How to choose a backing track for your choir

The issue of whether a choir can effectively sing to backing tracks is a controversial one. We use them with our contemporary choir because we want a big rock and pop sound, and it’s simply not possible for us to have live musicians playing with us all the time. It works for us.

I was asked this week by one of our readers about how I choose backing tracks for my contemporary choir and I thought this would be a helpful subject for a blog post.  There are lots of backing tracks available to buy online and if you’ve never purchased one before it can be a bit daunting. After five years of using them I’ve learnt a thing or two that might be useful to you.

I get my backing tracks from two main sources. The first is iTunes, which often offers multiple tracks for the same song, produced by several different companies.  To get a backing track from iTunes you first need to go to the iTunes Store where, if you haven’t got one already, you will need to sign up for an account.  Once you have an account, search the song you need and type the word “karaoke” after the title (I know that we’re not doing karaoke, but most of the backing tracks are tagged as such).  If it’s available, iTunes will come up with a list of different versions for you. Don’t just buy the first one on the list. It’s well worth previewing a few of the tracks because they can vary widely in quality and suitability for your choir. For example, some may be just piano, while others have a fuller rock sound. Be careful that the track you select is “instrumental only” as many tracks will feature backing vocals and in some cases even a lead vocal. You can preview a song by clicking the small circle to the left of the title. Once you decide on the track just click to buy and away you go. These tracks are very cost effective at between 79 and 99 pence.

The second source I use and highly recommend is Karaoke Version.  There are both  .co.uk and .com versions of the site depending on where you are.  Karaoke Version has a wide range of tracks available and they come in different forms according to your needs.  As with iTunes you will need to set up an account to purchase tracks but this is a simple and quick process. The great thing about using Karaoke Version regularly is that you get occasional voucher codes entitling you to a free download which is always a good bonus.  The tracks on Karaoke Version are slightly more expensive than iTunes but the tracks offer you more options.  There are MP3 backing tracks, custom tracks, guitar tracks, bass tracks and drum tracks. There are almost always “instrumental only” versions. If your song is available in custom format, you to see each instrument in the track and mute those you don’t want.  If you’re buying a custom track, you will automatically get a preview of a section of the song when you click on it.  You will need to mute the lead vocal and any backing vocals but you can also mute any of the instrumental lines which may not suit you.  There is a button to the right hand side of each line for muting.  Another great feature of this site is that you can alter the key two semitones up or down, although do have a listen before purchase as sometimes this can make certain tracks sound a little distorted. Once you are happy with your arrangement and click purchase, you can download it and any alterations in key and instrumentation you made will remain.  If at a later date you decide you need to change the track again, for example the key, you can go back into your account, click on “my files”, select the song in question, make the changes and download it again for no extra charge.  This is a really flexible system and despite being slightly more expensive than iTunes, it’s still very cost effective at around £1.50/£1.99 a track.

I hope that this is helpful for those of you thinking about using backing tracks. If you have any questions do let me know or similarly if you use backing tracks and have any tops tips or great sites to buy them from.

 

Christine Mulgrew

    Christine Mulgrew

    Christine is a contemporary choir leader who loves to help novice and nervous singers find their voice.

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    Brand - last week Reply

    We are starting an satb quartet and would like to sing to background music. Will we be able to get matching sheet music and karaoke background tracks?

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      Victoria Hopkins - last week Reply

      Hi Brand. I think you’ll struggle to find sheet music and accompanying backing tracks. There are some pop arrangements on musicroom.com. I think they’re called ‘showtrax’ and they come with a CD or download. Most of the choirs we know either use backing tracks and teach by ear, or scores and have a piano accompaniment or sing a cappella. Best of luck to you.

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    Lorraine McIntosh - a couple of weeks ago Reply

    Hello, great and insightful blog. I’m thinking of starting a contemporary choir where I live in CZ and if we get to the point of performing to others do you know if we would have to pay copyright on the backing music we use ?

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      Victoria Hopkins - a couple of weeks ago Reply

      Hi Lorraine. Forgive my ignorance but I don’t know what you mean by ‘CZ’. Most jurisdications require you to pay some sort of performance licence fee, whether that’s handled by the venue or the performers. There is almost certainly a licensing body in your country that will be able to advise you. Best of luck.

