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Exploring Sonar 8's Beatscape Instrument

Sonar Notes & Techniques By Craig Anderton
Published January 2009

Sonar 8 introduced Beatscape, a new Cakewalk instrument designed specifically for the groovily inclined. We dig behind the interface for some tips and tricks you won't find in the documentation.

Thirteen one-shot samples have been dragged onto Beatscape pads. You can see the waveform associated with the selected pad in the display just above the keyboard.Thirteen one-shot samples have been dragged onto Beatscape pads. You can see the waveform associated with the selected pad in the display just above the keyboard.

Meet Beatscape, a drum module, groove tool, loop arranger and live performance instrument launched as part of Sonar 8. While it's based conceptually on the Cyclone instrument from previous Sonar versions, Beatscape goes well beyond the capabilities of its ancestor.

Come Up To My Pad

Sixteen virtual pads are at the heart of Beatscape. You drag samples you want to play onto a pad from the desktop, Beatscape's browser, the Explorer or a Sonar track (but not a Sonar region; only complete files can be dragged). Basically, any WAV, AIFF or RX2 file will do, but compressed formats, like MP3, don't work. The files can be one-shots or loops, and being able to combine loops and hits within Beatscape accounts for a lot of its fun factor, as you can have loops going in the background while triggering individual hits on top. Whether a given sample plays out as originally intended depends on the pad mode, however, as you have four choices per pad. Clicking in the Pad Mode field cycles through these.

  • Auto Loop: As soon as you trigger a pad (for example, by hitting a keyboard key or clicking on the pad), the sample loops continuously. Looping has a toggle action: trigger to start, trigger to stop.
  • Auto Play: Upon triggering a pad, the sample plays to the end, then stops. Any MIDI note-off messages (from releasing a key or the mouse button) are ignored.
  • Manual Loop: The sample loops for as long as the pad is triggered.
  • Manual Play: When you trigger a pad, the sample plays either until it ends or there's a note-off MIDI message.

The pads respond to velocity, whether you're triggering from a MIDI controller or clicking on the pad. Whereabouts you click in the pad changes velocity, with softer values toward the right and lower part of the pad, and louder values to the left and top. The virtual keyboard has velocity response as well: clicking lower on the key increases velocity.

File Browsing

In addition to dragging files in from the desktop, you can use Beatscape's browser for finding and importing files. Three main tabs point to three folders of files: Library, User and Programs. The Library comes with Beatscape and is installed with the program. The User folder is populated automatically whenever you bring a sample to a pad, so the folder can get filled up pretty quickly. However, you can organise files within the browser as desired; the User folder is at C:/ Documents and Settings / All Users / Application Data / Cakewalk / Beatscape / User Samples / Imported. You can create subfolders for specific projects, sounds or genres, but if you make any changes to the User folder, you need to refresh the browser, by clicking on the curved arrow button to the left of the Library tab.

There's a shortcut to get to the User Samples folder: to the left of the Beatscape logo, click on the File button and choose Browse User Data. From here, you can also move upwards through the file tree and navigate to any source of samples, then audition samples (Alt-click on the file name in the browser) and drag the ones you want into Beatscape.

Finally, Programs contain all the settings for a Beatscape setup and point to the various samples, so don't move them to where Beatscape can't find them. You can save Programs via the File menu.

Recording Pad Hits In Sonar

Several Beatscape properties need to be set when you insert it.Several Beatscape properties need to be set when you insert it.

You'll want to be able to record pad hits in a Sonar MIDI track, but you need to set up the capability to do this during the process of inserting Beatscape. You also need to decide, when inserting, whether to use multiple outputs; once you've inserted Beatscape, you can't go back and change these settings. Here's the procedure.

1. Go Insert / Soft Synths / Beatscape.

2. In the 'Insert Soft Synth Options' box, tick Enable MIDI Output.

3. Choose how you want to handle the audio outputs. For multiple outputs, select either 'All Synth Audio Outputs: Stereo' to create stereo tracks (recommended), or the Mono option if you want mono tracks. If all you need is a simple stereo output, tick 'First Synth Audio Output' instead.

4. If you ticked 'All Synth Audio Outputs: Stereo', 17 Beatscape audio tracks will appear, along with one MIDI track. The first one is a mixed stereo output; the rest are individual outputs. I recommend making the mixed audio track the last audio output, so that pad one corresponds to the first track, pad two corresponds to the second, and so on.

5. Now go to Beatscape's MIDI track. For the Input field, select Beatscape / MIDI Omni. You could also choose Beatscape / Channel 1, as all pads generate note-on/note-off messages on that channel.

When you go into record mode on the MIDI track, pad hits will now be recorded. (Note that this is the same way you record MIDI data from an application such as Steinberg's Groove Agent 3, which also generates MIDI data from within the program.)

Make A Drum Sound Module

Creating a drum kit out of one-shot audio files highlights some Beatscape features.

1. Drag the hits you want onto the pads.

2. Click on each pad, and under Pad Settings, set Pad Mode to Auto Play and Sync Mode to Immediate (Speed doesn't matter except for loops, but Beatscape can do double time and half time). The reason for choosing 'Immediate' is that otherwise the drum (or loop) won't hit until a rhythmically appropriate time, as specified in this field.

3. For Output, choose the desired output for each pad if you have selected multiple outputs.

4. Play keys corresponding to the blue keys on the bottom keyboard (if the keyboard isn't showing, click on the Keyboard button toward the lower right), or click on pads, to hear the drum sounds.

Also check out the Edit section for each pad. Here you can change transposition in semitones, tuning in cents, and alter pan, volume, mute and solo status. But you can get even crazier if you click on Effects, as each pad can have up to three effects in series (the Effects power-button needs to be on for you to hear them.)

