Steinberg Cubase 3.0 (Part 2)
David Mellor concludes his 2-part review of the latest version of Steinberg's Cubase sequencing software with an investigation of some of its more complex features: the IPS, MIDI Mixer, and Logical Editing.
Have you ever met anyone who is really clever? I mean really clever, the type who can solve in the blink of an eye complex mathematical problems that would take normal people the best part of a fortnight to get wrong, and play chess blindfolded, standing on their head, while playing Liszt's Sonata in B minor. Steinberg's Laboratories are full of people like this, and instead of wasting their abilities on such trivial pursuits, they design sequencing software.
The only snag when people of exceptional talent design tools and systems for ordinary mortals to use is that very often something they think is simplicity itself is to most people so complex that it is virtually unusable. Whilst Cubase is indeed perfectly understandable and usable, there are still some parts where most of us have so far feared to tread, namely Logical Editing, Interactive Phrase Synthesis and the MIDI Mixer, and it is these parts of the program that I'll be looking at here. I haven't met anyone yet who has actually used any of these features of Cubase on a real piece of music. One might suggest that they are interesting to dabble with, but too hard to understand well enough to be part of one's regular sequencing technique.
Many people feel this way when confronted with a complex new product whose potential benefits are unknown. Why should anyone spend a considerable amount of time and effort learning a system which might not ever repay that effort? If you start learning the piano or guitar you know you have a long hard struggle ahead of you before you are a master of the instrument, but at least you can look to the example of accomplished musicians who can play really well. But are there any Interactive Phrase Synthesizer virtuosi out there? If there are, they are keeping their heads well down.
Most Cubase users will have looked at these features of their software, experimented a little — probably unsuccessfully — and decided consciously or unconsciously to concentrate on the features of the program which they know would be worth learning to use. I've been guilty of this myself in the past, but having explored the more esoteric corners of Cubase for this review I am, if not a total convert to Interactive Phrase Synthesis or the MIDI Mixer, at least impressed by their capabilities and can safely recommend that time spent learning them will not be wasted. The Logical Editing function, on the other hand is something that I shall be making extensive use of now that I have thoroughly got to grips with it; in fact it could be my favourite out of Cubase's five editing screens.
Let's start with the most complex of Cubase's features: the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer. The screen on p98 gives you an idea of what I mean about complexity. If you're thinking that you'll never understand all that, then let me assure you that you will, in less than an hour, if you know the basics of Cubase already. First we need to know what the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer does. If we know what we can expect, then explaining how to get some significant results should be reasonably easy.
I remember reviewing, some time ago, a certain piece of music software that went beyond the basics of sequencing to create 'sequences of sequences'. The results could be a little unpredictable but it was certainly an interesting improvisational tool. Cubase's Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, or IPS, works in a similar way. You start off with a musical phrase, which you will have already recorded in Cubase, as an input; the software then allows you to process this in a variety of interesting ways, and also play the processed phrase by pressing single keys on the keyboard.
It's difficult to describe the results but let me put it like this: if you have a certain amount of ability at improvising on the keyboard, and nearly everybody has, then the IPS will amplify that ability. If you use improvisation as a means of generating musical ideas, then you will end up with 10 times as many ideas, most of which you would never have thought of unassisted. You have to put in some programming input as well as musical input, but used imaginatively the IPS can take your music to a level above what you might have achieved without it.
Let's break down the IPS into small parts so that it's easier to understand. Look at the screen again, and note that there are four sections which you will be able to pick out fairly easily: Phrase Input, Interpreter, and MIDI Input; Dynamics, Pitch, Rhythm; Output; Modulators. The on-screen layout isn't bad, but I suspect that it will eventually be refined so that you can get a better picture of what the system is doing. I wonder whether a toolbox and graphic display would have been better?
Considering the Input and Interpreter first, the basic raw material will be a phrase that you have created in Cubase and copied to the IPS. It may be a complete Part or a selection of notes from an editor. The other type of input is MIDI input, which is 'live' input that you play on your keyboard while the IPS is running.
The Phrase and the MIDI Input can then interact: one simple possibility might be to have a single key press play the phrase as it stands in its entirety. Alternatively you could apply some IPS tricks, in which the Phrase and MIDI Input have to be interpreted — which means that the pattern of notes in the phrase is mapped onto the notes you play on the keyboard in some way. One example might be that only notes that are present in both the Phrase and the combination of notes you are currently holding on the keyboard are played, in whatever rhythmic pattern the Phrase has. An alternative would be that only the notes you play live are produced, but they will be played in the rhythm of the Phrase. This can produce interesting results and we have hardly started yet.
