Ok, well, after examining my old project files in Cubase LE 1.07, I discovered that although it doesn’t show any negative values for the origin time in the project pool, if you click on one of the cells you indeed do see a negative value, at least as long as you keep the cell active with your mouse cursor–as soon as you let go, it disappears.
And since Cubase LE 1.07 was showing me seconds and Cubase 12 was showing me bars and beats, it wasn’t obvious how things related. So I switched the timecode displays in both to seconds to see what was happening.
Turns out Cubase LE 1.07 shows the origin time as, for example, -00:00:00.211. Meanwhile, for the same track and take, Cubase 12 shows it as -1 23:59:59.789. Add 211 milliseconds to 789 milliseconds and you get 1000 milliseconds, aka 1 second, and it appears what is happening is Cubase LE 1.07 is doing negative numbers relative to 0 like you’d normally expect, while Cubase 12 is say, if you were starting the day before 0, this is the timestamp within that day where that file’s origin time would fall.
As usual, all of that was CLEAR AS MUD from the help files Steinberg provides, the terminology they use, etc., and I only found it by fiddling and experimenting and scrutinizing.
This is a big part of why I started using Reaper–when they meant “takes”, they said “takes”, not “events” and “lanes” and whatnot. Ugh. Much of the battle with these programs is just trying to guess whatever the developers were thinking and decipher what they mean by the words they use. And then of course dealing with bugs they overlooked.
So there you have it…if you want your timeline to start at negative 2 seconds, for example, you need to go to Project > Project Setup > Project Start Time, double click until the whole field is selected and turns white like a free text field to save yourself the headaches of trying to edit it starting with a single left-click (try and you’ll see what I mean), and punch in -1 23:59:58:00.
And for -211 milliseconds like that example I gave, well, your guess is as good as mine. Whatever Steinberg means by the two digits after the last colon, it does not appear to be milliseconds. Frames maybe? Couldn’t find a clear explanation in the help files, so I gave up.