This article is for Cubase users that own a MIDI controller, and that are struggling to fully control their virtual or external instruments using that controller to optimize their music creation workflow.

If you feel like you don’t understand portions of this article, make sure to read my other article on Understanding MIDI.

MIDI Controllers

You can purchase a simple MIDI controller, like the Alesis V49, and plug it directly into the USB port of your computer, and you’ll be ready to go with Cubase. This is because most MIDI controllers you purchase are “class compliant MIDI devices” that are plug-and-play and ready to go.

Alesis V49 MIDI Controller

The Alesis V49 allows you to assign MIDI CC numbers to the following using the V49 Editor application on your computer:

  • 4 toggle buttons / switches - Support CC Toggle, CC Momentary, and Program Change messages
  • 4 knobs - Support CC or Aftertouch messages
  • 8 drum pads - Support Note, CC Toggle, CC Momentary, and Program Change messages
  • The Modulation wheel - Minimum and maximum values are configurable
  • Sustain pedal - Sends CC Momentary values when pressed or released

I’m using the Alesis V49 here as a common low-cost example of a simple controller that includes MIDI assignable knobs and buttons.

Alesis V49 Editor application

Usually a change to the configuration is needed with a MIDI controller to match the MIDI Control Change numbers (CC#) used by a hardware synthesizer that you are trying to control remotely. A MIDI controller is usually configured by default to use non-reserved control change messages, so reconfiguring it should be necessary. See MIDI CC List to determine if this is the case for your controller.

The ultimate goal here it so map changes to those knobs and switches to certain controls within Cubase and other VST instruments and effects.

It’s a good idea to think about the actions you perform most in Cubase, and whether or not its worth assigning those same actions to the controls on your keyboard. It might be more valuable to you to use the drum pads for controls, rather than for triggering drum sounds.

Some controllers may have a limited set of controls, but include a feature that allows you to switch between “presets” that change which MIDI CC the controls are using. Make sure to consult your MIDI controllers manual to know what features it offers, it may open up even more possibilities for your workflow.

Cubase MIDI Remote

Recent versions of Cubase have added advanced capabilities to configure a graphical layout of your own MIDI controller, and then map those controls to the various functions. This feature is known as MIDI Remote.

Unless you have a common Akai, Novation Launchkey, or Arturia Keylab controller, you’ll need to confiture your own “script” for MIDI Remote. This is actually very easy once you know how it’s meant to be used.

First click on the Add MIDI Controller Surface button to start mapping our your own device. You’ll need to provide the vendor and model names for your device, and choose the MIDI input and outputs to use to communicate with your device.

You can watch this video I created to see the process in action, or continue to read below for similar instructions.

Placement Mode

Click on “Create MIDI Controller Surface” and you’ll then be taken into the “Placement mode”. You might think this is where you’ll start to click on control types, and place them in the graphical area. This is possible, if you want to manually map the CC # your controls manually, but I recommend that you instead allow the software to auto-detect the CC # of each of your controls.

Start by choosing the type of control you want to add from the menu on the left (Knob, Fader, Button, Trigger Pad). Next click inside of the graphical area to chose where you want the control placed, which will result in a red box selecting an area. Feel free to resize or move the box to match the size of the control on your device.

Once you’re done, go ahead and manipulate the actual control on your MIDI Controller so that it sends Cubase a MIDI CC message. Cubase will detect this, and will map that MIDI CC # to the MIDI Remote control. You’ll notice that a new control will show up that is not surrounded by a red box, and now the red box has moved adjacent to the control you just mapped. Repeat this process for each of your controls until you’ve added all of your MIDI assignable controls.

Even though you can place your controls graphically to match your device, I’m placing the pads to the right to make the display of the controls bigger on the screen.

Cubase MIDI Remote Placement

Once you’re finished creating the graphical representation of your MIDI controller, with MIDI CC numbers mapped to your controls, click on “Open” under Mapping Assistant, or the “Go to Mapping Assistant” button on the right.

Mapping Assistant

The Mapping Assistant is where you connect the controls on your MIDI Controller to supported actions within Cubase. If you don’t see the Functions Browser on the left side, click on the Show/Hide Functions Browser button in the top-right corner of the window.