Moving onto Dynamics, Pitch and Rhythm, we come across a wide range of Phrase-bending techniques. Each module has a low frequency oscillator (LFO), with a choice of several waveforms. Some of these may look a little odd, but we have to remember that the LFO is going to modulate sequenced MIDI data, not the output of an oscillator. Let's see how this works in the Dynamics section. Assume that the Phrase consists of eight notes with MIDI velocities of 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 — a smooth crescendo. The dynamics section will play out the sequence of notes in that Phrase (which may, incidentally, have had their pitches and rhythm changed by other processing), but with their velocities modulated by the LFO. For instance, if the Ramp Up waveform is chosen (with a frequency of 100, as on our main screen) then the velocities will come out cyclically in the same order as they went in. If the Ramp Down waveform is chosen then the order of the velocities will be reversed, independently of the note order. If the frequency is increased then values will be repeated, if it is lower, then values will be skipped. Think of it as one pattern of values being altered according to another pattern imposed by the LFO.
Since LFOs are also used for pitch and rhythm modulation, perhaps I should explain the waveforms and their effects: Off, no modulation; Ramp Up, scans the values in the phrase from start to end; Triangle, scans the values in the phrase from start to end, then end to start; Square, values are read and held until the next half cycle of the LFO; Ramp Down, scans the values from end to start; Random; random selection from the values present in the phrase; Mirror, plays from start to middle then end to middle; Ramp Up Continuous, like Ramp Up, but doesn't reset at the start of the phrase; Pendulum, starts at the middle of the phrase, then takes one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, and so on; Note Ramp Up, like Ramp Up but takes the number of notes in the phrase into account, making it possible to achieve precise note orders; Note Ramp Down, c.f. Note Ramp Up; Note Triangle, ditto.
Whether you'll be able to hear significant differences between all of these depends on the source material of the Phrase. You need to have a reasonably clear idea of what you are trying to achieve otherwise you may find that nothing is changing and you don't know why The Pitch and Rhythm modules are similar but are capable of rather more interesting results. The pitch module will, for example, transpose your phrase into major or minor scales, blues, pentatonic, Arabian, Balinese or Persian, to name but a small selection, and the Rhythm module is great for producing fast and complex note sequences from very simple phrase inputs.
Once you have mastered these features — and don't forget that you really will have to read the manual to get the best out of IPS — then you can move on to the Modulators. This is where things start to get really hairy. Let me give you an example: suppose you have set a fixed transposition interval in the Pitch section. You could set a ramp waveform on the LFO of one of the Modulators and have it alter the transposition interval in real time. Alternatively it could change the note lengths, scale type, or LFO waveform on the dynamics section, or in fact anything out of a list of 30 parameters. You can achieve some pretty weird results very quickly with only one Modulator — and you haven't even touched Modulator 2 yet. When you can get the Modulators to modulate each other then you can consider yourself an IPS power user. Oh, and by the way, I didn't mention this earlier but there are actually two Interactive Phrase Synthesizers, which can run simultaneously.
The MIDI Mixer is interesting at one level, and a powerful tool at another. The only snag is crossing the bridge between these two levels, which requires either that you have the MIDI programming ability to get the best out of it or that you have been able to acquire Mixer Maps, as they are called, specific to your own instruments and effects units.
It's generally accepted that the functionality of most synths, samplers and effects units is well hidden behind a small LCD display and a few small buttons. But how would you like to have the controls for your gear presented on the screen of your computer, and be able to automate these controls in real time as part of a sequence? Well, with the MIDI Mixer this is exactly what you can do. The screen on p100 shows part of the mixer map for the Roland JX8P synth, with controls displayed as moving faders and knobs. You can have buttons too if you want them.
It's not clear how we are to obtain maps other than by learning how to hack into the SysEx MIDI codes for our instruments, which most users probably don't want to get involved with, so this ultimate level of control may not be of much use. But it is actually very easy to make up a map using the generic MIDI commands such as control change messages, which could cover all MIDI channels and provide a means to automate many aspects of your mix.
