Neon Drifts – Steinberg’s Incredible Neon Drifts Sound Set

For decades now music companies have been expanding their income by releasing sound sets that were not in the original package. These range from very good (such as Band-in-a-Box) to blatant money grabs by seemingly intentionally leaving things out to sell as “extras”. As we have seen so often, Steinberg has taken the high road to a new level. Their terrific Neon Drifts gives you more than just a terrific set of 150 new sounds. But let me put this in context first.

Cubase 11 contains a very powerful synthesizer as a VST plug-in, Retrologue 2. Over the past week this program has gone from one I senselessly forgot to my favourite synth and is my go-to for pure synthesis. It combines the best of the early era of sound synthesis with modern digital automation that does away with patch cords (a huge advantage if you can remember the amazing tangles of wires that used to be impossible to debug when things went wrong.)

Neon Drifts brings classic sounds of the 80’s and the games of the arcade years with a modern spin. This alone would convince many synthesists to jump at these sounds, but there are FOUR major reasons that you should be one of them.


There are 150 top-notch sounds that expand your sonic palette to new sounds that will seem vaguely familiar already, but are completely original. Not a simple feat to do for even a few, and here are 150!


You can modify these sounds with the full complement of Retrologue 2’s synth capabilities, which are immense. At this point I will recommend that you listen to Dom’s overview of Neon Drifts on YouTube to hear and see just some of the sounds and how you can modify them


If you pay close attention to the screen during the video, you will notice that the position of all knobs, bars, faders, etc. are shown with each sound, and update in real time to show you the effect that your sound sculpting is having and why. You can learn how the creators of the sounds got them, and learn how to do things that you like from the sound itself. This is an invaluable way to learn to make similar sounds, and give you great starts from which to begin your own personal library of sounds. And if you consider yourself a pro, you might want to consider “Look mum, no oscillators” which is true to its word, not generating its cool sounds using even the LFO’s! A master class on sound creation and synthesis.

Number 4

Maybe best of all, these 150 excellent, educational sounds will cost you $19.99! I had to put my glasses on to be sure I wasn’t mist-reading the screen, but that is the cost, and it makes Neon Drifts a steal!

I had to take time out from doing my taxes to work, naw, PLAY with Neon Drifts and it was the most fun I’ve had from a synth in a very, very long time.

IN SUMMARY: Retrologue 2 is a dream synthesizer that is made even more fun with the incredibly affordable Neon Drifts 2. I give it my absolute highest recommendation for quality and affordability. With the search for new sounds heating up so much during this last year, this is a product that will give every user their own advantage, because there are virtually infinite variations on all 150 new sounds. Buy it! And set aside a LOT of time to play!

Jazz Guitar Improvisation Strategies

SUMMARY: The absolute best book on learning jazz improvisation I have ever seen (and I have seen a LOT)! A complete course on learning to improvise that takes you on a long journey with small steps, but if you do the work you will get there. If you truly want to learn to improvise jazz guitar, get this book!

Unlike most books that claim to teach you to improvise guitar jazz, Steven Kirby undersells his great new method with the title Jazz Guitar Improvisation Strategies. Like most such books, he does make big promises about what you will be able to play after working with his book, but unlike virtually every one that I’ve seen, he fulfills them! This book provides a comprehensive method for learning to improvise.

Another crucial element that Kirby states right up front is that you, the reader, are responsible for your own learning, and he will guide you along the way. Your “duties” include deep listening to jazz (not just putting it on in the background at a party) and analyzing your favourite parts. This should hardly be called work if you are aiming to be able to do what your jazz guitar heroes are doing. For his part, Mr. Kirby will lead you from simple skills to more and more complex ones, never going beyond where you should be at any point. In fact, he periodically stops and tells you not to go beyond that page until you can demonstrate the skills he has been demonstrating, and you have supposedly been practising. He even shows you how to practise for maximum benefit, usually in sessions of 15 minutes. This is goal-directed learning, with small goals that you can attain in these short but intense workouts.

