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Creative Use Of Effects Within Cubase SX

Cubase Tips & Techniques
By John Walden

As described in the main text, SX provides very flexible routing options when using audio effects.As described in the main text, SX provides very flexible routing options when using audio effects.

The world is awash with plug-in audio effects, but don't miss out on those included within Cubase SX — there are some excellent creative possibilities on offer.

Far be it from me to admit to a touch of 'sequencer envy', but one of the things I've enjoyed most about the new DVDs that have accompanied SOS every few months has been Paul White's practical and creative tips on using the audio effects built into Logic, as demonstrated in the 'Experimental Guitar Processing' and Studio SOS pieces on November's DVD002 [Note: these DVDs have long-since sold out]. As an ex-Logic user (I switched to SX soon after Apple took over Emagic), the only area of SX that has ever left me with any regrets has been that of the bundled audio effects plug-ins where, frankly, Logic's offerings seem a little slicker, certainly in appearance. However, Steinberg's more recent additions — such as the Tonic filter and Roomworks reverb — are certainly impressive to look at. And anyway, it is the sounds we should be interested in rather than the looks. So, inspired by Paul's examples using Logic, what sort of creative sound manipulation possibilities are possible with the audio effects supplied with SX, and what is the best way to configure SX to experiment with these effects?

On The In

The Chopper plug-in using the Swirl preset to provide a smooth tremolo effect.The Chopper plug-in using the Swirl preset to provide a smooth tremolo effect.

While there are an almost unlimited combination of effects that you might wish to apply if you come over all experimental with your audio, perhaps the first decision that requires some thought is the position within the signal chain to place them: either you can record your audio through them, so that you can hear the effects as you play and/or sing a part into SX; or, alternatively, you can record the audio first and then apply the effect as part of the mixing process. Fortunately, SX, like most modern sequencers, offers plenty of flexibility to accommodate both of these situations. As Paul demonstrated in his Studio SOS piece with Bella Saer, there is all sorts of fun to be had with effects applied at the input stage, so let's start there...

Provided that you have a system that can achieve reasonably low audio latency, perhaps the biggest advantage to being able to hear the effects as you play and record a particular part is that you can adjust your playing to interact with the effects — essentially, you are 'playing' the effects as an element of the musical performance. However, depending upon how you route the audio through the SX mixer, you can either 'print' the effects (that is, record them as part of the audio track) or you can simply monitor them as you play, recording the performance 'dry'. This latter route offers greater flexibility as the same effects can then be applied to the part during the mixing stage, but you can continue to fine-tune them so that they work to their best within the complete musical arrangement. By the way, before attempting the examples described below, it is probably best to switch off any Direct Monitoring provided by your audio interface.

Add a touch of wah-wah with Metalizer.Add a touch of wah-wah with Metalizer.

These different approaches can be illustrated via the Mixer screenshot above. This shows a simple SX Mixer with two input channels, three audio tracks, an FX channel and the stereo output channel. If we wished to simply record the effects as part of the audio track, then a combination of Input Channel two and Track one would be most suitable. Here, a series of effects have been placed as Inserts on the input channel. (I'll come back to this particular set of effects in a minute but, for the moment, let's concentrate upon the audio routing.) In order to hear the effects, the Monitor button (the small speaker icon located next to the track's Record button within both the Mixer and the Arrange windows) needs to be engaged. This enables software monitoring and, as this means your audio is passing through SX and the various effects, before being sent via the SX outputs to your amp and speaker monitor system, it really requires a computer system capable of fairly low latencies — although, these days, almost all modern Macs and PCs with suitable soundcard/driver combinations ought to be up to the task. Anything that is recorded to Track one will then be 'as heard' — including all the effects.

If you would rather just monitor the effects with a view to being able to fine-tune them later as part of the mix process, then two alternative signal routings are available. If Track two is armed for recording and the Monitor switch engaged, the insert effects placed on this channel of the mixer will be heard as you play, but only the 'dry' signal will be recorded. On playback, the insert effects are applied again, so the end result is identical to what was heard when recording the original performance. The advantage is, however, that the effects can subsequently be tweaked if some adjustment is required.And top it off with some warm overdrive via the Tonic filter.And top it off with some warm overdrive via the Tonic filter.

