Instrument Tracks that are actually useful

I think Instrument Tracks have huge potential, but IMHO the current implementation is buggy, limited, baffling, disappointing, and ultimately unusable. It’s like the guy who came up with Instrument Tracks left the company, leaving them orphaned. (Did this happen, btw?)

Someone (or someones) need to really think through how Instrument Tracks are - and could be - used, and make those workflows and operations real. Maybe I’m just not understanding who the target user or workflows are for Instrument tracks, but my needs are pretty straightforward:

  • I have a bunch of synths, some soft VSTs, some external hardware. Much of the external hardware, e.g., minimoog, has limited timbrality, i.e., can only play one or few separate parts at a time.
  • I want to be able to record and edit MIDI, where possible, and then at some point Freeze it as audio, so that I can a) create additional tracks using that synth, b) use all the powerful Cubase audio editing & processing features as the next logical step in that part’s production, and c) keep the MIDI and audio together as one track, so that if necessary, I could UnFreeze back to MIDI, make the changes there, and re-Freeze. Without keeping them as one track, I have to manage both a MIDI and an Audio track (and possibly a Folder track to hold them both), making my Project both cluttered and complicated - and still without the ability to easily go back and forth between MIDI and audio.

My two cents:

#1. Instrument Tracks should be “chameleons” that have the best of both MIDI and Audio tracks: I record some MIDI, edit it, etc. as MIDI. Then, Freeze to render it as Audio. So far, kinda similar to what’s there now. But wait - if the MIDI has been turned to Audio, why is it still showing as MIDI? It should be showing as Audio - and allow all the normal Audio editing & processing! Naturally, this also includes being able to Split, Duplicate, Repeat, etc. - all things that you cannot do with Instrument tracks today, for some reason.

#2. A long-standing Instrument Track “Freeze” bug (only on Mac, I’m told) makes it impossible to use and External Instrument (e.g., minimoog) on multiple Instrument tracks, as, despite the Checkbox in the Freeze dialog box, the “External Instrument VST” does NOT get “unloaded” as it says it should be. The result? You did Freeze the Instrument track (rendering MIDI to audio) but Cubase still ties up the MIDI port, audio channels, etc. of the external instruments, even tho it is most definitely no longer needed.

#3. Right now you cannot even delete a Freeze’d Instrument track!! Why?

All these things, plus things others have mentioned in these Forums, just show that a) Instrument tracks are “buggy, limited, baffling, disappointing, and ultimately unusable” as I stated, above. They clearly are not getting any sw engineering love from Steinberg. But I think they can be salvaged and be a big win for Steinberg and for us loyal customers.

– jdm

I’m not really sure what you’re asking for here. As far as instrument tracks being “ultimately unusable”, as far as I know they are the go to choice for almost every VSTi composer on the planet using Cubase, including myself. I’m also not really sure why you are freezing tracks, as we have a render in place option, that instantly turns it into an audio track you can manipulate in any way you feel the need to, disables the instrument track, and names the new audio track accordingly. This is of course a separate audio track, to preserve your midi data in the instrument track for future editing if you feel the need to go back and make changes. Sorry if I’m not understanding what you’re asking for here, but all the functionality it seems you’re requesting already exists. I do assure you though, that instrument tracks are far from “unusable”.

OK, so “unusable” might be a tad overstated. And while i wouldn’t know if they are the go-to choice “for almost every VSTi composer on the planet” but I agree in spirit that they could be, if they were just a tad more flexible and the super-annoying bug of not releasing external VSTs was fixed, as I described.

IMHO it is clunky and archaic to have multiple tracks around for the one performance. Even with big screens (I have two 30" hi-res monitors) real estate is at a premium. I love that Instrument Tracks remove two of these three (the VST track and the audio track); my suggestion is that the post-Freeze appear and behave as an Audio track. Do you agree that that would be useful? As it is, a Frozen track cannot be edited in any way shape or form. You cannot duplicate it, trim it, etc. You cannot even delete it!!