You may not believe that he will guide you to this level accomplishment, especially since most of us have tried several methods that have abjectly failed us even after months or years of practice. I strongly suggest that you read the entire book before starting to work with it, to get an idea of how comprehensive your work will be. I tried to retain my skepticism while reading the whole thing, but once I got to the last few chapters I was convinced that this is an exceptional method. I say this with some authority. When working for Just Jazz Guitar I came across at least one jazz improvisation book a month, often one a week. Most were warmed-over versions of their teachers’ methods that had already been published, and were not very successful as methods. This book stands head-and-shoulders above any of those books, and I am going to use it myself to improve my own improvising. I’m marking it in my calendar to give you an update in one year, but I don’t expect to be “finished” by then. There is always more to learn, and Steven Kirby gives you strategies to keep improving for years.

Kirby points out that many of the jazz greats loved and studied the music of J. S. Bach, and this is still an excellent way to learn to improvise. Bach was a master of single-line music that clearly expresses the underlying harmony, and there is a lot you can learn from listening and studying his music, and even playing it. HOWEVER, there is a catch, and an important one. As a guitarist, you might look for transcriptions of Bach on guitar, and this defeats the entire purpose. Transcribers virtually always add in harmony so you lose the single lines and your opportunity to find the underlying harmony for yourself. They also usually change the key, but this is much less important than the fact that many of their chords are guesses, and are often wrong. Sadly, one of the worst was Andres Segovia, who”beefed up” Bach’s magnificent violin Chaconne with 6-note chords; this in music for a 4-string instrument! This is just one example of hundreds, if not thousand of changes that Bach’s music has endured in transcription, and not just for the guitar. Some of the nuances of single lines are lost on piano as well as other instruments. So I urge you to listen to his music for solo violin and solo cello (aka solo violoncello).

Sets of his suites, partitas and sonatas for cello and violin are available in affordable books from Dover. For listening, I recommend the Cello Suites played by Yo-Yo Ma, particularly his later set which is more expressive, although either set is magnificent. For violin there are many choices: Itzhak Perlman plays a beautiful version, as does Viktoria Mullova, whose new recording includes both sonatas and partitas (her first recording is just the partitas). Mullova’s new version also benefits from her years of study of Baroque performance practice if you are interested in a more “authentic” style.

You may also want to use the IMSLP/Petrucci online library, with an enormous collection of out-of-copyright music that you can download in score, some in MIDI, and others in performance. All this is free, but if you use it extensively I would suggest a donation, and if possible subscribing for quicker access and to keep the library online for the future. (For $28.00 per year you have instant access to the music of thousands of composers, and the list grows daily.)

The listening and analysis are to serve the goal of being able to play smoothly over the chord changes, so that a listener can hear the underlying chord progression from a smooth line. This type of motion is what Kirby calls “flow”, which is different from the widely known psychological concept of Flow, pioneered by  Mihaly (“Mike”) Csikszentmihalyi . This is a state you reach when you are concentrating on something just slightly beyond your current knowledge, or creating something such as music, so that time seems to disappear and you “come out of it” minutes or hours later, having made significant progress. (I had the honour of speaking with Mike at a conference in Italy, and the list of famous musicians alone who participated in his research  is staggering!) I can only give you the short version, and I recommend Csikszentmihalyi‘s book “Flow” for a fuller explanation, as well as “The Evolving Self” which would fit nicely with the program that Kirby sets out to enable you to improvise beyond anything you believe that you can do now. Just one of Kirby’s techniques is a 15-minute practice session in which you set a goal that you can achieve in that time (and he gives several examples at different levels) so that at the end of the session you can do what you could not at the start. This is a perfect way to generate Flow, and also to give each session your best. Who could not find 15 minutes to practice, especially when you know you will achieve something? You will even learn how to set these goals by breaking down larger goals, so that after several sessions you will have achieved this larger goal, which itself may be part of an even larger one. And of course you can practice longer, as well as other things such as learning songs.

I am not just tooting my own horn by saying this is a book that NEEDS a review, because you can’t realize its incredible depth from a casual read in a music store, or an online blurb that is short and similar to supposedly similar books. This book contains a full course in improvisation with bonuses such as learning more subtle harmony, the inherent counterpoint in single-line writing, coherent voice-leading, and generating coherent and effective solo lines from simple 4-note cells. These cells are given to you at first, and once you learn them over the entire neck, you then create your own cells. One of the biggest bonuses comes from this, as you learn the entire neck by moving these simple cells over the entire neck, both vertically (up the neck) and horizontally (across in a single position). This constant reinforcement opens up the entire neck of the guitar as well as all keys.

