How to Create a Good Guitar Backing Track Template

DAW templates can help you to save a ton of valuable free time when you’re creating backing tracks. Learn how to create a good backing track template for your guitar covers from start to finish!

I’ve been making my own backing tracks in digital audio workstations (DAWs) for years now. If there’s one thing I wish I’d known about when I first started out, it’s project templates. So what are they, exactly? Project templates are session files with pre-defined tracks, effects, routing settings, and more. They can streamline the backing track creation process significantly, giving you more time to do what you love most: playing guitar. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to create a good backing track template in a DAW, using Cubase Elements 12 as an example.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this tutorial, you will understand how to:

  • Identify common musical elements in the genres you want to cover
  • Separate these elements into well-structured, colour-coded folders
  • Re-route track outputs as necessary
  • Save a backing track template you can use for all your guitar covers

If you are unable to meet these objectives, feel free to reach out for assistance via YouTube. Be sure to include the title of this tutorial in your comment, so I’ll know which one you’re referring to.

Gear Requirements

To complete this tutorial, you only need one thing:

  1. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

My preferred DAW is Cubase, for reasons I outline in this post. If you don’t use Cubase, though, don’t worry: most DAWs these days permit the use of project templates. If you’re not sure that template creation is a feature of your DAW, consult your DAW’s online documentation before proceeding.

Tutorial

Step 1: List the Instruments Most Commonly Used in the Genres You Want to Cover

A Yamaha organ,
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Think about the musical genres you want to cover. Besides guitar, what other instruments do you most often hear in those genres? Make a list, as you’ll want to structure your guitar backing track templates around those instruments. If you mostly cover songs in the style of 80’s New Wave, for instance, your backing tracks will almost always need bass guitars, synthesizers, acoustic drums, or electronic drums.

Step 2: Start a New Project in Your DAW

The process of starting a new project will differ slightly for each DAW. In Cubase, for instance:

  1. Open the program.
  2. From the Steinberg Hub screen, select “Prompt for project location.”
  3. Click “Create Empty.”
  4. Navigate to or create a target folder (e.g. “Templates”).
  5. Click “Select Folder.”

This will open up a brand new blank project under your target folder.

Step 3: Add a Chord Track (Optional)

I like to start my backing track templates by adding a blank Chord Track to the top of the project. Simply click Project > Add Track > Chord. The Chord Track can be used to graphically represent a song’s chord progression, which can be helpful when you’re recording. In Cubase, you can also use the Chord Track to automatically add MIDI events to a selected Instrument Track, change chord voicings, and more.

A screencap of Cubase Elements 12, demonstrating the Chord Track.
Example of the Chord Track in use on a Cubase Elements 12 project, with the track size enlarged to draw your attention to the feature.

Please note that not every DAW has this feature. If you want this feature, be sure to thoroughly research a DAW before you purchase it. Also, note that you will have to manually transpose any chords in a song recorded with alternate guitar tunings, such as E♭. More expensive versions of DAWs, like Cubase Pro, have a Transpose Track that make this process much easier.

One way or another, this step is optional. Feel free to skip it if having the chord progression visible in your backing track is unhelpful when you’re recording covers.

Step 4: Add an Arranger Track (Optional)

The Arranger Track is another optional aid that can help you visualize a song’s structure. As with the Chord Track, it is not available in every DAW. If you think this feature will help you, ensure that the DAW you’re interested in has something like it before you make your purchase.

To add the Arranger Track to your backing track template in Cubase, click Project > Add Track > Arranger. Any events added to the Arranger Track will be assigned a colour automatically.

A screencap of Cubase Elements 12, demonstrating the Arranger Track.
Example of the Arranger Track (uppermost row) in use on a Cubase Elements 12 project.

In Cubase, I use the Arranger Track to separate the song I’m covering into its different musical sections. This is extremely helpful when I’m copying and pasting certain drum patterns and need to know exactly where to drop in the MIDI events I’ve copied. It’s also helpful when I need to re-record a particular verse or solo, as I don’t have to guess its location on the project timeline — I can simply look at the arranger track and adjust my start point appropriately.

You can also use the Arranger Editor to create and flatten Arranger Chains. This feature is mainly useful for sketching out original song ideas, but can also be used to create simple backing tracks quickly. For the purposes of this tutorial, I won’t go into any great detail on how to use the Arranger Editor. Just be aware that it’s an option that can help you streamline the backing track creation process even further. Consult Steinberg’s manual if you want to learn more, or ask me about it via YouTube.

Step 5: Create Track Folders for Each Backing Track Component

Folders are the most effective way to keep your backing track projects organized and easy to navigate. Remember that list you made back in Step 1? That will come into play here.

I personally start out by adding a folder for Samples. This is where I add my reference track(s) and optional click tracks. I then create separate folders for Drums, Bass, Guitars, Keys, and Effects. Note that you can also create subfolders within your folders. My Keys folder, for example, is further divided into Pianos and Synths.

To add track folders in Cubase:

  1. Click Project > Add Track > Folder.
  2. Enter a name for the folder.
  3. Click “Add Track.”

If you added the Chord and Arranger Tracks in Steps 3 and 4, you can keep these visually separate from your folders in Cubase by clicking Project > Divide Track List. Drag everything that isn’t the Chord Track and Arranger Track down below the divider (which is represented by four small boxes). The divider will ensure you can always see your Chord and Arranger track at the top of your project window without having to scroll vertically.

