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/she 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

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 quite well.

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 drum fills!

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 powerful.

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 100%.

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 input.

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. 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.

Seth Lutnick is a singer, songwriter and arranger.