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    Stephen Robinson - a couple of months ago Reply

    Hi . I am part of a small choir (10 singers). We have difficulty getting a rehearsal pianist would you be able to help us with sourcing rehearsal and performance backing tracks ? we would be looking for SATB or SAB .
    Thanks Stephen

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      Victoria Hopkins - a couple of months ago Reply

      Hi Stephen. It really depends on what sort of backing tracks you’re looking for. For rock and pop, Karaoke Version is very good. I don’t know about more traditional choral repertoire.

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    Ryan Dillon - 8 months ago Reply

    Hi Christine,

    I am a first time teacher beginning a middle school choir in a Los Angeles charter school. How does all of this work in regard to performance rights? Will I get dinged for publishing laws by using the tracks like this? THANK YOU FOR THIS POST!!

    -Ryan

      Christine Mulgrew
      Christine Mulgrew - 8 months ago Reply

      Hi Ryan, thanks for your message. I’m afraid we don’t have expertise in how American performance rights work. As you’re starting your choir within a school perhaps you will be able to get some advice on this through your school network? We wish you all the very best with your new choir, sounds like an exciting project.

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    Andrea - last year Reply

    Hi Christine,
    Thanks so much for the blog. Are there any websites that produce backing tracks ANF compatible lyric sheets? Many thanks

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      Victoria Hopkins - last year Reply

      We like Karaoke Version for tracks, but I don’t know if anyone (except us!) who provide lyric sheets.

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    Vince - last year Reply

    so cool, our church is in a possition of having no organist, so i have been looking and found piano backing tracks which i will run through audacity to tidy up, change, etc and save as mp3. i have done this before and it works like a charm.

      Christine Mulgrew
      Christine Mulgrew - last year Reply

      Hi Vince,

      Sounds like perfect timing finding piano backing tracks, I hope these work well for you.

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    Christine Nicolson - last year Reply

    Audacity is a free music editing softwate that allows you to cut and paste music, change tempo for whole piece or just a section , change pitch, add effects. It is very powerful yet easy to use. You can import files from a range of formats like ykur keyboard or mp3 etc and export to a range of file tyes as well. I quite often use it after purchasing karoke versions to change key, and tempo, but also when you export the file back out to mp3, it condenses the size of the file from say 9Mb to 3.5, so it can be emailed to choir members, or take up much less room on a tablet or ipad.

      Christine Mulgrew
      Christine Mulgrew - last year Reply

      Thanks for your message Christine, some useful info about Audacity and options for using it.

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    Trevor Sisk - 3 years ago Reply

    (corrected) Contemporary church music publishers (Word, Integrity, etc) are well known for providing excellent accompaniment tracks. They are well mastered and usually done with a full orchestra. Personally this is i what I look for: a well orchestrated track. If it sounds cheap or “thin” or worse if it is just a recording of a piano (don’t do that, you can’t find ONE pianist in your area to come and play live??) then i’ll pass. Unfortunately I am one of those choral directors that does play the piano beyond parts, so there are times that i will purchase a track to use for rehearsal only (even if it’s bad) just in case i have a sing accompanist or sometimes it’s helpful for singers and soloists to use it to practice on their own. THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING when using tracks and choir: you must MUST have a good sound system AND a sound technician who is familiar with the live mixing of tracks and choir. High end condenser mics properly placed along with well place monitors so that your choir can hear the music is an absolute must. If they can’t hear the track, they won’t sing – obviously You will find that in order for that mix to be perfect most of your track is going to be piped through the monitors with the mics piped only to the house speakers. If you are not tech savy, then make sure you have an expert around who is who can make sure that the final sound is good. Whatever you do, don’t ever think that your choir can sing over a pre-recorded track. They can’t and won’t. They must have good equipment in order to do this. The #1 complaint people have with this kind of performance is “all we heard was the music.” You will be tempted to do things like use split tracks and mix in a little of the voices into the final mix First of all that’s cheating and if you’re going to do that, save yourself a lot of money time and effort and just play the CD for your audience – it really is like that Same with using mics for a “few good singers” so that “good” voices can be heard. Again, just have those mic singers sing and let the rest of the choir go do something more worth their time and energy. Both of these methods are cheating and when you do that you send a message to your group that they aren’t good enough, when actually it’s you that isn’t willing to “tech it up” so that it can work. You also send a message to the audience what they are watching isn’t very good and so you needed to cheat in order to get the message across. It is just like lip-syncing, so don’t do any of that. The split track versions of the accompaniment tracks are meant for rehearsal only as your choir is learning the music and how the voices go along with the track. I’ll be honest, though it is now pretty common for church soloists to use tracks and use them well, it is rare to walk into a church and find this kind of performance done well, but it is certainly possible and the added gain of suddenly having a full orchestra to back up your choir during a service and especially for special concerts raises your performance level up many notches! I use mostly track with my contemporary church choir and the most common response I get now is “oh my gosh, it sounded so professional!” It’s great fun!!

