How to Create Backing Tracks for Guitar Covers: A Tutorial

If you record guitar cover videos for YouTube, you should consider using backing tracks. This tutorial explains how to create your own backing tracks from scratch in a digital audio workstation (DAW).

If you record guitar covers for YouTube, playing along with a backing track is a great idea. You can find free backing tracks of varying quality for many popular songs on YouTube and other platforms. What if you can’t find a backing track for the song you want to cover, however? Learning how to create your own is easier than you may think! This tutorial will take you through the process of building up guitar backing tracks from scratch.

Please note that this is the main tutorial in a longer series of backing track tutorials. I will expand upon certain steps in greater detail in future posts, so do consider subscribing if you find this content helpful and want to learn more about the process going forward.

Please also note that while this tutorial is created with guitarists in mind, it can also be adapted for other instrumental covers or vocal covers.

Supplemental Tutorials

To further refine your learning, please refer to the following supplemental tutorials:

  1. How to Create a Good Backing Track Template
  2. How I Record Electric Guitars Without an Amp
  3. How to Build a Tempo Map for a Backing Track in Cubase
  4. How to Add MIDI Drums to Guitar Backing Tracks
  5. How to Humanize MIDI Drums in Backing Tracks
  6. How to Fix Audio Recording Mistakes by Punching In and Out

Learning Objectives

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

  • Import reference audio into your digital audio workstation (DAW)
  • Figure out your reference audio’s tempo and set it in your DAW
  • Sync your reference audio with your DAW’s metronome
  • Clearly label each section of the song
  • Set up drum tracks, bass tracks, and other instrument tracks
  • Mix your backing track in preparation for recording your guitar cover

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’ll need the following equipment:

  1. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
  2. Virtual instruments
  3. Audio interface (optional)
  4. Bass guitar (optional)
  5. MIDI controller (optional)

As I have written previously, my preferred DAW for creating backing tracks is Cubase. If you are already more familiar with another DAW, however, please do not think that you must purchase Cubase in order to benefit from this tutorial.

Virtual instruments are a whole subject in and of themselves. At a bare minimum, you will need a virtual drum kit and a virtual bass guitar for most popular music — assuming you do not own a real drum kit or a real bass. Other virtual instruments you may need to acquire include virtual pianos and synthesizers, among others. Future posts in the Gear category of this website will discuss some of my favourite virtual instruments and sample libraries, so keep checking back if you’re interested in learning more.

A real bass guitar is optional but, in my opinion, always preferable to the sound of a virtual bass. MIDI controllers are optional as well. They are worth considering for those of you who know a little bit about playing the piano, however, as they are more convenient to use compared to the process of drawing in MIDI events on a piano roll editor.

Tutorial

Step 1: Set Up Your Backing Track Project in Your DAW

Backing tracks tutorial: how to set up a backing track template.
My backing track template.

I like to organize my backing tracks before I even start building them, as it helps me to focus and ultimately saves a lot of time. The best way to do this is by creating a template that you can use for all of your backing tracks. I’ve outlined how to set up a good backing track template in my supplemental tutorial here.

The idea is to essentially frontload your project with all of the tracks and virtual instruments you will need throughout the process of creating your backing track, rather than adding, recording, and modifying each element of the backing track one by one.

Once you’ve created a backing track template of your own, use it to start a new project in your DAW. Remember to save your project frequently.

Step 2: Import Your Reference Audio

Reference audio, in this case, simply means the original studio or live recording you’re covering on your primary instrument. It’s helpful to import your reference audio to your project so that you can use it as a guide when building up your backing track. I won’t tell you how to rip audio from YouTube or Spotify, but there are multiple resources out there if you need them.

If you’re using Cubase and you followed my tutorial on how to set up a good backing track template, simply do the following to import your reference audio:

  1. Navigate to the “Reference” Audio Track you created under your “Samples” folder.
  2. Click on the track to highlight it.
  3. Hit File > Import > Audio File.
  4. Find your reference audio on your computer.
  5. Select the file and click “Open.”
Backing tracks tutorial: how to insert your reference audio.
Importing your reference audio.

You will now see the audio file on the “Reference” track.

