Understanding ‘up a key’ and ‘down a key’

Thanks to Gordon for this question about keys. Those of us who are musicians work with keys every day of our lives and often forget that singers who don’t play an instrument can find it confusing. Hopefully I can shed some light on the topic of “keys”…

Hi Kenny,
A semi tone is half a key and a tone down is a whole key……. Is that correct??? Just to clarify…… If the first track of a medley is key of lets say A….. Then i want it to be G (and the rest accordingly) 

Hi Gordon

Yes, that’s correct, if the reference was the key of A then a semi-tone down would be Ab (A flat) and a tone down would be G.

Semi-tones and tones and keys of songs were something that singers never used to need to be aware of, but due to so many singers singing without musicians nowadays, it is something you now need to know about.

As it happens tones and semi-tones are standard music theory terms which have been around for hundreds of years (as every musician who plays an instrument and has a knowledge of theory knows) but in recent years it has caused some confusion as solo singers try to get to grips with the terminology.

And it’s not as straightforward as you’d think.

You see, years ago, the singer just sang…..and the band (musicians) would take care of the music side of things like the key he sang each song in etc.

But nowadays many singers work with backing tracks instead of live musicians so they now need to know a little bit about music theory which up until recently was only really required to be known by musicians.

And even though musical terminology like semi-tones and tones haven’t changed in hundreds of years, technology and the way singers use it has…and not in a good way I’m afraid.

The main problem is the proliferation of all these cheap karaoke machines and pitch shifting programs which don’t give proper readouts.

Many singers have become rightly confused because many of these cheap karaoke machines and software programs only have +1, +2, +3, -1, -2, -3 etc and don’t actually tell you what +1, +2, +3, -1, -2, -3 etc actually means!

To further confuse things, in some machines +1 will mean up one tone. But in another machine +1 will mean up one semi-tone.

Some don’t even use tones or semi-tones, they just “put it up a bit” or “put it down a bit” and don’t adhere to any exact pitch range!

I remember many years ago a friend of mine who’s not a professional singer went to a karaoke night and got up on stage to sing his big song (he sings it everywhere he goes, it’s the only song he knows)! The key wasn’t correct for him and he sounded dreadful. Yet this was despite the fact that he had explicitly told the karaoke presenter to put the key “down one” for him. He was convinced that the karaoke presenter had deliberately sabotaged his big song because it was far too low for him.

But it turns out that the karaoke presenter was using one of those old karaoke machines where selecting -1 takes the key down a full tone, not a semitone as he wanted. In fact it didn’t even take it down a tone – it took it down a little bit more than a tone…kinda in between keys so a tone and a bit in fact!

I don’t know if my friend ever went back and apologised to the karaoke presenter (if he didn’t he should have because it wasn’t really the karaoke presenters fault).

In saying that, this is one of the problems with DJ’s and karaoke presenters who think that all there is to presenting karaoke is putting a CD in the tray and handing the punter a microphone. Sadly they rarely have even the most basic musical ear and don’t know how to pick the correct keys for the singer. Then usually they don’t know how to set the right balances between the music and the singing (every singer has a different voice so some singers need their microphone boosted in volume where others need it turned down a little bit).

I must confess I don’t particularly like karaoke – not because I’m flying the flag for pro entertainers or anything like that though. It’s just I’m sick of going to karaoke nights out where the music is too quiet in the background while the microphone is blaring out (usually feeding back) while swimming in echo. To top it all, it usually all goes through a cheap little DJ mixer and amplifiers/speakers that distort like hell and sound just awful.

Rant over…!

Mp3 players are so cheap – You MUST have one, even if it’s just as a backup

We all know that there are other media devices available that can play backing tracks besides an mp3 player. The main thing is that you use whatever media suits you and your act and you’re most comfortable with on stage. But make no mistake, mp3 players are cheap nowadays and can hold ALL your backing tracks, so it makes sense to have all your tracks on an mp3 player, even just as a backup in case anything happens to your Minidisc, laptop, DAT, CD player (or whatever you use onstage)…

hi kenny first all may i thank you for the interesting emails you send us musicians on varuios subjects that maybe we did not know. in my particular case i work with a girl singer as a duo and we work with mimi disc i have 2 minidiscs both on lp4 which enables me to have about 80 tracks on each disc, obviously in mono, each minidisc has a foot switch start the track and then a automatic stop. would an ipod be better taking into account although we are season pros as far as performing is concerned,  a little older than most and have difficulty seeing anything so small your advice would be very helpfull cheers

Hi Rory

There are advantages and disadvantages to using Minidisc on stage.

Using mp3 rather than Minidisc is without doubt the way to go forward, if for no other reason than the fact that Minidisc is an older format which is dying out and as time goes by Minidisc decks are getting increasingly harder to find (as are blank minidiscs).

But it also has to be said that mp3 players work slightly differently from Minidic players so the decision to move from Minidisc to mp3 could very much depend on your particular set up it and how much particular Minidisc operations are essential to your way of working.

For example, the first thing I noted from your email was you say you use a start-stop switch with your Minidisc.

If this is absolutely necessary to your way of working then that could be a bit of a problem with mp3 as most mp3 players generally don’t support start/stop footswitch operations (at the time of writing this I don’t know of any mp3 players that do, although that may change in the future).

MP3 players don’t usually auto-pause but that doesn’t necessarily need to be a problem, there are ways around that. You could put some silent songs after each song in your playlist which would act as a stop at the end of each song (see http://www.mp3backingtrax.com/actpromotiontools/ipodautopause.htm).