Does this sound like a lot? It is! This is a book that you should study for years, and will keep you motivated as you learn more and more and enjoy your focused practice sessions. The feeling of accomplishment grows exponentially as you master something new in every practice session! You will quickly learn to improvise over simple progressions and gradually work out from there. There is no reason for this progress to ever end as you will discover the endless depth of music. Meanwhile you will feel more and more at ease in jam sessions, and even writing your own tunes.

I cannot think of a single excellent idea I’ve seen in any book on improvisation that doesn’t show up here, nor a single book that contains even half of them. This is simply the best book on improvisation that I have seen and one of very, very few that can work through without the need for a teacher. It is not a simple one though. It takes you on a long journey and you have to commit yourself to it and stick to the whole program: deep listening, analyzing, and playing. Sure, you may slip occasionally but you are working at your own pace and can pick up where you can comfortably play and get going again.

Do you need a teacher? Learning styles vary and you may want a teacher to keep you focused. This book would work well with a teacher guiding you, using it as a “textbook”. I cannot imagine a competent teacher who would not recognize the value in teaching with the book. If I found one, I would run to find a better teacher!

I can’t imagine a better book to learn improvisation from.


Steinberg Makes Podcasting Easy and Inexpensive

When I first looked into podcasting years ago, it required too much software and a lot of fuss for a pretty mediocre result. Since then I’ve had some ideas for podcasts but didn’t have the time or strong inclination to search for solutions. That has changed now that Steinberg has brought out WaveLab Cast. This is not a version of WaveLab, but rather a totally new program that is terrific for podcasting, from beginner to accomplished expert. It is an enormous gift to anyone who has wanted to try podcasting but found it too difficult, too expensive, or both. It is also great for other Social Media Content, as you will see when we get to features.


Your first view of the screen might seem cluttered, but it is actually very efficient once you’ve used it. Plus it saves you from clicking through level after level of complex screens. It’s all there if you know where to look. Steinberg is well-known for accompanying their software with excellent video tutorials and WaveLab Cast is no exception. So, you can either begin with an overview of the product, or dive straight into the first tutorial which demonstrates how easy it is to make a pro-quality podcast on your first attempt.

One caveat for installation: Be sure you have all of your VST dongles, keys, etc. in the USB port(s). I had to go through a tedious process of agreeing that I did not have the key (handy) and also to keep each one available to install later. Not a great way to start interacting with a very handy program, and an option to stop the process and start it again later would be very useful, but it was a stupid mistake on my part.

Once past the VST installation, the program is a breeze to work with. If you watch this video you will see that all there is to setup is to choose your audio interface. Then you can start adding content. Could it be easier?

As with most Steinberg programs, there are multiple ways to achieve the same end. I like to choose an “Audio Montage” because you have access to audio as well as other media such as external music files, video, and sound effects. You could set up your own custom format but most that you will ever need are already available for instant use under “Templates”. Here you have multiple tracks for recording audio if you have one or more guests, you are using background music, or you are adding video. You also have the choice between 44.1 or 48kHz for most of these. Remember that if you want to use multiple tracks for voices, you will need multiple mics and an interface to host them; otherwise for a single guest you can share a single mic, especially if you can get a “figure-8” or omni-directional pickup pattern on your mic.

To add background music you can just drag and drop a file into its track. “Ducking”, the process of lowering the background music when the host is speaking, can be difficult in many programs by using side-chains. WaveLab Cast makes it simple. Just select Music and then “Host” as the foreground sound (the “modulator” track) which is to be louder than the music. The ducking is done automatically, but you can choose to modify its intensity if you prefer. This is pretty much the norm in WaveLab Cast: it automatically chooses what it deems the most desirable choice, and if you want something else you are free to edit it.

Cross-fades in one track are as simple as dragging the new content to overlap with the previous. Cross-fading between tracks is a bit more difficult, but not much, plus not that common in podcasts. Ducking is more common.

As with any good program, once you have done a project or two, you will know the basics and probably want to have even more control. Once again, this is easy with WaveLab Cast because you can edit the parameters that you have been letting the program handle for you. A good example is “Enhance”, which can be controlled by the Track Inspector. It contains the most important editing your podcast needs to get a professional sound, and is very well explained in this second video.

WaveLab Cast is a great bargain at its suggested retail price of $70 (OK, one cent less) but retailers are selling it for even less (e.g. has it for $56 (again, one cent less).

