Making Backing Tracks with GarageBand
Welcome to part three of our series on recording the ukulele! In the first article, we discussed how recording your ukulele playing is greatly beneficial both as a practice tool and as an outlet for creativity. In part two, we covered all of the technical nuts and bolts needed to get started with recording — equipment, software, tips and tricks, etc. Today, I’m going to show you how to take your recordings to the next level by adding other instruments and making your own backing tracks.
A backing track is simply any audio recording that a musician plays along with. They can be used both as a practice tool — think of it like a metronome that’s been enhanced with chord changes and rhythmic patterns — and as a creative tool, as they can be built upon to turn your recordings into full songs. To get started, we’re going to learn how to use your recording software to create drum and bass parts — two important foundational pieces of a good backing track.
A quick note: we’ll be using Apple’s GarageBand to create the backing track, so this article will be geared heavily towards Mac users. The same techniques can be used in most other programs, but the interface design and screen layout will be different.
Open up GarageBand and in the “Choose a Project” window that pops up, select “Empty Project”, and then click “Choose” in the bottom right corner. Next, you’ll see the “Choose a track type” window pop up. If you were just going to be recording ukulele, you’d select the blue microphone option under “Audio”, but since we’re going to start by creating drum and bass tracks, we want to select the green “Software Instrument” option. Click the “Create” button in the bottom right corner to get started.
Now you have a project with one basic MIDI track. MIDI stands for “musical instrument digital interface” and is a computer language used to transfer digital instrument data. GarageBand comes with an entire library of authentic-sounding digital instruments — everything from drum kits to synthesizers to orchestral instruments — all of which can be played via MIDI.
Before you start recording, you’ll want to set the tempo for your project. GarageBand defaults to 120 beats per minute, but you can change it by double-clicking the number above where it says “TEMPO” at the top of the screen in the middle. Type in your desired tempo and press the enter key to save it. You can test out the tempo by pressing the spacebar. The playhead (the thin vertical line that indicates where you are in the song) will begin moving and you’ll be able to hear the metronome. If you don’t, press the metronome icon on the top of the screen or the letter K on your keyboard.
MAKING THE DRUM TRACK
Head on over to the “Library” column on the left side of the screen. If you don’t see it, click the library icon in the top left corner of the screen or press Y on your keyboard. This is where you select what instrument you want the computer to play on that track.
In the “Library” window, scroll over until you see all the categories of instruments. Click on “Drum Kit”, and you’ll see a list of different drum kits. I’d suggest trying out a few and deciding which one you like the best. To do so, click on a kit to load it onto the track. You can then use the “Musical Typing” window to hear how it sounds. This is a tool which assigns each key on your keyboard to a key on a virtual piano keyboard so that you can “play” your computer’s keyboard like a piano. If you don’t see it, press Command-K to open the window up. Note that the Z and X keys allow you to shift down and up an octave, which you may need to do to find a certain drum sound.
Once you’ve decided which drum kit to use, it’s time to lay down a groove on the drum track. If you don’t already have something in mind that you want to record, I’d suggest playing around with the “Musical Typing” keyboard until you find a groove that you like. If you’re feeling stuck, you could try a basic rock beat — play the kick drum on beats 1 and 3, the snare drum on beats 2 and 4, and the hi hat on all the eighth notes.
When you’re ready to record, move the playhead back to the beginning of the song and make sure the “Count In” feature is enabled (the “1234” icon next to the metronome should be highlighted). This will give you a one-measure count in after you press record so that you have time to get ready to play. To record, you can either press the red circle button at the top of the screen, or simply press R on your keyboard. After the four-beat count in, start playing your drum beat using the “Musical Typing” keyboard. As you’re playing, you’ll notice that a red bar with little blocks in it starts to appear on the timeline. This is your recording; the little blocks represent the individual notes you are playing. When you’re done recording, press spacebar. The recording will turn green. Move the playhead back to the beginning and press spacebar again to play your recording back. If you don’t like what you hear and want to re-record it, first delete the recording by clicking on it (it will become illuminated when selected) and pressing the delete key. You can also press Command-Z on your keyboard to undo the recording. Now try recording again. Keep in mind that your MIDI recordings might not sound great or perfectly in time with the metronome at first, and that’s okay. The important thing when you’re first starting out with recording is just getting comfortable with using the software. Your skills will improve over time the more you use it.
