How to record a cover song using Band-in-a-Box and RealBand

If you want a detailed step-by-step guide on how to make and perform with Band-in-a-Box backing tracks, have a look at my eBook "Band-in-a-Box 101: A  beginners guide to making and performing with Band-in-a-Box backing tracks"

Hello Band-in-a-Box lovers! I hope you have had an awesome and musical 2017 and that 2018 will be just as productive. This is my last blog post of the year and I will be back in 2018 refreshed and ready to write.

In this blog I am going to take you through the steps that I use to record a cover song using Band-in-a-Box and RealBand.

Every year I record a public domain Christmas song. The one I did this year is based the Robbie Burns poem "Old Lang Syne" set to the tune of a traditional folk song.  The poem was written in 1788 and is generally used to sing out the old year and welcome in the new one. It is by association, also sung at funerals, graduations and farewells.

I seem to be going through a bit of a James Taylor phase at the moment and found a Christmas album recorded by Taylor in 2006 that is simply chock-a-block full of James Tayler-ish interpretations of some classic Christmas tunes. Here is his version of "Auld Lang Syne"


And here is my cover version of this song.


So, here is a short summary of the steps I took to produce this cover. If you want to learn the complete process in detail, please check out my video course First song with Band-in-a-Box for windows

1. Determine meter, tempo, chords and key of the original song

The first task is to figure out if the song is in 4/4 time (ie it has four beats in every bar of four beats). Many many many MANY songs will be in 4/4  so try this first. If you can count ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three,four etc..then the song is in all likelihood in 4/4. (It may be in 2/2 or 2/4 but don't worry too much about that). If you end up counting ONE, two, three ONE two, three then the song is probably a waltz and is in 3/4 time. If you feel like you want to count ONE, two, three, four, five, six, ONE, two, three, four, five, six then it is most likely in 6/8 time. There are other more unusual types of meter but you will probably survive with these for now. This particular song is in 4/4 time.

Next you need to figure out if the original song is a "swinger" or not and whether you want your cover song to "swing" or not. Now I am not talking about the type of party you sometimes go to where you put your car keys in a hat and go home with the person whose keys you later draw out of said hat. I am rather talking about the feel or "groove" of the song. Does it make you want to sashay across the room or does it make you want to bunny hop across the room. If you feel like sashay-ing then it is probably has some "swing" in it. If it feels like the notes are alternatively lengthening and shortening then it probably swings. Anyway, the point it is you should decide on an even or a swing beat and stick with that decision throughout the song. For this song, I decided on an even beat.

Next determine the tempo of the original song. Simply count the number of beats for one minute and that is the tempo.

Now is the tricky part (well for some of us anyway) which is to figure out the key and the chords. If you can figure chords out by ear then by all means go ahead and do it that way. For the rest of us, we can use some tools at our disposal. Firstly get hold of the  MP3 of the original song and use the Audio Chord Wizard inside BIAB to help you figure out the basic chords, key and structure. Open the MP3 in the Audio Chord wizard. Play the MP3 and set the first bar of the song. Double check that the tempo is more or less what you have already determined. Then select "Ok - send  to BIAB".

Band-in-a-Box will be populated with the chords from the Audio Chord Wizard. You will need to set the key as suggested. In the 2018 version of Band-in-a-Box, it will ask you if you want to set the key but otherwise just pull down the key and set it to the suggested key (without transposing).

Now, to start with I always simplify the chords and get rid of all the off-putting "sus" chords, the "9th"s, "6th's and "7th"s plus all the "double" chords. So where it says A/C# I will make it A and where is says G/B I will make it a G. I will then put all the part markers in. I generally use the blue markers for the verse and the green for the chorus. Then I will check the chords on I will also play along with the original recording on my guitar and make any changes I deem necessary. I sometimes also use a "chord pick out" program similar to this one Chord pick out application

If you battle to figure out the key and the chords to the song you can always find the sheet music. I use quite a lot. I recently did a blog post on this subject How to create a backing track from a lead sheet in Band-in-a-Box

After a bit of fiddling around, here is what I ended up with in Band-in-a-Box for Auld Lang Syne.

2. Pick a Style

Next go into the style picker and try and find a suitable style for the song.  First try and find the song itself in the song database. 

Now, for this particular song, I didnt expect to find the James Taylor version in the song database so I also tried just looking for James Taylor.

After spending a bit of time auditioning the various suggested styles, I settled on the Lite Pop w/ songwriter guitar as the basis for my song.

3. Find the best key for your voice 

Now play around with the key until you get it right for your voice. In this example, the original song was in D, For me, I needed it to be in F. So I pulled down the key tab and selected to transpose the song into F.

4. Continue project in RealBand

Save your project as an SGU file and fire up RealBand. Open up the SGU file. The first time you do this it will take a while for RealBand to generate the tracks from the SGU, so a little patience is required. However, once you have saved your project at a SEQ file (RealBand's file type) it will open very quickly.

