Times must be difficult at Steinberg HQ. Once you've packed a sequencer full of features, there's only so much more you can think about adding to it. With this update of Cubase, Steinberg has avoided trying anything too drastic, such as going head-to-head with Sony and Ableton by adding live looping and performance features, and has opted instead to carry on in the same direction as before.

So this is a slightly confusing release because, while there are many changes, the core feature-set hasn't been altered. Although there's been some engineering under the bonnet, it's not obvious on boot-up what it is.

This is a good thing from the point of view of familiarity, but there are also bad points - because some of the more irksome quirks of the interface haven't been changed - such as the fact that if you change the software synthesizer in one of the virtual instrument slots, the MIDI channel assignments disappear.

So, other than a redesigned interface, with a more streamlined look, and a new Control Room feature that makes monitoring on multiple speaker sets easier, the ergonomics are almost identical. To be fair, however, some annoyances have been improved.

Loops now default to the correct number of bars when you load them and set Musical mode. In the mixer, you can now shuffle around the order of insert plug-ins by dragging and dropping - no more leaving empty spaces at the start of the list just in case you feel like dropping in some EQ or compression later.

There have been similar ergonomic changes in the Score Editor, which has had its palettes and menus reorganised, but doesn't offer any new features.

Added features

Two significant new additions are the SoundFrame sound manager that, in turn, is part of the MediaBay database. Databases in sequencers are unlikely things because, almost by definition, most musicians don't have the mindset or the time needed to catalogue and label sounds. So the fact that you can search any of your software or hardware presets by tags may be an underwhelming feature.

MediaBay is slightly more useful because you can preview loops, MIDI files and presets. More useful still is that it's now easier to put together effects and patch presets, and to then reuse them within different projects. You can also now create track presets with effects, mixer and synthesizer settings all predefined for different musical applications.

The new VST3 technology is the big draw, however, and there's a new collection of plug-ins to show it off. VST3 is backwards compatible with VST2 plug-ins, so all your old effects will still work, but it's the new arrivals that make the difference - the sound quality of the VST3 collection really takes Cubase to a new level.

There isn't room to list all of the new features, but the best include the Vintage Compressor, which does an excellent job of warming up cold digital sounds, and three new software synthesizers called Mystic, Spector and Prologue, using FM, additive and simulated analog synthesis.

The sound quality of Mystic and Prologue gives many hardware synthesizers a run for their money, so finding these tools bundled for free is impressive. Unfortunately, it's not all good news. These new features - and some of the internal changes - mean that Cubase 4 has taken a significant performance hit. Projects that played smoothly in version 3 choke, click and stutter in Cubase 4.

The import routine for version 3 projects does a slightly quixotic conversion job, so screen layouts and some plug-in settings may need to be corrected by hand. There are also some worries about stability. Where Version 3 was almost bulletproof, Cubase 4 is unhappy with certain softsynths, and crashes more often than it should.

The bottom line is that to get the best from Cubase 4, you'll need a significant hardware upgrade - and adding cool new plug-ins isn't so useful if you're left with fewer tracks overall. Realistically, if new hardware isn't an option, you may well discover that you'll get more music finished by staying with version 3.

If you're in the market for a hefty increase in both disk speed and processor power, however, then Cubase 4 has a lot to recommend it. Richard Wentk