The Functions Browser reveals the hundreds of controls that you can manipulate in Cubase, to make your MIDI Controller act as a control surface.

Here’s a list of many suggested controls you can search for and use:

  • Focus Quick Controls (QC1 - QC8)
  • Selected Track - Volume, Mute, Solo, Panning, EQ, Inserts, Sends, Select Next/Previous Track
  • Transport - Cycle, Metronome, Rewind, Forward, Start, Stop, Record, Go to Left Locator, Go to Right Locator, Nudge -1 Bar, Nudge +1 Bar, Set Left Locator to Project Cursor Position, Set Right Locator to Project Cursor Position
  • Zoom - 4 tracks, 8 tracks, Full, Zoom In, Zoom In Vertically, Zoom Out, Zoom Out Vertically
  • Toggle Mixer window, Toggle Instrument window
  • File - Save, Save New Version
  • Edit - Undo
  • Media - Open Media Bay, Search Media Bay, Loop Browser, Sound Browser
  • Preset - Previous, Next, Open/Close Browser

Cubase MIDI Remote Mapping Assistant

Mapping Pages

Even with a limited set of knobs, faders, and/or buttons on your MIDI Controller, it’s possible to control many more parameters in Cubase by configuring Mapping Pages in the MIDI Remote section.

You can event assign 2 buttons to change between the mapping pages. Just make sure to map the same buttons to those actions on each page so that the behavior is consistent.

Cubase MIDI Remote Mapping Page

Here’s an example of the configuration you could setup for each page:

  • Page 1 - “Track” - Maps controls for current selected track
  • Page 2 - “EQ” - Maps controls to EQ parameters for current selected track
  • Page 3 - “Sends” - Maps controls to Send levels
  • Page 4 - “Quick Controls” - Maps controls to Focus Quick Controls 1-8 (see next section)
  • Page 5 - “Instrument” - Maps controls to “Instrument Parameters” (see below)

Focus Quick Controls

If you only have 4-8 knobs on your controller, you might prefer to use the Quick Control features in Cubase. In the Mapping Assistant, you can configure up to 8 controls to map to the Focus Quick Controls (QC 1 - QC 8).

The Quick Controls can manipulate controls that are associated with a track, or ones that are associated with a VST instrument. Cubase determines which context your controls apply to based on which window is currently selected or “focused” on. When you are in the project window with the track selected, those controls apply to that track. When you’ve opened a VST instrument, those controls will apply to that instrument instead.

Controlling Track Parameters

There are many sections that can show up in the Inspector when a track is selected. One of these is known as “QC” (short for Quick Control). If you don’t see it, right-click inside of the Inspect and select “Set up Sections…” to access a window that will let you add the section.

Track Section Setup

From the QC section of the track inspector, you can use the Learn button (L) to assign the Quick Controls to parameters related to that track, including effects and VST plugins.

As you can see, the MIDI Remote window replaces the “QC” labels for the Quick Controls with the names that currently apply to those Quick Controls. When I switch from the Ping Pong Delay plugin, back to the Instrument Track, the controls are re-assigned.

Controlling Instrument Parameters

Inside of a VST instrument, you can click on the ‘QC’ button to reveal the Quick Controls. By default, the VST instrument suggests a common map. You can click on the Learn (L) button, click on a Quick Control, and then adjust a parameter in to map it to that Quick Control.

You can also clear out the Quick Control mapping, and restore it to the mapping suggested by the VST instrument.

In this example I’ve setup, you can notice that the Quick Controls assigned in the MIDI Remote window swap as I switch between the Project window (Track) and the VST Instrument window. If you want to avoid this, click on the Lock icon next to the ‘QC’ button in the VST instrument window, and the Quick Controls will be locked to that context.

Full Instrument Mapping

Quick Controls are quick and easy for manipulating your top 8 controls for each plugin. This may be completely adequate if you’re using them with very simple effects and instrument plugins. However you’ll find this very limiting if you’re trying to engage in sound design with software synthesizer plugins that include multiple oscillators, filters, modulators, etc.

The good news is that there is a configuration for plugins that can be configured with more than 8 controls, and it supports “parameter banks” that act similar to the Mapping Pages feature mentioned above.

