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(@chris-c)
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Joined: 17 years ago
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Topic starter  

Hi all,

I want to expand my software options so that I can write better backing tracks. I'd appreciate hearing your suggestions and experiences please.

I'd like to use the software in three ways:

  • 1. To write backing tracks that I can use for songwriting purposes. For instance, I enjoy looking at the songwriting challenges at the SSG, and sometimes I join in. But there's no way that I have the time, the talent, or the dedication to write songs so quickly and also make a decent mp3 to demo them. I just keep running out of time (and ability) before I get it finished. So if I could skip part, or all, of the live playing task and just add the voice track that would be perfect.

    2. To make backing tracks for singing practice. For this I'd like to have things like a click track, lyrics on screen, cursor line moving along the score, and so on. A pro probably doesn't need all that, but beginner like me welcomes all the support I can get.

    3. To experiment with all the angles of music composition. So I'd like good sounds (better than the weedy stuff in the standard onboard midi set) and the ability to write songs using standard notation on a staff, and drum notation too if possible.

  • So far I've briefly looked at these:

    ProTools
    – which seems like a great recording and production tool but not really aimed at folks like me.

    Cubase
    – which is also very powerful, and maybe a bit closer to what I want, but is still pretty expensive to get everything I need. I already have the basic ‘free' bundled version that came with something I bought. I'm happy to pay for a big brother version IF it's the right one for the job. They do have a mid-range version that apparently allows entry via a standard score, has some good sounds, and also has a bunch of available free and commercial additional plug-ins.

    Finale 2009
    – which is great from the notation angle, has some terrific Garritan sounds, but which is pretty weak on the audio side of things (one track only). I have the free version Finale Notepad which is excellent, but limited.

    Band in a Box
    – I have a demo that expires on Oct 1st, but most of the features that I'm interested in checking out are disabled in the demo – i.e. the ability to write using a standard score. It seems great at generating ‘original' songs in defined styles if you supply some chords, but I'm not that interested in how smart it is, I want the capability to have it play what I wrote, not what it devised. Anybody here love it or hate it?

    Guitar Pro 5
    – I have this one, but it doesn't seem to be what I'm after.

    Ideally, I'll like to be able to write a score out using standard notation, have the program play it using reasonable sounds instead of the ‘stick on biscuit tin' noises that the basic midi produces, and then gradually remove some of the tracks and replace them with audio played by live instruments, if and when my ability gets up to speed with my ambition…. It's possible – but with what?? Do I need better programs, or do I just need to get better or smarter at using what I already have??

    Does anybody have any suggestions or experience to pass on please?

    Cheers,

    Chris


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    (@ignar-hillstrom)
    Illustrious Member
    Joined: 19 years ago
    Posts: 5384
     

    Band in a Box is great for making 'generic' backing tracks or try how some chords go together when no instrument is around. However, control is limited and writing 'real' songs is hard with it. As for Cubase: the cheapest commercial one will do just fine. The big expensive versions are great if you are into surround mixes or often need 50 tracks to record yoru local orchestra with a few dozen mics. Everything I myself need can be done with the basic version. ProTools is something I have little experience with but from what I gather I doubt the steep learning curve would be worth your while. Writing songs in Guitar Pro is nonsense. Notation software is handy, but can be combined with Cubase. Whether it's Finale, Sibelius or one of the free notation programs, all allow to export the score as MIDI file, load them in your sequencer and use virtual instrument to turn the MIDI into sound. Finale is definitely not what you're after if you're looking for a sequencer but it would be a great addition. Cubase has limited notation options but it just ain't the same. My suggestion: stay with your cheap Cubase, download a free notation program and spend your money on quality virtual instruments. If need be you can always upgrade Cubase or the notation program and you can still use the virtual instruments you bought.

    If you want let me know what virtual instruments you need and I'll give you some suggestions.


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    (@chris-c)
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    Joined: 17 years ago
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    Topic starter  

    My suggestion: stay with your cheap Cubase, download a free notation program and spend your money on quality virtual instruments. If need be you can always upgrade Cubase or the notation program and you can still use the virtual instruments you bought.

