The Joy of SX

Steinberg''s Cubase SX 2.0 is loaded with features. This Electronic Musician Master Class explores the nooks and crannies of Cubase''s feature set for tips to facilitate your music production.
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Most high-end digital audio sequencers come loaded with features, and Steinberg's flagship Cubase SX 2.0 is no exception. The Operation Manual alone is more than 800 pages long, so most Cubase users dip into it only when they are stymied rather than read it from start to finish. Even if you've been using Cubase for years, there is a good chance that you don't know about some features that could save you hours and improve the quality of your music.

A dozen different Master Classes could be written about Cubase, so the selection of topics in this article is a bit arbitrary. The techniques discussed include some of my tried-and-true ideas and some recent discoveries that I wish I'd known about months ago.

IN THE MIX

If you use both software and hardware MIDI instruments in a particular project, you will want to include the audio from the hardware synths when you eventually archive it. That will save you time and energy, eliminating the need to completely set up your hardware rig to do a remix of the project at a later date. I'll provide an explanation of how to include the audio from the hardware synths for archiving purposes in Cubase SX.

To avoid confusion, it's a good idea to create a backup copy of the original project so that you can go back to it should you need to edit a MIDI part. That leaves you free to strip the MIDI tracks playing the external synths out of the new version, simplifying mixing and automation.

You'll most likely want to record your MIDI synth tracks as audio one at a time, because that gives you the most flexibility when mixing. To record a synth, route its audio output to one of the inputs on your audio interface (mono or stereo as appropriate), and create a new audio track adjacent to the MIDI track playing that synth. (If more than one MIDI track plays the synth, repeat the process for each one.)

Open one of the Mixer views (Devices menu) and solo the MIDI track and the new audio track. That makes it easier to hear what you're recording and avoid the temporary latency introduced between the other tracks and the audio being monitored. Click the audio track's Monitor button on its Mixer channel strip (see Fig. 1). That allows you to monitor the incoming audio from your synth. You also want the input channel strip to be visible in the Mixer. If it is not, click the Hide Input Channels button at the top-left corner of the Mixer window so that the icon is gray.

Place the Position Cursor at the start of the MIDI part playing the synth by clicking in the Ruler in the Project window or editing its position in the Transport window. If there are several MIDI parts on the track, each separated by silence, you have the option of recording them all in one pass or recording each individually. The former is easier, the latter results in smaller audio files.

Play the part and adjust the synth's output to obtain a strong signal without clipping, using the Input channel strip's level meter to check the signal level. Ensure the Audio track is record-enabled (click on its Record button until it turns red), then move the Position Cursor to the start of the MIDI part and hit record.

Stop recording at the end of the MIDI part, and be sure to click on the audio track's Record-Enable and Monitor buttons to turn them off. Then mute the MIDI track, unmute everything else, and play back the section of the project that you just recorded. Set or automate the level of the new audio track as needed to keep the synth at its previous level in the mix.

FAUX AUX

You will often want to apply separate processing to the individual sounds of a multitimbral VST instrument plug-in. Examples include percussion instruments and multipart synths and samplers that play different presets on different MIDI channels. For example, you might want to apply reverb to the strings but not to the piano, both of which are played on a multitimbral sampler. Or you might want to apply compression to only the kick drum of a percussion part.

Many VST instrument plug-ins provide multiple audio outputs for just that purpose. For those plug-ins that don't, here's a fairly simple work-around that doesn't require you to use separate plug-in instances that drain your CPU.

The trick is to isolate the MIDI notes that play the sound you want to process, then render the part you want to process as an audio file. If you already have a separate MIDI part for each sound — for example, separate parts for each MIDI channel or for each pad of a drum part — mute all but the relevant part. Otherwise, create a MIDI track with a new, empty MIDI part spanning the same time as the original part.

If one MIDI part is used for all the sounds, but they are distinguishable by pitch or channel (as is typical for drum and multichannel synth parts, respectively), you can use the List Editor's Masking feature to isolate, cut, and paste the relevant notes to the new part. Select one of the desired notes and Mask by Event Channels to view only notes on the same channel, or Mask by Event Types and Data 1 to view only notes of the same pitch. Then select all the visible notes and cut and paste them into the new part. If the notes are not distinguishable by pitch or channel, you'll need to select them manually in one of the MIDI editors, then cut and paste them as described.

To create an audio file from the extracted notes, solo the new MIDI track and set the Left and Right Locators to the part boundaries (key command P). Open the mixer and check that the VST instrument's output is high enough to produce a good signal-to-noise ratio. Choose Export and then Audio Mixdown from the File menu, and check Import to Pool and Import to Audio Track in the Audio Mixdown dialog box. You will now have an audio file containing only the individual part, to which you can add processing as desired. Mute the new MIDI track or set its output to Not Connected. (Alternatively, you can delete it, but you won't be able to edit and rerender it if need be.)

