Beatscape is a new plug-in included with Cakewalk Sonar 8 Producer Edition that offers a friendly and appealing interface for manipulating loops and other samples. You simply map samples to its 16 onscreen pads and trigger them with MIDI notes; Beatscape takes care of tempo matching the beats. We'll dig deep into this plug-in's bag of tricks to help you wield its power most effectively.
Get Current, Stay Current
First, download and install the Beatscape 1.0.1 update from cakewalk.com. The free download offers more than the expected first-generation bug fixes; most significantly, it allows you to assign each Beatscape pad to one of 17 stereo (or 34 mono) outputs. Although each pad has its own set of up to three insert effects, the ability to return each pad into Sonar on its own track for separate processing is enormous.
FIG. 1: Beatscape''s multiple outputs (right) appear as available inputs to audio tracks (left).
Each Beatscape output appears as an available input to an audio track (see Fig. 1). Whether you create and assign these audio tracks yourself or have Sonar do that for you from the Synth Rack dialog box (check All Synth Audio Outputs: mono or All… stereo) depends on how many independent outputs you expect to need. Automatically creating 34 mono audio tracks is probably overkill for any application, but autocreating outputs automatically assigns each pad to a different output.
To assign pad outputs manually, click in the Output field within the Pad Settings pane as shown in Fig. 1. As with most Beatscape properties, left-clicking increases the value and right-clicking decreases it. (As of this writing, the output numbers assigned in Beatscape are offset from the Beatscape outputs listed as track inputs by one. For example, a pad assigned to output 4 will return to a track on output 5. Cake-walk is aware of this discrepancy and promises a fix in the next update.)
Obviously, having your pads on separate outputs allows you to EQ, pan, and process them independently. Go beyond the obvious and run one or more of them through an amp simulator, such as Guitar Rig 3 LE, which is now included with Sonar 8 Producer Edition. A classic drum-machine technique is to run a loop through the audio input of a Minimoog. My favorite soft synths for this treatment include Arturia's Minimoog V and Software Technology's VAZ2010. Alternatively, you could assign the pad's output as the modulation input of a vocoder plug-in such as Native Instruments Vokator.
Having too many stereo sources results in what mix engineers call “big mono,” meaning that panning options are somewhat reduced. Because Sonar's stereo tracks feature balance controls instead of true stereo panning, this is especially dangerous, as hard panning effectively mutes the opposing channel. The simple solution is to set the track's channel interleave button to mono, which causes Sonar to sum the left and right channels. If you have loops that don't react well to being summed, you may want to re-create them as mono loops. Mono loops will also react better to step editing of pan within Beatscape, in which case the track interleave must be stereo.
In general, I keep keyboard and guitar loops in stereo and use mono for drum and percussion parts. I especially want any parts from which I will end up playing individual notes to be mono.
Playing the Field
Beatscape pads can be triggered in a variety of ways by combining the plug-in's four different pad modes, which control a sample's sustain and loop characteristics, and four different sync modes, which control its alignment with the timeline. For a classic subtractive loop-and-mute technique, set all pads to Auto Loop and Measure, then assign buttons on a MIDI controller to each pad's Mute button. Start all pads at once and then selectively mute and unmute pads to build or deconstruct the loop. This is often preferable to triggering pads because you can play the mutes rhythmically and get tight musical response.
With some careful planning, playing Beat-scape can feel very much like playing an instrument. For occasional 1-hit sounds, such as a cymbal crash, put the pad on Auto Play so it won't retrigger accidentally. Be sure the sample is trimmed properly, though, as you'll have to wait for it to finish playing before you can retrigger it. Put one copy of a hi-hat loop on Manual Play and Immediate Sync so you can trigger it on offbeats and change up its length. Right-click on the pad to copy and paste the hi-hat to another pad set to Auto Loop and Measure (or Beat) for set-and-forget playback. Little things like this help you get more out of your samples.
FIG. 2: The first 16 notes of Beatscape''s keyboard, starting at C3 (Note Number 36), trigger the 16 pads. Each pad''s audio slices are mapped to MIDI notes starting at E4 (Note Number 52) on the channel corresponding to the pad''s number.
Beatscape maps every slice of a pad's audio to MIDI notes on the corresponding channel (see Fig. 2). Although this allows you to dissect a loop and create new patterns from its individual hits, it complicates mixing and matching hits from different loops. To get around this, create a Sonar drum map that maps incoming MIDI notes to the specific notes and channels needed to trigger the components of any Beatscape pad. Note that if you inserted Beatscape on a simple instrument track, you would need to create a separate MIDI track to control the drum map. The MIDI output port of an instrument track is assumed to be the track's soft synth and cannot be reassigned.
