Cubase is the Best DAW for Creating Backing Tracks

Are you interested in creating your own backing tracks for your guitar covers? If so, consider using what I believe is the best digital audio workstation (DAW) for the job: Cubase.

SEE ALSO: How to Create Backing Tracks for Guitar Covers: A Tutorial

If you upload guitar covers to YouTube, like I do, a good backing track can set your videos apart. While it’s possible to download backing tracks for free from YouTube and elsewhere, there will be times when your searches will come up empty. Being able to make your own backing tracks from scratch in a digital audio workstation (DAW) is therefore a useful skill to have. One DAW stands out from the rest when it comes to creating backing tracks, in my opinion: Cubase by Steinberg Media Technologies.

Cubase’s Drum Editor is a Must-Have Feature

Unless you can play the drums, you’ll need to create your own drum tracks using drum samples and MIDI. Cubase actually started life as a MIDI sequencer back in 1989. It remains, to this day, one of the best MIDI editors on the market. One thing I love about Cubase in relation to MIDI is its Drum Editor feature. To understand why the Drum Editor is so great, you need to know a little more about what MIDI editors traditionally look like and how they function.

MIDI Piano Rolls: Great for Synths, Terrible for Drums

Most MIDI editors use the classic “piano roll” interface of notes arranged vertically in a grid. To add MIDI notes to a backing track, you either play the notes in real time on a MIDI keyboard, or you draw them in on the grid. The notes appear rectangular on your screen, with the length of each rectangle corresponding with the length of the note. Here’s what it looks like:

Piano roll MIDI editor.
The traditional “piano roll” MIDI editor.

That’s fine for synthesizers, but practically unusable for drums. Drum samples are brief, snappy sounds. Drawing in drum beats on a piano roll editor is awkward, not to mention chaotic to look at. Furthermore, when using piano roll editors to map out drum patterns, you need to remember which note corresponds with a particular drum sample. It’s completely counterintuitive to think about drum samples as “piano notes.” Visually and functionally speaking, editing drum patterns on a traditional MIDI editor is just an unnecessarily cumbersome, irritating experience.

Cubase’s Drum Editor: It Just Makes Sense

Enter the Drum Editor. Cubase visually represents MIDI percussion as fixed-size diamonds that sit directly on top of each beat on the grid. Drum samples along the Y-axis include the name of the drum type itself, in addition to the corresponding piano note. It looks like this:

Drum Editor in Cubase Elements 12.
The Drum Editor, as seen in Cubase Elements 12.

As someone who struggled for years with REAPER’s MIDI editor, I simply cannot emphasize enough how much of a revelation this was when I first started using Cubase. It sped up my backing track creation process significantly.

The Drum Editor has been copied by various DAW and plugin developers over the decades. Steinberg did it first, however, and I personally think they have always done it best. Since drum editing consumes most of your time when you’re building up backing tracks from scratch, it only makes sense to use the best tool for the job.

Cubase’s MIDI Humanization Features Are Excellent

Entering MIDI notes is only one part of the backing track creation process. If you’re using MIDI to program drum beats and synth lines for songs that were originally recorded with real analog instruments, you’ll need to “humanize” your work. Without humanization, MIDI tracks sound too perfect, or robotic. Basically, the idea here is to use a computer to create music without sounding like you used a computer to create music.

Human beings do not play exactly on the beat throughout a performance, nor do they play every note with the same intensity every time. It’s possible to manually draw in subtle changes in note position and intensity on any MIDI editor, but being able to automate this process speeds things up considerably.

Most DAWs have automated MIDI humanization features, but Cubase is particularly well-known for them. With Cubase, you can use the Quantize Panel and MIDI Modifiers function to shift notes off the grid ever so slightly, or alter note velocity. The end result is a backing track that sounds a little looser and a lot less robotic.

Cubase’s Tempo Track Makes Timing Simple

Modern music is often recorded at a fixed tempo. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “on the grid” used to derisively describe modern music, this is partly what it refers to. By recording at a fixed tempo, producers can easily chop up and rearrange audio clips, or drop in time-based samples. Prior to the 80s, recording at a fixed tempo wasn’t really a thing. Fluctuations in tempo can be heard all over older recordings and live performances that predate MIDI and DAWs, and this creates interesting challenges for those of us who create backing tracks from scratch.

If your reference track’s tempo fluctuates throughout the song, you have to disregard the grid, turn off your DAW’s metronome, and manually position every single MIDI note. You also can’t copy and paste commonly repeating sequences (like verse kick patterns) or use time-saving “snap to grid” features.

This is where Cubase’s Tempo Track comes in handy. The Tempo Track allows you to draw in tempo changes beat by beat, using your reference track as your guide. When you listen to your reference track after finishing the Tempo Track, you can then visualize where each note has to fall on the MIDI editor grid. You can also continue to use your DAW’s metronome, which will help a lot when it comes time to actually record your guitar cover. Manually drawing in tempo changes on the Tempo Track can be time consuming initially, but it saves a lot of time overall.

It’s worth pointing out here that the most expensive version of Cubase (Cubase Pro) allows you to create tempo maps in seconds by analyzing transients and hitpoints. I personally upgraded to Cubase Pro with a recent sale, solely to avail of this feature.

Cubase Includes a Useful Lineup of VSTs and Samples

Even if you purchase the most basic version of Cubase, the software comes bundled with a variety of usable virtual instruments (VSTs) and samples. You can hear examples of these in use on almost all of my covers. During the intro to my cover of U2’s “One Tree Hill,” for example, I use HALion’s “Tuned Udu” percussion sample. It’s not a perfect match, but it sounds close.

Having access to large libraries of virtual instruments and samples will make it easier for you to sculpt your own backing tracks. You’ll likely need to supplement the base VSTs and samples with third party products, as I have, but they’re a great starting point. Compare the different versions of Cubase here to see the full list of bundled VSTs and sample libraries.

Conclusion

While any DAW is up to the task of creating backing tracks, there is little doubt in my mind that Cubase is the best one for the job. Making the switch to Cubase a few years ago improved my backing track workflow significantly. I’ve tried out other DAWs since then, but I keep coming back to Cubase for the reasons outlined above.

If you’re interested in creating your own backing tracks with Cubase, download the trial here. If you download the trial and need help with it, free to ask any questions via YouTube. Also, be sure to check out my backing track tutorial!

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Steinberg Media Technologies and was not paid to make any of the above statements. I simply want to recommend what I believe is the best DAW available for creating backing tracks, based on my own personal experiences.


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

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