Backing Tracks: What I use and How I Got There

What I use and How I Got There

Multi-tracks, Backing Tracks, and Pads have become more and more mainstream in music in recent years. It’s not just in the church, but its not uncommon to go to shows and concerts and see well known bands with Pads or Backing Tracks going on in the background. I remember 2004 hearing it with Coldplay and over the next few years later I started noticing it with smaller bands in at clubs in the Seattle area.

Programs like Abelton and the easy of Apple’s Garage band have put this technology in the hands of church musicians as well. But it’s not just the mega-churches that are doing this. Walk into churches of ranging in size from 50-150 and you could easily hear some form of backing track going on.

I started using ambient Pads in the background about 6 months ago. I want to walk you through my process, how I got here, and why I use what I use.

WHY I STAYED AWAY FROM BACKING TRACKS

The honest truth is that for a long time I stayed away from backing tracks because every time I looked into them, the answers I got were too complicated or too time consuming or too expensive.

Some of the options out there can get pretty expensive. Others require equipment I don’t have, and again, the investment is expensive. Some of it felt beyond my technical capability or the musical capability of my church band. Also, some of these options require your worship ministry to make a cultural commitment to the backing tracks in how we play and how we practice. While not a bad thing, it never felt like the right thing for my ministry.

DO YOU NEED A RACE CAR OR A KIA?

I have a friend who’s done a lot of work professionally as a soundman. He’s done work for bands you’ve heard of and a lot more work in the church world. When I have a sound or AV question, I usually text him first, and I’m sure more than once he’s insight and advice has found it’s way into my writing on this blog.

He likes to make the comparison to a race car and a Kia. The race car is cooler and more powerful, and faster. But at 25mph, the Kia is more fuel efficient, economical, and practical and is probably a smoother ride. He then likes to say that a lot of churches and worship ministries go for the race car when they should be going for the Kia.

One of the reasons I stayed away from backing tracks for so long is that most of the blogs, articles and other pieces of advice I found were from guys who only knew about the race cars, and I was looking for a Kia.

There’s a lot of good stuff out there. Loop Community, Abelton Live, MultiTracks, the Looptimus controller are all awesome and do some really great stuff. But while they do what they do very well, they aren’t a fit for everyone and none of them ever seemed a good fit for me.

HOW A YOUTH PASTOR’S CONFERENCE BROUGHT ME TO PADS

Then last January, my wife and I attended the Calvary Chapel Youth Workers Conference in Southern California. I noticed the main worship band kept having these synthesizer pads that didn’t match up to what I saw the keyboardist doing. So I went and talked to the worship leader. He told me was using his iPad, a program called OnSong and non-time based ambient pads from WorshipTutorials.com.

The Worship Tutorial Pads are non-time based ambient pads. This means that if your song is the key of G, then you select the Pad in G and it will fill in the sound around you. I’m not the strongest musical theory guy, but I believe that what they are doing is playing Fifths so that it doesn’t clash with any chords as long at it’s in the key. Its not perfect, some song are technically in one key but sound better in another. Some songs have odd chord progressions that don’t work well with any pad, but overall I’ve found it to be a help and a benefit to the sound of the band on Sunday Mornings.

Finally! Here was a solution that was more like a Kia than a Ferrari! I already had the iPad. OnSong was only $20, and the ambient pads started at $15. Now, to make it more practical in a live setting I also found an Air Turn BluTooth controller ($50 used on Reverb.com) which I use to turn the backing track on and off and to move forward to the next song and a cable that could go from my iPad’s headphone jack to a ¼’’ DI box ($20). All together it was about $200 because I bought every Pad bundle that Worship Tutorials has put out. So your cost could be a lot less, especially if you’re already using OnSong and have an AirTurn.

MY SET UP

If you aren’t familiar with OnSong, it has a lot of uses. But for worship leaders, mostly I’ve seen it used to replace sheet music. It’s actually pretty cool and if everyone is using it in your band, you can sync page turns, etc. so that everyone is literally on the same page.

Where Pads come into play with OnSong is that you can sync a backing track to each chord chart. So I can scroll from one song to the next and when I toggle the backing track on, it cross fades to the next ambient pad or backing track.

I use backing tracks in two very different settings. Sunday morning I’m with a full band. Here I’m just looking to fill in the sound or to help keep a better flow when moving from one song to another. But, you do need to be mindful that some songs sound better without the backing tracks and in other songs, the backtracks are fine at the start but as the music builds, the backing track can become too much. One option that I’m considering down the road is to add a volume pedal to control the overall volume of the backing track depending on the dynamics of the song.

The other place I use the backing track is at youth group. This is generally just myself and an acoustic guitar with very little else going on musically. Again, it’s very helpful to add sound when it’s just me to keep the room from sounding empty and the music from feeling flat. It also helps in moments when I want to sing but not use my guitar, or when I’m making transitions like a capo change or during a prayer.

