Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

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Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

Postby anderton » Mon Jul 09, 2018 8:25 pm

Backing tracks are popular for practicing, learning how to improvise, and accompanying solo artists in live performance. But if you’re a guitar player with limited keyboard skills, you may find it challenging to create your own backing tracks. Although there are plenty of backing tracks on the web, finding the styles and music you want can be time-consuming; and with commercially available backing tracks, the cost can add up as you explore different genres and styles.

Fortunately there are several programs dedicated to creating backing tracks, but sound quality is their Achilles Heel—many of them rely on sending MIDI to a computer’s internal sound generator, so the sound quality probably won’t make you happy (unless you have fond memories of the Commodore-64 computer). Thankfully the developers of these programs recognize that limitation, and usually make it possible to export MIDI data from any chord progressions you’ve asked the program to create. You can then use Total Studio 2 MAX’s instruments to turn that MIDI data into high-quality sounds for backing tracks. Because SampleTank 3, Syntronik, Philharmonik 2, and MODO Bass are MIDI-based, they can change tempos and keys easily (additionally, SampleTank 3 provides stretchable drum part playback).

So that solves the sound generator problem...now all you need is backing tracks, and here are some of the options. I’m very interested in any comments you have about backing track-generating solutions—what works for you, what doesn’t, and what you recommend for use with IK’s instruments.

Ways to obtain backing tracks. PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box is the grandaddy of the genre, having been released in 1990 (yes, computers existed back then). It can create chord progressions in a variety of styles, and while one of its claims to fame is using its own real instrument sounds instead of relying on a computer’s sound chip, you can export the backing track as MIDI data and load it into a DAW running Total Studio 2 MAX instruments. Other options include Musical MIDI Accompaniment (a command line generator-based, free program that runs on Python and generates MIDI files), Busker (Windows-only; uses Yamaha-compatible Styles, of which thousands are available for free), One Man Band, ChordPulse, Ludwig, and the like. A little time spent searching the internet for backing track software programs band in a box alternatives will show what’s available.

In some cases, you may not even need to export the MIDI files and load them into a DAW. With Windows, some programs can send their outputs directly to Total Studio MAX 2 instruments in stand-alone mode via the LoopBe virtual MIDI driver (the basic version is a free download from http://www.nerds.de). The Mac accomplishes the same functionality with the IAC (Inter-Application Communications) virtual MIDI driver that’s part of OS X.

There are also thousands of free .MID Standard MIDI Files on the web, but be careful. A lot of these sites play fast and loose with copyright, and when you download a MIDI file, you don’t know what else you’re downloading and putting on your computer.

Generate your own backing tracks...even if you’re not a keyboard player. However you don’t always have to use backing-track programs or download files, because several DAWs have ways for those with minimal keyboard skills to enter MIDI parts. For example, with Steinberg Cubase’s chord track you can enter chord progressions that play back over SampleTank 3, Philharmonik 2, or Syntronik, with your choice of chord and inversions. There’s even a Chord Assistant option that can suggest possible next chords in a progression, based on the existing key and scale structure, as well as the option to choose different voicings for chords (e.g., a chord will be voiced differently on piano than guitar). It can also “force” whatever you play on a keyboard to follow the chord progression.

PreSonus Studio One 4 added a chord track in the latest version, and this does much of what the Cubase chord track does but also works with audio. For example, you can play an E chord on your guitar over and over and over, create a chord progression, and the individual guitar notes will be transposed to fit the progression. Like Cubase, you can then play just about anything on a MIDI keyboard and have it conform to the chord progression, or enter a chord progression from scratch. During a recent seminar at Sweetwater Gearfest, I played a C chord on keyboard over and over, and it conformed to a chord progression in a completely different key—much to the delight of the audience, who got tired of hearing that same C chord repeatedly (especially when it clashed with other chords).

Image
The two gray tracks in Studio One show the original chord progression of only C chords, and a semi-randomly played MODO Bass part. The blue tracks demonstrate how following the chord track changes the notes; the Inspector to the left shows that SampleTank 3 is following chords with a Narrow voicing. The Edit window on the bottom shows how the original C chord notes have been transposed.

MODO Bass can add another dimension to chord tracks. Any backing tracks need to have a solid rhythm section, which means bass and drums. I’ve always said bass is a rhythm instrument, and it’s just a coincidence that it does melodies too. So I play notes with the desired rhythm, but don’t worry too much about pitch...if I hit a bad note, the chord track will correct it on playback. In fact, I’ve come up with some fun and unexpected bass parts by hitting “wrong” notes that the chord track corrects into something I wouldn’t have played otherwise.

The free program Cakewalk by BandLab doesn’t have a chord track, but it can constrain incoming notes to particular scales, and offers a Fret View where you can enter notes in the familiar context of a guitar fretboard. It can also convert MIDI clips into “Groove Clips” that follow pitch markers for transposition. Logic Pro X doesn’t have a chord track per se, but you can specify a key, constrain to scale, and use the Chord Trigger MIDI FX to play chords from single notes (Studio One’s equivalent to this is the Chorder Note FX).

