Chord Pads are one of the most powerful features of Cubase that you may not have heard about. And yet they can be incredibly useful, not just for less confident keyboard players but as a compositional tool and a way to generate ideas for producers of any level. Let's look at how they can help you make better music.
1. Go Polyphonic
Chord Pads are essentially a way of generating MIDI parts so you will need to either create a software instrument track or a MIDI track that you then connect to external MIDI hardware. Since chords are by their very nature polyphonic (involving more than one note), you will need to use an instrument that is not monophonic, and preferably not a drum machine either since chords don't make a lot of sense in the context of beats. Here I have created a piano instrument. Next, go to the Project menu and select Chord Pads to reveal them.
2. Hit the Pads
You should find that the pads that appear at the base of the project window will now trigger your instrument if you click on them. The chord that is played is displayed using text, a small graphic of the note split and also a larger readout on the virtual keyboard that runs along the top of the section. You can record chord sequences by simply pressing record and hitting the pads. The results get recorded into the currently selected track in the sequencer as MIDI.
3. Use the Chord Picker
To change a chord pad's assignment, you have several options. The first is to mouse over it and press the arrow that appears on its left-hand edge, which reveals a chord picker. Here you can select any new chord you like plus accidentals and inversions by just clicking on its name. The second option is to press the left or right arrow buttons along the bottom edge of the pad to move through different inversions of the same chord. Finally, the up and down arrows on the right hand edge alter the voicing. This keeps the same basic chord but plays it using different combinations of compatible notes higher or lower than the one currently selected.
4. Open the Chord Assistant Window
For more help, call up the Chord Assistant window using the speech bubble button from the left of the Pads window. This shows you a selection of chords as they relate to the currently selected one. You can use it to identify chords that will work as part of a sequence based on the current pad. Click on any item in this window to audition the chord, and drag and drop it directly to a pad to assign that chord to the pad.
5. Use a Hardware Controller
Pressing pads with the mouse is fine but it can be more intuitive to use either a MIDI keyboard to trigger a pad, or indeed physical MIDI pads, especially for live performance. To set this up, right-click on a pad and from the contextual menu, choose Assign Pad from MIDI Input. Press the key or physical pad you want and it will be assigned to that pad. Repeat for any pads you want to link to hardware controllers.
6. Create variations on the Fly
Press the 'e' button to open the settings section and you can also assign a key range on your MIDI keyboard to trigger the pads, with MIDI learn functionality. You can also assign voicing, tension, transposition and other modifier commands to specific keys so it's possible to create variations on the fly such as making a pad switch to a seventh or minor inversion when you hold the modifier key, then snap back to the original as soon as you release it. This way you can have a base set of chords mapped to your hardware pads but then alter them momentarily as you play back or record, saving space and also saving doing tons of extra mapping.
7. Pad Layout
This area has two further sections. The first is Pad Layout and this lets you change how the pads appear on screen. Set this up as you wish, either for mouse-based on-screen operation or to fit more, smaller pads onto the screen perhaps to match up with the layout of any controller you may have connected.
8. Choose Piano or Guitar Voicing
The Players tab lets you set chords for either piano or guitar players, and within each one, a variety of musical styles. Guitarists and keyboard players play chords using different combinations of notes so this can be handy for translating one to the other. The lower area lets you switch between regular chords and patterns and there's an option to import a MIDI loop to a pad. So you're not actually just limited to chords—all sorts of MIDI patterns can be played.
9. Snap to Grid
When recording, your chords will obey a specific resolution unless you tell them not to. Open the Settings menu again and choose Snap Playback to Musical grid. When this is off, you have free rein over retriggering chords. If you switch it to one of the resolution settings however, you will only be able to retrigger chords based on 1/4, 1/16 or whatever you select. This can be really handy for ensuring that if you trigger incorrectly, your part will still snap to the correct timing based on this resolution.
10. Use a Chord Track
If you prefer you can use a dedicated Chord Track to record. Add one using the Project > Add Track menu and set it to use the instrument you have loaded. Then record and your chord sequence is displayed not as MIDI but as large, labeled chords in the Chord Track. These can be triggered by clicking on them and altered by double-clicking on them. You can also drag them around the timeline to alter their sequence and they will obey the current snap settings.