Obviously, a Frozen Instrument track has an audio clip underneath the hood, but it’s hiding it and making it otherwise inaccessible. Why? That seems like a seriously missed opportunity for the “best of both worlds” - MIDI mode for performance editing, Audio mode for “producing” it as part of the mix.

And for god’s sake, PLEASE fix the bug keeping External VSTs (i.e., external synths) from being released after Freeze!! i wanna create Instrument tracks with any number of minimoog parts, for example. As it is, I cannot do that (without making “fake” External synths for as many Instrument tracks I want to have with that synth).

– jdm

FWIW I literally -never- use Instrument Tracks. At least 50% of my VSTi uses are multi-output deals like Kontakt and VSL and Omnisphere and even after all this time I/Ts have not improved the totally kludgey way they handle such devices. So… rather than have to think one way for single output VSTis and another way for multi-output ones I just standardised on sticking with the old school method.

In one sentence: the problem with Instrument Tracks is that they only make sense for single output VSTis.

I’ve given up on them, as well, tho they have been a seductive trap - they could be really useful, if at least some of these proposed changes were made.

Like you, I’ve been doing it “old school” for many years, tho no longer professionally. But in many ways the tape-deck + mixer metaphor seems quaint, antiquated, and anachronistic, given what is now possible in-the-box. Other DAWs, e.g., Ableton Live, have successfully introduced completely new digital-centric paradigms, designed to make a certain workflow easier, natural, and intuitive.

I no longer want to spread, say, “drums” around, across MIDI tracks, Audio tracks, VST tracks, Groups, Sends, VCA tracks, and probably more I’m forgetting. I want “drum-ness” in one place, supporting the natural workflow:

recording/tracking

  • record performance(s) - MIDI, in my case, as I use e-drums
    production
  • editing performance: fix mistakes, timing, etc., arranging clips to fit the song
  • tweaking individual drums & cymbals and perhaps insert FX to get just the right tone
    mixing
  • mix the entire drum section down to stereo “stem”
  • mix the stems into a finished song

of course, the workflow is non-linear: you often need to go back several steps, make changes, then try to recreate all the subsequent steps to get back to where you were. but the point is to move through the layers of abstraction, making choices and commitments along the way, such that by the time your mixing down the song you’re focused on the whole song, not still fiddling with minutia like adjusting for the edrum’s MIDI delay or some such.

not only would the proposed “super Instrument Tracks” keep everything in one place, visually, all the change history could be preserved, as well, so if you had to go back a step or few, you could go back, make the changes, and selectively apply the previous follow-on changes to get back to, say the stereo stem.

there are doubtless some more complex scenarios that this would not address. for example, the above works a lot better with insert FX (since you’re trying to keep everything with that instrument in one place), at least up through creating the stem. but CPU resources are sufficient these days that I tend to prefer Insert FX anyway, since we can now create as many instances as we want, no longer having to make the best use of some limited number of outboard FX via Sends.

another big advantage to this “new school” of working really shines when you have to go back to a project, especially if it were left, ahem, unfinished. no longer would you have to scratch your head to figure out which MIDI parts were used to render Audio parts - or even if the Audio parts were up-to-date with their source MIDI parts. routings, in general, would be much simpler, taking less time to re-familiarize.

perhaps the most powerful and intuitive way to think about this way of working is from back-to-front: beginning with the end in mind.

  • mastering: your input is typically a stereo mix. output is stereo mix. your job: make it sound great, fit with the record, media, etc.
  • mixing: input (in how i work, anyway) is typically a set of mono & stereo stems, one for each logical grouping. output: stereo mix
  • producing: input is a set of performance tracks, MIDI and/or Audio; output is one or more mono or stereo stems. I dunno how many others work this way, and it’s certainly not perfect; I (very) often have to go back and make tweaks to better balance with the rest of the song. But still, the step is well-defined: take all the random stuff that goes into a performance and “print it” so as to put that complexity behind us and focus on the bigger picture.
  • tracking: input - whatever you want: MIDI, audio, loops, … But even with this open-endedness, I still think of it as “drums” or “lead guitar” or “background vocals” or whatever, and those entities are typically carried through to stems. YMMV.