Remember that Sonar's step sequencer is designed to work with drum maps, so as soon as you've mapped some Beatscape hits, you can play them with the step sequencer. Beatscape thus becomes a simple sampler for the step sequencer.
Beatscape copies any imported audio files to a user folder (C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Cakewalk\Beatscape\User Samples\Imported), causing them to appear in the User tab of the browser. They are not, however, copied to the Sonar project folder. You will need to do this manually when it's time to archive a project, or your samples will not be archived. Before opening an archived project, simply copy the relevant loops from the archive's User folder (or whatever you chose to name it) to Beatscape's User folder. If you observe the original folder hierarchy exactly, Beatscape will never know they were gone. You can select Browse User Data… from the File menu to get to the user samples quickly.
FIG. 3: Samples imported into Beatscape are saved in the User folder. Subfolders can easily be used to organize these files.
Once you start creating your own loops for use in Beatscape, you'll find that the User folder gets cluttered quickly. In Windows Explorer, create subfolders within the User folder to organize your loops by tempo and style (see Fig. 3). The Beatscape browser sorts alphabetically without distinguishing between files and folders, so you'll probably want to start your folder names with numbers (for example, 01_Boogaloo102). Starting your folder names with an underscore, which works fine in Explorer, does not help in Beatscape.
Once you have thus reorganized your files, Beatscape will no longer be able to find them. Using the file name displayed on the pad as a guide, you can drag the original file back to its pad to relink them. All pad settings, including effects and step editor patterns, will be retained.
Beatscape can import files directly from Sonar audio tracks, but if you try to import an edited clip, it will import the entire unedited source file. Select the clip and use Edit→Bounce to Clip(s) to make a new file out of the clip. (Be sure your Render bit depth under Options→Global→Audio Data is set to 24.) Name the clip (under Clip Properties) so it will be easily identifiable in Beatscape's User folder, then drag it to a pad. Press Ctrl + Z twice to undo the naming and bouncing. Because Undo doesn't affect anything in Beatscape, the file import and pad assignment remain while the track edits are rolled back. Should you want to import a phrase from a larger clip without leaving the clip chopped up, you can select the phrase, choose Split at Selection, bounce, name, drag, and then undo three times to restore the source clip.
I don't generally recycle Beatscape configurations, so I wasn't originally impressed with the idea of saving programs. However, having a program archived along with all of your samples allows you to restore your Beatscape configuration quickly and accurately in the event of a corrupted project file.
Although Beatscape is a great tool for tempo matching complementary loops, it does not currently conform one groove to another — although that would be a great addition. To get around this, use AudioSnap to conform your grooves first, and then import them into Beatscape. To keep things tidy, you might prefer to do this in a separate project dedicated to beat harvesting. Once the samples are in the User folder, they're available to any other project.
The range of the Step Editor's grid is so wide for such a small area that it is often misaligned with the loop's rhythm. As a result, it's not very useful for pan, volume, and pitch changes. (The Step Edit menu has an option to snap the steps to incremental chunks, which can help make this feel more controllable.) This problem notwithstanding, the Step Editor is handy for making relatively smooth changes in cutoff and resonance. In the Step Edit menu, choose No Snap for smoother parameter resolution, then draw the shape you think you want. Listen and redraw until you get the sound you're after. The only drawing technique that's really useful is holding Shift as you draw, which enables you to create a straight line. Try using Mirror Step Levels to make the second half of the loop reflect (literally) the values you drew in the first half.
The Step Editor's filter is a 2-pole resonant lowpass filter, fine for basic timbral tweaks. It becomes more interesting when you give it beefy overtones to sculpt. Four of Beatscape's effects — FM, AM, and the two distortion effects — are especially useful at creating harmonics to chisel. (FM and AM were added as part of the 1.0.1 update.) Put FM and AM on subsequent effects slots of a kick drum and crank up the wet mix and octaves, and you have a completely different beast. Automate a bandpass filter on the third slot or sequence the Step Editor's filter to shape the timbre rhythmically.
Beatscape's outer simplicity can be deceptive: it's easy to get started, but when you dig around, you find a deep tool set. Whether for remixing, deconstructing samples, crafting beats, or designing sounds, it brings a lot to the table.
Brian Smithers plays woodwinds, arranges, conducts, and records in sunny Florida. He is department chair of workstations at Full Sail University.