How to Build a Tempo Map for a Backing Track in Cubase

Tempo maps can be very helpful when making backing tracks for songs that were not recorded at a fixed tempo. This tutorial guides you through the process of creating a tempo map in Cubase.

Since the mid-1980s, musicians have increasingly used click tracks on stage and in the studio. Songs performed with a click track usually feature a fixed and consistent tempo. This is great news if you want to create your own backing tracks for your guitar covers. The easiest way to create a backing track is to use a recording of the song you want to cover as a template. Ideally, you should sync up that recording with your DAW’s time-based grid. This is a simple process, as outlined in Steps 3-5 of my backing track tutorial. When the songs you want to cover were not recorded with a click track, however, a different process involving tempo maps must be used. This intermediate level tutorial outlines two different ways to build a tempo map with Cubase.

What Are Tempo Maps?

Before we get into the tutorial proper, some definitions are in order. Tempo maps, quite simply, plot out tempo changes over time in a musical composition. Digital audio workstations (DAWs) use tempo maps as a guide to automatically change a project’s tempo in accordance with plotted tempo points. When you plot tempo points on every bar division, you can essentially sync your DAW’s grid with the song. This is incredibly helpful when you’re working with a recording that was not performed at a fixed tempo.

Why Tempo Maps are Necessary: An Example

To illustrate what would happen if you didn’t use a tempo map, here’s a screenshot of U2’s song “Out of Control” imported into a fixed tempo Cubase Elements 12 project:

Click on the image to expand it.

I chose this song as my example, as the kick drum falls on every quarter note, which makes it a lot easier to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

The average tempo of this song is 155 beats per minute (BPM), but it fluctuates throughout. I aligned the first transient (the onset of which is denoted by the vertical hitpoint marker you can see after expanding the image) with the first beat on the second bar. You’ll note that every transient thereafter is off the grid a fair bit until we reach bar eight, when it momentarily syncs up again. When you listen back to the track with Cubase’s internal metronome enabled, you’ll hear that the metronome is not in time with the music — that’s because the music was not recorded at a fixed tempo.

If you were to try to build up your backing track using this source material as your scaffolding, you would have an incredibly difficult time. You wouldn’t be able to snap MIDI notes to the grid. You would, instead, have to map every single note independent of the grid. When you can’t use the grid, you can forget about copying or pasting common patterns or samples. The process, quite frankly, is a nightmare. Been there, done that!

Tempo maps eliminate the above problem completely. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll see those transients aligned perfectly with the grid. I’ll start off by showing you how to create tempo maps manually (hard mode), and end by showing you how to create them automatically with Cubase Pro 12 (easy mode).

Learning Objectives

By the end of this tutorial, you will understand how to:

  • Activate the tempo map in Cubase
  • Adjust track sizes to better visualize transients and hitpoints
  • Manually plot and adjust tempo changes on the tempo map
  • Automatically create a tempo map (Cubase Pro only)
  • Adjust tempo points with the Time Warp / Warp Grid tool (Cubase Pro only)

If you are unable to meet these objectives, feel free to reach out for assistance via YouTube. Be sure to include the title of this tutorial in your comment, so I’ll know which one you’re referring to.

Gear Requirements

To complete this tutorial, you only need two things: a digital audio workstation and a lot of patience (if building tempo maps manually, that is).

The DAW I personally use for creating tempo maps and backing tracks is Cubase, but do keep in mind that most other major DAWs also have tempo map and beat detection functionality. If you are uncertain as to whether or not tempo maps are a feature of your DAW, please refer to your DAW’s manual. This tutorial uses Cubase as an example, but the basic fundamentals apply to all other DAWs that offer this feature.

Tutorial

Step 1: Turn on the Tempo Track

In Cubase Elements 12, you unfortunately cannot add the Tempo Track directly to your list of tracks. This is a Cubase Artist and Pro feature only. You can, however, enable the Tempo Track via your project’s tempo controls and open it up in a separate Editor window.

Enabling the Tempo Track.

Simply hover your mouse over the Tempo Track activation button next to the project BPM field and click it to turn it on. You’ll know the Tempo Track is on when the button’s background turns white. Then simply press Ctrl + T to open the Tempo Track Editor, or click on Project > Tempo Track. This will open the Tempo Track Editor in a separate, scalable window. Close it for now.

Step 2: Set the Average Tempo and Time Signature of the Song

Even though we’re not going to actually use the average tempo throughout the song, setting a fixed tempo at least gives us a starting point for plotting out our tempo events. Simply follow Steps 3-4 in my main backing track tutorial to figure out and set the song’s average tempo and time signature.

Step 3: Align the First Beat of Your Reference Audio with the Grid

As mentioned in my backing track tutorial, you need to create backing tracks that give you enough lead-in time to prepare yourself for recording before the song actually begins. Never align your reference track with the first bar on your DAW’s grid, especially if you’re also planning on recording a performance video. Why is that, you ask?