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    Val Salwen - 3 years ago Reply

    This post is another example why should totalchoirresources.com is such a wonderful find! A great topic, a comprehensive article, and the really helpful accompanying comments and suggestions from fellow choir leaders.

    Seeing as most of the comments are from the summer of 2014, I hope that we will again get some feedback from those (unlike myself) who are currently using backing tracks and suggestions on technologies and apps that are helpful to them. I’d imagine some technilogical changes have occurred in the field in the past nearly 2 years.

    Many many thanks to you, Christine, for this site and this posting, among others and to all those who are generous in sharing their experiences and wisdom. As a newbie, I feel very supported by your posts !

      Christine Mulgrew
      Christine Mulgrew - a couple of years ago Reply

      Hi Val,

      Thanks for your lovely message, welcome to Total Choir Resources, I’m really pleased you are finding the site so helpful. It’s great to share experiences and ideas with other choir leaders. I think there’s always something new to learn. Good luck with your choir ventures and do get in touch if there’s any areas of information or issues you encounter that you’d like us to cover.

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    Irene Anderson - 3 years ago Reply

    Great article Christine , many thanks . We have a pianist who is wonderful so I have never used backing tracks but am thinking of starting up an absolute beginners choir with a different repertoire and I think a full pop / rock backing could be a great boost to confidence .

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    Maddie Cordes - 4 years ago Reply

    Jennifer, it’s called Amazing Slow Downer (ASD), Maddie

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      Marie O'Brien - a couple of years ago Reply

      Amazing slow downer is a great app for all choir leaders. I find it a wonderful resource for learning and teaching parts.

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    Sarah - 4 years ago Reply

    Hi, I also use Karaoke version. If you’re using older songs, you can download some of them free, particularly Christmas songs in the custom section. Entirely agree with Maddie about the lyrics when using backing tracks. I do download from internet, but always check the fit with the backing track, make any alterations, and also emphasise backing bits, pauses, holding words etc. Another backing track provider I use is https://www.musicbackingtracks.co.uk They are a £1 each if you are ordering 15 or more and you can make suggestions for future tracks and get updates on latest additions to the stock.

    We don’t have a ccess to a musician/pianist to accompany us, so we either use backing tracks or sing aka pella. Have been following the tutorials about making your own backing tracks, but I don’t want this voluntary signing leader role to completey dominate my time!

      Christine Mulgrew
      Christine Mulgrew - 4 years ago Reply

      Thanks Sarah, I will check out the site you recommend. You are absolutely right about checking everything fits well as backing track versions do vary!

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    Maddie Cordes - 4 years ago Reply

    Hi Christine and Suzanne, thanks for the really useful article – food for thought as usual!

    I have also discovered Karaoke Version. A couple of other ways I use this are to introduce the song to the choir with the vocals so they sing along just to get familiar with it – I still teach the song and separate phases a capella separately later. If we are working with the track with a soloist and the choir are adding the backing vocals, I reduce the backing vocals to 50% and then 25% on separate downloads of the songs from the site so that they gradually get less dependent on them but can still hear them as a guide – then I take them away altogether.