Step 6: Add Additional Tracks to Your Folders

Set up tracks that will be ready to go every time you need to start a new backing track project. To do this, click on one of the folders you added in Step 5, then click Project > Add Track and select from the available options to add any track you might need. The kinds of tracks you’ll need to add to each folder will vary, depending on how you personally want to create your backing tracks and record your guitar covers.

A screencap of Cubase Elements 12, demonstrating my folder and track setup for my backing track template.
Example of how I set up my folders and tracks for my backing track template in Cubase Elements 12.

For instance, I always use reference tracks (i.e. the original studio or live recording) to aid with the process of structuring my backing tracks. Reference tracks are also helpful for guitar tone matching. I can streamline the step of adding reference tracks to my backing tracks by adding a blank Audio Track to my Samples folder in my template and naming it “Reference Track.” When I later use the template, I simply import my source audio to that pre-created track without adding a new track to the folder.

As another example, when it comes to guitars, I prefer to record my dry signal and route it to a digital modeling plugin (usually Helix Native) for processing. To do this, I add a blank Audio Track to my dry guitar subfolder, named “Guitar (Dry)”, along with a blank Group Track, named “Guitar (Amp)”. On the Group Track, I then add an instance of Helix Native by clicking on the Inserts tab in the track Inspector window to the left of the screen. If you wanted to record your processed sound from a hardware digital modeler, however, you could simply add a blank Audio Track to the folder and skip the Group Track. It’s really up to you.

Step 7: Re-Route Tracks as Needed (Optional)

Sometimes, you will want to pass audio from one track through another track, rather than send it directly to the Master output. Refer back to my example in Step 6, for instance, where I route my guitar’s dry signal to a Group Track containing an instance of Helix Native.

In Cubase, re-routing is very simple to do:

  1. Click on the track you wish to re-route.
  2. In the Inspector panel, you will see the Input and Output routing icons towards the bottom section of the first tab.
  3. Click on the Output routing (which is set to “Master” at default).
  4. Click on your new routing path to re-route the output. In the example below, I re-route my dry guitar’s output to the Group Track named “Guitar Amp.”
A screencap of Cubase Elements 12, demonstrating how to re-route a track.
Re-routing a track in Cubase Elements 12.

If you do route one track to another for processing, be sure that the processed audio does eventually get sent to your Master output, or you won’t hear it when you bounce down your cover’s final mix.

Step 8: Colourize Your Folders and Tracks

Some DAWs automatically assign new colours to folders and tracks as they’re added to a project. Other DAWs, like Cubase, assign a single colour to new folders and tracks. Assigning different colours to your folders and tracks makes it easier to identify the different musical elements of your backing track projects.

To colourize your folders and tracks in Cubase:

  1. Hover over the folder you want to colourize. Ensure that the folder is expanded by clicking on the folder icon, so you can see the various tracks contained within the folder.
  2. Highlight the folder by clicking anywhere in the rectangle (other than on the folder icon itself), then hold the Shift key and click on the last track within the folder.
  3. Click Project > Colorize Selected Tracks (or hold Alt + Shift + C).
  4. Click on your preferred colour for the folder and its contents.
  5. Repeat for all remaining folders and tracks.
A screencap of Cubase Elements 12, demonstrating how to colourize folders and tracks in a template project.
Colourizing selected tracks in Cubase Elements 12.

By default, Cubase only shows eight basic colours. You can increase that number significantly by clicking Project > Project Colors Setup (or holding Alt + Shift + S) and tinkering with the presets.

Step 9: Save Your Project as a Template

Once you’re happy with your template, it’s time to save it. The process of saving a project as a template will differ a little for each DAW. To do so in Cubase:

  1. Click File > Save as Template.
  2. Enter a name for your backing track template under New Preset.
  3. Click OK.

Your project is now saved as a template that can be loaded in a new project and modified without altering the original template file.

Step 10: Test Out Your Template

Once you’ve saved your template, start a new project. When starting a new project, DAWs that permit templates will give you the option to start a blank project, or pre-load the project with a template. Cubase is a little counterintuitive on this front, as the Steinberg Hub doesn’t explicitly make reference to templates (why, I’m not entirely sure).

To test out your template in a new Cubase project:

  1. Click File > New Project.
  2. The Steinberg Hub will pop up. Note the various icons under “Projects” (e.g. “Recording” and “Scoring”). These contain Steinberg’s template presets for various musical genres and types of DAW projects. Click on the “More” icon to locate your backing track template.
  3. Under “Empty,” you’ll see the name of the backing track template you created in Step 9. Click it, and then click on the “Create” button.
A screencap of Cubase Elements 12, demonstrating how to select a user defined template.
How to select your backing track template in Cubase Elements 12.

You should now have a brand new project with all of your folders, tracks, settings, routing, and other pre-defined backing track elements loaded and ready to go!

Conclusion

A good backing track template will save you valuable free time when you’re recording guitar covers. While the initial template setup can be tedious, think of it as time you won’t have to spend on every backing track and guitar cover you create in future.


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

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