If you are not already checking out your favourite retailer, you might want to watch this overview video. More information is available here. The online help documentation is here, while the operation manual is here. So you can see that documentation and support are extensive, as we have come to expect from Steinberg. You probably realize by now that this is unique among products in this price range, but that’s Steinberg!

For value for money, ease of use, and features, there is no way that I could give WaveLab Cast anything but my highest recommendation! If you do any podcasting at all, or are thinking about starting, this is the program for you. Even experts will see the advantages in the ease of use and high-quality output from this amazing program.

Rush – The Spirit of Radio Greatest Hits 1974-1987 (THE BOOK)

If you are new to Rush or just have been slow to buy some past versions of their TAB books you have probably been stunned by the eye-watering prices being asked for USED copies! I looked at a few and saw one selling for over $238! These were all Alfred publications, and with only used copies being available (if at all); this is the hint that they are all out of print. But don’t despair. Hal Leonard has come to the rescue, and a great starting point is their new The Spirit of Radio Greatest Hits 1974-1987, a companion to Rush’s audio collection of the same name.

Spirit of Radio cover

I don’t know when the concept to make a collection from 1974 to 1987 arose, but it was only released in 2006, possibly to be sure that they would have enough hits for a second volume, and also possibly due to their hiatus during Neil’s journey on his Healing Road.

Before discussing the songs I have to acknowledge Hal Leonard’s usual excellence in the transcriptions. Beyond the notes and TAB, they include extra information that is crucial for a performer, or just playing them for fun. For example, their brilliant notation of Working Man, in particular page 21 with Alex’s double bends on the B and E strings that move at different times! Or the first page of 2112, where the notation w/delay adds the instruction “Set for quarter-note triplet regeneration“! This is the type of attention to detail that sets apart Hal Leonard’s transcriptions.

The songs themselves were decided on, or at least approved by Rush (more likely the former) so any of my complaints would be about those favourites of mine that I wish were there. The song list is here.

First off, it’s great to see such great transcriptions for 2112, both the Overture, and Temples of Syrinx. I have to admit wishing both Bastille Day and I Think I’m Going Bald, two of my favourites to this day. But having almost all of the “first side” of the vinyl version from Moving Pictures almost makes up for it, although I’m baffled by the omission of YYZ (but I realize that there is only so much room, and instrumentals seem to be the first to go when pressed for space). I’m a bit touchy about YYZ anyway, since — as much as I love the music of The Police, and Andy Summers’ great guitar work — it deserved the Grammy over Summers’ Behind My Camel. OK, back to the book: I was surprised, pleasantly, to see Force Ten included.

This is a great collection of songs transcribed as perfectly as humanly possible. I have not (yet) played every note of every song, but the guitar and bass ones that I have played (many of them) are stellar transcriptions. This collection will thrill any Rush fan, and give new fans an idea of how wide the range of their music was, and over just these 13 years! While the band’s playing was already terrific on Working Man, their dedication to improving individually and as a band shows as you play through the book.

Full disclosure: I have been a Rush fan since I saw them at our high school dance (in the late 60’s), for which I was mostly responsible for hiring them! <brag mode off> Of course Neil was yet to join the band, but I saw him twice playing with J.R. Fludd, and he stood out even back then. I was so proud that one of the garage bands of our time and area were able to make an album, I followed their career with a mixture of awe and a slight bit of jealousy (who’s perfect?). And maybe their most incredible accomplishment was to retain the same lineup for more than 40 years and still remain the best of friends. That was “the dream” and they accomplished it.

This excellent book is, we all hope, the first of many of the same calibre from Hal Leonard. I have it from an excellent source that there are many Rush fans working for the company, so such projects would seem to be labours of love. I will also note that many more songs by Rush are available individually (including YYZ), so I am hoping that these might form the basis of one or more upcoming books. Time will tell.

It should be no surprise that I give this book MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION!

Tech 21 Re-introduces the SansAmp Classic

The guitar industry has long been bringing back “classic” versions of many of their guitars, a boon for players who cannot afford the astronomical prices for the originals (if they can find one). This trend has found limited interest in electronics, with the theory that newer is better as analog and digital are improving, separately or combined. But some pedals are returning to their roots, especially when associated with great artists such as, say, Jimi Hendrix. However, these are the few exceptional devices that helped to define a personal sound for an outstanding player. So why would Tech 21 bring back a “sorta long gone” (since 2016) product?