    If you want let me know what virtual instruments you need and I'll give you some suggestions.

    Thanks very much for the run down mate, that sound good to me. :)

    I'm starting to get the hang of Cubase LE, and the free Finale Notepad I have seems fine for writing scores at the level that I'm currently at, and it then converts them to midi which Cubase can use. Are there any virtual instrument sets that you'd recommend? I suppose it might depend on what i can get locally as I don't use credit cards, which limits what i can buy online.

    Cheers,

    Chris


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    (@ignar-hillstrom)
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    Sure, but I really need to know what instruments you write for. I assume you'll be needing bass, drum and piano atleast, what else?


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     Nuno
    (@nuno)
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    Hi Chris! :D

    Mainly I use GarageBand, I'm a Mac user. It is very easy to use and it gives me a lot of things. It was free (I mean, it came with the operating system) and I could perform backing tracks and also simple recording. It has several loops with real instruments and, as I'm also a .Mac user, Apple gives free loops from time to time.

    I also use Cubase LE and, as you know, Finale. Sometimes I'd like GarageBand had some Cubase features but for me usually it is more than enough!

    Nuno


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    (@dogbite)
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    I began with the free inclusion of CubaseLE. it came with the Lexicon digital interface.
    with that I was able to upgrade to Cubase Essential 4. I am just scratching the surface so far.
    I can make simple backing tracks etc.
    it does take time.

    a friend uses ProTools. he said it is most intuitive.

    http://www.soundclick.com/bands/pagemusic.cfm?bandID=644552
    http://www.soundclick.com/couleerockinvaders


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    (@chris-c)
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    Sure, but I really need to know what instruments you write for. I assume you'll be needing bass, drum and piano atleast, what else?

    Yes, of course. Sorry to be so vague.

    I guess that the basics are drums, bass, guitars and piano. The guitar sounds that I've heard so far haven't been all that good, but I guess that there's also a bunch of guitar playing techniques that aren't easy to reproduce, as well as the sounds. In the long term I suppose that there's some chance that I'll want to try other instruments too, especially the ones that I have real versions of that I might want to replace the mid with. Considering my extremely modest level of playing ability I have an embarrassingly large collection of instruments, including digital piano, sax, clarinet, banjo, etc. (I blame Dogbite, Smokindog, TwistedLefty, Nick and TRGuitar for infecting me with the collecting bug via GN...)

    I do seem to already have some reasonable plug-ins for drums and bass, plus my little 8 track recorder has a drum machine and a bass feature, both of which can be played either by programming a rhythm track or by playing pads with your fingers. This will do for now. I also have digital keyboards that can play midi parts.

    Part of the issue is sorting out how to conveniently link it all up - or whether to just do it mostly virtually to start with. The little Zoom MRS8 8 track records onto a memory card, which can be read onto the computer using a USB card reader, or it can be connected to the sound card. But that can apparently cause hassles. I think that some kind of USB audio interface will be a good investment. Here's pretty much what I've got now:


    The 8 track with drum machine, effects etc.

    The 'State of the Art' studio.

    The keyboard - a Yamaha PSR 500 - is connected by USB to the computer and can be used in either direction. It has some quite reasonable sounds (and yet another set of drums) which can also be played in through the sound card or, presumably, an audio interface. I also have a Roland HP201 digital piano which has much better inbuilt sounds, but which is downstairs so not easy to hook in directly.

    Some kind of audio interface, and better virtual instruments looks like it might be the first step???

    Cheers,

    Chris


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    (@chris-c)
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    Hi Chris! :D

    Mainly I use GarageBand, I'm a Mac user.

    Nuno

    Hi Nuno,

    I've heard good reports about GB, but I lack the Mac to run it. However, I have been wondering whether it's time to try a Mac, after 20 years of PCs, so I might end up with Garage band eventually anyway. :) Probably not for a while though.
    began with the free inclusion of CubaseLE. it came with the Lexicon digital interface.
    with that I was able to upgrade to Cubase Essential 4. I am just scratching the surface so far.
    I can make simple backing tracks etc.
    it does take time.

    a friend uses ProTools. he said it is most intuitive.

