Advanced MIDI Quantizing in Cubase 7

Quantizing MIDI doesn't need to make for a rigid, lifeless performance. Using the advanced MIDI tools in Cubase you can improve the timing and keep the groove swinging. Matt Loel T Hepworth shows how.  

Anyone who’s followed my books or online courses know I’m not a fan of hard MIDI quantization, wherein the notes are placed perfectly on the timing grid. Basically, hard quantization strips a large portion of the human nuance from a MIDI recording, which really sterilizes the result. Unless you’re creating music that’s designed to sound electronic and robotic, hard quantization is generally something to be avoided.

Fortunately, Cubase 7 has a wealth of quantization tools that won’t strip out the groove. In fact, Cubase always keeps the original timing of the MIDI recordings intact, allowing you to go back in time and remove any quantizations you may have previously applied, with the exception of the Freeze MIDI Modifiers command. In this tutorial, I’ll show you four advanced MIDI quantization methods that you can use to tighten the timing of your recordings.

Quantize Settings and Commands

The quantization settings can be adjusted either on the right side of the Project Window toolbar, near the middle of the toolbar in the Key or List Editors, or in the Quantize Panel, but the latter offers you many more options (Figure 1).

Quantize settings in the Project Window and Editors (left), and the Quantize Panel (right).

Figure 1: Quantize settings in the Project Window and Editors (left), and the Quantize Panel (right).

Like most editing processes, making a selection of the MIDI event(s) (Project Window) or MIDI notes (Editors) will need to precede a Quantize command. You can access the Quantize Panel either by selecting it from the Edit menu, or by clicking the rightmost segment of the quantize settings in the Project Window or Editors. To execute the Quantize command, you can select Quantize from the Edit menu, or simply type Q on your computer keyboard. To remove any quantization previously applied (even after the Project has been saved and closed), select Reset Quantize from the Edit menu.

Method One: Auto Q

Auto Q is an abbreviation of Auto Quantization. The Auto Q button is located in the lower-left corner of the Transport Panel as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Auto Q button, ON or OFF, shown ON.

Figure 2: The Auto Q button, ON or OFF, shown ON.

Clicking the Auto Q button will toggle it on or off. When it’s on, MIDI notes will be quantized automatically during the recording, as per the quantize settings. This method works really well when you’re working very quickly because you don't need to execute a quantize command after the recording. Then if for any reason you want to return the recording to its original timing, you can make a selection and choose Reset Quantize from the Edit menu.

Method Two: Using the Quantizer MIDI Plug-in

Cubase 7 has many powerful real-time MIDI plug-ins, including the Quantizer. It can be assigned to the MIDI Inserts of either MIDI or Instrument tracks as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The Quantizer plug-in assigned to MIDI Insert 1 of a MIDI Track, edit button enabled.

Figure 3: The Quantizer plug-in assigned to MIDI Insert 1 of a MIDI Track, edit button enabled.

The Quantizer plug-in will apply the quantization to the playback of the track, without altering the timing of the events on the track. Like using the Auto Q method, the Quantizer plug-in allows you to work quickly without having to execute the Quantize command after the recording. But it also provides you the ability to modify the quantization settings in real time during playback. This allows you to listen to the results and make fine adjustments to the settings.

To assign the Quantizer, click the MIDI Inserts tab in the Inspector (far left of Figure 1), click on an empty Insert slot (1-4), and select Quantizer from the plug-in list. The settings for the Quantizer can be viewed by clicking the edit button (lowercase ‘e’) located to the right of the slot power button.

The Quantize Note setting establishes the timing grid, whereas the Swing slider adjusts how off-beats are swung forward towards a downbeat. The Strength setting alters how rigidly the notes are placed on the grid. A setting of 100% will result in a hard quantization, whereas lower settings will retain more of the original performance timing. The Delay slider adjusts all the notes on the track forward or backwards in time, and is based in milliseconds.

The Quantizer plug-in can be saved as part of a Track Preset. This is helpful when you find a drum set patch you really like and want to load the Quantizer whenever you load that drum set. Also, if you have a Quantizer setting you’re happy with and wish to apply it to the actual MIDI data, you can right/Control-click the selected event and choose MIDI > Freeze MIDI Modifiers. However, be aware that doing so will prevent you from ever using the Reset Quantize command on that event.

Method Three: Using Iterative Quantize

Iterative quantization allows Cubase to move the notes closer to the grid, without placing them perfectly (and boringly) in time. This is identical to adjusting the Strength control on the Quantizer plug-in to a setting below 100%. However, the Iterative Quantize option is available to any MIDI event via the Quantize command. Refer back to the left image in Figure 1 and locate the Q button to the right of the quantize note setting (1/16). When you click that button, it will switch to iQ, or Iterative Quantize mode. The Strength setting is found in the iQ Mode in the Quantize Panel as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: The Quantize Panel, iQ Mode enabled, Strength = 77%.

Figure 4: The Quantize Panel, iQ Mode enabled, Strength = 77%.

With the iQ Mode enabled (and set below 100%), any Quantize command will ‘firm up’, but not make perfect, the timing of the MIDI notes. I like to choose a low setting around 50 to 60%. Then if one Quantize command (Edit > Quantize, or typing Q on the computer keyboard) doesn’t get the timing close enough, successive Quantize commands will move the notes closer and closer. Be aware that after several Iterative Quantize commands, the MIDI data will eventually become hard quantized.

Method Four: Creating Groove Quantize Presets

This method allows you to use other MIDI events as the quantize grid that other MIDI events can follow. For example, if you have a drum event with a killer groove, along with a bass event that isn’t quite ‘locking in’, you can quantize the bass event against the drum event.

To create a Groove Quantize Preset, select the MIDI event that has the desired MIDI timing, then go to the Edit menu, select Advanced Quantize, then choose Create Groove Quantize Preset. That new preset will be added to the default presets in the Quantize settings or Quantize Panel and will be given the name of the event from which it was created. In the case of Figure 5, the name “Standard Studio Kit 120Bpm 4\4 10bars” has been assigned to the preset.

Figure 5: Groove Preset created and named as per the source event.

Figure 5: Groove Preset created and named as per the source event.

With the new preset selected, you can now apply that quantization to other events in the current Project by executing a Quantize command. You can even enable the iQ mode for a more relaxed quantization. If you’ve created a groove you’d like to use in other Cubase Projects, you can click on the Quantize Presets at the top of the Quantize Panel and choose Save Preset and Rename Preset, if so desired.

Using any of these methods can make the recording of MIDI data faster and thereby increase your productivity. They can also provide you with a lot of variety and a degree of musicality that may have required an intense degree of manual editing.

Matthew Loel T. Hepworth

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MATTHEW LOEL T. HEPWORTH has been teaching music technology since 1984. The son of educators, he has the ability to thoughtfully instruct people to get the most from complicated music products and software. He authors the Cubase and WaveLab tutorials for and authored several books including WaveLab 7 Power!, The Power i... Read More


Rat Himself
Further to this, when working with Audio and MIDI, you can even create Groove Templates from Audio Events. This works best of course with Audio that has pronounced transients such as drums.
Double click on the Audio Event to open the Audio Editor window. Click on the Edit Hitpoints arrow then fine tune using the Threshold control beneath. Now simply click on the Create Groove arrow and the groove extracted from the Audio Hitpoints is copied directly into the Quantize box.
Now you can quantize your MIDI after your Audio groove!
I have used this method (plus a bit of velocity tweaking after hand) for drum replacement jobs.

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