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Cubase: Beat Designer

Steinberg Cubase: Tips & Techniques By John Walden
Published August 2023

Beat Designer: drum machine‑style pattern creation with a simple workflow.Beat Designer: drum machine‑style pattern creation with a simple workflow.

Create drum machine‑style grooves in a flash with Cubase’s Beat Designer.

Classic drum machines such as the LinnDrum or those in Roland’s TR range helped to shape a whole smörgåsbord of electronic and dance music styles, but their influence didn’t only live in the distinctive sounds they offered: the grooves of their drum patterns were also a hugely significant factor. The feel of these grooves came from the grid‑based pattern creation process that lay at the heart of these machines — and with Cubase’s Beat Designer MIDI plug‑in you can emulate that workflow. What’s more, with a few key tricks under your belt, patterns can be created really quickly. So, without further ado, let’s explore Beat Designer’s, um... beat designing options!

Basics: Sounds & Beats

You can configure Beat Designer’s lane layout to suit your needs.You can configure Beat Designer’s lane layout to suit your needs.Beat Designer is placed as a MIDI insert plug‑in on whatever instrument track you wish to use. You’ll need to load a suitable drum instrument, of course, and the bundled Groove Agent SE or a sliced drum loop within a Cubase Sampler Track both make good candidates. Beat Designer does include some good beat presets and, as I’ll discuss below, a single instance can host up to 48 different patterns (four sub‑banks of 12 patterns each). It’s easy to switch between patterns too, and if you set a cycle region and let Cubase loop playback, you can audition your pattern creations as you work. Initially, though, Beat Designer opens ready for you to start creating from scratch, without any pattern pre‑loaded.

The central part of Beat Designer’s GUI is occupied by the pattern grid. Arranged vertically on the left side is the list of eight individual drum lanes and you can add/subtract lanes as required via the small ‘+’ and ‘‑’ buttons on the far right of each lane. If the default drum selections don’t suit, you can use the drop‑down menu in each lane to pick the drum sound target from your drum instrument. You can also use the small speaker icon to audition each selected sound; it’s simple and easy to configure.

You can add hits by either clicking on a single lane/step, or clicking and dragging to add multiple hits (for example, on the hi‑hat lane). Where you click vertically within a step provides initial control over that step’s velocity (high velocities at the top, low at the bottom). Hits are colour‑coded based on velocity. Clicking and dragging up/down on a step lets you adjust velocity or, if you hold Shift while clicking/dragging, change the relative velocity up/down (until a step reaches min/max velocity values) for all active steps in a lane. You can also change the velocity on selected multiple steps by clicking/dragging vertically on one step, and then dragging sideways across other active steps before then moving up/down to set the velocity. Equally, you can add volume ramps up/down by repeating this same mouse movement while holding the Alt/Opt key. And, of course, clicking on an already active step deactivates it.

If you don’t want to roll you own, Beat Designer includes a good selection of pattern presets to explore and adapt.If you don’t want to roll you own, Beat Designer includes a good selection of pattern presets to explore and adapt.This whole process is really simple and obviously makes for very speedy rhythm creation, but there are further useful shortcuts on offer too. For example, holding Shift, clicking on a step within a lane and then dragging left/right allows you to move all the steps within a lane. You can also copy one lane to another by holding Alt/Opt and clicking within the lane label area, then dragging to the lane where you wish to place the copy. And, for some further interesting rhythmic experiments, hold Alt/Opt and drag left/right over a lane: this inverts all the steps (so active steps become inactive and vice versa).

Step, Swing, Flam & Offset

The number of steps and the step resolution can be set on a per‑pattern basis. Both settings are located top left of the GUI, and there’s some fun to be had here, particularly if you create a pattern using a tried and trusted 16 steps/16th‑note step‑length format and then change the number of steps or pick a triplet step‑length format. Equally, if you use two separate drum instruments, each with its own instance of Beat Designer but set to different step counts or step lengths, you can be rewarded with some very cool — and sometimes wonderfully odd! — rhythmic interaction.

