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Introduction To Cubase: Part 1

Structure Of Cubase & The 'Arrange' Window By Simon Millward
Published September 1995

Simon Millward kicks off a new series designed to give beginners a solid grounding in the use of Steinberg's flagship software package.

Before I begin this series in earnest, I think it's worthwhile to establish some ground rules, and consider some of the problems involved in the use of a MIDI‑based sequencer.

Even experienced MIDI musicians may become too preoccupied with the technical details of their MIDI system, and forget that the object of the exercise is to create some music! Many will have witnessed the scene in the recording studio when the musicians wait for hours on end while the programmer grapples with all kinds of obscure parameters in the quest for musical perfection. Rule Number 1 in this series is quite philosophical: musical perfection does not exist, and even if it did, a MIDI sequencer is not what you should use in order to search for it! As we shall see, some level of technical involvement is inevitable, but the secret is to know the limits of the software, and to be properly equipped before taking the plunge. Luckily, with Steinberg's Cubase, you can to some extent choose how deeply you wish to go, as the user interface can be adapted to each individual's needs.

The Universe According To Cubase

Figure 1 shows a graphic overview of the Cubase universe. At the heart of the matter is the Arrange window, the 'sun' of the system. This is the default page which appears when Cubase is first loaded, and most users travel back and forth from here to other parts of the program. The Arrange window is where recorded data can be viewed in the form of graphic blocks, and re‑arranged, copied, deleted, and so on.

Moving outwards from the Arrange window 'sun' we find the Key, List, Drum and Score Editors. These are accessible via the Edit Menu or with keyboard commands. Once data has been recorded in the Arrange window, it may be looked at in fine detail in one of the Editors. Each Editor has been styled to present the data (usually notes) in its own particular way. Key Edit shows notes displayed on a grid where the horizontal axis represents time (displayed as bars, beats and fractions of a beat) and the vertical axis represents pitch (displayed as a piano keyboard). List Edit shows notes (and any other MIDI events) displayed as a written list of data accompanied by a time‑based graphic representation of events. Drum Edit, as the name implies, has been specifically designed to represent drum‑style events on a grid where the horizontal axis represents time and the vertical axis the names of the separate instruments of a drum kit or percussion set‑up. Lastly, Score Edit represents all note data as musical notation.

Travelling further out from the centre, we come to Logical Edit. Although somewhat frightening to many Cubase users, Logical Edit provides an extremely useful interface whereby mathematical operations can be performed on musical and other data. Used correctly, this feature can save enormous amounts of time — for some examples, see the detailed series on Logical Edit which ran in SOS from March to May this year.

Travelling on the same orbit, we come to the Notebook, which is, as you would imagine, a simple facility for keeping reminders. Moving round further, we find the Mastertrack, a tempo and time signature manager, and the File Selector, which is an updated interface for disk operations on the latest Atari version of Cubase Score .

The File Selector is actually classed as a 'Module', and this leads us on to the next group of features; the outer planetary ring of Modules. As implied by their name, these parts of the program can be 'hooked on', when required, or 'jettisoned' when not in use, freeing up precious RAM memory. Strictly speaking, Score Edit, too, is a Module, and need only be loaded by those users requiring score facilities. Other Modules include: the MIDI Mixer, a facility where custom‑designed MIDI processing tools can be assembled; the IPS (Interactive Phrase Synthesizer), a kind of re‑processing plant for musical sequences; the MIDI Processor, which can produce MIDI delays and echo effects; the self‑explanatory Arpeggiator Module; the Studio Module, for the editing of sounds and the detailed management of the MIDI system in use; the Cue Tracks Module, a luxury version of Cubase's Mastertrack; the General MIDI Menu Module, for the selection of GM sounds by name rather than program number; and the StyleTrax Module, an auto‑accompaniment program.

In the outer reaches of the planetary system, we find Satellite, a free accessory with earlier Atari versions of Cubase which provides bank loading, saving and sound editing functions. On the same orbit, there is the SysEx Editor, an offshoot of the List Editor, where manufacturer‑specific data can be viewed and edited. The SysEx Editor is, in fact, another Module, but is only accessible from within List Edit.

