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Cubase 7 – Teaching Composition and Song Writing

Many of our Steinberg Training Centers around the world are offering specific learning outcomes with their Steinberg Training. Composition and Songwriting is one of the most popular courses because it combines both music technology with a valuable creative skill. Andrew Schravemade takes us through two new Cubase 7 features that make life easier for teachers and students who enjoy writing and recording their own music.

Twenty six years of software evolution has seen Steinberg offer many professional products that have helped composers and song writers create and record their masterpieces. Cubase 7 goes a step further by introducing two key composition tools into the traditional DAW environment. Most musicians enjoy creating music and composition is an important component of music curriculum.

Melody and Harmony are two important building blocks in composition and I'm going to discuss some new features in Cubase 7 that allow both teachers and students to effectively expand their creative horizons.

Let's start with Vari Audio.

Vari Audio can instantly analyse a melody and provide us with a graphical representation of the audio in it’s own section of the sample editor. Put simply, a student can sing or play a melody and double click on the audio to view exactly what they had recorded on a piano scroll. Cubase 7 has an advanced pitch shifting algorithm so any recorded information can be transposed and moved using the mouse.

Most users assume this is only for editing pitch, however, this feature offers a unique tool for melody development. Students can now understand how scales and melody go hand in hand and visualise the rational behind the millions of sharps and flats teachers spend countless hours drawing on whiteboards. 

Let me give you a classroom example. John likes to write but is not that keen on learning his scales. He comes into composition class with another familiar sounding melody. I explain that it sounds very similar to the previous work because once again, he is starting on the third, moving up to the fifth, sixth, fifth and back to the third. John is very passionate about his tune and claims artistic license. To a certain degree, he could be absolutely right but instead of drawing him into an intense conversation over whether Mozart or the Artic Monkeys follow theoretical concepts, I ask him to record the melody into Cubase. The pitch and note lengths can then be viewed in Vari Audio. Then, we  start to move the student’s third to the first and his fifth to the third. Instead of discussing the theoretical concepts, John can hear his own voice in Cubase singing a different melody. Using the mouse or a midi input, John can challenge his own understanding of what will work over his progression.

Vari Audio works on any monophonic recording and is therefore not only relevant for someone writing a melody for a song. The new pitch detection algorithm in Cubase 7 is so sensitive you could use it in a singing lesson to demonstrate precisely where a singer is adding vibrato, or where a string performance is suffering because of pitch issues. A Double Bass player can fire what he has played off to a moog sound and mix between his original recording. In addition, the ‘turn audio to midi’ function lets you call up a score of recorded material in a matter of seconds. A student only then needs to clean up the timing, score and enter lyrics to have a lead sheet ready for their afternoon rehearsal with their band. A trumpet player who is a reluctant singer could play the vocal line in on the trumpet and then print out the score for the lead singer.

Here is good assignment composition tip for – Ask your students to create a melody, paste the melody onto another two tracks and use Vari Audio to create a three part harmony. 

Whilst on the topic of harmony, Cubase 7 has a major new addition in Chord Track:

In the past it has been necessary to have some understanding of harmonic content and possess a level of instrument input skill to take full advantage of the large number of instruments and content that come packaged with Cubase. This is generally not a problem for professionals who have spent years honing their craft but we are all at differing levels of the technical and musical spectrum and a lot of users struggle to enter chords and midi information. Chord track now offers increased functionality within Cubase for users from all backgrounds. Chord track could typically help users who are:

  • Creatives not from a technical or musical background who are looking for some suggestions for chord progressions and harmonies
  • Melody instrument players, songwriters or composers who want to create backings but don’t play a harmonic instrument
  • Singers wanting to grasp key harmonic ideas
  • Composers who are stuck for ideas or want to broaden their understanding of chord progressions
  • Improvising musicians who want to have a better understanding of which scales work over specified chord progressions
  • Composers who don’t play an instrument and want to have chords created for them but play the created chords using their own timing
  • Remixers who want to redefine or alter the provided chord progression but are struggling to come up with usable ideas

Chord track is present in the new track menu in Cubase. Once selected, you can select the pencil from the tool box and use it to create chord boxes on the chord track. It is always nice to start with your own ideas and you will soon notice that you can draw in as many chords as you like. Once you have drawn in a few chords, open up Halion Sonic SE as an instrument and call up a piano patch.