Step 3: Figure Out the Song’s Tempo

Many songs are recorded at a fixed tempo with a click track or metronome. This makes life a little easier when you’re building backing tracks. Some songs and live performances were not recorded at a fixed tempo, however. If this is the case for the song you’re covering, please refer to Step 6 for more assistance.

There are multiple ways to figure out a song’s tempo in beats per minute (BPM):

1. Search for the tempo using your search engine of choice.

Plug in the title of the song into your search engine, along with the artist’s name and “BPM.” You should come up with a few hits. Be aware that these almost always refer to the official studio versions of the song, and do not necessarily reflect the tempos of various live versions.

2. Use your DAW’s automatic tempo detection feature.

Some DAWs (usually in the more expensive tiers) can automatically detect the tempo of an audio file. Refer to your DAW’s product manual for more information on how to do this.

3. Manually figure out the tempo by using tap tempo features in your DAW.

Most DAWs have a tap tempo feature at all pricing tiers. I use Cubase Elements 12, so this is how I personally figure out tempo. In Cubase, simply navigate to Project > Beat Calculator to open the Beat Calculator in a new window. It’s set to analyze four beats at default, but you can increase that number if you wish. Start playing the track, then click on the Tap Tempo button. Click your mouse or tap your space bar in time with the beat, and the calculated tempo will appear in the window. Round it to the nearest whole number: that’s the song’s BPM.

4. Use a third-party tempo analyzer.

Do a search on “analyze tempo” in your preferred search engine to locate third party tempo analyzers, like Tunebat or GetSongBPM. Follow the listed instructions. I have not personally used these tools myself, so I cannot speak to their accuracy.

Step 4: Set the Tempo and Time Signature in Your DAW

How to set project tempo in Cubase.
Setting the project tempo and time signature in Cubase.

Once you have the song’s tempo figured out, set it in your DAW. In Cubase, you will find the project tempo field next to your transport controls (e.g. your stop, play, record buttons). The default tempo is 120 BPM — highlight it and change it to the tempo you found in Step 3.

While you’re at it, you can also set the project’s time signature. Most rock songs are in 4/4 time (Cubase’s default), but you may be covering a song in 7/4, 6/8, et cetera. If you need help with figuring out time signatures, Musical-U.com has a good guide with audio examples.

Step 5: Align the First Beat of Your Reference Audio with the Grid

To ensure that your reference audio is synced with your DAW’s internal metronome and grid, you will need to position your reference audio appropriately. I like to position reference audio such that the first beat of the song falls on the second or third bar on the grid.

By doing it this way (rather than aligning the first beat with the first bar), you’ll give yourself enough lead-in time to prepare yourself when you’re recording your cover.

How to align the first beat of your reference audio in a backing track.
Aligning the first beat of your reference audio.

To do this in Cubase:

  1. Ensure your Project Time Display is set to “Bars+Beats” by right-clicking the grid ruler and selecting the appropriate option, or by clicking Project > Project Setup and selecting the appropriate option under Display Format.
  2. Expand the Audio Track vertically and zoom in so you can easily see the transients.
  3. Turn off grid snapping in the tool bar above the grid ruler.
  4. Drag the track so that the first beat you hear (usually the first transient) is aligned with the second or third bar (in the example above, the transient is aligned with the second bar, represented by the numeral “2” on the grid ruler).

If you aligned the track appropriately, your DAW metronome should now be in close to perfect time with your reference audio — assuming that the song was recorded at a fixed tempo.

Step 6: Create a Tempo Map (Optional)

If the song you’re covering was not recorded at a fixed tempo and fluctuates throughout, the above three steps of this tutorial will not suffice. When faced with an inconsistent tempo, some people turn off their DAW’s metronome and ignore the grid. I would argue that this is not ideal, however, as the grid is a massive help when you’re building MIDI tracks for looped synth parts or copying and pasting commonly repeating drum patterns.

It’s possible to force the reference track to snap to the grid at a fixed tempo by using time warp features in your DAW. This alters the rhythmic feel and can drastically sap the energy out of the song, though. The best solution in this situation is to create a tempo map instead.

