Changing or editing the arrangement of a backing track

(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)

Have you ever bought a backing track but would like to change the arrangement of it around to suit you a little better?

It may be that you want to extend it, shorten it, add an extra chorus, make a longer intro to give you time to get from the dressing room to the stage etc.

Editing backing tracks is the one single thing that is least understood by singers who are non-musicians. This is because if you’re not a musician, it’s very difficult to understand how backing tracks are produced and therefore hard to know and understand how to alter/change/edit them.

So, first we’re going to take a look at how a backing track is produced and “mastered.” Then we’ll look at ways the track can be edited.

Understanding how a backing track is recorded
If you’ve ever been in a professional recording studio, the first thing you probably noticed was a massive mixing desk with hundreds of knobs and sliders (probably stretching from one end of the control room to the other). Although this can look quite intimidating to the non-musician, a mixing desk is really quite simple.

If you look at it from the left-hand side, you’ll notice that it is arranged in single, narrow columns which just repeat themselves all the way along the desk. The first column will probably have a slider (fader) at the bottom and a series of knobs and buttons above it, culminating in a some LED’s or little windows at the top of each column. The next column will be exactly the same and this will carry on right the way along till you reach the end of the desk (at the right-hand side).

Although each column looks the same, they actually correspond to separate channels. For example, in a 32 track recording studio there will be 32 columns (or channels) of knobs and sliders on the mixing desk. Each channel can be considered to be a “space” where sound can be recorded.

In it’s simplest form, if you are recording a piece of music which contains 4 instruments, this will use up 4 channels of the mixing desk – eg one channel to record the drums, one channel to record the bass, one channel to record the guitar and one channel to record the keyboard parts.

So why have a 32 or a 64 track recording studio if you only need 4 channels I hear you ask? Well, suppose you want to add some brass or string parts to the song – you’ll need another couple of channels. Similarly, if you wanted a bit more control over the drum sounds, you would use one channel for the snare drum, one channel for the cymbals, one channel for the bass drum etc. so now you start to get an idea of how quickly even a simple recording can use up many channels.

So, to produce a backing track in the studio, all the individual instruments contained in that particular song (drums, bass, guitar, strings, brass, synth etc) have to be played and recorded, one by one, on to each channel of the mixing desk.

Now, here’s the problem – if you were to purchase that backing track in this multi-track format, you’d never be able to play it – because you don’t have a multi-track playback machine linked to a 32 or 64 track mixing desk to play it on! All you have is a CD player (or a mp3 player or a minidisc player) and these machines do not play multi-track recordings – they can only play stereo recordings.

So that’s why recording studios make stereo recordings (called “stereo masters”) of these multi-track arrangements which can be played in domestic hi-fi players like CD players, mp3 players, and Minidisc players….

Mix-Down/Stereo Mastering process
A stereo master, is a simple 2 channel (stereo) mix-down of a multi-track arrangement. What this means is that all the individual channels of sound (instruments) are all mixed together and recorded to a simple 2 track stereo format which can be recognised and played on domestic hi-fi machines (like CD players, Minidisc players, MP3 players, Cassettes etc).

When you purchase a backing track from us (or any other company) the backing track you purchase will be a “stereo mastered backing track”, recorded to whatever media you requested (here at MP3 Backing Trax we supply stereo backing tracks to customers in mp3, CD or Minidisc formats which means they can be played on standard CD players, MP3 players and Minidisc players).

The upside of this is that when you buy a stereo mastered backing track, it is ready to play on your CD player, mp3 player or Minidisc player so you don’t need to buy £50,000 worth of multi-track recording equipment to play it!

The downside is that without £50,000 worth of recording equipment and access to the original multi-track arrangement, you can’t get to the individual instruments and their channels to make changes to them!

There is a solution…We at MP3 Backing Trax, being gigging musicians and singers ourselves, realised that there may be occasions where you need to make changes to specific parts or instrumentation of your backing track and so we offer a solution to this..

Our Trax Editing section was set up so that customers can order changes to backing tracks without having to spend thousands of pounds on expensive multi-track equipment to do it (we’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on multi-track equipment so you don’t have to)!

In addition to having all this professional recording equipment in our studio, we also keep the original multi-track arrangements to all the songs in our catalogue so that whenever a customer asks for a backing track to be edited, we simply load the original multi-track backing track arrangement in to our recording system, make the changes you require, and then re-master it to stereo and supply it to you in whatever format you want (mp3, CD, or Minidisc).

Editing backing tracks supplied by the customer
From time to time we are asked to edit backing tracks supplied by our customers. Although this can be done, it’s important to remember that the results you get will be entirely dependant on the quality of the backing track you supply us, and, more importantly, the format of the backing track you supply.

As explained above, if you supply us with a stereo mixed-down/master version of the song, we cannot get to the individual instruments & channels to make any changes to them, so the results may be less than satisfactory.

However, if you can supply us with the original multi-track audio arrangement or multi-track midi arrangement, then the results of the editing will be far better.

Editing backing tracks yourself
If you have access to the original multi-track audio or the original midi arrangement, you could try editing your own backing tracks. There is lots of software available which lets you do this sort of thing and although the software is complicated to use (ps for complicated to use read impossible to use if you’re not a musician!) you may just want to have a go yourself.

You could even consider taking a night class or college course on using these types of software packages (many local colleges run audio and midi sequencing sound production courses).