Running Cubase on the Surface Pro 3

Now we all know that the Surface Pro 3 is totally capable of running desktop software – so it shouldn’t be remarkable that Cubase or Pro Tools as in my last video or other DAWs run fine on it – it should be expected right? Totally, yes, but that’s not the whole point of what I’m trying to do here. The process of installing and running a complex piece of music software like Cubase has the opportunity to highlight the pros and cons of using a format and platform like the Surface Pro 3 for music production. We know it’s going to run, but are there any stumbles on the way, is multi-touch a help or a hindrance and what sort of performance can we expect from this slab of glass and electronics?

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Installation
First hiccup – no DVD drive. The installation of version 7.5 of Cubase is spread across two DVD, one with the software and one with the additional Halion library. I have an external USB DVD drive for emergencies such as this and the Surface emitted that reassuring plugged in series of beeps when I stuck it into the USB port….. then it dropped it, then it found it again, then no, yes, no, bugger. Tried it via a hub so I could plug in both the USB ends in the hope of drawing additional power – same problem. This does not bode well for all the other software I have on disk.

Right, so let’s bring out the dock. The Surface dock is kind of like a 165 quids worth of USB hub that I think is probably an essential accessory for a Surface based studio – I’ll do a full review in another video but suffice to say that as soon as I plugged the external DVD drive into the dock it all worked perfectly.

Thankfully, there is another way. Steinberg allow you to download the full installer disks from their website but be warned the Cubase install disk is nearly 7GB – the actual installer is like 300MB but then you have gigs and gigs of VST sound library for the various included virtual instruments – which is all cool and that, but they could offer a slimmed down or split up option. The problems didn’t end there though – I downloaded the ISO’s onto my regular desktop and then went to transfer them to the Surface when of course my FAT32 formatted USB thumb drive can’t handle a 7GB file. So after digging out an external NTFS formatted USB drive I finally got the Cubase DVD ISO’s onto the Surface – joy. What do we do now?
Right-click on the ISO file and select “Mount” and the Surface will treat it like a virtual DVD drive. However, mine said that it was unable to mount either of these ISO’s but did anyway….. not sure what that’s about. Anyway – double click the Start_Center.exe file on the Cubase disk and we’re off! You should only install the 64bit version unless you have a specific reason to run the 32bit one as even old 32bit plugins work well on 64bit Cubase and you’ll get better performance.

So, what a faff – wasted loads of my time and minutes of this video in just getting the software installed. If we’re moving forward into an optical drive free world then software manufacturers have to be smarter – they have to provide a sensible installation system that requires just a little more thought than slapping ISO images of their install media online for download. Right, let’s move on to the good stuff.

Starting Up
Like Pro Tools, Cubase needs a dongle plugged into a, or in this case the, USB port, in order to run. Copy protection is a pain in the arse but I guess it’s necessary for the makers to protect their software. I like dongles generally because they do make it really easy to move from machine to machine – just plug in your dongle and you can run the software on any system anywhere. However, it does take up a USB port and if that gets knocked or broken – like my special taped up red one here – then you’re screwed until you pay for a replacement. This is a cause for concern on the Surface as it is sticking right out of the side in a very exposed way and if you’re making music on the move using the onboard sound you don’t really want a hub hanging off it either. Maybe a short extension that you can tape onto the back or something – dunno – it’s not exactly a dongle friendly machine.

Using the onboard sound is less of a problem with Cubase as it can handle regular Windows drivers without any trouble. We do hit the same speakers and headphone issue where Cubase sees them as independent outputs – so plugging your phones in doesn’t automatically change anything – you have to go into the device settings and change it there. Cubase only supports a single output when using the “Generic ASIO Driver” so it may be better to use the excellent ASIO4All wrapper which gives Cubase access to all the inputs and outputs in the system. This should allow for low latency and some half decent performance through the onboard sound. Playback achieved.