Because it is simply great. And I choose these words carefully.

Let’s go backwards. The sounds from this little box are fantastic (not just great). Like any instrument, you have to learn it to get the best from it, but that just takes a bit of time. Because …

… it is simple to use! There are just 4 knobs, whose functions are pretty obvious. Then a switch for lead, normal, or bass. You should experiment with these, but you probably have a good idea which way you want to use it to start with (but don’t stick with preconceptions — hear what it can do!). Finally, there are 8 dip-switches.

SansAmp Classic

Combined with those four knobs, those eight little switches give you an amazing range of sounds. But don’t take my word for it; take a listen to it for yourself. (DO NOT turn it off because of the cute little girl introducing her dad; the video is terrific for hearing just some of the sounds used by famous bands). Moreover, you will want to experiment with all of the controls to find the sound(s) that you love!

Unfortunately I was unable to get my hands on one (probably a good idea because I would not give it back!), but I can tell you that my own Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI is likely representative of the standard of excellence of their engineering. That box is real metal built to take a hard life on the road, delivered in a metal box (no lightweight bag or cardboard thing). Its attention to detail is superb. Just one example:the button that lets you choose a low-end of 80 or 40 Hz, which really makes a difference for a 5-string bass. I could go on for a long time about the pros of this great DI box, but since we’re looking at the Classic here, I’ll just add that the active controls are very active, producing great sounds. Hey, if it’s good enough for Geddy Lee, it is sure more than enough for me. And while Geddy’s signature 2112 version has twice the capability, that is far more than I need. (You may also want to check out Geddy’s signature YYZ SansAmp). Your needs may differ, but no matter what they are there seems to be  Tech 21 product to fill them.

IN SUMMARY: Get your local music store to call you when they get some in, and get there quickly. These great boxes are going to sell out quickly, and you don’t want to be disappointed when they do. And of course, I recommend all SansAmp versions very, very highly!

Dorico 3.5.12 Released

Steinberg has released Dorico version 3.5.12. The big news is that it will run on the Mac M1 processor, running in the Rosetta 2 environment. There are a LOT of other fixes and enhancements, so I suggest that you check out the Dorico 3.5.12 History File here.

I almost decided not to get this update because most of what I read about it just talked about the M1 processor, but there are some fixes that may be important to you, and many enhancements that you need to know about. The ones that are only for the Pro version are identified by red boxes which makes them stand out.

You can download the update using the Steinberg Download Assistant or the Dorico 3.5 Downloads page (which also has the history file).

You can read Daniel Spreadbury’s announcement of 3.5.12 hereWindows users should read Daniel’s special note for them.

While you are there, be sure to note the changes to the forums, now the Steinberg Discourse Forums. You can go straight to notes on the changes here.

The Incredible Fender Rumble 40 v3 Bass Amp

I am not set up to do proper hardware reviews but since I wanted a small bass practice amp I researched them carefully and finally found an excellent comparison by on their YouTube channel. I urge you to watch and listen to this comparison of 5 top contenders your small bass amp dollar. I will tell you what I can about the amp — in fact, I bought one! — but to make up your own mind, you must hear it against several others. (Actually, I was leaning toward Ampeg before watching the video.) And if anything, the actual amp sounds better live than it does on the video. So thank you BassBuzz!

For some reason I have always avoided Fender amps. I used one in Godspell and found that a friend’s Peavey sounded even better at a much lower price. And I prefer my Mesa Boogie over any Fender Guitar amp. For bass I started off using a Roland keyboard amp that has a great low end, and then stepped up to a SansAmp for gigs that had good PA systems. So when it came time to look for a small practice bass Amp, Fender was low on the list. I pulled a big 180 on that idea!

I first started looking at the Rumble series when I saw them getting great reviews, especially the little Rumble 40 v3. Virtually every one I saw was FIVE STARS! Then I was finally hooked with this terrific comparison on YouTube that convinced me that the Fender at least deserved a close listen. Two problems: there is a pandemic on, and everywhere I looked they had sold out. Just the Rumble 40; it seems that every other size in the Rumble Series is available in most places. That was pretty impressive.

