maps, you get a visual cue in form of an musical symbol or text. These cues display in the key editor and in the score editor. There is no need to remember long lists of keyswitches. Just select the articulation you want in the articulation lane. This is an incredible time-saver!
Score Editor I mostly write orchestral scores and I strongly prefer to write and orchestrate using a notation view, even if I later play the lines in manually for better sounding results. The staff view in Sonar is unfortunately not very useful to me. I've tried to use it, but it is just to difficult to use and doesn't have nearly enough features for what I do. I often use a notation program (Notion 5), export the midi and import it into Sonar. This takes a lot of extra time but it's the only way I can use a notation editor. If Sonar supported music XML import this would be a simpler task but not as good as a built-in notation editor. Cubase has a pretty good score editor. No it isn't Sibelius but it is light-years ahead of the Sonar staff view. It will take time to become proficient in its use, but I expect that will be time well spent. And if I want to use Notion, Cubase imports and exports Music XML so I could start in Notion, work in Cubase and then export in Notion for printing.
Industry Standard If you watch YouTube videos or training videos on virtual orchestration, you are likely to see Cubase in use. You almost never see Sonar outside of a Sonar tutorial. Again, not that there is anything wrong with Sonar, but Cubase is definitely more widely in use. And it seems to be used by professional orchestrators and for good reason - it is a powerful tool when in skilled hands.
There are many other features that drew me to Cubase, but the ones listed here are the big ones for me. I'll still visit the Sonar forums. The community is second to none. But Sonar will probably not be seeing much usage going forward. It's a bit sad really, like moving away from your friends.