They’ve been with us for years — but you really shouldn’t overlook what Cubase’s MIDI plug‑ins have to offer!
Both the Pro and Artist versions of Cubase ship with a collection of 18 MIDI plug‑ins, spanning creative, corrective and utility functions. They can be placed onto any MIDI or instrument track within the four slots provided by the Inspector’s MIDI insert panel for the respective track. There are lots of utility‑style functions available, but for this workshop I’m going to focus on a more creative task: adding variation to a melodic MIDI part, such as a lead or bass line. A number of individual plug‑ins can serve a useful purpose here, but you can also combine them in some interesting ways. Particularly good candidates are the Step Designer, MIDI Modifiers and Density plug‑ins. I’ll explain how you can use these plug‑ins below, and you can find some audio examples on the SOS website (https://sosm.ag/cubase-0623).
Start Me Up
Your melodic starting point might come from a part you’ve already recorded into a MIDI clip, but if you’re stuck then Step Designer can be a great source of inspiration, especially if the piano/keyboard isn’t your first instrument. In essence, Step Designer is a sort of streamlined MIDI grid editor, but it’s designed specifically to make it easy to create short musical patterns. Once you’ve created a pattern, that pattern will loop on playback in sync with your project.
Step Designer’s preset patterns provide a useful introduction to what’s possible, but the key features include user control over the step size and count (up to 32 steps), the option to add swing to your pattern, the ability to add controller information for each step for velocity, gate (note length within a step), bank select and a single MIDI CC of your choice (CC10 for pan can be good fun). There are also useful tools for reversing patterns and moving them forwards/backwards by a step.
Each instance of Step Designer can hold up to 200 patterns, and you can easily copy/paste patterns.
Wonderfully, each instance of Step Designer can hold up to 200 patterns, and you can easily copy/paste patterns. So if you create a good pattern as a starting point, you can duplicate it and then edit the duplicate to create a variation. Also, you can automate switching between the first 92 patterns by recording MIDI notes onto the Step Designer MIDI track. These notes themselves are not played by your sound source (only Step Designer’s patterns will trigger sounds); they just serve to switch between Step Designer’s patterns.
Creating a pattern is a simple matter of adding notes with your mouse, by clicking or dragging in the pattern grid. You can remove a note completely by simply clicking on it. Step Designer only allows you to place one note on each step, though, not chords.
Particularly effective (and speedy) is dragging your mouse across the grid editor to create a ‘flow’ of notes (perhaps a melodic line that sweeps up or down as it progresses). As we’ll see in a moment, while Step Designer is not key/scale sensitive (so some additional tweaking of your ‘note flows’ might be required), our next MIDI plug‑in can provide an automatic solution...
Fix It In The Mix
The ‘correction’ of any duff notes in your quickly created ‘mouse drag’ note patterns can be automated using the MIDI Modifiers plug‑in. Placed in the MIDI insert slot below Step Designer, it can also do some other useful things to add both variety and a touch of ‘human’ to your Step Designer patterns.
The MIDI Modifiers plug‑in has a number of different parameter sections that allow you to (surprise!) modify the MIDI data as it passes through, and two sections are of particular interest to us. The Random section allows you to apply random changes to any two of the pitch, position, velocity or length parameters for MIDI notes. For this example, I’ve used it to randomise the pitch of the incoming note upwards by up to 5 semitones (it also allows negative shifts, but I’ve not done that here). I’ve then also randomised the MIDI velocity of the incoming notes by ±10 steps.
With both these options, the settings you choose will influence the degree of variation that gets applied to your Step Designer pattern, with smaller min/max values producing more subtle changes (and vice versa). In terms of pitch, depending upon the major/minor emphasis of the overall piece, favouring positive changes only can often produce a more ‘up’ feel, while negative changes might create a somewhat darker mood.
To fix duff notes visit the bottom of the MIDI Modifiers panel. Here, you can specify a scale type and a root note (in this case, I’m using the Melodic Minor scale in E). Any MIDI note that arrives at this point in the processing chain that doesn’t already fit the selected key/scale is automatically shifted to the nearest ‘correct’ note. Therefore, whatever notes you’ve defined within your Step Designer pattern, by the time they leave the MIDI Modifiers plug‑in, they will at least be in key.
Incidentally, if you’re starting a new project with this ‘melodic variation’ experiment and don’t yet have a set of chords or key/scale combination in mind, it can be quite interesting to explore different scale/key settings to see quite what they do to your Step Designer pattern; some may sound terrible, but occasionally you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what pops out. The Scale setting offers a huge range of scale types to choose from, each with its own musical flavour, and you can also choose to define your own scale should you wish; it’s powerful stuff.
The Immensity Of Density
Having added some pitch and velocity variation to our Step Designer melody, the final option I’ll suggest is the Density plug‑in. This is super‑simple to use and, popped into the MIDI insert chain after MIDI Modifiers, it provides a single ‘note density’ setting that allows you to either reduce or increase the number of notes played.
In this example, I’ve used a Density setting of 80 percent. This simply indicates that, for each note reaching the plug‑in, there is an 80 percent chance that it will be passed onwards (so a 20 percent chance that the note will be discarded and won’t play). This is done in a random fashion for each incoming note and can therefore be used to thin out your melody in a random fashion to a greater or lesser extent. If you automate Density’s bypass button, you can use the effect to flip between your full melodic phrase (all notes present) and a sparser version of the same thing (a percentage of the notes randomly removed).
This overall MIDI plug‑in chain can create some really cool results, especially with a plucky synth lead or piano sound that’s providing a topline over a suitable chord sequence. Among the audio examples available on the SOS website you can hear the full MIDI plug‑in chain in action.
One More Thing
Well, two things actually! First, in the text above, I’ve described the process as applied to a lead melodic line. In that context, you can perhaps get away with some more extreme randomisation settings. However, apply more subtle settings (maybe just ±2 semitones of pitch randomisation and an 80‑90 percent Density) and it can add some suitably modest variety to a Step Designer‑driven bass line.
The second thing is perhaps the one frustration with the workflow described here: it’s not straightforward to record the MIDI output resulting from the MIDI insert processing chain. Yes, the manipulated MIDI data will reach your virtual instrument for playback, but there’s no simple way to capture the wonders of the randomisation as actual MIDI data so that you can edit it further or lock in some of the best results so that they play back in an identical fashion every time. There are ways and means, though, so this is definitely a topic I’ll come back to explore another time!