To be fair, there are two “downsides” to using these tracks. The first is that its just “one more thing”. One more thing to remember, one more thing that can go wrong, and it is fair to acknowledge this. The second is that these tracks are almost always geared towards a more “CCM” expression of worship. If you have more of a “southern/country” or indie rock, or Urban flavor in your churches expression of music, using these tracks is a little more problematic, but even then I think you’ll still find times and places where they are very useful.

Are you using backing tracks? Any tips or tricks? Anything I missed? Any questions? Then leave a comment below and let’s talk.

 

 

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Backing Tracks: What I use and How I Got There

  1. bryan fung

    I won’t deny that pads do sound great in filling in the sound, especially in bigger productions and/or events like a concert or a conference or even a baptism, but I do have a moral beef with using them in terms of using them regularly. I’m not saying you are wrong, nor am i trolling, i’m just playing devil’s advocate.

    Short version: Not many can control the dynamics of pads, pads can become tiresome to the ears to anyone over 30yrs old, and pads enables laziness for the new/less experienced players

    Long version:
    The job for pads is to fill in the musically empty spaces and saturate the place with “atmosphere”; and at the climax of the song, supersaturate. It CAN do that for sure, but it creates tree problems

    1) Lack of Control: Pads is another instrument and if it’s used effectively it can create an incredible amount of atmosphere. When pads are played by an actual person he/she needs to be able to follow the flow in order to be effective, i.e. learn when to increase volume, or add more notes to the chords, or change the whole tone, or not have any at all. What I’m saying is that when most people play pads, it’s just full volume at all times and they hold the G chord then occasionally switch to the C chord and is always regulated to the dude who can’t play anything cause it’s so easy to do. Yes, its easy to play it, its not easy to ADD with it. The whole dynamics I’m talking about here can apply to bass players.
    2) Pads can become tiresome to anyone over 30 yrs old. When I say that I mean it gets boring and everything sounds the same because of what I just talked about above. A typical church that is using pads do their songs with this: start with the pads swelling in, then the drums does a tom-tom beat, then guitar plays a big chord, song ends with big crash, with applause, and cheering, and then the pads die down and are the last thing that is heard. Repeat. At least that’s what the big production sound is like and that’s what churches tend to go towards. To the teens/tweens this sounds awesome to the ears as they get what they like, a lot of saturation. But to the people with families/screaming kids or stressful jobs or whatever thing that bogs them down in life, hearing a LOUD P&W first thing on a Sunday is quite frankly the last thing they want to hear. Not only that but all that saturation eventually gets tiresome because we a lot of people can’t physically take it anymore. There’s a whole lot of bass and mids and treble involved, and when the song gets exciting, there MORE of it. I’m seeing 1st time parents get smart and put ear protection on their kids, or even for themselves.
    3) Pads can enable laziness for the new/less experienced players. The purpose of pads is to fill in the empty spaces. If the empty spaces are already filled, do we fill it some more with all the other instruments? This is a very complex question that can’t many don’t understand nor can explain. I always have to look at each worship practice a time of learning for those who are playing. Let’s face it, a good amount of churches don’t have the luxury of a paid worship pastor, or pro-musicians, or even novice players. So most don’t even know how to fill space regardless of the pads or not. So when the less experienced players are ever faced with a situation with no pads, they won’t know what to do. They’re too used to pads doing the heavy lifting for them. And you’ve said this yourself in this blog, do we go for the race car, or a kia? A race car is fast yes, and it certainly does it well. But can it be controlled? Oh man, imagine being in a Mclaren P1 with little experience with manual transmission, you’ll be in for a jolting surprise. So you’ll crash it, or you’ll stall all day or wobble when you move faster than 70mph cause you’ve never been in that world of physics before. Same thing goes with pads. They’re powerful, but most people won’t know what to do with all that power.

    But what about when you play solo in a small church, should we use background pads? This goes back to my point of lack of control. Yes its playing, yes it fills room, but its not controlled at all. Its just 100% pads at all times and everything sounds the same because nobody’s controlling the dynamics. Plus, it also enables the solo player to basically play mediocre chords and no dynamics.

    Anyway that’s my 2-cents on the subject of pads. I’m not totally against them, I just prefer not to use them real-world practical purposes.

    1. Hi Bryan,

      thanks for commenting!

      You main points are:

      -Not many can control the dynamics of pads

      -pads can become tiresome to the ears to anyone over 30yrs old

      -pads enables laziness for the new/less experienced players

      I think you’re making a lot of assumptions.

      While it’s true that I can’t control the dynamics of the Pads (generally), i can control which type of pad I used (bigger or simpler). Also, if i incorporate a VP, that would certainly help things.

