To Paul, my son, who is considering getting a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
When you first face a modern DAW, it is utterly daunting. Menus, buttons, graphical tools — a whole screen full of “what does this do?”
A few starting words of wisdom to get you over the first hump of the learning curve.
First, a Cuebase “project” is a directory on your system, and it will be used to contain all the files associated with a project. If you decide you want to move this later, you don’t want to simply move the directory, because there are internal links that will get boogered up. Instead, you “Back Up” the project to the new directory, and then delete the old directory.
Why mention this first? Cuebase 5 used to demand the project directory for a new project right at the start, and this is a bit off-putting when you don’t know what Cuebase is going to do with the name you type. What it will do is create a new directory wherever you say and the put stuff into it. Everything the project needs will be in that directory. So when you open this the first time, you might want to think ahead just a bit, and create a container directory, like “Cuebase” or “Compositions” so that you can keep all your works in one place. Moving it later isn’t difficult, but it is tedious.
Once the main window opens, your first stop is going to be the menu item Devices | Device Setup. This brings up a window with a lot of options, and you want to look for VST Audio System. If you click on this, the right half of the screen will display a bewildering set of options. The only important one at this point is to make sure that the “ASIO Driver” is set to “Built-In Audio” — this connects your DAW to your computer speakers and/or microphone.
Your next step is to set up at least one VST instrument, so you can produce instrument sounds. Every sound sample provider supplies some kind of VST controller with their samples, usually one controller for lots of different sample sets which can be purchased separately. The Garritan VST controller is called “Aria.” The East West Symphonic Choirs controller is called “Play.” Most of these controllers will operate as a stand-alone program, but they aren’t terribly useful by themselves. The controllers will ALSO function as a plug-in to a DAW like Cuebase.
I don’t know how this works on the PC, but on the Mac, simply installing the sample software using their installer will put things where Cuebase will find them, so Cuebase will automatically know about all of the VST controllers you’ve installed. You still have to plug them into Cuebase. To do this, go to the menu item Devices | VST Instruments. A long, thin window will appear with 64 slots in it. If you click on one of the empty slots, a drop-down menu will appear, which should include Aria, Play, and any other VST instrument controller software present on your computer. Select one of these.
Cuebase will ask if you want to create a MIDI track. This can be convenient, but again, this does stuff for you, and then you don’t know what has happened. So indicate “No” (Cancel).
What happens next is that the VST control panel appears, which allows you to select your specific sampled instruments. Some of the control panels will represent a single instrument. Some, like Aria, will give you sixteen separate MIDI channels, and you can place a different instrument on each channel. If you need more than 16 instruments, you can always add another Aria VST controller to the list of devices, which gives you another 16 instruments to play with. Select at least one instrument, and place it on MIDI channel 1, then dismiss the control panel.
Next, create a MIDI track. You do this with menu item Project | Add Track | MIDI. A new track will appear on your main screen, and to the far left will be an inspector that displays information about this track. The important items in this list are the Output Routing, which will typically say “IAC Driver Bus 1”, and the MIDI channel, which appears just below this. Click on the Output Routing, and select the device you just added (e.g. Aria). Make sure the MIDI channel is 1.
Finally, you will see a group of tools across the top of the window that starts with a big object selection arrow. To the right of that is the Draw tool, which looks like a pencil. Select the Draw tool. Click in the main window on the track line of the MIDI track you just created, drag the mouse to the right, and release. This creates a MIDI bar on the main screen.
Click on the Select tool at the top, and then double-click on the MIDI phrase bar you just created. The piano-roll for that MIDI track will appear. You can draw in some notes, again by selecting the Draw tool at the top of the piano-roll window, clicking, and dragging. Be sure you draw notes that are within the range of the instrument!
Make sure the speaker volume is turned up, then press the Play button to the upper left of the main window. You should hear notes on your computer speaker.
Quick review: The MIDI track’s connected to the … channel. The channel’s connected to the … instrument. The instrument’s connected to the … speakers.
In general, you can insert “filters” anywhere along this path. You can slip MIDI filters between the MIDI track and the instrument, such as an arpeggiator. You can insert audio filters between the instrument output and the speakers, such as equalizers or reverb. These all work in real-time.
Now, let’s hook up your MIDI keyboard.
We go back to Device | Device Setup, and again select VST Audio System. Change the ASIO driver to your external MIDI box. Mine is a Firewire 410, so that’s what appears on my drop-down. They don’t make this model any more, but you should see something appropriate.
I can’t help you much beyond that. Like all audio systems, there are buttons, knobs, virtual connections and real connections you need to set up properly, otherwise nothing goes. You’ll have to puzzle through that.
One trick that had me going for a while is that Firewire on the Mac carries enough power to run the Firewire 410 unit, and the external power supply should NOT be used. If you use both, you get ground loops and the 410 gets extremely flaky.
You can use the MIDI sample you just created to produce sounds through your headphones or monitor speakers. You’ll know you have it right when the sounds appear.
Once you have the cables in place and the MIDI keyboard turned on, make sure the red Record button is red for the MIDI track you just created. You don’t need to be actively recording, but the track does need to be listening for MIDI events. If you press keys, you should see a little sound-meter bar flicker to the left of the main screen on that track, and you should hear sounds from your speakers/headphones.