How to brainstorm effectively in Cubase?

Hello there…
I am looking for good practices for brainstorming ideas in the composing process. I specifically mean that stage when a certain idea/theme/motive has been established and MANY new ideas can (and should) be collected before decisions are made on way(s) to go forward and the detailed shaping and fleshing out can begin.
I take it obvious that in this particular stage there are no bad ideas and the very often those ideas that seem crazy at first will bring the best (i.e. most original and unique) results. So everything needs to be tried.
Taking into account the infinite number of possibilities (zillions of sounds from synths, samples, loops, live performances, creative use of effects) and their permutations, this is numbing to say the least. I would need a system within Cubase that is effective for collecting, organizing and comparing the ideas. (ad infinitum)
I have tried some workflows, but I would really love to get some input from the community on how to do this effectively and with maximum creative freedom.
So far I have tried:

  • using pen and (stave) paper to jot down ideas and to follow up on them.
  • Track versions, however they tend to be chaotic after 10-15 different versions.
  • Someone advised to save every different idea into a separate file with a descriptive name. Isn’t this just externalising the havoc form the arrangement window into the project folder?
  • Using lanes for different versions. This is more visible than Track versions in my experience.
  • Using a folder track named ‘Ideas’, keeping it muted and drop here the tracks that should be decided about later.

I already use a full template and I am aware that other DAWs promise solution for this issue, however I have not found them usable in other stages in the process (especially in shaping the piece after the idea generation)

So, your creative ideas and good practices are welcome.
Thank you.

Have you tried Mixconsole Snapshots? There are certain things it doesn’t handle like (I think) track automation, but theoretically it can manage multiple versions of the same project, in which you could have different synths, different fx, different arranger track versions (I think - I haven’t tried this), different channel strip settings per track etc, and choose a name for each version / mix.

MixConsole Snapshot Recall Settings (

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – there are some workflows in other DAWs that might help you in your brainstorming process, but do those other DAWs fit your needs in other stages? Sounds like the answer is NO for you.

IMO, both Studio One and Reaper have some tools that I really love to use for this brainstorming/idea stage, but I’ll get to those in a minute.

Personally, when I’m using Cubase, I usually use the ancient tried and true approach of saving different versions to disk and reviewing the ideas later on, etc… For me, this approach has worked for decades with every DAW, so I’m used to it. It’s not efficient, it’s not great, but it’s what I do, and it works. I have a consistent file naming convention so I can find the files/ideas I want to review easily. Obviously, it’s not perfect, but I have no problem “externalizing” the havoc, it works well enough for me. If I’m working on one song or film cue, I might have dozens or occasionally even > 100 of idea files before I start narrowing down my ideas for the next stages. And Cubase has a good track import system in case I want to import one or more tracks from one of my idea files. Messy, yes, but it works.

Sometimes if I’m playing around with ideas on just one part of a composition (i.e. bass, vocals, lead, whatever), then I also duplicate tracks inside an idea project so I can compare and tweak and evolve that part as I work through ideas. I might create an additional 20+ tracks for one part, for example, group them in a folder “lead” for example, with only one track active at a time in the folder. I prefer that approach to track versions or lanes since I can see everything simultaneously AND I may change the patches or even plugins/chain as an idea evolves. However, it’s a resource-intensive process, sucking up the CPU and RAM since I’m duplicating and sometimes changing/adding plugins inside each iteration of an idea track… which can really get crazy sometimes, but it works for my creative flow, and then I’ll save that “version” (including the subversions of one instrument) to new files, and then keep on going… so I might have dozens of files with dozens of sub-ideas inside each one. It works for me. Eventually, I’ll comb through my ideas, and only import the ideas/tracks I want to develop further, thus freeing up resources again as I narrow down the focus of the composition. BUT ALL the old ideas are still saved with prior files… so I never lose them if I want to go back to hunt down a previous idea. It works for me. And again, we have good track import features in Cubase so it’s basically manageable.

Now as for other DAWs, I add their extra workflows to the above approach, and I’ll just give two examples that I often use in other DAWs… in this case, Studio One and Reaper. In each example below, the extra workflows that Studio One and Reaper have can drastically reduce the “external” chaos.

In Studio One, I LOVE the scratch pad feature. It fits right into my experimental process above, it adds a great tool to flesh out ideas. In fact, sometimes it can eliminate the need to save external versions, although I still do that out of habit. The scratch pad is extremely simple, and it does exactly what you think it will do… provide a separate space/timeline where you can work out your ideas without impacting your main timeline. And because the Studio One developers realized how helpful this could be, they added the most obvious thing you’d want with scratch pads, and that is scratch pad versions. So you can create as many scratch pad versions as you want, basically a great little repository of any and all of your ideas. Again, I love it. And BTW, if you experiment with the arranger features of Studio One in concert with scratch pads, you can have a lot of fun with ideas and keep them inside the same project space. Steinberg should add this feature to Cubase! EDIT: The only downside of this is that the scratch pad tracks mirror what the plugins are in the main timeline, so when I start exploring different plugin chains, for example, I still have to create extra tracks. It’s the only hangup of the scratch pad, which is otherwise fantastic.