There are a few basic tools for editing recordings that will be helpful to know when you are starting out. Once you have a recording, you can extend it by either looping it or copy and pasting it. To loop it, move your mouse to the top right corner of the recording (your cursor will turn into a “loop” icon), click, hold, and then drag to the right. To copy and paste it, select the recording, press Command-C on your keyboard, move the playhead to where you want to paste it, and press Command-V. You can also move a recording around on the timeline by clicking, holding, and dragging it. If you want to split a recording so that you can move, delete, or copy and paste a certain part of it, select the recording, move the playhead to where you want to make the split, and press Command-T on your keyboard. If it any point you make an adjustment that you don’t like, just press Command-Z to undo your last action. This will become one of your best friends when you are recording and editing!
Next, we’ll learn how to adjust individual notes within a MIDI recording. Open up the “Editors” window by clicking the scissors icon on the left-hand side at the top of the screen (you can also press E on your keyboard to open and close it). You’ll see a window open up on the bottom of the screen with a vertically-oriented piano keyboard and a bunch of small green blocks to the right of it. This is known as the “Piano Roll”, and the green blocks are the MIDI notes that you just recorded. If you click and hold one of the notes, you’ll notice you can move it around — moving it horizontally will change the timing of the note; moving it vertically will change the note (or drum, in this case) that is being played. If you want to manually add a new note, hold down the command key and click on the spot within the “Piano Roll” grid where you want it to go. This is a great way to add more layers to your drum beats, or experiment with different ideas. You can also select a note and press the delete key to remove it. If you click, hold, and drag your mouse from anywhere on the “Piano Roll” grid (except for on a note), you can select multiple MIDI notes at once. Do this and select all of the notes (the green blocks will become illuminated when they are selected). From here, go over to the left under where it says “Time Quantize” and click the “Q” button. This is a tool called quantization that adjusts the timing of each note so that they are perfectly on beat, and it is a great tool for cleaning up your MIDI recordings.
There are a lot of editing tools to play around with, and your knowledge of how to use them will grow over time as you use GarageBand more, so make sure to take it slow when you are first starting out. I’ve found that the best way to learn any new program is to decide what you want to do, try to do it, and if you can’t figure it out, Google it!
MAKING THE BASS TRACK
Once your drum track is ready, go ahead and create a new track by either selecting Track -> New Track from the top bar menu or by pressing Option-Command-N on your keyboard. Select “Software Instrument” again, and this time we’ll load up a bass guitar. From the “Library” window on the left side, select “Bass” and then use the “Musical Typing” window to try out a few different basses like you did with the drum kits. Once you’ve found one that you like, it’s time to lay down a bass line over your drum track.
I’d suggest using the “Musical Typing” keyboard again to play around with different ideas. A helpful tool in this situation is the “Cycle” feature, which allows you to loop playback of a certain section of your song so that it repeats over and over again. To activate it, click the “Cycle” icon on the top of the screen to the right of the record button. You’ll see a horizontal yellow bar appear at the top of the timeline, which indicates the section that will be cycled. You can extend or shorten it by clicking at the end of the yellow bar, holding, and dragging, or move it entirely by clicking, holding, and dragging from anywhere else in the bar. Now when you press play, that section will repeat over and over again, and you can try playing different bass parts along with it.
If you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to play for your bass part, you can always just pick a chord progression that you like on the ukulele and play the root notes of each chord on the bass. Again, remember that at this point you’re just trying to get a feel for how to use the software. When you’re ready to record, you can either use the “Musical Typing” keyboard, or manually input the notes in the “Piano Roll” section of the “Editors” menu by holding the command key and clicking on the grid to create a new note, like we did when editing the drum track. From there, you can re-record, quantize, loop, copy and paste, etc. your bass part until you have something that you’re happy with.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
At this point — whether or not you think it’s any good — you’ve successfully created your first backing track! So, where can you go from here? A great next step would be to get out your ukulele and try playing along. As I mentioned earlier in the article, a backing track is like a metronome that’s been enhanced with chord changes and rhythmic patterns, which makes playing along with it not only super beneficial, but also a lot of fun. You could also create a new audio track and record some ukulele on top. One thing I like to do is record a “rhythm” ukulele track (the chords), and then create another track and record a “lead” ukulele part. This is also a great way to practice playing solos on the ukulele. If you want to enhance your backing track, you could create another “Software Instrument'' track and explore the library of MIDI instruments within GarageBand. There’s a ton of different instruments to play around with, and a lot of potential for creativity.
Hopefully you’ve learned some new things about recording ukulele and are interested in trying it out. As we’ve learned, there’s lots of different ways that recording technology can be used to enhance your ukulele-playing experience, and it will take some time for you to figure out how you want to use it. As long as you stick with it and are enjoying yourself, your skills will improve over time. Happy recording!