Think of tempo maps in this way: rather than squashing and stretching the music to adhere to the grid, tempo maps force the grid to adhere to the music. Not all DAWs have this feature, so be sure to use a compatible DAW if you plan on covering songs or live performances that were not recorded with a click track or metronome.

Creating tempo maps is an intermediate to advanced technique that I cover in greater detail in my supplemental tutorial on tempo maps.

Step 7: Clearly Identify Each Section of the Song (Optional)

If you followed my backing track template tutorial, you’ll know I like using the Arranger Track in Cubase to label each part of the song I’m covering. If this is not a feature of your DAW, you can also use markers or other labeling alternatives if you wish.

Arranger Track in use in Cubase Elements 12.
The Arranger Track in use in Cubase Elements 12.

By clearly labelling each section of the song, it’s easier to copy and paste drum patterns. It’s also easier to locate your drop-in points when you make mistakes and need to re-record a particular section. The Arranger Track can even be used to quickly build up backing tracks for songs that feature limited variation between each verse and chorus.

To add events to your Arranger Track in Cubase:

  1. Select the “Draw” tool above the grid’s time ruler.
  2. Turn on your grid snapping.
  3. Listen closely to your source material.
  4. Use the Draw tool to add song events on the Arranger Track.
  5. Label each section appropriately by clicking on each event and editing the name in the top left corner of your screen. By default, each event is labelled with a letter of the alphabet.
How to edit the Arranger Track label.
Editing the Arranger Track label.

You can map out the song further by adding the song’s chord progression to the Chord Track. This is not necessary if you’re very familiar with the song and don’t need the visual guide. It can be helpful, though, if you can’t play piano well and want to use the Chord Track to play chords automatically through a piano VST.

The process of adding chords to the Chord Track in Cubase is almost identical to the process of adding Arranger Track labels. Simply add chord progression events with the Draw tool, then double click on each event to specify the name of the chord played.

Step 8: Play or Map Out the Drum Track

MIDI drum mapping.
MIDI drum mapping.

You can set up your cover’s drum track in one of two ways: (1) record the drums in time with your reference track using an acoustic or electronic drum kit; or (2) map the drums out with your DAW’s MIDI editor, using the reference track as a guide.

Most guitarists do not play the drums (unless you’re Paul McCartney or Dave Grohl), so using a virtual drum kit and MIDI is what many of you will end up doing. This is a somewhat drawn out process — hence my need to break it up into multiple supplemental tutorials.

To add a drum VST to your backing track in Cubase, simply navigate to your Drums folder, then click Project > Add Track > Instrument and select a drum VST from the list. Once you’ve added your VST, please refer to my supplemental tutorials on adding MIDI drums to backing tracks and humanizing MIDI drum tracks.

Step 9: Add in a Vocal Track (Optional)

As guitarists, we often rely on the singer for our cues. If you’re recording with a backing track that has no vocals to remind you, for instance, when the chorus is coming up, you may end up making unnecessary mistakes. One solution to this issue is to add in a vocal track (in addition to your reference track) that you can remove later, if you wish.

If you’re vocally inclined, you could record the vocals yourself. Another option is to strip the vocals from your reference audio using an audio splitter, like Moises. Once you’ve isolated the vocal track, you can simply import it into your DAW and align it appropriately.

You may be asking yourself: why not just use the reference audio for cues? The reason for this is that your MIDI drum track might not align perfectly with the drums on the original track, even if your MIDI drums are “in time.” Real drummers often lag or pull ahead of the beat ever so slightly, and it is simply too time consuming to perfectly align every single beat in your MIDI track. Even the most subtle difference in beat placement on the drums can influence our timing on guitar. If you record your cover while listening to the reference track, you may therefore end up slightly out of sync with your backing track when you later mute the reference track.

Another reason to avoid listening to the reference track when you’re recording guitar is this: playing over an original recording can “mask” any mistakes you might be making. If you record while listening to your backing track, rather than the reference track, the only guitar you’ll hear will be your own, and any mistakes you make will be noticeable immediately.