And then there’s Reaper, which has the absolutely brilliant subprojects feature, which allows me to embed projects within projects within projects, indefinitely. I use subprojects primarily for sound design purposes these days, where they are indispensable to me. But they are also super helpful for brainstorming ideas too, especially once you really master how flexible subprojects can be, and it may change how you approach all projects TBH. It was a game changer when I discovered it. Basically, you can create a master/parent project that holds all your ideas and their variations and subvariations in one parent file. Each subproject can be sliced and rearranged and duplicated endlessly, letting you create basically infinite branches of ideas, all linked/embedded to the parent file. You’ll generate a LOT of files this way too, unfortunately, and it can also become messy, BUT at least you can contain ALL of the creative ideas in a massive hierarchy of parent/child projects. This embedded nature of projects within projects within projects is genius and lets you do some very creative exploration of ideas as non-destructively or destructively as you want. It’s not the same as Studio One scratchpads of course, it’s a different beast altogether. There are some things I would honestly prefer Studio One scratchpads for, but ultimately, Reaper subprojects are in theory even more powerful due to the infinite nesting you can do. It’s honestly one of the best features of Reaper. If I could tolerate Reaper for film scoring (I far prefer Cubase and Studio One for film work), then film scoring with Reaper subprojects would be the killer combo to manage massive film projects TBH. Sadly, Reaper lacks some features and workflows that I prefer inside Cubase and Studio One, so I tend to mainly use subprojects these days when working on sound design projects, where Reaper is especially useful and powerful.

Anyway, the best thing I can suggest with Cubase is to come up with your own workflow leveraging its strengths, and living with and accepting its shortcomings. I do find Cubase projects can get very messy with ideas, unfortunately, which is one of the reasons I use many different DAWs for different kinds of projects, but like you said, other DAWs don’t seem to meet your needs in other stages.

Good luck!

Exactly my issue with Ableton Live haha. LOVE the fact that I can store clips everywhere and have 20 different versions of this or that I can sub in and out, but my god, the actual mixing and arranging part of Ableton drives me up a wall (I can’t even move around the arrangement with the transport like you can in ANY other DAW).

When it comes to drums, I’ve started using Groove Agent to somewhat facilitate this… I’ve got a bunch of my drum breaks already chopped up and ready to go in my GA library. When I use one of those in a track, I’ve got the original MIDI sequence ready to go in GA, drag and drop it and start going… Any changes, variations, etc I make, I can grab those patterns from the arrangement and drop them back inside Groove Agents pattern list for future use…
Technically I could just use GA for everything and keep doing that track by track (I’ll just pretend it’s my MPC) but then I’d miss Halion’s sound design hehe.

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I just copy and paste whole sections along the timeline and use markers to navigate.
It’s my habit to use the “incremental save” function every 15 minutes or so anyway. When I first save a project I always tag “V1-00” on the end of whatever name I give it - Cubase takes care of the rest. When I get to 20 I update the “major version” number by 1 (V2-00, V3-00 etc). When a project is “finished” I keep the first 5 and the last 5 and delete the rest.
I’m also in the habit of doing different and finished versions of my stuff anyway, they sometimes differ by as much as 400% in length and 100% it tempo…

The best tools for me at the early stages of a project are the arranger track and aliases. They help me build up the structure of a project really quickly.

On an organizational level I’ll typically have at least 3 versions of the Project that I use for different purposes.

  1. ProjectName.cpr - this is the main version where the finished piece gets made. I try to keep this tidy & well organized (“try” being a significant qualifier).
  2. ProjectName Tracking.cpr -this is where vocals and other performances get recorded. So all the various takes, including clunkers, are kept here. This is where comping occurs with the results being imported into the main Project. This Project is more messy, with most Lanes expanded so everything is visible & available. Also lots of stuff here will be color coded to indicate various things.
  3. ProjectName Lab.cpr - this can get pretty chaotic & is a place to try out different things and build audio clips, fx and other misc. items for use in the main Project.

I’m also a big fan of introducing arbitrary constraints. Often there are so many possible choices available that we become paralyzed trying to decide. One way around that is to restrict you choices in some manner. For example maybe I’ll decide that I’ll use synth XYZ for the bass because I don’t normally use XYZ and I’d like to learn more about it.

I’ve been there too, I guess we all have been there one way or another. Having this vast amount of Vsts (instr and fx) can lead to creativity (options) paralysis. And then, there are all the other tools as well when it comes to the MIDI side of the story and I’m not even mentioning the mastering stage utilities. Again, we can pretty easily get lost. So, my personal view of the composing process: Write it straight up, use some presets I’m familiar with, take no more than 2 versions per channel, and have a drink with friends. In the morning, most probably I will exclude second versions. But then, I’m just an amateur, so I’m not sure whether this process is valid at all But I do know I won’t look back after finishing the song the way I initially imagined it :slight_smile:

I’ll second this. I use the variety of clunkiness inherent in various DAWs as a feature, not a bug, to constrain the infinite space of possibilities somewhat. I always keep in mind that some of the most brilliant music has been written with either pen and paper, or a piano and voice, or the kind of studio technology from decades ago that we have now far surpassed with something like Cubase.

So yeah, I find limiting myself to a handful of instruments/FX per song, and ruthlessly discarding ideas along the way, the most effective way to create, so I just don’t obsess about incremental “efficiency improvements”.

But your mileage may vary, we all approach creativity differently, and there’s not one right answer!

Thank you all for your input. Will try it all :wink:

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