You can find the specs at Fender here. Just a quick summary: the amp is amazingly light, it has terrific tones, my 5-string Ibanez’s low B  sounds just as present and clear as the high G string, and the separate overdrive controls let you play as overdriven as you want without knocking out the windows and without having to use  earphones. I was most concerned about getting a good 5th-string sound out of a single 10″ speaker, and Fender’s “Special Design” speaker is amazing to hear. The other terrific feature is the separate overdrive section that let’s you get full overdrive sound at a low volume. (While I love the way my Mesa sings when lightly overdriven, it needs a level of volume that is just too loud for a family home at night.)

OK, on to the specs:

When I first saw the panel there were three little switches that I thought I’d never use: bright, contour, and vintage. Wrong again! BRIGHT really brings out the upper harmonics with a nice treble boost. CONTOUR scoops out the mids giving a rich tone that works great with overdrive as well as slapping. VINTAGE gives a darker, 60’s-like tone with some compression added. The way these switches revoice the amp is truly impressive.

I’ve skipped over GAIN, which controls the level of the incoming signal. This lets you adjust the preamp signal for most basses and also affects both distortion and overdrive. More on overdrive later.

First, the basic controls. MASTER is the overall volume control. A very cool feature is Fender’s built-in “Delt-Comp” limiter: turning the MASTER up high, or playing “more aggressively” triggers more compression and sustain, and it sounds great! The “tone controls” are more of a 4-band equalizer, with BASS, LOW MID, HIGH MID, and TREBLE. The extra control of the mid-range really makes a difference when you want a particular sound.

The OVERDRIVE button engages the overdrive circuit. DRIVE controls “the amount of harmonically rich preamp distortion” in the sound, while LEVEL controls the overdrive volume, as well as letting you set the overdrive distortion separately from the clean sound. A red LED shows that the overdrive is engaged.

The back panel has 1/8″ inputs for AUX IN (such as an MP3 player) and PHONES. There is a 1/4″ input for FTSW (footswitch), which allows you to turn on the OVERDRIVE remotely. The XLR LINE OUT lets you connect to an external PA or recording console, while finally a GROUND LIFT button helps with problems from improperly grounded equipment.

For those who don’t like the look of the Fender mesh speaker cover, it can be removed and put back easily via its velcro backing.

Of course none of this comes close to actually hearing the incredible breadth of sounds this amp can create, from the sweetest clean sounds to massively overdriven mania, the controls are very efficient at producing the full range of their functions. I wouldn’t hesitate taking this amp to the most important gig (of appropriate size), and at just 18 pounds, I could handle it and two basses easily.

SUMMARY: If you can find one, BUY IT.





Drumming Healing Circle Songs

What better way to start a new year than with music to help us heal?

I was sent the first song by a dear friend, a drummer herself. The group is Sweet Water Women, and they sing and play Gratitude to the Ancestors. If you are not familiar with the music of Indigenous people of North America this is a beautiful introduction.

You can buy their music on Apple Music here:

The next is titled simply The New Cherokee Morning Song, and the video has both lyrics and English translation:

The last one for this post is by The Red Shadow Singers, from their album GHOST DANCE SONGS, and is titled Northern Lights. (No video is provided.)

All of these songs come from a YouTube playlist of Conni Ma’iingan 

You can find more and subscribe to the playlist here:

Enjoy. I personally find that opening my ears helps to open my heart. I wish the same for you.

The Best of 2020 (starting and ending with Emily Remler!)

2020 was an awful year for most of us, horrific for many. But I want to begin 2021 by looking back at some of the BEST musical resources made available to us. I’ll go by company to cut down on repetition as much as possible.

Stelios Panos

The year ended before I could tell you about Stelios Panos’ latest collection: Emily Remler & Jimmy Raney.  This great collection includes 28 songs / solos by Emily Remler and 38 by Jimmy Raney. I’m a huge fan of Emily Remler and and personally grateful to Stelios for this wonderful collection.


In 2020 Steinberg upgraded virtually the entire music software industry. Their outstanding software includes:

  • Cubase 11
  • WaveLab 10
  • Dorico 3.5 & 3.5.10 (especially for their guitar enhancements)

Hal Leonard

On the publishing side, Hal Leonard hit two home runs, first with their updated and improved Hot Licks Series of books with online audio, especially the amazing master class by Emily Remler. (I’m hoping for her second part of the series to come out soon!) The second terrific achievement was Flying Fingers, an enormous anthology of fingerstyle guitar covering all styles and most of the great fingerstyle players of the last 200 years. An invaluable resource for students of all types of guitar, this project was obviously a huge undertaking and a brilliant success.