Desktop Scaling
Cubase handles the desktop scaling better than Pro Tools. The controls in Cubase are quite large and clear and so even when reduced to the smallest size there are very usable – particularly with the pen, although fingers don’t do too bad. For me the recommended size seems to do the job.

Multi-touch
Cubase responds well to single touch, all parameters and functions are available, you can even pinch/zoom in the arrange window to zoom horizontally in time. There’s some weirdness to be found in the GUIs of some plug-ins where virtual keyboards can not be played directly with fingers or the pen – but, if you drag across the keys then they do trigger. This is not the case in the piano roll editor, just in plug-in GUIs, but on the other hand drum pads work fine. It’s all a bit odd really.

I am finding that it’s the pen that really enables you to work with the GUI and that takes a little bit of getting used to. There’s lots of room for frustration when some simple actions with a mouse and keyboard make for a lot of fuss with just the pen. When you don’t have the keyboard attached we hit the problem of the lack of keyboard shortcuts – I’ve used the spacebar for play/stop my whole life and here I am on the edit page and there’s no visible transport controls at all. One thing that’s useful here is the floating “Devices Panel” which enables to launch all the main windows. But as I said with Pro Tools what we need is a row of programmable buttons to give you easy access to copy/paste, duplicate, show mixer, show editor – the common keyboard shortcuts when the keyboard is not attached. I also had some trouble launching editors with the pen – I guess my double stab isn’t up to scratch or something.

Pen toolbar
So is there a solution – can I create a companion touchy toolbar for the pen? Yes I can. All the commands in Cubase can also be mapped to a MIDI controller. So through clever use of SmithsonMartins Emulator software I can create a row of MIDI buttons that can be rather painstakingly mapped to controls in Cubase – and voila, a cool toolbar to enhance your workflow.

Let me demonstrate this by improvising a quick bit of music in order to hopefully demonstrate both the coolness and the sometimes clumsiness of using the pen in Cubase – bear in mind I haven’t been using the pen very long.

The toolbar is setup through the Generic Remote in Cubase which can be very powerful but I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to do this with some kind of virtual keyboard, so we’re using actual keyboard shortcuts rather than wasting Emulator on such menial tasks when I might want it for other controller duties. I also don’t know whether other DAW software has such comprehensive MIDI-to-command support, whereas a keyboard shortcut toolbar would work with anything. This sort of toolbar, I feel, is vital for making the Surface Pro 3 into a usable creative platform.

Performance Testing
We run a slightly modified version of the Dawbench benchmarking test from Dawbench.com It gives a good indication of a systems performance by running multiple instances of a plug-in across a large number of tracks until you hit the point of crackle. In this test we got around 55 plugins running without a crackle. On a properly setup desktop system with a proper K series quad core Core i7 processor I would expect to get 200-250. So there is a large gap between desktop performance and what the Surface Pro 3 can actually do. However, this system has not been tweaked, it’s straight out of the box and we’re going to do another video where we spend a lot more time tuning and tweaking and testing the SP3 to show what it really is capable of.
What we’re not seeing is any of the CPU throttling that’s been reported on the internet – where when the CPU is loaded the speed cuts in half. We’ve got the Intel tuning utility running and it’s monitoring the CPU usage up at 97%, running at 70 degrees and although the CPU speed does vary between 2.6 and 2.4GHz it’s certainly not enough to seriously harm the performance. The performance is very much like I expected it to be, I’ve tested an Ultrabook with an i3 processor before and the SP3 certainly beats that. I had hoped it would surprise me but never mind hey.

Final Thoughts
Don’t be too shocked or disappointed by the performance results I got here – I will be doing a much deeper investigation into that in another video where we’ll see exactly what this machine can do on its own when properly tweaked and tuned. Comparisons to a desktop machine are not always helpful – what’s important is whether it can run what you want to run.
Thanks for watching – lots more videos to come including a bit more detail on the pen toolbar thing I just invented and a look at Reason 8 which I happen to be downloading as we speak. So please subscribe, tell your friends, come and have a chat.