Step 10: Play or Map Out the Bass Track

Stock image of a white Fender Precision Bass guitar.
Photo by Nicolas Lochon on Unsplash

Adding bass to your backing track can be achieved with a real or virtual instrument. I personally think that a real, physical bass will always sound better than a virtual bass, but the latter can still sound reasonably good if you’d prefer the virtual route.

If you followed my backing track template tutorial, you’ll have already added a folder and Audio Track for your bass recording. The easiest way to record bass is to record the direct signal using an audio interface. This process is identical to the process of recording a guitar’s direct signal, which I have written about in a tutorial here. Simply follow the steps listed in that tutorial, and record your bass track while listening to your drum track (and optional vocal track).

Bass tracks often work well without any effects or amp models. Just add a bit of compression and EQ to your direct recording, and you’re usually good to go. As with guitars, however, digital modeling for bass is expanding. Many guitar-oriented modelers (such as the Line 6 Helix family) also include bass amps and effects. There are also many bass-oriented plugins to choose from, such as Neural DSP’s Parallax plugin. You may find these useful for shaping your bass tone.

If you don’t have a real bass, don’t fret. Fairly decent-sounding virtual basses exist, such as MODO BASS 2 and EZbass. These VSTs can be played in your DAW with a MIDI controller. Compared to virtual drums, however, it’s a lot harder to emulate certain sonic elements that make a bass sound “real,” such as the sound of your fingers sliding across the strings.

Given the cost of these VSTs (approximately USD $200), I’d recommend buying a cheap Squier bass instead, but it’s up to you.

Step 11: Add in Other Instruments and Samples As Needed

Drums, bass, and vocals are often all the backing you’ll need. If you’re covering a song that also features piano, synthesizers, strings, horns, woodwinds, or other instruments, you’ll want to add those in as well to make your backing track sound more authentic. This is most easily achieved through use of — you guessed it — more virtual instruments.

Some of my synth VSTs.
Some of my synth VSTs in use on a project.

The biggest challenge of this step is finding the right VSTs. Try to do a little research to find out, for instance, what synthesizers may have been used on the song you’re covering. There are a lot of paid and free synthesizer emulators out there, so there’s no need to spend big bucks on a real Yamaha DX7 or a Roland Jupiter-8.

Arturia has an excellent collection of vintage synth VSTs (wait for a sale before you buy any of them, though). Spitfire Audio also has a great selection of free sample libraries in their LABS series of products. Almost every single one of my backing tracks uses LABS samples — an absolutely fantastic resource.

Once you’ve found a suitable VST or sample library, set up a virtual instrument track as you did in Step 8, and either record your keyboard playing with a MIDI controller or draw in MIDI notes. If you record your keyboard playing, be sure to turn off any Auto Quantize features (unless your timing is poor and you need some automated assistance with it).

Step 12: Do a Rough Mix

Once you’ve laid down every element of your backing track, do some rough mixing to prepare for your guitar cover. The mix does not have to be perfect at this stage, as you will adjust it more once you record your actual guitar cover. The idea here is to simply balance each instrument such that one doesn’t overpower the rest.

Your reference track will be your best friend here. Adjust each of your tracks’ faders or output levels in a way that matches what you hear in your reference track. A helpful thing to do while you’re setting your individual track levels is to alternate between hitting “Mute” and “Solo” on your reference track. Hitting “Solo” will mute your backing track, and hitting “Mute” will mute your reference track. Alternating quickly between the two will make it easier to hear what adjustments you need to make.

Step 13: Make a Backup

Once your rough mix is complete, so is your backing track! Save the file one last time, then save it again under a different name. This new file will be the project file you’ll use when recording your guitar cover.

Having a backup is so important when you’re doing something as time consuming as building a backing track from scratch. It’s also useful to have another mix you can refer back to while doing the final mixing on your cover. After potentially spending hours tweaking your mix, hearing your original backing track can either remind you that you’re on the right track, or can help you make some necessary changes.

Conclusion

I hope you found this tutorial on how to create backing tracks helpful. The process can be time consuming, but it’s well worth it — especially if you plan on uploading guitar covers to YouTube. Check back soon for more supplemental tutorials, and feel free to ask any questions.


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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