Build a Better Backing Track with Total Studio 2 MAX

by Craig Anderton

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 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 audio & midi - ipMIDI - LoopBe1 - LoopBe30 - LoopBeAudio). 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).

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!

Join the conversation here!
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