29 August 2010

Simple Backing Tracks

I mentioned my Ableton setup in an earlier post but didn’t show it. Here it is in action. I am using a Behringer FCB-1010 footcontroller and a Roland GI-20 guitar/MIDI interface. Looks like I fumbled a lot in this video – maybe I always do and just don’t notice. It works slick enough that you shouldn’t have to pause between recording tracks; I’m just stumbling while I try to think ahead to what I’m going to do next. Here is a rundown of the whole setup.

The Ableton version is a stripped down, free one that came with an audio interface. The synths are as follows:

• Drums: Ableton Impulse Drum Sampler. I changed the snare drum sample to a side stick.

• Bass: GCBS by FrettedSynth

o I am using MIDI for trigger. Audio retains better feel, but doesn’t transpose easily like MIDI

• Organ: Organized Trio from SoundFonts.it

o Usually this is an EP, also from SoundFonts.it (“Mr. Ray”); but I thought the reggae vibe called for organ. Not shooting for the moon here, just whatever sounds good that I can set up in a matter of seconds.

The FCB 1010 is set up very simply to directly control buttons in Ableton. The following table shows how they are assigned:

Arm Drum Track Arm Bass Track Arm Bass Track Toggle Click [UP] Bass Volume Keys Volume

Record First Clip in Drum Track Record First Clip in Bass Track Record First Clip in Bass Track Tap Tempo [DOWN]

The Roland GI-20 gets 7 channels of audio via the GK-2a pickup. One channel is the regular guitar output, plus there is one channel for each string, generated by the GK pickup itself. The regular guitar output is routed out to a guitar amp, and the six other signals are individually translated to MIDI and then combined any way you choose. I chose to make a very simple, single stream of MIDI data that is fed into Ableton, which you see controlling drums, bass, and keys.

The order of steps I follow is:

1. Tap tempo

2. Record-arm drum track

3. Fiddle with a beat and get an idea of what I want to do.

4. Record-arm first clip in the drum track

5. Record first layer of drums, usually hi hat

6. Hit the same footswitch to record-arm the first clip in the drum track, which will now make the clip loop. Because the Overdub button is enabled in Ableton, anything I play now will get layered on top of the hi hat.

7. Record the rest of the layers of drums.

8. Record-arm the bass track. This disarms the drum track.

9. Play a bass line

10. Hit the same footswitch to record-arm the first clip in the bass track, which will now make the clip loop.

11. Repeat the same process with the keys channel.

12. Disarm the keys channel so when I play guitar it doesn’t overdub.

13. Use the two continuous foot controllers to adjust the mix. Usually the keys need to come down a little.

14. Turn up the regular volume knob on my guitar and play through a normal guitar amp.

To me it is much more fun to play a real amp. Even if it is the cheapest solid-state 10w bass practice amp it is better than digital anything. You just can’t beat the feeling of flexing, pumping, fluxing transistors/opamps/tubes, even if the sound isn’t anywhere near as good as a digital model. One of my favorite practice amps in the world is a cheaper-than-cheap little First Act amp (the kind they sell shrinkwrapped in the toy section of Wal-Mart), because it “speaks fast” – i.e. it has a very quick response to the guitar; the note comes out of the speaker faster than with some amps. The clean sound is okay for jazz – fat, not too detailed, and the dirty sound is soooo junky. But it feels amazing to play.

It would be easy, obvious, and seemingly useful to route the guitar signal into Ableton and use a VST to amplify the guitar. That way I could easily record my practice and listen for self-appraisal. But I can record with my Webcam, which is plenty good enough for that purpose. If I am going to try to produce an actual guitar track, I won’t use Ableton; I’ll use a nice mic on a real amp and record it in software that has some routing and editing options. For me the strength of Ableton is its ease, malleability, and speed as a VSTi host. It’s pretty weak for recording audio – at least the kind of audio recording I’m interested in.

I suppose I should say something about why I’m using this for backing tracks and not something like Band in a Box, which is even faster and easier. Programming my own beats/tracks in Ableton sounds a lot better; I have never been able to get a great sound out of BIAB, even using DXI synths, RealDrums, what have you. Hearing sounds that are exciting is immeasurably helpful in making practice fun – fun being a key factor in how much you retain from practice – and it is easy to get inspiring sounds from free VSTi’s in Ableton. Also Ableton is free with so many interfaces that you probably already have a copy on a CD sitting around somewhere. I got one copy with a the Behringer firewire interface that I have in my gig rack; I got the interface for $20 as a blem item at Musician’s Friend.

BTW I always use input quantization in Ableton, so that as my time goes off the rails as I reach for footpedals, it gets automatically corrected. A sterile beat is better than one with bad time any day. I get a real wonky feeling from a lot of BIAB beats.

However, the biggest benefit may be the simple, logical necessity of having to listen to/learn a groove in order to be able to play it into the computer. Which do you suppose helps you more as a complete musician: learning the guitar licks in a song, or learning every part of the main beats? I personally find that learning the various parts in a song makes me hear the parts when I play it. I listen deeper all around.

I have at times gone on short-lived binges of learning keyboard and drums [with a pad a la David Haynes], but I keep coming back to the same conclusion: my time is better spent focused on my instrument. Learning the main beat is close enough for drums; learning the voicings as close as you can get on guitar is good enough for keys.

The abomination of a guitar I'm playing in the video is a homemade neck on a routed out Chinese Strat copy that I used to use for testing pickups. I no longer manufacture pickups nor obsess over gear, so now this guitar is a woodshed utility. I still like playing it more than my nicer guitars because the homemade neck fits my hand better than anything off-the-shelf.

There it is: my current philosophy of backing tracks. It’s a compromise, but I think I have made all the right choices for where I’m at right now.

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