You can program drum instruments using the regular piano roll-style MIDI editor just like you do for keyboard-based instruments. But Cubase also has a dedicated drum editor and this can be more efficient when working specifically with drum-based VSTs. From the MIDI menu, choose to show the Drum Editor. You’ll now see a somewhat simplified though still powerful MIDI view with notes mapped to individual drum channels. Using the special Drumstick tool from the toolbar you can enter beats onto any channel, and use the Velocity lane at the base of the window to control volumes. The Drum Editor window gives you a different and more rhythm-focused way to work with MIDI that can be better suited to making beats. Of course it responds to your MIDI input device as well.
The Chord Pads, which can be shown from the Project menu, are great for quickly assigning whole chords to individual pads and then triggering these to create complex sequences that you might not otherwise be able to play by hand. They are heavily customisable and can even be switched to show guitar or piano chords, since players of those instruments voice the same chord in different ways. One interesting thing that you may not know about is the ability to assign a pad quickly via MIDI input by right clicking on it. This means you can reassign the root note of a pad on the fly which is great for not breaking your creative flow when composing.
In the MIDI editor window – which can also now live as a section along the base of the main project window – you can use the Pen tool to draw notes, which is fairly common knowledge. However if you keep the mouse held and drag up or down while adding the note, you can specify a velocity for that note and Cubase will give you a numerical display of the value being entered. From the Insert Velocity menu you can also choose a series of fixed velocities and even specify the levels that appear in the menu, which is handy for things like monosynths or drum machines, some of which actually benefit from using fixed velocity input for a more consistent sound.
From the main title bar you can access the MIDI > Functions menu. This contains some really powerful commands for quickly altering multiple MIDI notes or clips at the same time. Imagine for example that you needed to delete all the CC data from a bunch of MIDI clips because you were going to change a part from a piano to a bass synth, which requires a different style of playing. Done manually this is incredibly tedious but here you can select the clips and simply choose the Delete Controllers option. Similarly you can delete overlapping notes, enter a uniform, fixed velocity and more. You can even reverse a MIDI clip which has traditionally been much easier to do with audio than MIDI.
Note Expression isn’t actually just to do with notation (some people find it sounds like it would be) but rather about going beyond simple CC assignment like sustain or volume levels. In the Inspector pane you can access the Expression Map for any MIDI track and then activate as many lanes at the base of the MIDI Editor window as you like, assigning each one to a CC or expression parameter. One of the more interesting options here is to assign Dynamics / Articulation to a lane, and then draw in notation-style dynamics like pp, ff and so on. You can even tweak these using the Dynamics Mapping Setup window.
Cubase’s MIDI Inspector has had a lot of upgrades and although the MIDI Inserts section hasn’t changed as much as some others, it’s still got some cool stuff in it. The MIDI inserts are a small collection of processors that either generate or intercept and manipulate MIDI signal before it is sent to an instrument to make sound. There’s stuff like arpeggiators, step sequencers and chorders as well as some more esoteric stuff like Note to CC, a Transformer and even a MIDI compressor to conform the velocity of your input just like an audio compressor does with sound. You might not use all of these but at least one or two will be invaluable.
You might be used to just whacking a 1/16 quantize on most of your MIDI clips and for some applications like 4/4 EDM beats this can be fine. For anything more nuanced however, it might be too simplistic. You can open the dedicated Quantize Panel from the Quantize section in the Toolbar. Amongst its many options are the ability to add a specific amount of swing, add randomization and much more. You will also see more resolution options than in a standard quantize setup – all the way to 1/128 as well as triplet and dotted settings. It might take a little time to settle on the feel that’s right for a part but once you do you can of course save it as a preset. This window can also be shown in a MIDI track’s Inspector panel.
This one is quite detailed but a very powerful tool for controlling CCs on a per-note basis. In the Piano Roll editor, double click on a MIDI note and you will open a small Note Expression editor inline. In the Note Expression section of the inspector, make sure that the CCs you want active are assigned to the correct parameter – they will show the CC number when assigned rather than a dot. Then in the micro-window for any note, clicking on the bottom left corner allows you to select one of the active CCs.
Use the mouse to draw in a level for that particular parameter, for that individual note. They display in different colours to help you keep track of what’s going on. This way you can make very specific settings for a note rather than the CC lane affecting all notes that sound at a particular point in time. One application for this might be to pan or modulate individual notes in a clip but not others. It can require some work but allows you incredible control.