    I also have recently started working with a pianist who, rather than work from a different score and have different versions of the song – ie one with a backing track and one with a piano accompaniment – I give him the backing track, with and without the vocals – I can take out the other instruments so he can just hear the piano and he learns this. He finds the chords from E-chords or similar – he is very good at learning by ear so this type of learning suits him. I also have a guitarist who can work in the same way. This worked perfectly with Happy Days which we sung for the national tour of the new musical at our local theatre. That way the choir were able to learn it with the backing track and then switch to piano when Paul visited the choir. And it means that when he’s not available the choir is confident singing to the backing track instead so we don’t have to say we can’t do that song because we don’t have a pianist this time.

    I like Suzanne’s idea on the piano accompaniments and haven’t thought of doing this. I could record a written piano accompaniment where I have the score (I’m not good at Sibelius as yet) and that would mean I could also conduct using my recording. I sometimes end up having to conduct from the piano if don’t have my fellow choir leader available for a gig.

    A few other thoughts – I have found recently two songs on Karaoke version have really long “outros” or quite long instrumental sections in the middle which I want to cut down. I don’t know how to cut and/or fade a backing track – perhaps I have to use Audacity but haven’t tried using that yet.

    The other thing to watch is that when you sample a backing track on itunes or Karaoke version (I also use Ameritz but beware very electronic sounding tracks!) you often don’t get a real feel for whether the key will suit your singers as that particular sample may not include the highest or lowest points in the range of the song. You may have to take the plunge and buy it. I discovered some software called …….. which was only £10 which allows me to change the key of any backing track on my ipad and slow down or speed up the track – very useful for learning.

    If using tracks, be really particular about matching the lyrics to that particular version of the song. You can’t rely on the internet lyric sites, you have to check every single word – choirs love to spot any differences and it’s hard to get them off the topic if they do discover one! – re-type into your own Word doc – and I also include pointers in the lyric sheets (eg harmony here, solo verse, repeat seven times, hold this note for 7 beats).

    Lastly, if you particularly want just a piano accompaniment not the fuller backing track, you can type that phrase into itunes eg “Nella Fantasia piano accompaniment” and you may find one where it won’t come up under Karaoke.

    Thanks
    Maddie

      Christine Mulgrew
      Christine Mulgrew - 4 years ago Reply

      Some great points Maddie and it’s been really interesting getting feedback on this article and seeing the different ways choir leaders tackle accompaniment and backing tracks.

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      Jennifer - 4 years ago Reply

      Hi Maddie, I’m wondering what the name is of that software you found that allows you to change key and tempo …sounds very useful.

      Thanks,

      Jennifer

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    Suzanne Eggins - 4 years ago Reply

    I use and make backing tracks for a couple of singing groups. After some trial and error, I offer these tips:
    1) As conductor, make sure you are 110% familiar with the arrangement of the backing track. How many bars of intro? How many repeats of the chorus or bridge? In what sequence? What riffs or fills between them? etc. I prefer to buy tracks from sites that provide written instructions on their arrangement (e.g. jazzbacks.co.uk). Backing tracks have no ‘give’ and generally do not vary the tempo between introduction and verse. While your friendly piano accompanist can slow down at the end of the intro and adapt to the choir’s pace throughout, a backing track pounds on regardless. Your singers will need you to bring them in and out confidently and keep them to the rhythm. Practice with the track many times on your own before you take it to the choir and always make sure that the singers can hear the track – don’t just point the speakers out to the audience.

    2) If you have some skills with a music notation application like Finale or Sibelius, you can make your own backing tracks. For example, you can write the score for a piano accompaniment that suits your choir’s arrangement of a song and then turn it into an MP3 file. Or if you have a pianist and a digital keyboard, you can record your pianist playing the accompaniment. Most digital keyboards allow you to record a midi file and then copy the file to a USB. You can then import the midi file into your notation application, e.g. Finale, which will read the midi file and turn it into a score. You can then vary the key, tempo or dynamics, fix up any mistakes in your pianist’s performance, and then export the file to an MP3 to play as a backing track. This has worked a treat with one of my groups. Our pianist is not always available for gigs, so I record her at practice and then make the tracks. The singers feel very comfortable because they’re used to singing with her accompaniments.

      Christine Mulgrew
      Christine Mulgrew - 4 years ago Reply

      Thanks Suzanne, some great suggestions. You’re quite right about knowing your backing tracks inside out before teaching the choir, they are unforgiving if you miss an entrance as they don’t adapt as an accompanist would!

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