Finding midi files
There are many places on the net that you can find free midi files or. In my experience, the best general midi 2 search engines sites are Music Robot and Van basco. We could call them a midi file search engine. I normally start with these and then if I have no luck then I will try random google searches to try and find what I want. Once I get a list of the tracks that I am searching for then I give them a quick listen. Some of them can be really dodgy. If it sounds all messed I skip it and go look for some more. When I find one that is ok I will quickly download the midi file and then move on to check for more. I have found that its good to download a couple of versions of the tracks just in case you get halfway through listening to it and then there's a blunder some where at the end. Right! so now I have a couple of tracks downloaded on to my desktop. Now I will give them a better listen and pick the best one to use. Many things in the sound can make you think the file is messed up but it isn't always the case. For example, perhaps a track has been assigned to an incorrect instrument. You could then have bass guitar coming across as a snare drum etc.. You can fix this later in a flash. I think one of the most important things to look out for at first is a general feeling of good timing and the instruments all playing the correct notes.
Editing and playing midi files
Ok so now you have your file. What now? Find yourself a midi file editor. When I first started with the idea of being a one man band, I made an almost inconceivable amount of blunders in equipment purchase and in general approach towards midi file backtracks. I first bought a Roland SD-35 MIDI Player. Now don't get me wrong, this is a fantastic machine when in the right hands and century but I knew nothing about this business at the time. The dude I bought it from also gave me some stiffies with tracks on them. After figuring out how to play them I become increasingly frustrated that they weren't working or sounding the way I needed them to. Editing on this machine was a difficult process. So I dabbled a bit with it and became more familiar as time went by, but on the whole my dream of being a famous overnight one man band was dwindling. Finally an old muso buddy advised me that most people these days use CakeWalk or Cubase with a laptop to run their backtracks. So I dam well went out and bought me a low budget lappie. Another woopie and I raced home to plug my new lappie into my Roland SD-35. (lappie running windows 98). Only one problem with this amazing plan. The ports are different and not compatible. Downer dude. So now I thought, stuff it, I'm going to hit the professionals. I went over to our local music (Paul Bothners) store for some sound advice. I didn't want to sell the Roland SD-35 so I was advised to buy a midi terminal. This is a chunky bit of hardware that connects the lappie to the sound canvas. And here it all came together. I was at a good starting point now. The only drawback was that when i wanted to play gigs then there was the mission of taking all these pieces of equipment with me. I was also still having problems with my files so I decided to sell the SD-35 and I bought a light weight SD-20 Edirol sound canvas and dumped the midi terminal as it was no longer required. The SD-20 plugged straight into the computer via a USB port and cable. Working with a graphical interface made my understanding of midi files and backing tracks much easier to grasp.
Editing and using your backtracks
Well its been 10 years since I started editing midi files to use as backing tracks and in that time I've certainly learned allot. There are many things that I still don't know but I know enough to get me by. Here's how I handle things. I started off using CakeWalk for most of the early years and then I moved on to Pro Tools Le version 7. I do however still run my files from CakeWalk when I play live . More on that later. If you intend to use a sound canvas instead of VST (Virtual Studio Technology) or Sample sounds, then I would give it some good thought. Right in the beginning I chose general midi2 for my sound sets. I liked the sound of the snare and bass as they sounded more realistic to me. Looking back now I should have used the GS or sound sets. They sound quite artificial but come across in a live environment very well. I think this goes for all sound canvas drum sounds compared to VST or sample sounds. There is a kind of punchy, bright clarity about sound modules. They don't really need mastering to make them jump out. Give it a listen yourselves and make up your own mind. You might also consider using a VSC (Virtual sound canvas) as apposed to an external hardware device (Less gear to carry and it can also change your edited file to an mp3 file).
Ok here goes a quick summary of my approach to editing free midi backtracks. First off I find a semi decent midi file. Once I'm happy I then import it into Pro tools (or any midi editing programme). Here's where Pro tools can be rather frustrating. Unless the midi file has been given a description of the instrument assigned to that track, you wont know what it is. Most of the time the midi track has been given a patch description but it wont show up in Pro tools. Here is where I jump back to CakeWalk and give it a look. You will often see a patch description. I then type that patch description into the "Name" column of the track, save and import it back into protocols. If the tracks have not been assigned to any patch then you are in trouble. All the tracks will then default to a piano instrument and you will have to go and figure out what is what. This can be a mission. Good luck.
Right, so now I have all my tracks with names or descriptions on them. I first work with the drum and bass tracks. This for me is a good starting point and will lay down the basic rhythm section to follow. Even if you don't have names for your tracks you could spot the drums quite easily by visual appearance. I create an audio track and assign a drum Expandi plug-in (Pro tools sample sounds) to that track. Then I do the same with the bass track, giving it a bass plug-in. Now I go to the beginning and give it a listen. You can fix beats that are out of time using the quantize function or move them manually. I generally put the kick drums velocity on full (127) and the snare on 120. Most of the snare sounds in expandi get very harsh over 120. I don't put reverb on the kick only on the snare and other parts. I usually put the snare at 30 with a soft hall reverb. Now I go and listen to the bass. The most common thing that happens with the bass is that notes overlap. This can often sound unpleasing. Listen to the whole song while watching the bass track and fix any overlapping notes as you here them. Listen to the bass and drums together and get a good balance using there individual volumes and velocities. Now add the the rest of the tracks one by one and assign them a sound. If you are using CakeWalk or Cubase then make sure the drums are on channel 10. This is the chanell assigned to drums for midi sound canvases.
Using Markers on your backtracks to know where you are
Ok so now you have all your instruments volumes playing in balance. Now this is where you need to do something important depending on what type of person you are. I tend to like to know where I am while I'm playing so I put markers into the file so I wont get lost during a live performance. This is very help full when you have allot of tracks and also when you've had a couple of Tequilas. Some people always know where they are in a track but that's not me. I put markers in to show verses, choruses and lead breaks etc. I create an audio track and give it the name of the song. I route all the instruments tracks "outputs" to bus 1. I set my recording tracks input to bus one the the output to mono out. I don't use stereo as I don't find it necessary for live gigs. Once I have recorded the file I export the midi file to my songs folder. Then I export my audio file to my audio songs folder. I open the midi file in CakeWalk. Delete all the tracks. Import the "wav" (you can only use a wav files in pre "Sonar CakeWalk" versions) file back into the midi file and save as a Normal file. Now you have your song with a time line and markers to follow. Once you have all your songs done, you can create a play list from which to play your songs. You can set them to play one after another or to have a pause before the next one plays. You can also drag them to change their order. And there you have it, my approach to editing free midi files your solo or duo cover band.
Having read all the above for the first time in a decace, I could'nt help but chuckle. The truth is I still play my tracks from CakeWalk in the same way as I did then. The markers and song list facility is very necesary for me. The real difference is I work in logic now and use the software instruments that come with the programme. I dont record the final track I just bounce it. Open in Audacity and convert to mono. Export to wave. Import into Cakewalk and add markers. Save as a project file and you done. Most solo musicians these days go straight to YouTube and download the Kareoke versions of songs. How times have changed. I still do most of my own files though as my vocal range is much lower than the originals in most cases. All the best.