Figure 1 also displays the principle routes of travel between the different parts of the system. The user may leave the Arrange window and view the music in any one of the four main Editors, in one Editor after the other, or in all at the same time, if the need arises. When involved in the recording and editing of a piece of music, the most popular routes of travel tend to be from the Arrange window to any one of the Editors, or between Editors.

Note that you don't have to record music exclusively in the Arrange window; recording can also be implemented while in any one of the Editors. The Notepad and File Selector functions are accessible from almost anywhere (as are most of the Menu items). Other parts of the system, such as the Modules, are equally accessible once they have been made active, but may seem somewhat obscure since they are often for specialist processing or manipulation of data other than the music itself.

If you wondering why I've chosen to employ a solar system analogy, I just thought it might help musicians and programmers to understand Cubase more easily if they had a clear idea of how the whole system is put together. I won't be covering the entire range of features in this series, but I will provide enough detail so that anybody will be able to find their way around the system and go on to create music using the bits most suited to them.

Having looked at some of the main constituents of Cubase, let's take some time to understand the ways of manipulating the system on the surface rather than dive straight into the technicalities of recording some music. As already mentioned, many users have a tendency to plunge into Cubase too deeply, too soon, and given that even experienced users often come across features which they did not know were there, it's worth getting some basic points across at the start.

The Key To Speed

One problem is that it's easy to become totally 'mouse‑bound' on Cubase. But there are a substantial number of keyboard commands which make using Cubase much faster and easier (see Table 2, on page 90).

'Parts' are graphic blocks which appear on the Arrange window, in the working area to the right of the Track list. As you can see from Table 2, [Control] and P creates a new Part, and this appears between the Left and Right Locators (two small boxes in the bar display marked 'L' and 'R' — see Figure 3).

As is also apparant from Table 2, the keyboard shortcuts are useful for navagating between the Arrange Window and the Editors — for example, Control and E followed by Control and L will normally open up Key Edit followed by Logical Edit. Using the Escape key will exit from each editor, and take you back to the Arrange window. Note that Escape can be used to exit most of the Editors and dialogue boxes without making any changes to the recorded data. Other immediately useful key commands include the G and keys, which zoom in or out of the Arrange and Edit windows, the C key for turning the guide click on and off, the S key for soloing the selected track and the + and — keys of the Numeric Keypad to change the tempo.

The Numeric Keypad may be viewed as a kind of tape recorder remote control. Although all the controls are obviously available via the mouse, the Keypad provides a handy alternative, and is indispensable after having used the 'Hide Transport' option in the Windows Menu.

Control Menus And Arrange Window

Naturally, you can't do everything from the keyboard. The mouse is most useful for all the graphic elements of the system, such as dragging objects around the screen, using tools and fine‑tuning in the Editors. But it's also, of course, essential to open up what are effectively the contents pages of the system, the Menus. These are found under various headings at the top of the computer screen.

Figure 4 shows some of the Menu contents at once. It is immediately apparent from here that Cubase is extremely comprehensive. Some of the most important elements for the beginner include the 'Metronome', and 'MIDI Setup' options, the various Editors, the Quantise functions, the copy, repeat and transposition functions and, of course, the File Save and Load Functions. Most of the important Menu items will be dealt with during the course of this series.

Those who have read the manual thoroughly will know that Cubase appears on the screen after having auto‑loaded any 'DEF' files found on the disk (DEF.ALL, DEF.ARR, DEF.SET etc.). Definition files contain the user preferences for the setup and general handling of the system, including the appearance and contents of the Arrange window and Editors. But before any meaningful Definition files can be created, the user must have at least a basic understanding of the Arrange window and some of the Menu items. The Arrange window (see Figure 3) is divided into two sections by a moveable split point, which can be pulled to the left or right using the mouse. Pulling the curtain as far as possible to the left maximises the Arrangement area. This features time on the horizontal axis (represented as bars), and Tracks on the vertical axis (which are usually named in the Track column).

Pulling the curtain fully to the right reveals a number of columns showing the various settings which govern each Track (see Figure 5). These include the Activity column (marked A), which shows the current MIDI activity of each Track in real time, the Mute column (marked M), where any number of Tracks may be muted, and the Classification column (marked C), where Tracks can be designated as MIDI Tracks, Drum Tracks, Mix Tracks, and so on. There is also the Track column, where Tracks are named, the MIDI channel column (marked Chn), where the MIDI channel for each Track may be chosen, the Output column, where the MIDI port may be chosen, the Instrument column, where any combination of the MIDI channel and Output columns may be named, and the 'T' column where Tracks may be Time Locked. Different combinations of the columns will be available depending on your version of Cubase and the platform you are using.

