You will want to record to a click track regardless of whether you’re starting your track by recording MIDI or audio. Cubase, like all DAWs, bases most of its tools on grids and tempos, so your recordings need to be in time or near enough that they can be quantized. In the Transport panel, set the project tempo and time signature by entering values in the relevant boxes. In this case I’m going to keep it simple by sticking to 4/4 time signature and 120 BPM tempo, which is typical of many kinds of EDM.
You’re really free to choose how you start any track but a common approach is to start with a beat or a bassline. In this case I’m going to start with a beat and I have created an Instrument track containing an instance of Geist 2. You might want to use Groove Agent, Battery or any drum synth or sampler of your choice. Remember you can always reassign any MIDI parts to new instruments later and easily edit patterns so the choices you make at this stage are not set in stone.
Make sure snapping is switched on and the Grid Type is set to Bar—both of these buttons can be found in the area running along the top of the main Project window. This ensures that when you record a part it will be easy to snap the event edges to bar markers, making for accurate copying and pasting later. Now, go to the Transport panel and activate the looping button. In the MIDI Record Mode area to the left, click on the name field to reveal a menu. You can set this up as you like but I am going to set it up in Mix-Stacked mode. This means that when I record in a loop, I can keep adding new notes (or beats) while hearing the existing ones. This is a good way to build up rhythmic patterns by playing just a couple of parts on each pass.
Making sure the click track (metronome) is switched on, scroll back to just before the loop you have set up in the sequencer and press the Record button. As the playhead cycles, play your beat and Cubase will record in takes using different lanes. You can always go back and edit these afterwards. When you’re done, press Stop and click on Show Lanes in the track’s header area. You will see that the part has been recorded as a series of takes on different lanes.
Quantization is vital to working with MIDI, and is the process of conforming notes more accurately to the musical grid if they were played slightly out of time. Select one or more MIDI events on the track or alternatively double-click on an event to open it in the MIDI editor, and select one or more notes inside the clip. Click on the Q button in the toolbar to quantize to the currently selected value, or expand the quantize section out to its floating window to get more accurate control over the settings. Quantizing is a whole art in itself but you’ll get a feel for what works best for your track. In this case, 1/16T works well since it’s a fairly straight dance beat. You can use other values as well as adding swing, to suit your track. You’ll end up quantizing a lot of your parts, so try to use similar settings to keep the feel consistent.
Double-click any of the MIDI clips to open them in the MIDI editor. From here you can audition any note by clicking on it, drag notes around to change the sound or tone they trigger, lengthen or shorten notes, copy and paste them, add new notes and alter their velocity and other parameters using the CC graph running underneath the note display. Between editing and quantizing you should be able to get a part you’re happy with fairly quickly. Once this is done, go to the MIDI menu and choose “Merge MIDI In Loop”, choosing to erase the destination. This will have the effect of combining the different lanes into a single MIDI loop, which is easier to work with. You could, of course, leave them as separate lanes and they would sound the same, if you wanted to retain maximum editability.
Another way to generate patterns, which works particularly well for beats, is to use a MIDI generator. Go to the Inspector panel on the left and find the MIDI Inserts section. Click on Slot 1 and choose the Beat Designer plug-in. This gives you a mini step sequencer for triggering your drum synth, whatever it may be. Try entering some beats into this grid while playing back, for a more old-school approach to beat-making. You can click, hold and drag the mouse up or down on a note to increase or decrease its velocity. When you are happy with the pattern, click on Beat Designer’s options menu and choose Fill Loop With Pattern. Now, the area between the left and right markers on your MIDI track will be filled with MIDI clips of the pattern you just created.
Another key building block for a track is the bass part so now create another instrument track and select a synth: I have chosen Cubase’s own Prologue synth and found a cool sounding, fat bass patch which I have fattened up a little more by tweaking the filters on the synth. Play along with the beat and record, then afterwards quantize if necessary, making sure that the feel of the bass part fits properly with the feel of the beat you created earlier. The next part of the job will be to start making variations on these parts and also beginning to arrange them into something resembling different parts of a track.