If you wish to apply the same series of effects to several audio tracks, placing them as a series of inserts into those tracks is obviously going to chew up further CPU resources. In this case, it is more efficient to use the combination shown in Track three and the FX Channel. Here, Track three has its Monitor switch engaged and its first Send control is routing the signal to the FX Channel. Again, the dry signal is recorded and, on playback, the dry signal is again sent to the FX Channel so that the effects are re-applied. This effects chain could, however, also be used to serve any other audio tracks that require the same processing options, saving replication of the effects plug-ins (and therefore CPU grunt) within each track.

There is one other thing worth noting about Track three; the Send has the 'pre-fader' switch activated (illuminated orange). This means that the amount of the input signal fed to the FX Channel is controlled only by the FX send control and it is totally independent of the main channel fader. This is helpful, as it means that the channel fader can be used to set an appropriate balance between the dry signal and that produced by the effects chain. Lowering the channel fader to the bottom of its travel will therefore, effectively mute the dry signal so only the output from the effects will be heard — great if you are after something a little more extreme!

Going Free

One of the examples Paul White used in his Studio SOS visit to Bella Saer was chaining a pitch-shifter (set to plus one octave) and reverb to process a guitar input. This produces an almost ghostly, synth-like sound that can sit behind the guitar part. While SX features excellent pitch- and tempo-shifting for off-line processing of audio, unfortunately it does not feature a dedicated pitch-shifter plug-in for real-time use. Of course, SX users should not despair, or feel envious of their Logic-using friends — there are plenty of third-party pitch-shifters (and an almost endless supply of other) plug-ins available via the web. And if you are happy to deal with the occasional bit of flaky coding(!), there are all sorts of freeware and shareware VST plug-ins to be downloaded.

While a quick search on Yahoo or Lycos will soon turn up a host of possible links, a couple of suitable starting points would be the software sections of Harmony Central (www.harmony-central.com/Software) or the KVR Audio web site (www.kvraudio.com). The latter is dedicated to information and news on all forms of audio plug-ins, whether they be VST, DirectX or Audio Units. It includes plenty of interesting and useful information and links to both commercial and shareware/freeware plug-in effects.

On The Chain Gang

So much for the routing, what about the effects themselves? The example included in the main screenshot is based upon a chain of Chopper, Metalizer, Tonic, Roomworks and Dynamics plug-ins. This is a combination that I find can work really well with a guitar input but, if the dry guitar signal is kept at a low level (using the Track three/FX Channel combination described above), some very synth-like sounds can be created. In this chain, Roomworks and the Dynamics module are simply being used to provide a little ambience and to add a noise gate to clean up the output — the bulk of the 'sound' is provided by the Chopper (giving a smooth tremolo effect), Metalizer (creating a wah-wah effect) and Tonic (adding some overdrive) plug-ins.

Place the MIDI Gate plug-in as an insert effect on the audio track that you want to process.Place the MIDI Gate plug-in as an insert effect on the audio track that you want to process.

Set the MIDI output to MIDI Gate for the MIDI track used to control the MIDI Gate effect.Set the MIDI output to MIDI Gate for the MIDI track used to control the MIDI Gate effect.As shown in the individual screenshots, all three are based upon presets supplied by Steinberg. Both Chopper and Metalizer are being sync'ed to the Project tempo, although at different values (1/16 and 1/1 respectively). The result of this lot is a very rhythmic sound with plenty of movement in the stereo image and a nice warm overdrive. If you completely remove the dry guitar sound, this chain works well with muted arpeggios, sustained power chords or rapid strumming — just watch the final output levels from the FX Channel so that no nasty clipping reaches your speakers. Incidentally, the Drive preset for Tonic is a nice starting point for warming up any sound requiring a touch more grit — not a substitute for a dedicated amp modelling plug-in such as Amplitube perhaps, but, as with Quadrafuzz, well worth experimenting with nonetheless. Tonic can also achieve tremolo-style 'chopping' effects on its own — just check out some of the other presets.