Barring direct support for this, I have to manage it all with nested folders / folding. Doable, but not ideal.

BTW, in software engineering / computer programming, we invent new programming languages to create these sorts of higher-level abstractions, which leads to dramatically higher productivity, fewer bugs, and general technological advancement. In the early days, programmers had to tell the machine to put numbers in its internal registers, just to add two numbers together, and then tell it to move the result to some specific spot in memory. i.e., the software language directly mimicked the underlying hardware - kind like our mixed+tape deck DAW paradigm. Nowadays, programmers can, for example, tell the machine to go figure out who’s face is in a picture. But we never woulda got there if we were still telling the machine how to physically add two numbers together.

– jdm

Render in Place creates an audio file that can be used like any other audio file.

Freeze is simply a safety feature to avoid accidentally editing it during complicated tracking or mixing tasks.

I agree though that the MIDI track and Instrument track system could be done better. Currently for example Groove Agent has its own independent mix page which is annoying during mixdown because it is hard to access and the GUI is different. So to raise the hihat level for example clients need to go to Project Window, draw up GA, edit, then return to the mixer again. Could there be some sort of clickable submix in the main mix window? :nerd:

The problem with Instrument Tracks for -every- composer that uses orchestral libraries and notation is that it’s 2019 and if I write for ‘violins’ I still cannot have a single ‘instrument’ called “1st Violins”. What I have to do is have perhaps a DOZEN separate MIDI tracks to hold separate articulations I might encounter during a piece.

THERE IS -STILL- NO TRULY COMPREHENSIVE, ELEGANT WAY TO HANDLE ALL THE ARTICULATIONS (EG. DIVISIS)

And that is because Expression Maps AND AND AND Note Expression have been left hanging FOR YEARS.

In order to offer a better Instrument Track, you’d need to create something that COMPREHENSIVELY allows a composer to make a -single- MIDI track handle -very- complex instruments eg. drums or violins which might have dozens of key switches and articulations and notational markings AND VSTi outputs.

The current state of play is that they have 3 or 4 separate technologies that are not properly INTEGRATED together into a single workflow.

In short: they haven’t created a solution that maps onto a single MIDI track all the ways a real musician would play a real INSTRUMENT.

great points!

I think that, aside from our individual perspectives and suggested features, is a rethink of the workflows involved in modern music production, yes? i.e., what do people really do - or want to do, in solving real-world situations?

having done product design, the modern way to approach this usually starts by identifying numerous prototypical users, aka “personas.” each of those almost surely has specific needs and workflows, and you gather that info, and then try to distill it down…

Either I’m totally misunderstanding what it is you guys want to do, or you guys aren’t aware that almost everything you mentioned is already there in Cubase…

“my suggestion is that the post-Freeze appear and behave as an Audio track. Do you agree that that would be useful? As it is, a Frozen track cannot be edited in any way shape or form. You cannot duplicate it, trim it, etc. You cannot even delete it!!”

Render in place does exactly that… It creates an audio track and disables the midi track. Again, not sure what you’re requesting here that isn’t already available.

“Freeze is simply a safety feature to avoid accidentally editing it during complicated tracking or mixing tasks.”

Doesn’t lock accomplish the same thing?

“Currently for example Groove Agent has its own independent mix page which is annoying during mixdown because it is hard to access and the GUI is different. So to raise the hihat level for example clients need to go to Project Window, draw up GA, edit, then return to the mixer again. Could there be some sort of clickable submix in the main mix window?”