    Thanks Dogbite,

    Following you along that Cubase path does seem to be the way I'm headed. I've had the opportunity to check out ProTools a little bit as a guy I've just started having some singing lesson from has a little studio running it. We could swap files if I had it, but we're doing that OK with wav files at the moment. It seems excellent for what he does, but perhaps not quite so ideal for what I do. At least that was the opinion of a local guy who I spoke to who uses both in a semi-pro way.

    Cheers,

    Chris


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    (@ignar-hillstrom)
    Illustrious Member
    Joined: 19 years ago
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    About the audio interface: what will you be using it for? Considering you'll be doing all keybord/synth/sample-based instruments through USB/MIDI I guess it's mostly for mics and some line-leve things, with you only performing two tracks simultanously, consider the ART USB Project Series ( http://www.artproaudio.com/products.asp?type=79&cat=1&id=124 ). If you also plan to record electric guitar, get a Line6 Toneport ( http://line6.com/toneportux2/ ) instead. Both will run a little bit over the $100 and deliver great sound. By the time you've sold your house for a full-fledged studio you'll probably want to upgrade them but until then those two options will do all you need.

    As for virtual software.

    1) Drums: I'd either chose Battery 3 ( http://www.native-instruments.com/index.php?id=battery ), Groove Agent 3 ( http://www.steinberg.net/en/products/vstinstruments/grooveagent3_product/grooveagent3_multimedia.html ) or Drumit From Hell. Think about whether you need build-in rhythms and grooves or just the samples, not all drum samplers have a build-in drummachine.

    2) For piano, check out Garritan Steinway ( http://www.garritan.com/steinway.html ), EastWest/Quantum Leap Pianos ( http://www.soundsonline.com/EastWest-Quantum-Leap-Pianos-pr-EW-171.html ) or one of the individual pianos from the package, Synthology Ivory regular/Italian ( http://www.synthogy.com/products.html ). The all cost between $100 and almost $500, so take your time listening to all demo's and decide which one suits your style better. In that aspect sampled pianos are just like real pianos, while some are just better then others most of it comes down to taste. IMPORTANT sample libraries can be brutal for your pc. Loading just a hi-fi version of any of the above might bring your computer to it's knees, espescially if you don't have a lot of memory. Most libraries expect at least 1gig as absolute minimum, some don't start with less then 2gb and some of the latest libraries need even more.

    3) For bass, just go with Trilogy. It has excellent sounds of electric, accoustic, upright, fretless and electronic basses.

    4) More classical sounds: QuantumLeap's Symphonic Choir ( http://www.soundsonline.com/EastWest-Quantum-Leap-Symphonic-Choirs-pr-EW-165.html ) for choirs, Garritan Personal Orchestra ( http://www.garritan.com/GPO-features.html ), or one of the higher-end Quatum Leap symphonic orchestra packages if you're wealthy, for your symphonic instruments.


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    (@kingpatzer)
    Noble Member
    Joined: 17 years ago
    Posts: 2198
     

    For writing staff notation, get Finale or Sibelius -- there really is nothing else close to these two.

    For mixing, and midi sequencing, Reaper is as good as just about anything out there, it has some excellent features and even does a few things that some of the big names do not. Oh, and it's really inexpensive. Non-commercial license is $50. To sweeten the pot, you can download the "evaluation" copy and use it pretty much forever, but the guys building the thing really do great work and supporting them isn't a bad idea :)

    For instrument synths you've gotten some great ideas already.

    "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." -- HST


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    (@nicktorres)
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    Joined: 14 years ago
    Posts: 5468
     

    Band in a box has come a long way. The interface is a little quirky, but it will do all of the above including notation and it will allow you to play your own songs. You can also have it transcribe for you from mp3 and record directly into backing tracks you've created.

    You won't believe the power it has. Except......you have to get used to the interface. It's fantastic for making backing tracks, it's helped me immensely with learning theory, it's allowed me to tweak my own songs and hear what they'd be like with a slightly different chord progression and if I don't like a 4 bar section of my own melody I can have it suggest a new one over and over again until I hear something close to what I like.