Let's suppose you want to create a 16-channel MIDI mixer to control MIDI volumes. Under the right button of the mouse there is a toolbox which contains a Create tool. Click and drag this anywhere in the MIDI mixer window and a dialogue box will appear for you to define the appearance and function of a mixer device. The first thing you will probably want to do is name it. "Volume 1" should do for starters. Now select the type of device you want from the alternatives of vertical fader, horizontal fader, dial, button, numerical display or text. Let's try the vertical fader. Now we need to set the type of MIDI message it will control, which could be Note, Polyphonic Pressure, Control Change, Program Change, After Touch, Pitch Bend or SysEx. We need Control Change, which we must further select to be Controller 7, which is Main Volume. One last thing is to set the MIDI channel to 1.
When we exit this screen we find that there is a vertical fader which can be operated from the mouse to control the volume of MIDI channel 1. This can easily be duplicated and modified so that all the other channels can be controlled too.
The simplest way to automate the MIDI mixer within a sequence is to set up 'snapshots'. This you do with the camera tool, and 'photographs' appear at the top of the screen, one for each shot. To record a mix using snapshots, put the MIDI Mixer in Write mode and play the sequence. Clicking the snapshots will activate each one as you require and record the times of the clicks. If you now play back again, the faders will jump to the positions available too; just move the faders with the mouse as the sequence is playing, with the MIDI Mixer in Write mode, and the moves you make will be stored in real time.
What you do with the MIDI mixer is down to your creativity and MIDI knowledge, but even if you don't want to get involved with the heavy stuff, it's a good way of controlling your MIDI sequenced music and in many ways it's a lot easier and quicker than conventional sequence editing. Well worth a try I'd say.
Conventional editing means finding individual notes which are incorrect in some way and adjusting their pitch, velocity, duration or timing as necessary. If you need to change a lot of notes then you could spend a good deal of time in the editing pages — perhaps you would be better off just playing the phrase again? But often there are times when what you have recorded is almost right, though there is something that needs changing. Perhaps the durations of all notes need to be reduced or increased, or there are some unwanted short notes, or you need an accent on the first beat of every bar.
There are many situations where you need to change a lot of items of data, but each in the same way, and the Logical Edit page in Cubase is the ideal place to do it. You can see the page in question above. The key to logical editing is that first you have to select the data you want to process, and then define what you want to do to it. The first row of boxes is the Filter, and the second row the Processor. I could tell you in detail how to operate the Logical Editor, but that would spoil your pleasure in reading the manual, so instead let me give you three examples of what this type of editing can do for you.
This is something I do all the time. If you can fix or scale the durations of notes you have just recorded you'll find that you can nearly always improve things. It really is worth experimenting with this technique. The way you would do it in Logical Editing is to add or subtract, multiply or divide, or simply fix the durations of note events. It takes about 30 seconds. And if you want to shorten notes generally without changing notes of less than a certain duration, then just instruct the Logical Editor not to process them. That will take another 30 seconds.
Adding accents to drum parts can be a very worthwhile process. Adding a slight lift to the third of a group of four 16th-note hi-hats will usually work wonders for an otherwise mechanical tick. There are countless other examples of how accents can be used, but unless you are happy to repeat the same one or two bar pattern over and over again, which we really shouldn't be doing these days, then it's a matter of playing very precisely or undertaking a lengthy editing process. With Logical Edit however, all you have to do is to filter out the third hi-hat pulse and then process it by adding to or multiplying the velocity. Repeat as necessary to process just one bar's worth of hi-hats by hand and Cubase will do the job on the whole track.
I have occasionally found myself in the situation where part of a repeated rhythmic pattern needs quantising but the rest doesn't. For example a strong note at the beginning of the bar followed by an arty flourish. With Logical Edit, filter the first beat of the bar and quantise it. The rest will remain unchanged.
This concludes my review of Cubase 3.0, and I can recommend the program with total conviction. Cubase's best features are its main sequencing functions, as described in last month's review. The bonus features described here are less intuitive and will benefit from further development of the user interface to make them more accessible, especially to those of us with SMD (Software Manual Dyslexia) syndrome. But if you are that little bit more adventurous than the average sequencist, and have time to invest in learning the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer, the MIDI Mixer and Logical Editing, then your time will be rewarded. The best of this trio is definitely Logical Editing but the other two also have much to offer.
Note: From June 1st the UK distribution of Steinberg products will be handled by Harman UK ((Contact Details).)
Cubase 3.0 £575 me VAT.
Upgrade for registered owners £75 inc VAT.
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