TIPS AND ARTICLES
How to Create Backing Tracks If You Don't Play
All the Instruments... or Any
by Seth Lutnick
Congratulations! Your singing has become amazing, and it's time
the world knew. You've also written some songs that are just
kick you-know-what. They need to be recorded, MP3ed and put
on the net ASAP. But you've got two problems. First, you can't
afford a studio, let alone a band for all this stuff. Second,
you don't play all, or any, of the instruments.
Well there is good news. With a deft combination of the internet
and today's software, you can do wonders. While it's never going
to be the same as a true band in a real studio, which you had
better hire for that big record company showcase, you can still
create great backing tracks.
First, repeat after me. "I love MIDI." Thank you.
MIDI, to refresh your memory, is like sheet music for a pianist.
The paper itself makes no noises, but the pianist gets all the
information he needs from it to let us hear Beethoven (especially
if the music is also Beethoven!). In your computer set up, the
MIDI file is the sheet music, the MIDI sequencer or playback
program is the pianist, and your computer's sound card and synthesizer
are the piano. That's all you need!
Before we get started, I'll mention the ultimate cover song
shortcut - the Internet! There are tons of great MIDI files
of almost every piece of popular music out there. All you have
to do is find them. If you can't, or you've got your own material,
read on. Be legal, though!
If You Play Keyboard or Guitar Well
First, thank your parents for the lessons. Then, get your hands
on a sequencer program and record your tracks. Using MIDI, you
can choose the instrument sound for everything - all you need
to do is input the notes. For drums, you can either record them
from your keyboard or use a plug-in drum machine. If you choose
to record them, a quick way to do it is to record a couple of
measures and then copy/paste to fill out the song. But don't
forget to put in some drum fills!
If Your Playing Is Limited to Little or Not at All
For you there are wonderful programs, like Band in a Box and
Jammer, to create backing tracks. They are very stylish, meaning,
they function in styles. You must, at the very least, know the
chords for your song. You simply enter the chords, choose the
appropriate musical style, and click a button called "compose"
(or some reasonable facsimile). Before you can say "Holy
guacamole, Batman," your music is playing. The drawback
here is that your band will sound canned. And well it should,
for it is! But, have no fear, there are ways to mitigate that
Making it Human
Best thing? Play what you can, at least the melody. That, in
and of itself, will help tremendously, as it's no longer just
a band style playing chord progressions.
Next up, record a counterpoint. Counterpoints make ordinary
songs exciting. They are secondary melodies that complement
the main melody. They usually have a slightly different rhythm,
and fill in where the melody has breaks. A great example is
in the song "The Winner Takes It All," by Abba. Listen
to the theme that is always playing underneath the melody -
it really drives the song.
Another thing you can do to put life into your tracks is to
customize the style. Depending on how good you are with your
software and its capabilities, you can create your own riffs
and mix them into the song. Also, vary similar styles throughout
the song to break the monotony. And, again, don't underestimate
Creative use of layering is a very effective technique. When
all the tracks play all the time, it can be very boring. Wait
to bring in some instruments till later in the song. That creates
a "building" feel. Then, at some point towards the
end, take them out again briefly to create a "break"
or "bridge". When you bring them back, it is very
Finally, don't allow any perfection. Yes, you read that correctly.
If your music is perfectly aligned rhythmically, it will sound
artificial. Live musicians are never precisely on the beat.
Almost all programs have a "humanize" function which
corrects this automatically. Otherwise, take the time and slide
some notes in the piano roll editor window. If you need quantize
(rhythm correction) on the recorded tracks, set it to less than
When you've got your MIDI file, there are two ways to convert
it to audio (wav, mp3) for CD burning. The quicker way is with
a dedicated program that renders wave files from MIDI files
directly. Most software synthesizer programs that have a stand-alone
playback feature can do this. Otherwise, open an audio recording
program, play the MIDI file, and simultaneously record the output.
Make sure your audio recorder is set to receive from the correct
If You Play Nothing, and Don't Know Chords or Theory or Anything
Guess what? You are the one who should hire a musician. Yes,
I know that some programs will offer both a chord progression
composer and even a melody composer. All you would need to do
is choose the style. If you are considering going this route,
I have one request for you.
Sorry to yell, but think about this. The melody is composed
by a computer, the chords are composed by a computer, the band
is composed by a computer. It is music that is completely composed
by a computer. Oh my gosh! How revolting is that?
No, my friend, hire a qualified musician. You sing the song
to them, they create the magic. Do not sell yourself short.
Your song is important -- it's part of you! Show it the greatest
respect and make it as beautiful as you can.
About the Author
Seth Lutnick is a singer, songwriter and arranger. Visit his
website, www.getitdone.biz for more on creating and using a
home recording studio, and personal action planning.