Top Chopper

The routing option using Track three and a send to the FX Channel is, of course, exactly how you would configure things if you wished to apply some processing to pre-recorded audio during a mix — perhaps just to spice it up a little or perhaps just to see if something conventional such as a guitar or synth part could be suitably mangled to create something a little more off-the-wall.

If you want more control over the type of tremolo-style effect described above, perhaps SX's best weapon is the MIDI Gate plug-in. With any sustained part (perhaps a pad sound or sustained power chords from a guitar), this can be used to create some fantastic rhythmic effects from an audio track. The end result is not unlike that of the Chopper in that a range of tremolo effects are created by the opening and closing of a noise gate. However, with MIDI Gate, the rhythm of the gate's opening and closing is totally controlled via MIDI notes — either from a pre-recorded MIDI track or via live playing from a MIDI input. To make this work requires a number of steps. First, the MIDI Gate plug-in (found alongside SX's Dynamics plug-ins) needs to be placed as an insert effect in the audio track to be processed. Next a MIDI track needs to be created and, via the Inspector, the output of the MIDI track needs to be set to MIDI Gate. If the MIDI track is then selected, once playback is started, any MIDI notes arriving at the MIDI input are used to control the action of the gate, effectively 'chopping' the part on the appropriate audio track.

The MIDI Gate plug-in itself.The MIDI Gate plug-in itself.The MIDI Gate screenshot shows all the controls at zero. With these settings a MIDI Note On message instantly opens the gate while a MIDI Note Off message instantly closes it. This is great for creating strong rhythmic patterns from a simple pad sound. Of the various controls, one in particular is worth experimenting with for slightly different effects. With the Velocity To VCA control set to zero, the gate is either fully open or fully closed when a MIDI note is played and then released. This means that, when open, the loudness of the audio heard is controlled only by the loudness of the original recording. However, as the Velocity To VCA control is shifted further to the right (towards a maximum value of 127), the degree to which the gate opens becomes increasingly controlled by MIDI note velocity — essentially, the MIDI input to the gate is controlling both when the audio is played and its loudness; play softly on the MIDI keyboard driving the gate and the audio will be quieter when the gate opens; play at higher MIDI velocities and the gate will open more fully giving louder output. With a suitable pad sound, this can produce some excellent additional expressive control.

Can I Have More, Please?

Of course, given the range of plug-ins provided with SX, there are plenty of other possibilities for creative, rather than corrective, use of audio effects. This is certainly a topic that can be returned to in a future Cubase column. Hopefully, however, with the various routing options described above and the two short examples provided to whet your appetite, you will be encouraged to get creative and do some experimentation for yourself. A final word of warning — just be careful out there. When exploring the wilder side of any audio plug-in effects chains, do tread carefully with your use of the various filters until you are sure what is happening — don't blow your ears or your speakers! 

Tiny Tips

The Use Up/Down Navigation Commands For Selecting Tracks Only option makes track selection using the cursor keys more straightforward.The Use Up/Down Navigation Commands For Selecting Tracks Only option makes track selection using the cursor keys more straightforward. The Cubase SX 3.1 update has been with us for a little while now, but I'm still finding all sorts of useful things within the new features added. What might appear to be one of the most modest is actually one that I have found most useful. Under the Editing section of the Preferences dialogue, there is now a Use Up/Down Navigation Commands For Selecting Tracks Only option. Selecting this option means that the up/down arrows on the computer keyboard only cycle through the tracks within the Arrange window, rather than also moving between individual events on the track. I find this behaviour much less likely to cause confusion, as it means I'm not accidentally selecting a part when, really, I just want to move between tracks.

A further new option that can considerably speed the workflow is the Scroll To function available in the Project & Mixer section of the Preferences dialogue's Editing page. This has a number of different settings that may suit different users depending upon how they work, but the setting I prefer is Channel. This causes the display within the Mixer window to automatically scroll to the channel for the track currently selected within the Arrange window. If you flip between the two windows a lot during the editing and mixing of a complex project, this avoids a lot of scrolling back and forth within the Mixer window — very neat!

Published February 2006