    You can have it produce a melody over your chords, select the part you don't like, have it make a new one. If it gets close but not quite right you can go into the editable notation screen and drag the notes where you like them. You could also just enter them directly or through a midi keyboard.

    It has a guitar fretboard window so you can see what is playing and will print lead sheets or melody lines. Throw in Real Tracks and it's a phenomenal deal.

    It may not do everything the other individual programs do, but it does just about everything well.

    If I'm trying to create or save a musical idea, or flesh one out, or create a backing track there is nothing else I'd rather use.

    The only aggravating thing about it is that you get pelted with upgrade offers every year. I use the thing so much though it's a no brainer for me.


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    (@chris-c)
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    Joined: 17 years ago
    Posts: 3460
    Topic starter  

    Thank you all so much for the great information. I'll be reading and re-reading it over the next few days. :D

    It's a huge help when you guys are kind enough to share your experience, because I can relate to what you all do with your own music, and it gives some valuable perspective. My biggest problem is that I'm still groping around trying to spot what it is that I'm missing. I know that I haven't quite 'got' the whole business yet, but whether the bit that I most need to upgrade is hardware, software, skill or knowledge is hard to tell. Definitely LOTS of the last two, but at least some of the hardware and software too I think.

    It was particularly good to hear Nicks' endorsement of Band in a Box. BiaB and Garage Band were recommended by another guy whose opinion I also respect - a friend and neighbour who was head of jazz studies at our state conservatorium until recently. I found the demo somewhat irritating, but did get the feeling that if I persisted with learning how to use it properly (and the functions weren't disabled) then it could be a great learning tool as well as being very practical for what I need. So Nick's description was extremely helpful. Thanks Nick. :)

    I do know that one of my biggest problems seems to be timing. Both my own ability to accurately play separate tracks and sing in time with each other, and also the software element of matching up the timing of, for instance, midi made from one source, and audio done in another. I just need to do more work and learning on all those aspects.

    My current set up has two separate elements - the recorder, which is a great little machine but requires me to play it all in track by track, and which won't connect directly to the computer for data transfer. Not that big a deal, but it just feels like it could be a better setup. Then there's the midi stuff on the computer which I'd like to understand more, and be able to get better results than I do now. Partly that's better sounds, but a major element is that I need to improve my arranging skills by a heap – something I really enjoy learning, fortunately.

    I'm still a bit vague about how to bring the computer tracks and the real world audio together, so I'm hoping to get the right gear together to learn it all with. I'd prefer not to have to keep changing hardware and software because I made poor choices at the start – although that's probably inevitable to some degree. Anyway, I'm eyeing this off at the moment. It's a ‘big brother' to the Zoom I currently have, but it connects via USB to the computer. This allows easy data transfer between the two but the other BIG plus is that it can also be used as a control surface for Cubase. So I'd get to play ‘recording dude' on the computer as well. More inputs than I need right now (there's a cheaper version with just 2 inputs) but I'd rather have a bit of overkill at the start than run out of room later.

    Zoom HD 16

    Pretty reasonably priced for what you get. I've also been looking into the Line6 stuff, as suggested by Ignar H above.

    Thanks again for all the help and suggestions. I'll be sifting through it all again today. :)

    Chris


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    (@nicktorres)
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    Glad to be of service.

    Oh, one last thing I forgot, once you put your chords in to BIAB, you can decide you want to hear it in many different styles, perhaps you wrote it to sound like a singer/songwriter/folk thing, you could see what it sounds like as country, rock, hard rock, psychedelic 60's, Shania Twain, Toby Keith, Wes Montgomery, Big Band, Jazz, etc. You can even have it do jazz chord substitutions for you. Heck, how about changing it to classical...or polka....or....well you get the drift. It's a lot of fun.

    Sorry for the ramble.

    I tell you what I'll do for you, if you send me a chord progression I'll send you back 4 different versions of the same song as MP3s. I'll also include the scores as PDFs. It will take me all of about 15 minutes to do.

    I thought about it a bit, and BIAB is my sketchbook. I could do finished work with it, including creating harmonies and pitch correction and exporting to MP3s, but I don't really use it for that. I export tracks from BIAB and work on them in Magix Music Studio 14 or Acid Pro. Other times I just use BIAB to flesh out the ideas and then I record from scratch in another program. Reaper would be a fine choice to handle that task.