  1. Without enough lead-in time, you may find it harder to come in on the beat of the first bar if your DAW’s metronome does not have a “count in” feature.
  2. If your backing track starts on the first bar, audio will be cut off if you start playing your guitar ahead of the beat — even if you’re only off the beat by a fraction of a millisecond.
  3. If you’re also recording video, you need enough time between hitting record on your camera and hitting record on your DAW to get to your physical place marker.

Align your reference track with the first beat of the second or third bar instead (or even further out, if you prefer). Refer to Step 5 of my main backing track tutorial for assistance with this.

Step 4: Ensure You Can Visualize the Transients and Hitpoints

You need to use your ears and your eyes to create tempo maps. Make sure that your reference track is large enough to see properly in your main project window. Also, make sure that you can easily visualize transients and hitpoints in your reference track’s waveform. You’ll likely need to adjust various sliders to do this, or use mouse scroll shortcuts. It’s difficult to explain with words and images alone, so I recorded a quick video to help you out:

Tempo Track Tutorial: Visualize Transients and Hitpoints

In order to see hitpoints, you must ensure that automatic hitpoint detection is turned on. It’s turned on by default, but in case you accidentally disabled it for whatever reason, you can re-enable it by clicking on Edit > Preferences and selecting “Audio” under the “Editing” heading of the window that pops up. From there, you’ll see a check box titled “Enable Automatic Hitpoint Detection.” Ensure it’s selected. Then, click on “Audio” under the “Event Display” heading. You’ll see a check box titled “Show Hitpoints on Selected Events.” Make sure that one’s selected, too.

Step 5: Add in and Adjust Your Tempo Points

This is the long, tricky part. Open up the Tempo Track again. Resize the window so that you can still see your reference track. Ensure that the Tempo Track is expanded such that you can see the numeric label for every bar. As with Step 4, you’ll have to adjust various sliders or use shortcuts. In the end, your screen will look something like this:

Setting up the Tempo Track for manual tempo mapping in Cubase Elements 12.

Ensure that snapping is enabled in the Tempo Track Editor (see the white box above bar 8 in the image above) and then click on the draw tool. Ensure that “Step” is enabled as your Type of New Tempo Point for ease of use. You can also try out “Ramp” if you prefer gradual transitions, but be aware that Ramp tempo points can cause odd artifacts with time-based plugins. I generally only use Ramp tempo points when I need to gradually slow a song down (e.g. for live outros).

Now, draw in and adjust tempo points for every single bar, one bar at a time. That’s right. Every. Single. Bar. The first tempo point we add in is what we use to align the transient at the next bar using the cursor tool. If that sounds confusing, it’ll hopefully become clearer in a moment.

A. How to Adjust Tempo Points in Relation to the Reference Track

There’s one simple rule of thumb you need to remember when you’re adjusting tempo points with the cursor tool in relation to your reference track:

If a transient is behind the bar, increase the previous tempo point; if a transient is ahead of the bar, decrease the previous tempo point.

To adjust tempo points, simply click on them and drag them up to increase the tempo, or drag them down to decrease the tempo.

B. Adjusting Tempo Points: An Example

Refer to the audio waveform in the image above. Every kick drum transient you see represents a quarter note. Do you see how the transient that should fall on bar 3 is actually slightly ahead of the bar? That means we need to decrease the tempo at bar 2, such that the hitpoint at bar 3 is in perfect alignment. With the draw tool selected, add in tempo points around 155 BPM at bar 2 and bar 3, then drag first tempo point downwards to decrease it. The reference audio track will appear to stretch (but rest assured that no actual audio stretching occurs — the grid itself stretches). Decrease the tempo until the hitpoint is perfectly aligned with bar 3.

When you adjust the first tempo point you added, you’ll discover that the song starts out at a tempo that’s a bit slower than its average tempo of 155 BPM. It’s actually more like 148 BPM. Because it would be confusing to start off at 155 BPM during the lead-in and then jump to 148 BPM suddenly, you should adjust the tempo point at bar 1 as well (Cubase added that point in automatically when you enabled the tempo track).

After doing this, you’ll notice that your first hitpoint is no longer aligned with the first beat of bar 2. Simply drag the track again to align it perfectly. From this point onwards, take great care to avoid moving the track again. Unfortunately, Cubase Elements does not permit you to lock the position of an audio track on the timeline — that is a feature of Cubase Artist and Pro only. Every point on your tempo map depends on the initial position of your reference track. If you accidentally move the track, your entire tempo map will be out of sync.

C. Listen to the First Ten Bars

After you’ve added in and adjusted your tempo points a few times, listen back to the first ten bars or so to make sure your reference track is syncing well with the DAW’s metronome. To demonstrate, I’ve recorded a brief video:

Tempo Track Tutorial – Manually Create a Tempo Map

During the first few seconds, you’ll hear that the metronome (set at a steady fixed tempo of 155 BPM) is completely out of sync with the track. After adding and adjusting tempo points for the first ten bars with the Tempo Track, you’ll then hear that the metronome is perfectly in sync. Success! After bar 10, it drifts out of sync again, as we return to a fixed tempo.