This would be accomplished by simply enabling all the outputs on GA and routing the mix channels in the GA mixer to each of those outputs. Then they are all there individually in your Cubase mixer. No need to go back to the GA mixer at all. And this can be done with almost any and all modern VSTi’s…
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ouwm-k4yo0w

"THERE IS -STILL- NO TRULY COMPREHENSIVE, ELEGANT WAY TO HANDLE ALL THE ARTICULATIONS (EG. DIVISIS) The problem with Instrument Tracks for -every- composer that uses orchestral libraries and notation is that it’s 2019 and if I write for ‘violins’ I still cannot have a single ‘instrument’ called “1st Violins”. What I have to do is have perhaps a DOZEN separate MIDI tracks to hold separate articulations I might encounter during a piece. "

The above can also already be accomplished with one instrument track, and one instance of a VSTi. Let’s say for Kontakt (but would work for any VSTi, EW Play, etc…), you can simply have one instrument track pointing to that VSTi with multiple outputs enabled in Kontakt. Load all the articulations into that instance of Kontakt (up to 16 of course), and then create an expression map with key switches for the track in the inspector that sends each articulation you draw in the track inspector or play with a key switch to a separate midi channel, which in turn would fire the proper articulation in Kontakt. There is no need to have 16 midi channels for the 16 different articulations. The expression map takes care of all of the work for you. It’s all right there in one instrument track you only have to set up once and save as a template. Then simply enable/disable that track when you need it. And the best part is, those articulations that you draw in the inspector window will show up in the score editor as well. Junkie XL just did a video on this recently if you don’t understand or have questions regarding what I’m talking about…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gVWW2tKN8c

Dude, we know what we’re talking about. The issues you mention have been argued over dozens of times with hundreds of pages. I just don’t have the patience any longer to rehash these things for the zillionth time. I’ll just give one simple example: Hammond B3 emulation. Just -try- doing that with an Instrument Track paradigm. Doesn’t work.

The broader point is that there are a LOT of things in Cubase that one can -make- work but are totally clunky. And some? SB keeps working on and then on about the 4th or 5th try they get it right. The AudioWarp is a good example. But Instrument Tracks and ‘Expression’ they just left in the dust back in 2010.

The broader bitch that most composers I talk to is this: SB, which basically -created- MIDI sequencing, hasn’t done SQUAT on the MIDI side of the product in -years-. Almost -all- of the innovation in Cubase has been on the audio side. And it’s frustrating as hell. All the things we want fixed, like Expression and the Editors, Logical Editor, the tools have either languished or actually gotten WORSE for about a decade.

No, render-in-place is NOT the same thing as having an Instrument track do what I’m asking, which is to essentially flip modes between MIDI and Audio upon Freeze. The difference is most apparent in the Mixer. Yes, in the Project window I can render-in-place and get yet-another-track, the Audio track for this MIDI, but that’s just it: it’s another track. I can put them both in a Folder to manage them better in the Project window, but in the Mixer window, the Folder track isn’t visible, but both the MIDI and Audio track are. And don’t say “well, just go hide that track, then,” as IMHO the track hiding is a nightmare, as afaik, there is no way to browse a list of hidden tracks to get back the one you want.

The whole point of Instrument tracks was to manage all of this for a given instrument. All I’m asking is to just carry that through - including for External instruments, which Steinberg doesn’t really seem to care about, or the “doesn’t release External VSTs on Freeze” bug I reported several major versions ago would be fixed by now. (I actually had one guy tell me it was “supposed to work that way” - uh, no, it’s not.)

All these same things are in play with the other new track type I suggested, a 3-channel audio equivalent of an Instrument track, with one mono Audio channel for VOX or, more likely, DI guitar, and the other two audio channels for the processed / amp’d version. Like the MIDI in an Instrument track, the mono source is largely just there in case you need to go back and re-apply “processing” - in the MIDI version, convert MIDI to Audio; in this version, convert mono DI signal to stereo (or surround, I suppose) via an re-amp circuit.