    Good luck.


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    (@chris-c)
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    Joined: 17 years ago
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    Topic starter  

    I tell you what I'll do for you, if you send me a chord progression I'll send you back 4 different versions of the same song as MP3s. I'll also include the scores as PDFs. It will take me all of about 15 minutes to do.

    Nick, you are a prince among men. :D

    I've now downloaded Reaper, as suggested by you and Kingpatzer. I won't take you up on that most generous offer of the demos just yet, but the knowledge that BiaB can do what you describe is in itself very useful. I do have the demo installed still so I just tried out the 4 different versions thing that you suggested, and it worked a treat. Just knowing that it CAN also handle the score side of things fairly well is probably enough for now. It's definitely firming in the betting that I'll get the full version of BiaB even if I do get some of other bits too. It does look like it would be able to teach me a lot as well as being a useful tool AND provide a lot of fun as well. Can't be bad...

    Chris


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    (@chris-c)
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    Topic starter  

    About the audio interface: what will you be using it for? Considering you'll be doing all keybord/synth/sample-based instruments through USB/MIDI I guess it's mostly for mics and some line-leve things, with you only performing two tracks simultanously, consider the ART USB Project Series ( http://www.artproaudio.com/products.asp?type=79&cat=1&id=124 ). If you also plan to record electric guitar, get a Line6 Toneport ( http://line6.com/toneportux2/ ) instead. Both will run a little bit over the $100 and deliver great sound. By the time you've sold your house for a full-fledged studio you'll probably want to upgrade them but until then those two options will do all you need.

    Thanks very much for the great list of info about the virtual instruments. I've bookmarked it and will work through the links.

    The answer to your questions about how I'll be using the audio interface and other aspects is a bit harder. Currently I have a perilously small amount of knowledge and a very large pool of ignorance when it comes to recording. Ditto for playing ability. I also have a modest pool of money, carefully saved for the purpose of upgrading the gear, coupled with a childish enthusiasm for new toys. All round it's a dangerous combination.

    What I THINK that I'd like to do is have a setup that will allow the following:

  • 1. Piano etc. Leave my Yamaha keyboard permanently plugged in and use it to provide either midi input or audio, depending on what I find out as I go along. I don't actually know yet what advantages, limitations, preferences etc will firm up as I go, so I'd like to keep as many options open as possible.

    2. Drumming. I already have several different options for the drums. I can 'drum' on the keyboard, either using it as a controller, or using its own drum sounds. Or I could use the drum machine in the recorder, various software options or even a real drum set. I'd like to do some drumming myself, but after a few lessons I know that it will take a fair while to get my fitness and skill levels good enough. So one option is to program in a bass drum and just do the hand work. Or record each element separately, or.... the options go on and on (much like me.. )

    2. Guitar and voice. Plug in one or more guitars and a vocal mic (maybe more?). On my own, two inputs would be enough, and I could plug and unplug to suit. But leaving a few things connected is appealing, and so is trying recording with other players at the same time (not right now, but it's certainly possible as I do play with others regularly now).

    3. Do the same thing in different ways. E.g. write something using midi. Learn how to flesh it all out, still using midi. Then try replacing bits of it with live playing. Experiment with playing something all the way through and/or playing it bit by bit and then stitching it together.

  • The bottom line is that I don't have a single task or project in mind. It's a hobby for me, not a prospective career. So the learning itself IS the project. To out it another way, the only real goal is the journey itself. It's not about plug A into B, apply patch C and play D and out comes the pre-planned end product X. Nobody is awaiting my album or watching the studio cost clock. It's mostly about the endless fun of finding out what happens if you do this, and then that, but change the other, and then.....

    Thanks again for all your generous advice. I've already made a fair bit of progress with your previous suggestion of learning to use the LE version of Cubase that I currently have. It's already been handy for handling backing tracks for the singing lesson that I just began (which so far have mostly been 'screwing about with software' lessons.... but we're getting there...). :)

    Cheers,

    Chris


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