Cubase’s FX Modulator makes it easy to design ear‑catching riser and drop effects.
Sound‑design elements such as risers, hits and drops are used in all sorts of musical contexts to highlight a specific point in an arrangement, such as a musical transition. Risers (with or without a tail) constitute volume swells into an impact/transition, while drops can be thought of as a kind of impact sound but with an added pitch drop element. There are, of course, lots of excellent commercial sample packs or virtual instruments that can supply these sorts of sounds, but rolling your own can both be quicker (you don’t haver to trawl through a million samples) and deliver a better, unique result. Users of Cubase 12 (Artist or Pro) can use the new FX Modulator plug‑in to do this, so let’s see how it rises to the occasion!
Because FX Modulator provides plenty of options for controlling the volume, timbre change and pitch (amongst other things) of a sound, we don’t necessarily need to start with a source sound that contains any of these features. For the example below, and the audio files that accompany the workshop on the SOS website (https://sosm.ag/cubase0223), I started with a couple of sustained presets from Cubase’s Padshop synth. I deliberately picked sounds with a broad frequency spectrum and then shortened the attack and release times of the amplifier envelope. I also bypassed any delay or reverb effects — because I wanted it to be FX Modulator which controlled the start and end/decay portions of my riser and drop effects.
For our purposes, there are two key features of FX Modulator. First, amongst its various effects modules are Volume, Filter and Pitch, the three main tools we can use for our DIY sound design (the ‘FX’ bit). Second, each of the effects modules lets you modulate a parameter (or two) over a user‑selected time base (for example, one beat, one bar; the ‘Modulator’ bit).
Let’s start simply, using just the Volume module to create two‑bar riser effect. As shown in the first screen, the basic configuration is very straightforward, but some details are worth noting. First, I’ve defined my own volume modulation curve and saved it into one of the user banks. The curve starts from zero volume, rises to a peak after two bars, and then there’s a rapid drop in back to zero (giving a short ‘tail’ to the sound, the length of which can easily be adjusted by changing the curve). For me to have the option for this tail setting, I needed to set the Time control to four bars (4/1), even though I want my riser itself to only last two bars.
Second, in the bottom‑most Trigger panel I’ve enabled MIDI triggering and selected the 1 Cycle mode. This means that the volume modulation envelope will only start running when FX Modulator receives a MIDI trigger note (any note; the pitch doesn’t matter). Once triggered, it will complete a single pass through its timeline (four bars long in this case) before stopping. This style of triggering requires an extra step, which is described below, but it’s more precise than using the internal side‑chain option, which relies on the input signal passing a defined threshold level before triggering occurs.
Given that this is a two‑bar riser, we need to trigger both Padshop and FX Modulator exactly two bars ahead of when that peak is required..
That extra step? We need a second MIDI track containing our MIDI ‘trigger’ notes, and with its MIDI Output Routing set to the MIDI in of our FX Modulator plug‑in — this routing can be set up in the MIDI track’s Inspector panel. Given that this is a two‑bar riser, we need to trigger both Padshop and FX Modulator (from the MIDI trigger track) exactly two bars ahead of when that peak is required. For example, if I wanted the peak to hit at the end of bar 4, I’d place a single note on my Padshop track at the exact start of bar 3 and extended the note beyond the start of bar 5 (to allow for that aforementioned short tail to be heard). Having created the Padshop MIDI clip, I can copy it to the MIDI trigger track; it will then trigger the Volume module’s modulation envelope at exactly the same time as Padshop starts to play. The result? The Padshop sound gradually rises in level over two bars, hits its peak at the end of bar 4, and then quickly tails off at the start of bar 5. And, by using different MIDI pitches with Padshop, you can produce slightly different riser sounds each time you want to use it.
You can create a similar riser‑style effect using the Filter module. The configuration can be identical to that for the Volume module, but with the gradually rising modulation curve controlling the cutoff frequency of (for example) a low‑pass 12dB/octave filter. The sound will still start at a low volume because the initial low cutoff setting does not let much of the sound get past the filter. However, over the two‑bar build, the filter gradually opens, making the sound grow both louder and brighter. Adjust the frequency value at the peak of the modulation curve to change the intensity of the effect; for example, make the filter peak at 15 rather than 20 kHz.
I know what you’re thinking... Wouldn’t it be nice to build a riser that combines both the Volume and Filter modules? You can do that but, as I’ll demonstrate by building a drop sound (which does require two modules to be combined; Pitch and Volume), an extra step is involved if you wish to trigger two modulation curves and keep them in sync. This is due to a limitation within the plug‑in’s MIDI trigger system; within any instance of FX Modulator, the MIDI trigger option can only be active for one module at a time.
While it would be great to see Steinberg address this at some stage, we needn’t wait for that since there’s an uncomplicated workaround. For our drop effect, insert two instances of FX Modulator on the Padshop track. The first instance uses the Pitch module, while the second uses the Volume module. Imagine we want our pitch drop to last one bar. We set the Time for both instances to 2/1 (two bars; again, longer than the drop itself, so as to avoid the module curves cycling back to their starting values right at the end of the one‑bar effect, which could result in audible oddities!). We can then create pitch and volume modulation curves to taste over the first bar, with the volume modulation reaching zero at the end of bar 1, and remaining at zero until the end of bar 2.
Finally, instead of just one MIDI trigger track (using the same approach as for our riser), you create two, each pointing at a different FX Modulator instance. It might look a little clunky (and if that bothers you there’s a slightly more elegant/complex solution using MIDI Sends from a single MIDI ‘trigger’ track) but it’s simple and it’s effective.
As mentioned above, playing different notes with our Padshop source can provide a welcome sense of variation when we want to use the DIY riser or drop at multiple points in a single project. But another useful variation is simply to change the length of the effect. For example, instead of the one‑bar drop described above, you could go for a shorter half‑bar version. While you could obviously replicate the above setups with additional Padshop and MIDI trigger tracks, a more efficient option is simply to automate changes to the Time setting of your FX Modulator instances.
The most straightforward way to do this is to select the Padshop track containing your FX Modulator instances, open an instance of FX Modulator (you can do each in turn) and enable the Write Automation button. Start playback, then use your mouse to change the Time value, which will automatically create an automation lane for that parameter. You can then edit the automation curve manually to place the desired changes in the Time parameter at the appropriate points. In this example, if we wanted to create a half‑bar riser/drop, we’d set the Time parameter to one bar (four beats). The only other thing we need to do is change the length of the MIDI notes used to get Padshop to play and to trigger the modulation curves to 1.5 bars (six beats; as with the earlier example, slightly longer than the sound effect we are trying to create). Provided you enable the Read Automation button for these automation lanes, you can now trigger as many different lengths of your riser or drop as your project requires.