You could also buy a wireless controller to start/stop your mp3 player and could use that instead of a footswitch. Or if you have an iPod Touch, there are apps that can display a large button to start-stop the playback (and will auto-pause at the end of each song).

At the moment with your set up of two Minidiscs with 80 songs on each disc, you can have 160 songs all set up and ready to play (i.e. 80 x 2).

But with an mp3 player though you could have thousands of songs all set up and ready to play on just the one mp3 player.

As well as that, you can be cueing up the next song while another song is already playing, organize your songs in to set lists before you go on stage, make up background music to play during your breaks etc.

MP3 players can hold more music and organise all that music much better, without a doubt. If you perform very strict set lists and only need 160 songs, then maybe that wouldn’t be much of an advantage to you I suppose.

But if you do need more than 160 songs available to you at a gig, then using an mp3 player would be a definite advantage – it would certainly save you having to swap discs in and out of the Minidisc players during a gig.

As I say, it really depends on how you like to work on stage.

For example, a guitar player won’t have the same flexibility to change his playback music and cue up songs as a solo singer has because he’s restricted to having to work with a guitar around his neck.

Similarly, one solo singer may do pub/club type gigs where turning away from the audience for a couple of seconds to pop over to his backing track player at the side of the stage and select the next song isn’t a problem. But another solo singer who does theatre type venues or has a very intense visual type of act where leaving his audience for a second or two to change tracks would lose him his “connection” with the audience would find that it wouldn’t work for him at all (mind you, neither would Minidisc under those circumtances).

Last but not least is of course the size of the screen.

There’s no getting away from the fact that mp3 players were designed for personal listening so just don’t have the advantages of a big screen/readout that you get from other player formats. Many entertainers use their laptop to play backing tracks on stage though. That way they get all the advantages of being able to store, list, organise and play back thousands of mp3 backing tracks with a massive big screen readout (see http://www.mp3backingtrax.com/article15.htm).

MP3 players are relatively inexpensive so why not buy one and try using it on stage and see how you get along?

Even if you find you can’t work with it because it doesn’t suit your particular way of working, then at least you will have a backup of all your backing tracks with you at all times in a little machine that fits in your pocket wherever you go, and that could prove vital in getting you through a performance should your Minidisc pack up half way through a gig one night…

Minidisc to PC via the mic socket

I wrote an article some time ago about transferring songs from a Minidisc on to a PC (see http://www.mp3backingtrax.com/article14.htm). That article still sparks interest today and remains one of the most widely read articles I’ve ever written…

Hi Kenny,
I think your tips emails are great! May be you know of a solution to this one. I have recently purchased a new PC windows7 and wondered if you know of any software to record MINI DISC to my PC so I can edit tweek etc on my other programs. When I plug my MD into the Mic socket it is just too rough to use. Wondered if I could use USB connection?

Hi Steve

There’s probably no reall good cheap fix for this problem so the best way to do this is to upgrade the soundcard on your PC so that it can accept rca inputs from the minidisc.

One of the more reasonably priced soundcards that can do this is the Soundblaster X-Fi card

I know that upgrading your soundcard is not exactly cheap to do, but the Soundblaster card is cheaper than many others that do similar jobs.

Also on the upside is if you do decide to bite the bullet and spend money on a card like this, then ALL your music on your PC will be much better quality and it’ll allow you to make studio quality recordings on your PC (multi-track recording, making albums etc) so I do think it’s well worth the investment…

Muting tracks in Audacity

Jeff wants to know how to mute previously recorded tracks in Audacity…

Kenny, how do record voice to a new track without the previously recorded music backing track that you have to hear , without it recording with the voice on to the new track. thanks mate. i would love to get an upgraded version of this program with more features, and good reverb and eg i have been using a Boss BR1600 Recording Studio, but compared to computor editing it is painfully slow and hard to get a good mix

Hi Jeff

This depends how you have it set up on your PC, but generally you can mute playback by opening up your computer’s volume control panel and turn on the “mute” checkbox for your playback.

Another way is to turn off  ‘Software Playthrough’ in the Audacity preferences.

Without a doubt, editing on a computer is always going to be much easier than editing on a hardware based device. But generally hardware devices like the Boss recorder you mention are very robust and reliable and produce excellent quality results so I’m not sure why the mix you are getting isn’t good on the Boss.

The great thing about Audacity is that it’s free and it’s a full version – not a lite or scaled down version. There are lots of plugins available for Audacity so it may be worth downloading and installing some. GVerb is particularly popular if you’re looking for a good reverb.  You should also take a look at some of the VST plugins too. Take a look at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/download/plugins for links to plugins.

Another reverb that is popular is called Ambience (http://magnus.smartelectronix.com/).

What’s the best soundcard for audio recording?

This question from one of our customers ranks as one of the shortest questions I’ve ever received! Nevertheless, it’s a question many people ask…

Tell me what is the best soundcard to use.

Hi Frans

There are thousands of soundcards available and they are all different prices (see http://www.mp3backingtrax.com/soundcard.htm).

Generally, the more expensive the soundcard, the better quality it is.

You ask what is the best soundcard though, so I’d have to say that “Pro Tools” (http://www.avid.com/US/products/family/Pro-Tools) is arguably the best soundcard although it’s not just a soundcard – it’s a whole recording system, software and all…