Get Backing to Where You Once Belong. Backing tracks are a great way to develop your playing and improvisational skills, and it’s a lot more fun to do so when you have a selection of quality sounds making up a full arrangement. For live use, where you want to be more minimal, backing tracks with just percussion and bass behind a guitar-playing, singer-songwriter are often all that’s needed, and fairly easy to create.

If you haven’t played around with backing tracks yet, I hope you find this information useful in getting started. And if you do use backing tracks, how do you create them and what is your main application? Inquiring minds want to know!
The first 3 books in "The Musician's Guide to Home Recording" series are available from Hal Leonard and http://www.reverb.com. Listen to my music on http://www.YouTube.com/thecraiganderton, and visit http://www.craiganderton.com. Thanks!
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Re: Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

Postby Peter_IK » Tue Jul 10, 2018 4:30 pm

Thanks Craig! Definitely a big leap for those of us who remember having to save up for another Jamey Abersold record to practice to!
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Re: Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

Postby anderton » Tue Jul 10, 2018 7:46 pm

A lot of people associate "backing tracks" with something for solo artists to play behind them at gigs, but they're a really good way to build technique. Being able to use MIDI so you can start at a slower tempo and then speed up over time is way better IMHO than using the MP3 files you can download from the net.
The first 3 books in "The Musician's Guide to Home Recording" series are available from Hal Leonard and http://www.reverb.com. Listen to my music on http://www.YouTube.com/thecraiganderton, and visit http://www.craiganderton.com. Thanks!
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Re: Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

Postby Peter_IK » Tue Jul 10, 2018 8:28 pm

anderton wrote:A lot of people associate "backing tracks" with something for solo artists to play behind them at gigs, but they're a really good way to build technique. Being able to use MIDI so you can start at a slower tempo and then speed up over time is way better IMHO than using the MP3 files you can download from the net.

Indeed. For those who weren't familiar with my reference, old-timers like myself used to purchase records that had full backing tracks. They usually had a certain style as a "theme" and they would provide the key and progression for each and let you play over them to your heart's content. The Jamey Abersold series I mention were hugely popular and many referred to this concept as "music minus one" before backing track became a popular term.

Outside of the regimen of guitar lessons, I'm pretty sure this type of practicing helped my playing progress quite a bit and prepare for music school in very positive way.

You can see from Craig's initial post and reply above that we didn't have all the flexibility that modern technology allows.
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Re: Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

Postby jmgsky » Tue Jul 17, 2018 8:45 am

Thanks Craig, good stuff.

I've been using Band In A Box and SampleTank for making backing tracks for my trio for quite a while now, and also for writing and recording my own songs. Some people criticise BIAB for being cheesy, (yes, the GUI needs an overhaul) but if you use the right style choices (of many hundreds), edit the resulting MIDI output as required (BIAB isn't great at pushes for example) and use good sound sources like SampleTank you can get first class results. Oh, and some of BIAB's RealTracks can be very useful, which are audio recordings of first class musicians, if you want something like a sax or resonator guitar solo, etc.

Once I've converted all MIDI to audio I sweeten things with compression, EQ, etc. using T-Racks modules and the final results are darned good if I do say so myself. ;) The following track was done using these methods, with RealGuitar providing the acoustic guitar rhythm part and Addictive Drums the drums part. (Not pimping my stuff, just showing what can be done with a bit of invention and practice.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIFVXLXgdNM&t=28s
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Re: Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

Postby MusicByJames » Tue Jul 17, 2018 2:22 pm

I think I may have been using Band in a Box since 1990. While I wish their realtrack styles were also available as midi only styles, particularly the drum parts, these days I'd skip the midi based styles and go straight to Realtracks and Realdrums. Since those are actual recordings of pros playing, they sound good. Export the audio from Band in a Box into your DAW and use the various effects IK-Multimedia has (EQ, compression, reverb, Amplitube, etc) and put them to good use. Lately I'm finding the Lurssen mastering console to be very handy. (And one can of course use the instruments IK-Multimedia has and add your own midi track to the mix.)
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Re: Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

Postby anderton » Tue Jul 17, 2018 7:29 pm

Good comments, thanks!

Another option is arranger keyboards. They can often come up with some decent arrangements (they're almost like a "needledrop" music library) and more importantly, output what they do as MIDI data. Capture that in a DAW, push the tracks through SampleTank, and tweak.

Also y'all are right about the IK effects. They had always kind of flown under my radar, I have plenty of plug-ins...but since they came with TS2 MAX, I gave them a whirl. There's some great stuff in there.
The first 3 books in "The Musician's Guide to Home Recording" series are available from Hal Leonard and http://www.reverb.com. Listen to my music on http://www.YouTube.com/thecraiganderton, and visit http://www.craiganderton.com. Thanks!
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