Select the Halion Sonic SE track in the monitor section of Chord track and you will notice that chord track is now playing this chord progression through the piano. You can select the inversion and voicing for the chord track by changing the parameters in the Chord track settings on the inspector on the left hand side of the project window. Cubase will now play the instrument for us in the voicing that we select. We can set any number of tracks in our project to follow the chord track.

Here is another example, Susan can play the piano but is often frustrated because Susan feels that everything she plays sounds the same. This is where the Chord Assistant really steps up to the mark as an education tool. As a practical experiment, enter four boxes that are evenly spaced out on every second beat over two bars. In the first box, select C major. Double click on the second chord and change to the chord assistant. You can see that there are now a number of suggestions. Towards the bottom of the box you can change the complexity of the suggestions by moving towards the right hand side. Susan can now see every musical and mathematical possibility available to her for each chord in her progression. This allows her to select her second, third and fourth chord. Depending on the complexity, Susan should have now found a suitable and musical chord progression. Susan can now hear this and work with the suggestion until it becomes familiar and she can then add this progression to her compositional arsenal. We can all struggle with writers block or find that our compositions are sounding too similar. I had some serious reservations about collaborating with a computer but after toying with the chord assistant for a few minutes I realised how familiar my own chord progressions had become and I spend most waking moments dreaming up chord progressions. 

The Chord track also works for students who are predominantly melodists. Once again, we can use vari audio to analyse the melodic content and then use chord track to create the backing for us by asking for chord suggestions to fit underneath the melody. In addition, Cubase can analyse midi data and construct a chord track solely from a single midi track or an entire midi file that can easily be dragged from the desk top straight into the project. Once Cubase has analysed the harmonic content, we can harmonise any melody. We can sing a melody over the top of our project and ask Cubase to instantly create three part harmonies over the top. We can control parameters such as inversions, voicings and even change the style of the harmonies so that they fit perfectly with our track, no matter what the genre. It is also possible to open all three up in Vari Audio so that you can see where the harmonies are sitting over the melody. If you are into music notation then select them all, extract them to a midi file and open them up in the score window for a three part score. 

Some users will use this feature to construct harmonies for recording but in the classroom we can use this feature as a scratch track to see what will work. In either case, it is a visual representation of recorded audio and a brilliant classroom tool for melody and harmonic composition.

One other useful addition to chord track is the scale suggestion. Everyone composes differently. Maybe you like to start with chords and then create your melody or vice versa? Chord track now offers every possible scale that will work over the desired chord selection. We can use these suggestions to figure out a melody or, an improvisation student might want to sit down and use the suggestions to work out what scales work over different chord progressions. The advantage with the complexity function is that you can go as far away from home as you like and Cubase will always get you back safely.

As mentioned before, not everyone has had the experience required to be able to enter harmonic information (chords) into Cubase. The new Live Transform feature in Chord Track will let Cubase take care of the chords so the student can take care of the rhythm. With a midi keyboard connected, open an instrument track and select live transform in the chord track section of the inspector. Then hit record and simply play some clusters on the keyboard. The chords will automatically sound when the keys are played. This feature ensures that students who are not proficient at entering chords on a midi keyboard are not left behind when it comes to composition.

Key Editor
Key Editor

Assessment tip. Remixing - use a known melody and ask the students to create their own unique chord progression for the melody. You can then challenge them to create a three part harmony and even a rhythm backing using Groove Agent and the beat designer.

Chord track and Vari Audio open doors for users of all levels to write and record music. The Steinberg training program was developed so that a whole generation of Cubase users could be better equipped to use Cubase. I enjoy seeing Cubase users worldwide happily publishing their music to the world. Our key vision is to see Steinberg Training Centers inspiring musicians to create and publish their music. At Steinberg HQ we love hearing about your inspirational stories. Please email us with your story and photos so we can spread the love.