“Honorable Mention” should include Dan Erlewine’s “Guitar Player Repair Guide (3rd Edition)” and “Guitar Setup & Maintenance” by Chad Johnson, which although they were not released this year won our “readers’ poll” for which books to follow up Doug Redler’s “Guitarist’s Guide to Maintenance & Repair”.

PG Music

Band-in-a-Box 202 for Mac is in a category of its own, and while it is upgraded pretty much every year, 2020 gave us a version that was a tour-de-force of creativity and musical prowess. Every guitarist and bassist should own this.

Wallander Instruments

NotePerformer 3.3.2 was a highlight of 2020 for many of us, and yes it was another free upgrade. While the version number 3.3.2 would ordinarily denote an update, there are enough new features and instruments for me to consider it an upgrade.

2021 – ?

With all of this truly remarkable creativity in music resources, what can we expect in 2021? I have high hopes for every one of these providers this year. And who knows what stars may yet rise to join these illustrious ranks? That’s a more worthwhile question to contemplate than several others making news so far. I hope to survive to tell you about these new music resources as they occur.

Best wishes to you all for a happy and healthy 2021.

Cubase 11 – An Outstanding Upgrade

With the upgrade to Cubase 11, Steinberg has made some major improvements to an already excellent product. If you have followed my JJG columns or this blog (or my previous blogs) you may remember that I have been a long-time Logic user (since the Atari ST days, with Notator being the reason that I bought an ST). So I admit right up front that I am looking at Cubase with a background in Logic, but for this post I will stick to Cubase. I’ll do a comparison of the two in my next post on Cubase.

In a hurry? Want the short version? It’s great! Buy it!

So first, what are the standout features of Cubase, and how does Cubase 11 affect them?

The easiest one is that Cubase 11 is still multi-platform, running on PC and Mac. As of this writing, Cubase 11 will not run on any tablet that I am aware of but you can check the system requirements by clicking here.

Cubase has had outstanding MIDI capabilities pretty much from version 1.0, but these have been expanded to truly amazing heights. With the exceptional plug-ins alone you can make powerful tracks to back up vocals, stand on their own, or make stems for all sorts of projects.

Drum tracks are insanely easy to create, with studio-ready sounds from single hits to complex beat patterns that are simple to edit. While Cubase has a reputation for its steep learning curve, this new iteration of Groove Agent is as intuitive as any drum program I’ve used. You will recognize the presets from many of your favourite songs, no matter what genre you are into. It has its own mixer so that your drum kit sounds like you want before even adding it to the full song mix, and yes it has its own FX.

The editing features have been expanded across the board, and this is especially evident when working with MIDI. The Key Editor lets you start with a partial melody or even just a few chords, and build it up to a full arrangement all in an intuitive environment. Traditional songwriters will spend a lot of time here. The Chord Editor lets you tweak your harmonies and load the chords back to the Key Editor. Chord Assistant and Scale Assistant help you out if you are in need of some help with theory, or if you want to take that theory into a different dimension — there are no barriers to your creativity here.

The Arranger Track gives you a terrific way to design your arrangements in a non-linear fashion, eliminating the need for constant cut-and-paste to get the music flowing. Many of the usual additions to recording are given new lives, such as using lyrics as Markers when working with any MIDI Editor tracks to keep your place in the song.

Global support is provided for some great new features, my favourites including the two LFOs that will give underlying motion to any track and keep them in sync using time or musical note values. The Frequency EQ plug-in has been expanded to 8 dynamic bands, each with its own side-chain. That’s right, 8 side-chains! These come out of the expanded Sampler Track 2, which lets you make virtually any sound or chunk into a “sample” and use them as you would with any sample, enhanced with the new Frequency EQ and LFO effects. Note that Frequency EQ is only available in the Pro version, one of the few new features that are exclusive to Pro. Another is the use of fonts from Dorico in the Score Editor, which also adds Properties that let you instantly access options and notation settings as easily as the Key Editor.

