Cubase’s Sampler Track is capable of making surprisingly playable backing vocals.
Not everyone can afford top‑flight vocal sample libraries, and if you all you need are some basic vowel‑style vocals parts then the Sampler Track, included in the Pro, Artist and Elements versions of Cubase 12, offers a way to roll your own. The steps involved are pretty straightforward too, so it’s easy to explore the idea, even if the parts you create will only be used as placeholders to be replaced with a singer later on.
In order to create a playable vowel‑based vocal instrument, we obviously need a sample as a starting point and, to make the subsequent steps easy, two key things are worth considering when selecting or recording a suitable sample. First, ensure that you know (or can work out) the pitch of the original sample. Second, consider whether the performance you wish to create requires sustained sounds or shorter, staccato sounds (for example ‘ooooh’ and ‘oh’, respectively). If possible, pick or create a source sample that matches this style — while the Sampler Track does let you create a sustained sound from a shorter sample, for vocal samples in particular it’s not always possible to make the necessary looping sound completely seamless.
Drag & Drop
Execute the Project / Add Track / Sampler command to create a new Sampler Track. By default, this opens the (initially empty) Sampler control panel in the Project window’s Lower Zone. Then, simply drag and drop your sample into this panel. Hey presto! You now have an instrument, made of that single sample mapped across the full MIDI note range.
To get the best from it some tweaks are needed, and the first screenshot shows the settings I used for my working example; a sustained ‘dooo’ vocal sample. I’ll focus on the key settings I adjusted, but don’t let that stop you from experimenting with the other controls if you wish! I’ve also created some audio examples so you can hear what’s going on, and you can find these on the SOS website (https://sosm.ag/cubase-0123).
Within the waveform display, the first task is to adjust the sample’s start and end points, by dragging the small ‘S’ markers. If there’s a lot of unneeded material, the Toolbar’s ‘[ ]’ button can also be used to trim the sample. For smoother playback, it’s worth applying a short fade‑in/out by dragging the solid white squares associated with both S markers. Next, in the bottom‑most mini‑keyboard display, we need to check that the root note of the original sample (highlighted in blue) is set correctly to ensure the most natural‑sounding playback; you can simply drag and reposition as required.
To Loop Or Not To Loop?
If we wish notes to sustain longer than the original sample we need to configure a loop region. If you select an appropriate option from the Loop Mode drop‑down selection list (I selected Until Release in this case), the green loop (L) markers appear ready for adjustment.
Our hearing is very sensitive to what sounds ‘natural’ in the human voice; patience will usually reward you with a smoother end result.
Achieving a seamless loop using the two L markers, even with the Zero Crossing buttons active and using the crossfade options for the loop start/end points, can be a bit hit and miss. As a guide, it helps to try and get as close a match between the original waveform (shown in blue) and the waveform of the looped section (shown in green). Usefully, if you hover the mouse directly between the two L markers, a green horizontal bar appears, allowing you to reposition the loop section without changing the length of the loop. Of all the steps involved, this is the one most worth spending time on, as our hearing is very sensitive to what sounds ‘natural’ in the human voice; patience will usually reward you with a smoother end result.
A Bit Of A Stretch
In the Playback panel, I’ve enabled AudioWarp. This applies time‑stretching, so playback is the same length at different pitches. However, a quick tinkle up and down the keyboard from the sample’s root note will reveal two things. First, the sound is a little static, and, second, beyond a few semitones from the root note, even with AudioWarp engaged, the vocal quickly strays into unnatural‑sounding territory.
To address the first issue, we can dip into the Pitch, Filter and Amp panels and, in each case, apply some parameter modulation to increase the sense of movement. Clicking on the ‘mod’ label for any of these panels superimposes a modulation envelope upon the waveform display. As an example, the screenshot shows some of the possibilities offered by Pitch modulation. I’ve applied a short upwards scoop into the note and a drop down as the note decays. In anticipation of playing sustained notes, I’ve also extended the pitch curve over about three seconds and added some minor pitch drift. You could make this as detailed as you might like but it makes for a slightly less robotic sound when notes are held. Note that you have to adjust the AMT slider (far left) to a non‑zero value before this pitch modulation curve will have any effect, but it does provide a very easy means of scaling the magnitude (and direction) of the modulation. Another strong modulation candidate is the filter frequency (using the envelope or Keyfollow controls in the Filter panel) as this can add pleasing tonal variation. If you have longer source samples and want to create a more gentle, pad‑like fade‑in, the Amp modulation envelope is where to start.
Make It A Multi
In terms of the second issue, we really need a feature that the Sampler Track doesn’t currently support: multisample instruments. While that would be great to see (pretty please Steinberg!), the very streamlined nature of the Sampler Track workflow does make it easy to construct a simple workaround. Imagine we want to be able to play our vocal sample instrument over a single octave note range but our current Sampler Track only really sounds natural over a range of four or five semitones around the root. What we need is multiple Sampler Tracks.
For example, if we used three Sampler Tracks based on different ‘oooh’ samples originally recorded at C3, F3 and A3, and configured using the steps described so far, we could, in principle, achieve natural playback over a full octave. Then, for each track, we can constrain the active note range using the mini‑keyboard display at the base of each Sampler Track panel, ensuring that they don’t overlap.
For playback, if we then select all three tracks within the main Project window track list (so all three become highlights and record enabled), any MIDI notes you play will be sent to all three tracks, but each track will only trigger sample playback within its own limited note range. The end result is, essentially, a multisample instrument created from three Sampler Tracks and a much more natural playback of our vocal sample over a full octave range.
And on a practical front, it’s worth noting the Toolbar’s ‘lock’ button. Having carefully created your first Sampler Track with all the appropriate settings, if you then duplicate it, and active the lock button on the duplicate, you can drag and drop a new sample onto this track without it zapping your carefully crafted settings. You can then go in and manually change the settings for each sample as required.
And There’s More
Of course, having got into the swing of it, you don’t have to stop at three Sampler Tracks. How about a second set of three Sampler Tracks based on three different sampled ‘oooh’ performances — with each set of three panned to opposite sides of the stereo field? Select all six tracks and play for a nice, wide vocal pad.
Equally, you could create a second set of Sampler Tracks for a different vowel‑based vocal (I’ve done this in the audio examples with a ‘baaah’ sound). With careful use of the mini‑keyboard to create suitable mapping, you can trigger this second sound in a different part of your MIDI keyboard, allowing you to mix and match a performance with the two different vocal sounds using left and right hands.
And, if you route the output of all these Sampler Tracks to a suitable audio bus you can add some global reverb and delay, while Pro users could also try an instance of Cubase’s Cloner plug‑in to add some further depth to the vocal ensemble.
Finally, if you think you might like to reuse these new DIY vocal instruments in a future project, simply select all of the Sampler Tracks you have created, right‑click on any one of them, and choose Save Track Preset. Provided the original samples used don’t get moved or deleted, you can then load this Track Preset within a new project and your various Sampler Tracks will be fully restored and ready to play.