D. Repeat the Process for the Entire Song

It’s time consuming, I know, but you’ll need to keep adding in tempo points for the entire song, bar by bar. The more patient among you might even be tempted to add in tempo points between each bar, to increase the precision of your tempo map even more. If you have the time, go for it! You’ll generally still get great results if you simply add in tempo points on each bar, though.

E. A Helpful Tip

I personally prefer to see 16th note subdivisions when I’m looking at the grid. If you’re new to DAWs and find 16th note subdivisions distracting when you’re adjusting your tempo points, you can always change the grid to whole note subdivisions. Under the “Grid Type” drop down menu at the top of your timeline in Cubase, ensure “Use Quantize” is selected. Then hop over to the “Quantize Presets” drop-down menu to the right, and select “1/1” to show whole note subdivisions only. Your screen will look like this:

Cubase grid displaying whole note subdivisions.

You may find it easier to focus this way, but be sure to swap back to 8th note (1/8) or 16th note (1/16) grid subdivisions when you move on to creating your drum track.

Easy Mode: Tempo Detection (Cubase Pro Only)

I recently picked up Cubase Pro 12 on sale for 40% off, and am a little blown away by how much easier it is to create tempo maps now. With Cubase Pro, Step 5 can be completed automatically with the press of a single button. Here’s what you do to activate tempo map easy mode:

A. Enable the Tempo Track and Set the Starting BPM

Even though Cubase Pro is going to automatically create a tempo map for us, we still want it to start out more or less in time for our lead-in bar. Using “Out of Control” as an example, you’ll recall that the song starts out at a tempo of around 148 BPM. Enable the Tempo Track as you would in Cubase Elements 12 (see Step 1), and then set the starting BPM (see Step 2). Don’t worry about the time signature at this point, because Cubase will change it automatically.

B. Align the First Beat of Your Reference Audio with the Grid

You should already know how to do this if you’ve gotten this far into the tutorial. If you need a refresher, refer back to Step 3 above. Remember, you’re aligning that first beat with the second or third bar, not the first bar, to give yourself enough lead-in time for recording.

C. Activate Tempo Detection

Click on your reference audio track. Now go to Project > Tempo Detection. Clicking on Tempo Detection will open up the Tempo Detection Panel. Ensure your reference track is listed, then hit Analyze. A few seconds pass, and boom: Cubase automatically creates a full tempo map for you by analyzing the transients and hitpoints in the audio. During the process, it also inserts a Tempo Track and Signature Track directly into the project. I personally like to drag the Tempo Track above the reference audio track, but that’s just me.

D. Fix the Signature Track

When you listen back to the track with the metronome enabled, you’ll find that it sounds almost perfectly in time. So easy! You’ll probably also notice, though, that the time signature is off. If the time signature is off, you’ll also notice that the song now has more or fewer bars than it should. The reason for this seems to be that Cubase has a hard time distinguishing between quarter notes and whole notes and “assumes” there is only one beat in each bar.

See my video below as an example:

Tempo Track Tutorial – Automatically Create a Tempo Map

The time signature Cubase detected is 1/4. The time signature of the song is actually 4/4. When you change the signature on the Signature Track to 4/4, the metronome once again sounds as it should, and the bar divisions along the project ruler are once again accurate.

E. Fine-Tune the Tempo Track (Optional)

You could probably get away with using Cubase’s auto-generated tempo map as is. If you zoom in and listen closely, however, you’ll find that it’s not always perfect. If you want it to be perfect, select the Time Warp / Warp Grid tool:

The Time Warp / Warp Grid tool is located in your tool bar.

Then enlarge and zoom in on your Tempo Track and the reference audio track. Drag each tempo point with the Time Warp / Warp Grid tool to properly sync the grid with any errant hitpoints. Note that you do not have to adjust the tempo point at the previous bar ahead of the hitpoint, as the Time Warp / Warp Grid tool is a specialized tool that is designed to adjust a single tempo point without affecting the entire map. It differs significantly in this regard from the cursor tool that is used to adjust tempo points in Cubase Elements 12.

To show you what this looks like, here is a very brief video:

Tempo Track Tutorial – Using the Time Warp / Warp Grid Tool

Fine-tuning the tempo track can be a little bit time consuming, but it’s nowhere near as time consuming as building up a tempo track from scratch.

Conclusion

Whether you create your tempo map manually or automatically, the end result is the same: a usable grid that is in near perfect time with your reference audio! It can be a tedious process when done manually, but you’ll be thankful you did it when it’s finally done.

The next instalment in this tutorial series guides you through the process of adding MIDI drums to your backing track. Click here to check it out.


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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