If this so far all sounds like things can get lost with overuse of EQ and other FX, the new Squasher comes to the rescue! Another of my favourite additions, this is “a tool that combines upward and downward audio compression for up to three bands, making it extremely flexible for adjusting the dynamic range.” So in case you get carried away with Frequency EQ, or just want to compress a section or an instrument, you have the most innovative compression unit yet.

When we come to features only available on Pro and Artist, a few stand out. Most impressive is SuperVision “a fully customizable, multi-meter audio analyzer, providing up to nine module slots for level, spectral, phase and waveform analysis.” This includes Imager, a multi-band plug-in to keep your mix clean, with four bands in which to place your tracks in the stereo image. Also included is SpectraLayers One, a compact version of SpectraLayers Pro 7 that lets you visualize and edit your audio in the spectral domain. You can find rogue frequencies easily, as well as dead spots in the spectrum that your ears, or speakers might miss.

Everything else mentioned, and much more, is included in all three versions of Cubase 11, Pro, Artist, and Elements. As a fully cross-platform program, Cubase 11 has to be a serious contender for every musical artist, pro or hobbyist. I already have several projects in mind just from exploring and discovering.

So is Cubase a problem-free, heaven-sent environment. What is? Let’s take a look at some of the issues with Cubase 11.

First and possibly foremost, the infamous dongle is still there. As a copy-protection scheme this is getting pretty long in the tooth, but at least Steinberg lets you keep all of their products requiring one on the same dongle. Still, if you lose it, there goes your software, and your work! And unfortunately one of its strengths is its greatest weakness: a dongle lets you have your software installed at different working areas, so that you just need to carry your dongle with you, but be careful not to lose it on your travels.

All of Cubase 11’s power requires a pretty powerful computer for best results (and I don’t include my dual-core Macbook Pro test machine in that league). It also requires a LOT of disk space, and I’ve finally been forced to do the housekeeping I’ve been putting off in deleting unused files and programs. A fast internet connection is a real help too, although you will probably still be downloading overnight at least once.

And yes, I admit that Cubase 11 lives up to its reputation for a steep learning curve. However, significant progress has been made on many of the plug-ins as well as many of the specific editors. Compensating for these is the addition of powerful new features such as SpectraLayers One.

Now, how do those “problems” stack up against the power of Cubase 11? They are minimal, at most. What powerful program doesn’t require a lot of space on a powerful machine? As for the dongle, be very careful!

Given the time I have had to work with a program that is new to me, I don’t feel that I have given Cubase 11 its full due, so I will give you a list of the new features from the Press Release so that you can see what Steinberg considers its important new features. I rarely quote a press document but I have found everything I was able to test from this one to be true, so I have no reason to suspect that these are in any way exaggerated.

New Features

•Advanced Audio Export: Save time with new export queues [Pro]

•Sampler Track 2: New creative features including slicing, LFOs and legato glide[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•Scale Assistant: Follow, quantize and play live to a set scale[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•Advanced Key Editor: Create perfect pitch bends and more[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•Global Tracks: Stay in sync more easily[Pro]•Frequency 2: Amazingly precise dynamic EQ for better mixing[Pro]

•Squasher: Improve leads, tame bass and enhance reverb for EDM[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•Score Editor: Workflow improvements and beautiful new fonts[Pro]

•New Samples: Six freshsound and loop sets[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•SuperVision: Super-flexible, customizable metering[Pro, Artist]

•Imager: Multiband stereo placement for perfect panning[Pro, Artist]

•MultiTap Delay Surround Support: Delay in up to 5.1 surround sound[Pro]

•Windows 10 Variable DPI: More scaling settings[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•Cubase Artists/Elements Upgrades: More bang for fewer bucks[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•Multiple Side-Chain: Improved input architecture[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•Eucon Support: Latest Avid console compatibility[Pro]

•VST Connect SE 5: Resizable HiDPI-ready interface for remote recording solutions[Pro]

•Workflow and UI Improvements: Refinements to make your working life easier[Pro, Artist]

•Apple Metal Acceleration: Enjoy maximum Mac performance[Pro, Artist, Elements]

•SpectraLayers One: Remarkable visual editing and audio source separation[Pro, Artist]

SUMMARY: Cubase 11 is the best music creation environment on the market today, in my opinion. I have barely scratched the surface of its new features, and remember that version 10.5 came out not long ago, so some it its features may be new to many users as well.