Cubase’s Drum Editor has always been one of the key features that has kept me hooked on the software. The conceptual simplicity of using a drumstick-shaped mouse cursor to place drum hits on a grid has always worked better for me when creating beats than using a piano-roll-style editor or a more traditional step-based pattern sequencer.
Underlying the Drum Editor are Cubase’s Drum Maps. Drum Maps associate a drum-instrument name with a MIDI note, and these names appear in the Drum Editor’s instrument list. We’ll look at Drum Maps in detail in a future tutorial; here, let’s focus on the Drum Editor itself.
By default, double-clicking on a MIDI part will open Cubase’s Key Editor, the classic piano-roll MIDI note editor common to all DAWs. To open selected parts in the Drum Editor instead, we can use the MIDI > Open Drum Editor menu option, but a more streamlined approach is to assign a Drum Map to tracks that contain drum parts.
This tells Cubase the track is being used for drums, and so double-clicking parts on such a track will open the Drum Editor rather than the Key Editor. Assigning a Drum Map to a track also causes the Drum Editor to be shown in the Editor tab of the project window’s lower zone whenever any of that track’s parts are selected.
Drum Maps are assigned to a track in the top section of the Track Inspector – the field in question is located below the MIDI I/O routing selectors and has an icon that resembles a kick drum and beater. Clicking in this field opens a pop-up menu from where you can choose from the currently available maps – a General MIDI map is always available.
The menu also has options for opening the Drum Map Setup window, where you can load, configure and save maps, and to import a map from the VSTi providing the drum sounds (if the VSTi supports this feature).
The grid displayed by the Drum Editor is dependent on the active Grid Type, which is accessed via a drop-down menu on the toolbar at the top of the editor window. If this or any other toolbar buttons I mention are not visible in the Drum Editor, click the gear icon at the top-right of the editor’s window to open a menu from where you can enable it.
In Use Quantize mode, the grid will be determined by the editor’s current quantise setting, whereas Use Snap from Drum Map will create a per-instrument grid determined by the snap setting of each drum instrument (if you can’t see this column, move the divider between the instrument list and the grid). The Adapt to Zoom mode creates a finer and finer grid as the timeline is zoomed in.
Similarly, the length of the hits you enter can be set globally or on a per-instrument basis via the Insert Length toolbar. If a global value is selected here, all entered notes will have this length; if Drum-Map Link is selected, then the length of an entered note is determined by each instrument’s snap value.
By default, hits you enter appear as diamonds that mark the position of the note-on messages, but these give no visual feedback of the note length. Often this isn’t an issue, because drum sound sources tend to be configured to trigger an entire sample on receipt of a note-on message. With such a sound source, a short global length value will suffice – a 1/16th note, for instance.
However, in situations where the note length is important, and the diamond-shaped markers are therefore unhelpful, the editor can be switched to use horizontal bars to represent the drum hit by clicking the small diamond at the right of the Insert Length toolbar. You can introduce a lot of groove and subtlety into a beat by varying the velocity of the hits. By default, the controller lane below the drum grid shows the velocity of currently selected hits, but the initial velocity of hits you enter is determined by the value in the Insert Velocity toolbar.
The toolbar allows you to enter a specific value, or to select from one of five preset values; you can also switch the currently active preset by holding Ctrl (Mac) or Alt (Windows) and pressing the number key 1-5 that corresponds to the preset. Another method of setting hit velocity is to drag up or down after clicking to enter a hit, but the most natural way takes a bit more explaining…
Creating a pattern in the Drum Editor: step-by-step
1. Create a new project and add an instance of HALion Sonic SE to the VSTi rack, creating a corresponding MIDI track when prompted. Use HALion’s browser to load a GM kit into slot 10.
2. Open the Track Inspector for HALion’s MIDI track, and expand the first section if it’s not visible. At the bottom of this section, click the field that says No Drum Map and select GM Map from the pop-up menu.
3. Use the Pencil tool to create a 2-bar part on HALion’s track. Double-click the part – it opens in the Drum Editor. Drag the divider between the instrument list and grid so that the Snap column is visible.
4. Open the Grid Type drop-down menu, which you’ll find on the toolbar, and select Use Snap from Drum Map. Then disable snapping by clicking the Snap On/Off button, so that it’s in an unlit state.
5. Locate the Closed Hi-Hat in the instrument list, click in its Snap column and select 1/8 triplet – note that the instrument’s row now displays a different timing grid to all the other instrument rows.
6. Repeat the process from Step 5, but this time, after clicking in the Snap column, hold down Cmd (Mac) or Ctrl (Windows) before reselecting1/8 triplet. This changes the snap value for all instruments simultaneously.
GOING OFF-GRID Unless aiming for metronomic accuracy, I recommend you disable snapping when entering hits in the Drum Editor, and use the grid as a guide rather than a rigid framework. The subtle inaccuracies this introduces tends to give the resulting groove a much more characterful and human-played feel.
7. Use the drumstick cursor tool to create a pattern on the hi-hats. Remember, snap is disabled, so the grid is a guide rather than a rigid framework. Don’t worry about the velocity of the hits.
8. Click on the gear icon located at the top-right of the editor window, or right-click anywhere in the window’s toolbar area, and select Step/MIDI Input if it is not already active (ticked).
9. Locate the MIDI Input button on the toolbar and click it to activate it (it will turn orange). To the right of this is a group of four buttons – enable Record NoteOn Velocity and disable the others.
10. The editor is now configured to step-record velocity data. Each incoming note-on message will update the velocity of the currently selected hit, and Cubase will then select the next hit ready for the next key press.
11. Select the first hit of your hi-hat pattern. Now, using a keyboard or pad controller, play a series of notes at varying velocities. It doesn’t matter what note you play – only velocity data is being recorded.
12. Once you’re happy with the hi-hats, use the drumstick mouse tool to add a kick drum to the pattern. Then use the Object Selection tool to select all of the newly entered kick-drum hits.
MIDI CHANNELS IN DRUM MAPS Drum Maps can define the MIDI routing for each instrument in the map. This can be seen with the default GM Drum Map, which assigns each drum instrument to MIDI Channel 10. Any connected VSTi has to be set to receive on Channel 10 also.
13. Use your keyboard/pad controller to enter velocities for the kick drum. Notice that this time, Cubase will step to the next hit in the current selection, allowing us to isolate the hits we’re recording velocity to.
14. Build up your pattern until you’re satisfied with it, and experiment with this and the other techniques for entering drum hit velocity. Once done, disable the MIDI Input button to prevent any accidental step recording.
15. Click the gear icon located at the top-right of the editor window, or right-click anywhere in the toolbar area, and select Nudge Palette if it isn’t already ticked. Locate the palette on the toolbar.
16. This Nudge Palette allows you to adjust the position and length of hits by a set amount – that amount is determined by the editor’s Global Quantize value, and ignores the snap values of individual instruments.
17. Set Global Quantize to 1/128 – a very small value. Select all of the hi-hat hits that play off the beat, and then click the right-pointing arrow in the Nudge Palette a couple of times.
18. Listen to your finished drum pattern. It should sound natural and have a nice bit of push-and-pull against the beat. Come back next time, when we’ll explore the capabilities of the Drum Maps themselves.