Instead of using Quick Controls with your instruments, you might find it more useful to use the following approach instead.

Map Instrument Parameters

The first step is to map your available controls to a number of Instrument Parameters. Remember whatever this number is, this is how many parameters that will exist in each “bank”. In the Functions Browser of the MIDI Remote Mapping Assistant, navigate to Selected Track > Instrument > Parameters.

If you have more than 8 controls you wish to map, double click on the “===Setup===” entry, and reconfigure the number of parameters that are available for you to map. Once you’ve done this, go ahead and map the options labelled “Parameter 1”, “Parameter 2”, etc. to your controller interface.

Cubase MIDI Remote Mapping Assistant Instrument Parameters

Make sure to reserve a couple buttons for the actions that navigate through the parameter banks.

Cubase MIDI Remote Mapping Assistant - Plugin Parameter Bank

Note: The Instrument Parameters assignments, and the navigation assignments, must be assigned to the same MIDI Remote device or else the parameter bank paging won’t work. I tried to use a different MIDI Remote device configuration that listened to my MIDI controllers secondary interface, and the parameter bank actions did not work.

Remote Control Editor

After you’re done, open a Virtual Instrument window, and right-click in the top section to reveal the option to open the Remote Control Editor.

Cubase VST Instrument Remote Control Editor

Cubase VST Instrument Remote Control Editor Window

Each “page” in the Remote Control Editor is the parameter “bank” that you’ll be able to page through using the 2 buttons you’ve mapped to your controller. The parameters offered by your virtual instrument should populate automatically with the list of parameters provided by the VST instrument to Cubase.

Here’s a very well produced video demonstrating how this feature works, including a demonstration of the “Learn” functionality within the Remote Control Editor. Keep in mind that this presenter is mapping out Insert Effects plugin parameters instead of Instrument plugin parameters for the current selected track. You can also see from his Mapping Assistant that he has multiple Mapping pages in MIDI remote that he’s using also.

Some instrument plugins do not provide control of their parameters unfortunately. Others may glitch in loading the parameters, so feel free to use the “Remove All Assignments” button in the upper-right area of the window to clear all the current assignments, and then use the “Get Default Factory Layout” button to load the parameters offered by the plugin.

Custom Page Layouts

You might want to click on the “Setup Cell Layout” button in the top of the window and reconfigure the number of cells to match the number of parameters that you have mapped.

Often it seems like the parameters and the order that are suggested for each “page” in are arbitrary, or overlapping in a manner that isn’t logically clear and defined to you.

In this example there are 5 controls per each Oscillator, and we have 8 controls assigned to the parameters, so we end up getting Oscillator 2 settings on the same page as Oscillator 1.

Cubase Instrument Parameter Mapping Defaults

I find it more logical to separate the mappings for each module of the instrument on each page, especially when they can be uniform across a series of pages, such as for each Oscillator.

Here’s an example of how we could group together the various controls per each page with a complicated synthesizer:

  • Page 1 - Oscillator 1 controls
  • Page 2 - Oscillator 2 controls
  • Page 3 - Oscillator 3 controls
  • Page 4 - Filter controls
  • Page 5 - Amplifier Envelope controls
  • Page 6 - Filter Envelope controls
  • Page 7 - LFO 1 controls
  • Page 8 - LFO 2 controls

By the way, the 8 knobs I setup in the MIDI Remote screenshot above are very wide. I purposefully did this so that the names of the parameters that get mapped to my controls show up in the MIDI Remote window with the full names, instead of the abbreviated names.

Controlling Presets

When I’m trying to find a preset in an instrument that best matches a song that I’m working on, being able to flip through the presets by the push of a button is very helpful.

Cubase Presets

You can map two buttons to the “Previous” and “Next” actions under “Key Commands > Preset”. These actions only navigate through the presets that are managed by Cubase. Cubase presets can be loaded or saved for a plugin from the top of the VST plugin window.

Cubase Preset Save

Cubase Presets can also be tagged and categorized in the Media Bay, and used to quickly add a new instrument track to a project.