      Regarding age, my church is majority over the Age of 40, and no one has complained and many have been very positive. Your issues with Pads on this point seem to have more to do with style of music than the Pads themselves. I apologize if i misunderstood at this point.

      Regarding your last point, I think this makes the most assumptions. If anything, the use of pads means I have to be less lazy and more intentional in what and how I play.

      -Adam

      1. bryan fung

        Thanks for pointing out what you can or cannot control. I guess I never really believe that you can control that stuff by programming, but I guess you really can these days. I should take the time to see how the programs work. But call me old school but I like to see my instruments being played, not programmed.

        Anyway, I am not saying you are and have to be lazy when using pads. I’m saying that you have the ability to be so. Doesn’t mean you ARE, but you CAN. When you are playing with pads, you have the perspective of a musician already in your head, and your perspective is of a higher level. In my worship teams, this is actually a crutch I have to remind myself to cast away every time, and some times I am guilty of grabbing onto it a little too tight. In my experience, I always have to deal with worship teams as a teaching opportunity. Maybe your experiences are the same as mine, but for me every single worship team I’ve ever been in has at least 1 or 2 completely new people that do not have much musical awareness, or none at all. For example, they get lost when things get a little bit syncopated, or can’t even accent on 2 and 4, or when you change the chord from a minor to major, or vice versa, or when things quiet down but only slightly, only to quiet down a little more, but have the impression that its not the end of the song. This is what I’m talking about when I say “new”. I’m not even talking about proficient classical musicians just entering the fray of more modern music (cause that’s a whole different topic). So when I have 1 or 2 newer people (as in new to music, not to the team) they unfortunately set the limit of how ambitious I can be. So this is a situation where I do not want to use pads at all because it doesn’t allow the new players to really get the sense of what they’re playing and what the others are playing around him/her. And what happens when a new player doesn’t hear what he/her is playing (I.e. is playing wrong)? They essentially stop paying attention to what they’re doing musically and just simply allow the others to take over what they’re role was supposed to be either by playing softer (to the point where they are not heard) or, if they’re cranked up in the PA, they stay the same loud volume. I’ve noticed this when I teach 1 on 1. When I am showing how to do dynamics on whatever instrument I’m teaching, I get the person to play it back, and pull it off………..if they play it completely by themselves, but If I’m playing simultaneously with them, they essentially step back hear me do it, thereby they feel they themselves are doing it correctly. Have you ever cranked your favorite song in the car all by yourself and start singing and then go “dang…….I sound GOOD!!”, and then you ACTUALLY hear yourself sing in an isolated setting (via sound monitors)? This is the same thing. Pads are so incredibly effective at filling in the dead space and creating a musical vibe of the song that new players won’t feel they need to bring anything to the table. In actual sense they can DEFINITELY bring something to the table, but they don’t FEEL the need for it (not all people, but most). So in a teaching setting this effectively doesn’t allow the new people to “learn” anything musically. Maybe they learned how to mechanically hit the right notes at the right time (kinda), but in terms of how they sounded like in the context of everything else, they don’t learn it. They just hear the pads, and the other players, and go “dang………..we sound GOOD!!”. And then sit on it.

        So here comes another thing. Does this mean that the leader has the onus to make the new people pull their weight in the musical sense? Yes. But to expect them to pull it off without major limitations? That is unfair. We worship leaders are not paid. (wait……are you paid staff? Cause then disregard everything I said in the last few sentences). Therefore we are paying with the only currency we have: time. And we don’t have much. We can only offer 2 hours at the maximum (or 5, if your some churches). So to compress your entire 2 hour allotment to practice with great musical ideas, execution, AND have a teaching session at the same time is a very tall glass to fill. Unless someone has figured that out then I’m all ears. But in every church I’ve served in the P&W, I’ve felt that teaching and playing by example goes farther in serving God’s kingdom than an effective and musical worship service will ever be; especially when the new people are teenagers/college students cause most likely they won’t stay in your church for long.

        By the way, another thing I’ve noticed over the years of leading worship: nobody seems to notice all the details you’ve slaved to put into the songs. That little tiddle you had the pianist perfect? What tittle? That chord change that you got your team to nail on the second chorus? Oh that one…….yeah that’s cool. That vocalist that couldn’t hit that high note? She didn’t hit what note? Well, I guess she didn’t hit that……but the rest of the service was awesome! The only people that notice this stuff are you and I. And. The only people that notice this stuff are you and I and the guy/girl who made the mistake.

        TL:DR Use pads if you really do require to fill in the musical space. Do not use pads if you need to use the worship time for your newer teammates as a lesson in filling musical space.

        About the age thing, this seems to be more about what our congregation is more than the age. The people in my church are about 30-40 and they HAVE complained. And nothing is even that loud. I think its cause we’re Chinese and we’re inherently very tame regardless of our age.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s