IT'S A STRETCH

Although Cubase can import and use Rex files for time stretching, you're not limited to that option. You can use Cubase's Hitpoints feature to do much the same job as that of Propellerhead's ReCycle when creating Rex files.

Before applying Hitpoints, it's best to prepare your audio file to ensure that it starts and ends on a beat. You can do that in a sample editor, such as Steinberg's WaveLab, before importing it into the audio Pool. You can also import it and then edit it in Cubase's built-in Sample Editor. To do that, select the portion of the file that you want to loop, then choose Bounce Selection from Cubase's Audio menu.

Once you have the trimmed audio file in the Pool, drag it to the Project window, ensuring that it starts at a bar line. Turning on the Snap to Grid feature and setting the Grid Type to Bar or Beat facilitates this. Next, double-click the audio part to open the Sample Editor and click the Hitpoint Mode button to open the Hitpoints Detection dialog (see Fig. 2).

In the Hitpoints Detection dialog, narrow the range of tempos to approximately the tempo of the loop, and input the loop length in measures. Ensure that the Use Level Scan and Adjust Loop checkboxes are checked. Then click on the Process button and Cubase will place Hitpoint markers at what it detects to be individual events in the audio file. (If you find that you've set any of the Hitpoints Detection parameters incorrectly, you can reset them by choosing Calculate Hitpoints from the Advanced submenu of the Audio menu).

In addition to the Hitpoint markers, notice the new Hitpoint Sensitivity slider at the top of the Sample Editor. Adjusting it will increase or decrease the number of Hitpoints found. Use the slider together with the Hitpoint Edit Tool in its various modes to adjust the Hitpoints. Disable mode disables existing Hitpoints, Lock mode makes Hitpoints persist regardless of the Sensitivity setting, and Move mode allows you to move Hitpoints around. The Pencil tool allows you to create new Hitpoints. The object is to work with the tools and slider until you have a Hitpoint at all musical events and none at nonevents.

When you have the Hitpoints adjusted to your liking, choose Create Audio Slices from the Advanced submenu of the Audio menu. You now have Cubase's version of a Rex file, which is an Audio Part containing the individual slices and occupying the correct number of bars. You can freely change the tempo, and the Hitpoints (now slices) will stay put at their bar-beat positions.

You can examine and manipulate the individual slices by double-clicking the new part to open the Audio Part Editor. The Audio Part Editor includes features that you may not have seen before if you've worked only with audio events (one audio recording per part in the Project window). For instance, the Move Left and Move Right buttons can be used to rearrange the beats in the sampled groove.

If the tempo of your project is slower than the original loop tempo, there will be gaps between the slices. If the project tempo is faster, the slices will overlap. Although Cubase will play only one clip at a time, you may want to compensate for overlapping by making the slices smaller or crossfading between them. You can compensate for gaps by using Cubase's Time Stretching feature. To do the latter, select the slices to be stretched and choose Close Gaps from the Advanced submenu of the Audio menu.

CATCH THE GROOVE

Once you have sliced up a beat loop, you can use Cubase's quantizing options on the slices, just as you would on a MIDI file. You can capture the groove of any MIDI file in your project — a MIDI drum loop for example — and use that as a quantize template. The sampled beat, however good it sounds on its own, may push a little ahead of the MIDI groove on some beats and lag a little behind on others, resulting in a sloppy-sounding performance when the two are combined.

If the MIDI groove is contained in a ReCycle-style file with one note per groove event, you can use it as is. Otherwise, some manual editing to eliminate notes very close together in time (chords, for example) will produce better results. To turn the MIDI part into a groove, select it in the Project window and choose Advanced Quantize and then Part to Groove from the MIDI menu. The MIDI groove will now be available from the pull-down Quantize menu.

To quantize the slices in the Audio Part, ensure that the new groove is selected, select all the audio slices, and select Over Quantize from the MIDI menu (key command Q). See the sample audio clips (Web Clips 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6) on the EM Web site, illustrating the use of this technique to match a sampled, hand-percussion loop from Bashiri Johnson's Supreme Beats to the Stylus groove called “Rump Roast.” Before I used Part to Groove quantizing, the two rhythm tracks sounded slightly messy together — a few beats were flamming. Afterward, the two tracks grooved perfectly. When I soloed the hand percussion, it had a shuffle feel it hadn't had before.

You may want to make a backup of the Audio Part before quantizing, because the Undo Quantize option doesn't work on audio slices. Standard undo does work, but only until you next save your project.