Astute readers will have already noticed that there is also a separate mini‑window to the left of the columns. This is known as the 'Inspector' and is used to select sounds and change various parameters such as Velocity, Volume, Delay and Transposition. The Inspector displays the parameters of the currently selected Track or Part in the Arrange window (the Track or Part which appears in black). The Inspector can be shown or hidden by clicking on the small square‑shaped icon underneath it.

By clicking on the Right mouse button, the user may open the Toolbox (see open Toolbox in Arrange window, Figure 3). This is for general use within the working area of the Arrange window, particularly with Parts. The Pointer is the default tool for general selection and editing functions anywhere on the screen. The Eraser is for deleting Parts, and the Match Q (Match Quantize) Tool is used to impose the timing characteristics of one Part upon another. The Scissors are for cutting Parts into smaller portions, and the Magnifying Glass can be used to monitor the contents of Parts by holding it over any given Part with the Left mouse button. Finally, there are the Pencil (for lengthening and shortening Parts), the self‑explanatory Mute Tool, and the Glue Tool, which is used to join two or more Parts to make one longer Part.

The Transport Bar, at the bottom of the screen, features a number of functions which have not yet been described. Apart from the obvious tape recorder‑style controls there are the following: the Solo button (for soloing the currently selected Track), the Cycle button (which will cycle between the Left and Right Locator positions), and the Punch In and Out buttons, for automatically dropping in and out of record mode at the Left and Right Locator positions. Finally, there is the Master button, for activating or disactivating tempo and time signature changes, and the Sync button, to synchronize the sequencer to an external device such as a tape recorder.

Other features include the display of the current position in Bars, Beats and fractions of a Beat (or ticks as they are known), a SMPTE time display, the Left and Right Locator positions and a tempo display. All features may be updated or manipulated in some way using either the mouse or various computer keyboard commands. Remember that the Left mouse button will decrease a selected value, while the Right mouse button will increase it.

Summing Up

Looking back at Figure 1 reveals that we haven't travelled very far within the Cubase Universe in the first part of this series — but then, that wasn't the idea. We have simply armed ourselves with some of the essential tools and commands with which we can go on to more musically meaningful pursuits, rather like looking at a road map before embarking on a journey. Cubase is a complex program, and the potential user must take things one step at a time. Patience is the name of the game.

In the next Issue we will be looking at making a recording from the Arrange Window, and then venturing out into the worlds of Key, List and Drum Edit.


The features described in this series are those found on the latest Atari version of Cubase Score, but most of what is mentioned is also available on the latest PC and Mac versions. However, please note that there will be superficial variations in the examples given in this series for users of the PC and Mac versions.

Table 2: Keyboard Shortcuts




Play / Continue

0 or [Spacebar]

1st time — Stop, 2nd time — Go to Left Locator, 3rd time — Go to bar 1.1.0




Fast Forward


Go to Left Locator


Go to Right Locator


Cycle On/Off


Increase Tempo

Decrease Tempo


[Control] and O Open
[Control] and S Save
[Control] and Q Quit
[Control] and G List Edit
[Control] and D Drum Edit
[Control] and E Key Edit or Open the Editor corresponding to the current Track type
[Control] and R Score Edit
[Control] and F MIDI Mixer
[Control] and L Logical Edit
[Control] and B Notebook
[Control] and Transpose/Velocity
[Control] and I Open/Close the Inspector
[Control] and M Open/Close the Master Track
[Control] and T Create a new Track
[Control] and P Create a new Part
[Control] and K Repeat
[Control] and X Cut
[Control] and C Copy
[Control] and V Paste
[Alternate] & P Move Locators to start and end points of the selected Part
[Alternate] & N Open name entry box of the currently selected Track
G Horizontal Zoom In
H Horizontal Zoom Out
[Shift] and G Vertical Zoom In
[Shift] and H Vertical Zoom Out
C Click On/Off
M Master Track On/Off
S Solo On/Off
[Clr/Home] Move Song Pos. Pointer to the Leftmost position of the current window
[Esc] Cancel (or Leave a Dialogue Box)

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