Going Loopy

Now let's graduate to working with loops, which is Beatscape's main strength. If you drag a REX file to a pad, Beatscape 'adopts' its slice markers, and with WAV or AIFF files it adds slice markers where appropriate (although, oddly, it doesn't recognise the transient markers in Acidised files). Thanks to the slicing, these loops conform to the project tempo, although they don't always follow dynamic tempo changes elegantly.

It's possible to add and move slice points in order to tweak the stretching characteristics for better-sounding stretching when you change tempo. We've covered this concept in previous articles, but to summarise, you want a slice point at every significant level transient in a percussive file, as close to the precise start of the transient as possible.

To add a slice point, right-click in the waveform where you want the slice, then select 'Add Marker' from the pop-up menu. You can move it if fine‑tuning is required.To add a slice point, right-click in the waveform where you want the slice, then select 'Add Marker' from the pop-up menu. You can move it if fine‑tuning is required.When the mouse is over a marker, the cursor turns into a double arrow. Click and drag left or right to change the slice position. Click anywhere in the waveform and rotate the mouse's scroll wheel to zoom for greater accuracy.

Although you're supposed to be able to remove slice markers via the right-click context menu, this doesn't seem to work. Instead, hold your cursor above a slice marker, at which point the cursor turns into a double arrow and the marker turns blue. If you type 'D' while doing this (do not click, just let the mouse hover over the marker), the marker will be removed.

Manipulating Slices

There are several ways to manipulate slices. For starters, you can rearrange the slice order simply by clicking on a slice and dragging it to the desired position. This doesn't alter the timing, because you haven't changed the aggregate duration of the slices themselves. You can also delete an individual slice, by clicking within the slice and typing 'D'. The slices to its right and left will close up, shortening the loop, and this can create interesting polyrhythms.

To process an individual slice, right-click anywhere within it and choose an option from the pop-up menu, offering Silence, Reverse, Fade In, Fade Out (fades are short, and are designed to minimise clicks) and Normalise functions. Clicking within the slice plays back just that slice, so you can hear the results of edits. To apply the same process to multiple slices, Ctrl-click on each slice, then right-click on any of them to choose your option (or Shift‑click to select multiple contiguous slices). This is particularly helpful with the Silence function, as you can select multiple slices, silence them and create stuttering effects.

One of the best features is that you can revert all edits to get back to the original file: Right‑click anywhere within the waveform and select Revert Edits from the context menu. However, note that this is an all-or-nothing operation that nullifies all edits, including changed markers, processing, removed slices, and so on.

Playing Slices From A Keyboard

When you call up the piano roll view for a track recorded using a MIDI keyboard to trigger slices, Slices and Pads are shown along the left instead of piano notes.When you call up the piano roll view for a track recorded using a MIDI keyboard to trigger slices, Slices and Pads are shown along the left instead of piano notes.

Playing pads and playing slices from a keyboard are different operations. As noted earlier, to record pad hits you need to 'Enable MIDI Output' and set the Beatscape MIDI track's input to listen to the Beatscape virtual MIDI Out. However, this trick doesn't seem to work with the virtual keyboard keys along the bottom, even though clicking on them will trigger individual samples. (According to the online Help, this should be possible but if not, it wouldn't be the first time the Help and instrument itself were out of sync.) But you can trigger individual slices from an external MIDI keyboard and record the results into Sonar. In this case, you'd set the Beatscape MIDI track's input to listen to your external MIDI controller, and record MIDI notes into the track as you normally would when playing any external keyboard.

So why would you want to play slices from a keyboard? Well, you can rearrange the order of slices on the fly by simply playing the keys. Another use is with a drum loop where individual slices have individual drum sounds. You can play these sounds as you would a drum kit, without going through the hassle of bringing the file into a digital audio editor, separating out the hits, placing them on pads, and so on.

Step Sequencing

Beatscape's crowning glory is the ability to use step 'generators' to process loop slices. Access the Step Generator with the Step button in the lower right. Clicking on the Parameter Selector button below that cycles through the parameters the step sequencer can affect: Pitch, Pan, Volume, Cutoff and Resonance. (You can also cycle through these by clicking in the space to the left of the step sequencer view.)

Draw a step sequence simply by using the mouse to click and drag within the step sequencer view; hold down Shift while dragging to draw a straight line. There are also ways to manipulate the steps. Access these four main groups of options by clicking on the Step Edit button.

  • Reset Steps: This sets all steps to a default value (for example, pitch = 0). You can also reset individual steps by double-clicking within a step.
  • Modify Steps: Here you can randomise steps, invert step levels, mirror them, shift steps, and more.
  • Copy and Paste Steps: These options let you copy one step sequence and paste it to a different loop/pad, or a different parameter within the same loop.
  • Snap: No snap, or 10, 12 or 24 levels. You can apply this before or after adding a sequence, so you could, say, create a sequence that snaps to 24 levels, but later snaps to 12 instead. Twelve and 24 levels are especially useful for quantising pitch to semitone steps.Randomised pitch changes have been applied to a loop, and step values are quantised to 12 levels.Randomised pitch changes have been applied to a loop, and step values are quantised to 12 levels.

Also note that you can use the step sequencer Filter and Resonance parameters with one-shot files to change their tone (Pitch, Volume and Pan parameters are already available in the pad Edit section, as noted earlier).

Where's The Help?

Clicking F1 while Beatscape has the focus does not bring up a Help file. Instead, look in C:/Program Files / Cakewalk / Beatscape / Documentation, and double-click on the Beatscape.chm file. Let's look at the most important line right now: "Do not try to Undo (Ctrl-Z) any Beatscape edits. Undo will affect Sonar edits only, and the last undoable action could be inserting Beatscape!" Don't worry, though — there are ways inside Beatscape to revert edits, discussed in the main text of this article.

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