QUICK TIPS

When you double-click on a MIDI part to open the Key Editor, incoming MIDI is automatically routed to that track so you can record. However, if an audio track was selected in the Project window before you double-clicked on the MIDI part, the audio track will still be in Record mode. If you hit the Record button to record new MIDI notes or controller data into the MIDI part, you will be recording MIDI (intentionally) and audio (unintentionally). This will clutter up your audio Pool and hard drive with unwanted takes. To avoid that, get into the habit of selecting the MIDI track before double-clicking the part.

After laying out your song structure, create a marker track. Open the Markers window and add a marker at the head of each section (see Fig. 3). Name them Verse 1, Verse 2, Chorus, Bridge, and so on. Now you can use the keypad to snap the transport instantly to a marker, or use Shift + N and Shift + B to move rapidly back and forth among markers.

The little gray triangles in the lower right-hand corners of some of the tool buttons indicate that the tool has several modes of operation. For example, the Project window's Object Selection tool (the arrow) has three modes, which determine the effect of clicking the left or right side of a part to resize it. Sizing Moves Contents mode provides a quick way to add a small timing offset to a part. Switch off Snap mode (key command J), zoom way in on the left end of the part, then use the tool to resize the part by a few seconds. The difference between this technique and using the track delay parameter in the Inspector is that track delay affects all of the data in the track; it can't be applied to just one part.

The unassuming gray rectangle at the upper right-hand corner of the track list allows you to split the Project window horizontally into two separate groups of tracks. Right-clicking on any track in either group allows you to move it to the other group by selecting Toggle Track List from the bottom of the Context menu. One obvious use for that is to keep video or marker tracks always visible in one group while scrolling through tracks in the other.

Automation data doesn't show up in the List Editor because the latter displays only MIDI events. If you need precision in automation and are tired of using the mouse to move those little points on the automation envelope, use the Project browser tool (see Fig. 4). The left-half portion of this window has a directory structure; open it to display the automation data for the track, and you'll see an event list containing the automation data. The browser is limited in several ways. For example, you can't add new automation events, and if you press the Delete button while data is selected in the Position field, all automation data of the selected type(s) will be deleted.

If you miss that perfect lick because you weren't in Record mode while noodling with your song, hold down the Shift key and press the asterisk key on the numeric keypad. The most recent MIDI input will be recaptured. (You can recapture only MIDI, not audio.) If you decide not to use the lick, you can click on the Undo button.

Taking time to customize your Quantize Setup window can streamline your work flow (see Fig. 5). You can create your own quantize grid by modifying one of the existing ones or by starting completely from scratch. In addition, you can clean up the Quantize menu by deleting setups that you never use.

Folder tracks are a quick way to set up real-time MIDI layers. Assign a different MIDI channel to each of two or more tracks, drag the tracks into a folder track, set velocity and transposition offsets for each track if needed, and then click on the Record button for the folder track. Incoming MIDI will be routed to all of the layered synths, and multiple MIDI tracks can be recorded at one time.

To select all of the notes of a particular pitch in the Key Editor, Control + click on the keyboard at the left side of the window.

Individual notes can be muted or unmuted in the Key Editor. That makes it easy to temporarily remove a particular note or lick. Select the notes you don't want to hear and click on them using the Mute tool, and they will turn into ghostly outlines indicating that they are muted. The key commands Shift + M and Shift + U are assigned to muting and unmuting by default. You can also mute and unmute other MIDI data such as Controller and Pitch Bend events.

If you are using several modules (hardware or software) for percussion sounds, consider creating custom kit layouts in the Drum Editor. After opening the Drum Editor, click on the Map pop-up in the lower left-hand corner and select Drum Map Setup. Click on New Map, give your map a name, and click on Save. At this point you can edit the map either in the Drum Editor or in the Map Setup window. Each drum can be named, given its own MIDI channel and output port, and so on.

One handy use for Drum Maps is to assign the I-Note (input note) layout in a consistent fashion from module to module, so that you never need to hunt on the keyboard to find the crash cymbal and cabasa. This type of remapping will also allow you to switch from one percussion module to another by selecting a different map. The drum performance data will be remapped automatically so you hear the correct sounds on the new module.

Cubase is loaded with semihidden features to make your musical life easier. Scheduling a little regular time with the manuals is one way to dig those out. And don't overlook the separate Getting Started and Audio Effects and VST Instruments manuals — they also contain valuable information. Another good way to expand your knowledge of Cubase is to spend time exploring the Key Commands window, which you can open from the File menu. Not only will that reveal shortcuts, but it will also introduce you to features that you may not have known about. There is always more to learn, but at a certain point, it is probably better to concentrate on the music rather than get lost in the submenus. That may be the ultimate power user tip.

Jim Aikinhas been using Cubase since the original version was released for the Atari ST. His latest book is titled Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming (Backbeat Books, 2004).