This 3-channel track has the additional problem in that I can’t just create a track preset to create this, as track presets aren’t that powerful - I thought maybe I could create a Folder track with a mono audio and stereo audio track inside and save the whole thing as a track preset, but no.

Both of these new track types reflect how at least some people work now, and while of course you can figure out a system to get these things done with a horse-and-buggy system, IMHO it behooves DAW mfrs to provide direct support for accelerating and easing these workflows.

These are the features I need, as an “old-school” linear-music-with-real-instruments kinda guy. I can’t even spell EDM, and don’t care one whit about beat matching, sampler tracks, and similar. I know a lot of people do, and that’s fine. But that’s not the entire user base. If Steinberg can’t be bothered, someone else will, and I, for one, will be sad to go, after decades of Cubase/Nuendo use, but go i will.

while i still think these two track types would be very useful, with some digging I think I can work around some of this by setting up Project templates, Logical Project presets, etc. to work around not having them nicely managed already. still means Instrument tracks are not useful, since most of my instruments are External and those are not released, so might as well just use MIDI tracks.

clunky, but functional i guess

“the Folder track isn’t visible, but both the MIDI and Audio track are. And don’t say “well, just go hide that track, then,” as IMHO the track hiding is a nightmare, as afaik, there is no way to browse a list of hidden tracks to get back the one you want.”

The instrument track can literally be hidden with a check mark, and the new track is named for you…smh… At this point I really can’t call this anything other than a minor gripe. Hardly something that needs to be “fixed”.

“you can figure out a system to get these things done with a horse-and-buggy system”

“horse and buggy system”? It’s literally the click or two of the mouse. Better yet, a very simple macro and a hotkey if it’s common.

“If Steinberg can’t be bothered, someone else will, and I, for one, will be sad to go, after decades of Cubase/Nuendo use, but go i will.”

If taking your ball and going home is really your reaction to a few simple mouse clicks or a macro, then I would say you should probably take your ball and go home. Not too sure what else to tell ya… It’s beyond unlikely they will address an issue that’s pretty much already addressed.

I’m not sure why this matters at all to you, bjones36. If the usability issues discussed don’t apply to you, that’s great for you. But it’s nonsensical for you to argue that that means it isn’t a problem at all. There are probably as many ways to use Cubase as there are users, or at least as many as there are musical styles. Obviously it’s difficult to be all things to all people, and I think Cubase has done an admirable job of that for the three decades I’ve been using it.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Software is created by engineers, and like anyone else, they bring their experiences, desires, and biases with them. My lament is that Cubase has had a lot more energy put into features I will never need, e.g., a Sampler Track - I assume that’s maybe an EDM thing? In any case, I will never use it, as I have no need for it. For my $99 upgrades, I’d like to see more features to support my way of making music - is that so surprising? I’m saying - and others have said similar things - that there are some usability issues, bugs, and other shortcomings in what I guess you’d call old-school music-making: linear pop/rock songs, using real, external instruments, both acoustic and electronic. Cubase seems to be drifting away from that kind of music-making. Not only are all the new features most useful to styles I don’t product, seemingly easy-to-fix bugs that are very important to me not getting fixed.

I get it - engineering is a finite resource, and they must feel that that is where there market is. What I said doesn’t seem that controversial: if Cubase continues to evolve away from my needs, at some point I’ll find one that works better for me.

My personal interest, and at this point just genuine curiosity, was in pointing out the quite clear solutions to the problems…In this thread, I see nothing at all listed that doesn’t have a clear solution given the current version of the program. Nor do I see anything that stands in the way of you doing “old-school music-making”. People have been doing this sort of recording in Cubase for more than a decade. I think the response was pretty clear. It’s unlikely that a software company, who has already given you a clear solution to solving a problem, is going to go out of their way to spend more dev time giving you another solution to the exact same problem just because you won’t use the one given.