Beat Designer can also apply swing on a per‑lane level to every second beat in a pattern, or every third beat if using triplet steps (so bear in mind that the number of steps you use influences how swing impacts). For each pattern, you can configure two levels of swing, using the sliders with the diagonal icons that are found at the bottom right. For each lane, swing can be set to off or to one of the two swing amounts, using the appropriate diagonal icon at the right end of each lane. This can be a great way to add a nice groove to your hi‑hats, for example, but more extreme swing settings on your hats, kick and snare also let you experiment with the more ‘uncomfortable’ rhythms used in some types of hip‑hop or lo‑fi music.

You can add one‑, two‑ or three‑note flams to any active hit — their timing and level are configured using the group of sliders located bottom left and set at the pattern level. If you hover the mouse over the bottom of any active step, a three‑dot icon will appear and you can click this to add one, two or three flams to that step.

The horizontal sliders found to the right of each lane (next to the on/off buttons for swing) apply a timing offset for that lane, allowing you to push/pull the timing of the active hits relative to the main grid. This serves two main functions. First, you can use it in a corrective fashion; for example if the lane is triggering a sample that contains a short rise to its peak level you might want each hit earlier in time for that sound. Second, you can use it more creatively to create a rushed (ahead of the beat) or laid‑back (behind the beat) feel to elements of your groove. Or if Dilla‑style hip‑hop beats are your thing, you can use it to explore just how ‘off but not off’ you can take your rhythms. As with the swing settings, offset settings are configured at the pattern level.

Pattern Performer

As mentioned above, a single instance of Beat Designer can hold up to 48 different patterns. These are managed using the four sub‑bank and 12 pattern buttons, found at the bottom centre of the GUI. Slots that contain a pattern are indicated with a small circle icon, and clicking on a specific sub‑bank/pattern button combination makes that pattern active for editing/playback. Dropping down the Pattern Functions menu (found at the top right) provides menu options for copying, pasting and clearing patterns. This makes it easy to create variations: just duplicate a pattern and then customise the copy.

There are a number of ways to copy the contents of a pattern, or all the patterns within one of the four sub‑banks, onto a Cubase MIDI or instrument track.

The Pattern Functions menu allows you to perform various operations in Beat Designer or export the MIDI patterns to your DAW tracks.The Pattern Functions menu allows you to perform various operations in Beat Designer or export the MIDI patterns to your DAW tracks.This menu offers a couple of other useful functions. First, the top three entries let you shift an entire pattern left/right one step at a time or to reverse the whole pattern. Second, courtesy of the options at the base of the menu, there are a number of ways to copy the contents of a pattern, or all the patterns within one of the four sub‑banks, onto a Cubase MIDI or instrument track, and once there you can further edit the MIDI using the Cubase’s standard MIDI or drum editors. A particularly useful option is the Fill Loop With Pattern command: this inserts the current pattern as many times as required to fill the region between your left and right locators, and it’s a super‑quick way to get your initial Beat Designer drum groove up and running so that you can work on other elements of the track. (Once you’ve copied your pattern data to a MIDI track, remember to bypass Beat Designer, so as to avoid any double triggering of notes!)

If you prefer to create a performance by triggering pattern changes on the fly, enabling the Jump button (top right of the GUI) lets you use the four‑octave key range from C1 to switch between any of the 48 pattern slots. Once Jump is enabled, the GUI adds a Now button that allows you to toggle between instant pattern switching or switching at the start of the next bar, and you can record the trigger notes to capture your performance (and, if you wish, edit them after recording).

Get Creative

You can create all sorts of beats using the various tools I’ve outlined above (inverting lanes, different step lengths, shifting lanes left/right, etc) but the real beauty of Beat Designer is its speedy workflow — if classic drum machine beats are what your project needs, then it is well worth taking the time to explore it. Meanwhile, just to give you an idea of the sort of pattern variations you can generate really quickly, I’ve included some audio examples on the SOS website:

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