The Virtual Studio Technology (VST) standard that plugins must conform to specifies that the VST host (Cubase) must be able to request the current VST plugin state from the plugin for all of its parameters/settings, so that it may store these inside of the Cubase Preset, or even inside of your project (for when you haven’t decided to save it as a preset).

Most plugins do conform to this requirement well. Meaning that if you save a preset, and then try to load it later, it brings the plugin to the state it was in when you saved it.

Custom Internal Presets

Although it is not required, many VST instrument developers create their own internal system to manage presets. Here is an example of the internal preset menu from the Arturia Mini V plugin.

Arturia Mini-V Presets

VST Program Lists

The VST3 specification states under Program Lists:

The plug-in can provide GUI for the selection of programs, but it must enable the host to display the list and the selected program as well. The index of the selected program in the list must be exported as program selection parameter.

The plug-in can allow the host to read and write the program data of a list item. To support this, the plug-in must implement the Steinberg::Vst::IProgramListData interface as an extension of the component part.

All programs are always transmitted as a flat list to the host. But the plug-in can assign a number of attributes to each program of the list. This enables the host to organize and filter them in a very flexible way.

Steinberg plugins like Retrologue and Halion Sonic support this functionality. The moment you open the Cubase preset drop-down menu, the list populates with the names of the presets. If you open the MediaBay and search for the name of a preset you manually saved, you’ll see that it shows up with a File Path that points to your hard drive.

When I search for a preset in the Media Bay that was automatically populated for Halion Sonic, such as the General MIDI 001 Acoustic Grand Piano, the path for the preset noted is different, prefixed with vstsound:// as if it’s a URL.

When VST plugins do communicate their Program List to Cubase, the presets do not necessarily become available in the Media Bay.

It also appears that when your focus is either the Track in the Project window, or the VST instrument window, the presets available to can be navigate through in Cubase change. If you focus on the Track, you can navigate through the Program List presets provided to Cubase by the VST instrument. If you focus on the VST instrument window, then only the Cubase presets you have saved are navigable.

Unfortunately, VST instruments do not consistently use Program Lists. For the ones that do not, the Next and Previous Preset button actions do nothing. There are however work-arounds that may be possible if you refer to your plugins manual. Here are some examples.

MIDI Learn

Some plugins provide options to configure specific MIDI CC to change between their presets. Arturia plugins support an easy MIDI Learn option to click on controls and map them to your controls.

Arturia MIDI Learn to Change Presets

Program Change Collection

Other plugins require that you configure a set of presets as a “Program Change” collection.

Korg MS-20

In the Preset browser for Korg MS-20 v2, you have to Right-click, or hold CTRL + left-click, on a preset to access a menu that will let you add that preset to the “Program Change” set.

Korg MS-20 Preset Browser

Once your Program Change set is assembled, the plugin makes these presets available to Cubase as a Program List, thus enabling you to use the Previous/Next Preset buttons to navigate through the presets when the Project Track is focused on (instead of the VST Instrument window).

This almost seems to negate the point of using a Program List however, because you have to manually assemble the list of presets you can scroll through. You would be better off simply loading every internal preset, and saving it as a Cubase preset. At least you’d then be able to manage them in the Media Bay.

Native Instruments Massive

Another example of this is Native Instruments Massive. You have to go into the Browser section, and then click on the ‘Programs’ button to access a Program List that you can configure by drag-and-drop of sounds into the list. You do have to press the “On/Off” button to the right of the “Programs” button to activate this feature.

Native Instruments Massive Program Change set

You might notice that the moment you turn this feature on for Massive, the Preset name in the Instrument Track will actually update with the presets under the “Routing” section of the Inspector.

Cubase Track Programs

Additionally, if you configure your MIDI Controller to send MIDI Program Change (PC) messages to Massive, it will respect those as well.


Overall my recommendation is to load your favorite plugins internal presets, and save them as Cubase presets. It takes more time, but it might not be much more time than it takes to assemble a “Program List” manually.

External / Hardware Instruments

If you own a hardware instrument, you’ll need to make sure it’s made available to Cubase to send and receive MIDI from. If it’s an older synth that doesn’t support USB, you can buy a MIDI-to-USB adapter device such as the M-Audio Midisport Uno for under $35.

