Back in the dark ages when one had to actually book time in a studio to make a real recording, there was a “joke” that said, “you aren’t a real engineer until you’ve erased at least one mastered recording.”
In 1991, I was sequencing a completed drum part with an Alesis HR-16 drum machine. “Love, Look What You’ve Done To Me” by Boz Scaggs was almost complete, with all the Jeff Porcaro drum fills, when I accidentally hit the “erase” button. It still hurts as I write this.
I related the story to my friend Hubert Deans a few months later when he told me. “you’re working too hard. It’s much easier with a computer-based sequencing program.” He and his wife Phyllis had a duo where they used tracks they produced at his home studio. They played keys and sang the vocals live and sounded excellent.
About a year later, our local music store held a Passport MIDI seminar where their rep created a sequence using Master Tracks Pro, a GM-compatible (General MIDI, not General Motors) keyboard and a Mac computer. The sound was incredible! I was hooked and began my own efforts a short time later.
Digital Audio Workstations, or DAW’s as they are often called, allow anyone with a Mac or PC to record MIDI and/or digital audio, fine tune and then use on a gig sequences that can range from a simple drum part to dozens of MIDI and audio tracks. When played back through a quality sound system, they can often rival a band’s original recording, provided the parts are played, recorded and mixed properly. They allow a solo musician to play a wider variety of music and sound like a large group. They can also be used to create master recordings for CD release or download, and in fact, the majority of major and indie label releases are created using this type of equipment.
There are several different DAW’s on the market today. Garage Band, which comes with all Macs since 2003, is a fine, albeit basic, sequencing program. Logic Audio is Apple’s flagship DAW, and many other DAW’s, like Cubase, Pro Tools, Reason, and Performer, work for PC’s as well as Macs. Many other companies make excellent software for sequencing and all that’s required is some way to get digital audio into the program. A USB, Firewire or Thunderbolt audio interface allows you to play real guitar, bass, vocals or anything else you want into the program and save the performance for further manipulation.
A great demonstration of how to use a DAW is a scene in the movie “Music and Lyrics.” Hugh Grant’s character has to write and record a demo for a pop singer and uses Pro Tools on an iMac to do so. He played a piano part into the sequencer and recorded it and the drums as a simple General MIDI file. He then added acoustic guitar, bass and a couple vocal parts, all in less than 10 movie minutes! Most musicians may find it takes longer to get a tune recorded and mixed to their liking. The resulting song impressed his character’s female love interest, Drew Barrymore and may intetrest viewers wanting a quick example of how to create a fully built performance using multi tracking with a DAW.
Here is a screen shot of my current setup, Pro Tools. This song, the Brooks and Dunn hit “Red Dirt Road, “ has a lot of parts on it–13, to be precise. Drums, bass, two acoustic guitar parts, multiple electric guitsrs, pedal steel, B-3 organ, mandolin and a couple background vocal parts. The drums and organ parts are GM files using virtual software instruments built into Pro Tools, while the bass, guitars, mandolin, pedal steel and vocals are all digitally recorded audio, brought into the computer with an MBox 3 USB audio interface.
It took many hours of work to record, edit and mix the song, but the results are impressive and it’s been a staple of my live shows ever since working it up a few years ago. If you want to try your hand with sequencing, Garage Band is a great way to begin. It has great sounding software instruments already installed and you can use the onboard piano screen to input some notes using the mouse without the need of any audio interface. Rappers and other musicians have created records with Garage Band and it’s a fun way to delve into DAW-ville with little residual pain. PC users don’t have anything that just comes with the computer like GB, but there are many excellent programs for Windows and even Linux machines that, with an audio and/or MIDI interface, will allow you to record your own music or someone else’s. Studio One By PreSonus has a free and a paid version and, after many years of being a premium, paid, only pro product, Pro Tools now has a limited free version available as well. So no matter your platform of choice, you can in effect “try before you buy.”
PG Music’s Power Tracks Pro is an inexpensive way to sequence using PC’s and I gigged for several years with tunes recorded and performed using this program. It also works seamlessly with the company’s venerable Band In A Box software, available for Macs and PC’s. I began downloading and using GM files off the internet more than 15 years ago and you can find more than a million free songs with some digging on your part.
While the quality varies wildly, you can, with effort, edit, cut, copy and paste your way into some excellent sounding backing tracks. After doing this for a while, you can learn to write your own from scratch, if you perform original music or can’t find a sequence you like.
If you want to combine GM parts with digital audio recordings of other instruments, as I do, you may find the results give your solo or duo act just the support and punch you’ve been looking for. Be patient and take advantage of free classes offered at your local music store on using Garage Band, Pro Tools or other DAW programs. Take your time and you’ll improve the sound of your solo or duo act immeasurably.
Riley Wilson is a guitar and bass teacher, writer, voice talent and performer based in North Texas. He does solo, duo and trio gigs all over the Southwest. His websites are www.guitarmadesimpler.com and www.wrileywilson.com