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.