5. Record, edit and tune lead vocal and harmonies

Now, start with the recording of your vocals and harmonies. Note: you will need either a USB microphone or an audio interface to record into RealBand. This is quite an involved topic that I wont go into here. However, I have gone into quite a bit of detail on this topic in my video course First song with Band-in-a-Box

There is also a previous blog post you may find useful 5 steps to recording harmonies using Band-in-a-Box and RealBand

Here is a picture of what my RealBand session looked like after I had finished recording, editing and tuning all my vocals and harmonies. As you can see, I do a fair amount of editing of the vocals and harmonies and I also use a mixture of generated and sung harmonies. I use Melodyne to fine tune the vocals as well as to line up the sung harmonies with the lead vocal but that is a personal choice. If you don't have or don't believe in Melodyne you will get along just fine without it. I also use the Izotope Nectar plugin on the lead vocal but failing that you should at least apply PG Dynamics and a touch of PG Reverb to your your lead vocal (to taste)

6. Sweeten your arrangement

Now comes the creative bit! Listen carefully to the original song and make notes on how the song is arranged. Ie, what instruments play where, when and how loud. Then make notes of how you want your own arrangement to sound. For example, you may have something like this:

Bar 1   : Intro: Just piano and finger picked guitar playing 
Bar 5   : Lead vocal comes in. Piano very low but still there. Mainly finger picked guitar 
Bar 13 : Bass starts. Piano comes back in. Soft accordion comes in 
Bar 21 : Drums start 
Bar 41 : Second chorus has some vocal harmonies 
Bar 49 : Drums change and electric guitar comes in 
Bar 57 : Last chorus. More harmonies and background vocals are added 
Bar 65:  Outro. Just piano and finger picked guitar again

Listening carefully and making notes about the original song does not necessarily mean you are going to copy it. Rather it just gives you some ideas of how great songs are arranged and how you may want to apply some these techniques to your own version of the song.

Now audition additional Realtracks and add them to your project. For this song I used the style Lite Pop w/ songwriter guitar as a basis. I then added the accordion, the electric guitar, different drums and a couple of midi super tracks for the piano.

After you have all the instruments that you need you can start editing your tracks according to how you want the arrangement to sound. So for example, I wanted the bass to come in at bar 13 and the drums to come in at around bar 21 so I deleted those sections that I did not want to hear. Note; when editing drums you may find you want to leave in the drum roll that Band-in-a-Box generates before the bar you want to the drums to start playing in. Note also that working inside RealBand means that if you later decide you do actually want the bass playing in the intro after all you can simply regenerate the bass Realtrack. Here is a close up of where I deleted the bass and drum parts inside RealBand.

Next, I will do some volume editing on the tracks. Say I want a specific track still there but very quiet, I will just permanently reduce the volume of that track in that particular section.  I have found the volume envelopes in RealBand to be slightly unreliable. Plus, if I ever decide I want the original back I can just regenerate the track. To make volume edits just select the part of the track you want to edit, right click and choose "audio effects" and then "gain change". 

I almost always add some "holds" to make my arrangements more interesting. Here is a picture of where I added holds to certain instruments in certain places in Auld Lang Syne.

Using holds is a wonderful way to very easily add interest to your arrangement and can make the song sound a lot less like the other songs made with Band-in-a-Box. If you are interested, there is a whole blog post on this topic Create interest in your Band-in-a-Box song using holds

Finally, I will add some effects to the RealTracks. I must say that I do not do very much processing on the Realtracks themselves because I feel that all these tracks have been recorded by world class musicians by world class engineers in a world class studio. Thus, any processing that I do is more likely to mess them up than anything else. I will usually just put a 3 to 6 db cut in all the instruments in the mid range so that they do not compete with the vocal. I may sometimes add some reverb to one specific instrument if I feel it needs it and also I may sometimes add a small amount of compression and some EQ where competing instruments need some space. But other than that, I leave well alone!

Here is a picture of the final version of Auld Lang Syne.

7. Render to WAV 

First listen to the song all the way through and watch the output meter at the bottom right hand side of the screen. It should be kissing the yellow, but never getting too close to smooching the red. You may need to adjust the master slider or even adjust some of the individual tracks to make sure that you don't see red on playback.

I always use WAV files as much as possible and only use an MP3 where I cannot use a WAV file. If I am uploading to Youtube or Soundcloud I will always use the WAV file.

Mastering the song is an involved, contentious and complex process that I go into quite a bit of detail in this post Options for mastering your Band-in-a-Box song so I am not going to talk about it much here. Suffice it to say that I use the free program Audacity to do the final preparations on my song. I import the WAV file rendered in RealBand, give it a hair cut at the start to make the intro not more that 1/2 a second and to get rid of the clicks. I normalise the volume to 0.0 db and then apply an Izotope Ozone preset to the song. The preset I use the most is "Country basic". I then save the song as a wav and an Mp3 and apply some metadata tags. Then it is done. My cover song is ready to go. 

This particular song was a public domain song so there was no problem releasing (or even selling) the final result. If, however, the cover song that you have recorded is not in the public domain, then you will need to obtain the correct licenses in order to distribute, sell it, put it on a CD or upload it to Youtube as a back drop for your cousins wedding photographs. That said, Youtube is quite tolerant of this unless you try to monetize your video. Uploading it as a native Facebook video is not advisable. Check out CD Baby for a one stop solution to licensing, releasing and selling your song.

I hope you enjoyed this post and please feel free to drop any comments as well as your own tips and tricks in the comments section below. I would love to hear any songs you manage to record using these techniques so send them over to me. Remember also that all of the techniques described here are explained more fully in the course First Song with Band-in-a-Box video course