Audio Input

Once you’ve established a MIDI connection to your device, you’ll need to establish an audio-in port on your audio interface to capture the audio coming out of your instrument in the Audio Connections window.

If you have an audio interface that has run out of available 1/4” inputs, and only has available XLR mic inputs, you can order a set of patch adapter cables to free up additional inputs.

External Instrument

If you own Cubase Pro, you can use the External Instruments feature which allows you to use an Instrument track with your external hardware instrument, similar to how you use software instruments.

Do keep in mind that even if your instrument track has no MIDI events present, Cubase will force you to wait for the audio to be captured and rendered within a Mixdown that is being exported, in real-time.

Cubase External Instrument mixdown

If you Disable, Freeze, or Render the entire track (not just a single MIDI event), you will not be forced to wait the duration of the entire song to mixdown.

Classic Setup

Another method of working with an external instrument is to simply create an audio track to capture the audio, as well as a number of MIDI tracks to record and send MIDI messages to the channels supported by your instrument.

Make sure you activate the ‘monitor’ button for your audio track so that you can hear your instrument when playing from the selected MIDI track.

Standard Audio / MIDI Setup in Cubase

Bank and Program Select

You might notice that when you create a MIDI track and point it at your MIDI instruments interface, it allows you to specify a Bank number, and Program number. When a value is changed for either of these, a Bank Select message and Program Change message is sent to your device.

Cubase MIDI Routing with Bank and Program Change

To Moog Sub 37    Control 1 Bank Select 0
To Moog Sub 37    Program 1 8

MIDI Device Manager

Changing your instruments presets remotely by the Bank and Program number might be useful, but it would be nicer if you could see the names of the presets that correspond to each Bank/Program Number combo. This is made possible by the MIDI Device Manager.

Cubase MIDI Device presets

The external synthesizer that I’m wanting to configure with a MIDI Device profile is the Moog Subsequent 37. As you can see from this graphical representation of its controls, it has a ‘Bank’ button that is pressed, followed by a number button, to select the bank. After this, one presses a number button to select which preset within that bank to load.

Sub 37 Bank Presets

This means that it has 16 banks, with 16 presets per each bank, which gives us 256 presets to choose from. The first 9-10 banks are loaded with factory presets that come with the synth.

In the MIDI Device profile, under the “Patch Banks” section, it’s possible to configure names for every preset, and the MIDI messages that need to be sent to select those presets.

I originally referenced the configuration for another synth to discover that Program Change messages were all that was needed, and it worked for this synth, until I got to presets above 127.

Sub 37 Bank Patches - Bank 0

It turns out that the Moog Sub 37 requires a Bank Select of “0” combined with Program Change value of 0 - 127 for the first 128 presets, but then needs Bank Select value “1” combined with Program Change 0 - 127 for presets 129-256.

Sub 37 Bank Patches - Bank 1

It doesn’t matter if you send “Bank Select (MSB)” with value of 0 or 1, or “Bank Select 14 bit” with the same value, it still identifies which bank to use. As you can tell, the “Bank Select 14 bit” option reports that it has a “Valid Range” of 0 - 16383, which is of course combining the MSB and LSB messages into a single message type for simplification. The Moog Sub 37 obviously doesn’t need to specify a bank value above “127”, but other synthesizers might.

I had to go back to the first 128 presets and make them all send a Bank Select value of 0 to ensure that it would properly pick the correct present in Bank 0 instead of Bank 1.

Device Panels

Another interesting feature of Cubase is the ability to create Device Panels for your MIDI devices.

Cubase Device panel setup

If you to try make your own panel, and you want it to show under the “Device Panel” section of the Inspector, make sure that you choose to make it “Inspector Size” in the “Add Panel” menu.

Device Panel with Inspector size

Also make sure that you choose “Any” for the MIDI input for your device, or else the Device Panel will not make your non-channel specific panel available to display in the Inspector.

Device Panel needs Any MIDI input

I’m not sure to what extent, but it appears that this even supports SysEx for some of the “parameters” you can tie to the device panel. I get the impression that it a device panel can be used with VST instruments and effects as well.

Review the MIDI Devices PDF for more information.