Backing tracks in worship – a realistic solution for churches with only half a band or no musicians?
As part of our 10 year celebrations, we’ve been looking back at the past 10 years and sharing some of the highs and lows. The development of Worship Backing Band was certainly not without it’s traumas. Not least that the software was about 2 years getting to the technical specification we had initially dreamed of. Here Andy shares the thinking that lay behind the development of our MultiTrack Player.
Musicademy 10 years on
The development of Worship Backing Band
At Musicademy we’ve been making instructional DVDs for musicians involved in worship for nearly 10 years now but as we’ve gone on we’ve had the same question come up time and time again from a good slice of our customers. “It’s great you’re training musicians and I’m willing to learn but we’re a small church and we want to sing some more contemporary worship songs but we haven’t got a full band. Can you do anything to help us right now without having to wait two years to train up drummers/guitarists/bass players etc. etc.?”
Part of the identity of some of today’s well known worship songs is that the full band arrangement is so tightly knit into the structure of the song that if your church only has two acoustic guitars and a violin, reproducing the same ‘feel’ can be a real struggle, especially if those musicians have limited ability. Hence we started to dream and brainstorm some ideas that eventually became our series of interactive MultiTrack backing tracks called Worship Backing Band.
If I mention the words “backing tracks” some of you reading this will immediately recoil, especially if your only experience is of nasty midi files with cheesy sounds and a flute carrying the melody line; basically bad Karaoke. Thankfully with advances in technology, things have come on a long way in the last few years.
One of our customers emailed us to say “My congregation calls me a “worship snob” (lovingly) for I held out for live worship when we lost our worship leader. We fired Worship Backing Band up three weeks ago and have not flinched.
We had a fellow Believer who had recently lost a family member. I saw him sitting on his chair, hands turned upward praising God to our pre-selected tunes.
You have a reformed “worship snob” with that story alone. This is a viable product and has helped us fill the worship need of the flock. I am thankful that we can bring praise to our small congregation.” She goes on to encourage people in experimenting with backing tracks saying “Don’t be afraid to use this form of worship. It’s always on time. It doesn’t call in sick and it brings others into a state of worship. It is key to begin the service with an acute sense of being brought into the presence of the Lord. Use it and enjoy the work these musicians have prepared for you to worship with.”
Some of the resistance to using backing tracks in worship are that they don’t sound like real musicians, or they are in the wrong key or at the wrong speed or you can’t take out the musicians you already have playing live, or most importantly to some is that arrangements are set, so that you can’t repeat a verse or chorus or change the arrangement as you feel led in the moment. Essentially people want a virtual band that sounds like a real band that is completely flexible but crucially you don’t have to follow the track, it follows you.
So we started to create a full library of worship song backing tracks, played skilfully and sensitively by some of the best known studio musicians involved in today’s worship, many of whom have been involved in the original album recordings and featuring singers who actually worship when they lead, like Ben Cantelon, Marc James and Cathy Burton to name but a few. But the real problem was how to deliver those tracks to give worship leaders total flexibility. Mp3s are set so you can’t change the arrangement, multi track recording software like Garageband allows allows flexibility with instruments in the mix but doesn’t let you jump backwards or forwards to verses and chorus etc. and then there are programmes like Ableton Live which give you total flexibility but they can be expensive plus incredibly complicated to learn, set up and understand especially for the typical volunteer/non professional musician in a small church.
Eventually after much head scratching and not being able to find what we wanted off the shelf, we decided to design a software player specifically for the job. Number one priority was to make it the easiest possible software to understand especially for non-technical user, so if you are comfortable with the TV remote, you’ll be ok with this. Then it had to be cost effective for those on limited budgets, available on Mac and PC, fully downloadable and the audio quality had to be high. For the audio itself many backing tracks use MP3s. These are compressed and can sound grainy in a live setting mixed with real musicians, but we chose to use high def studio Wav files that are much more detailed. Lastly though, the software player (called Worship Backing Band Pro Wav Player) HAD to be able to follow the worship leader’s song structure changes, mix any combination of instruments, change key or tempo on the fly and all at the touch of a keyboard keystroke or foot pedal – essential for guitarists or keyboard players needing hands free operation!
Next the tracks too needed re thinking. Have you ever noticed how many songs on worship albums don’t have usable live band intros or outros, instrument parts that are impossible to pick out, maybe instrumental sections or solos that are too complex or irrelevant for congregational participation or are maybe just in the wrong key? These all had to be addressed to make the arrangements congregationally accessible. So every track has lead and backing vocals, acoustic and two electric guitars, two keyboard parts, bass, drums, other elements to fatten the sound plus click tracks, two bar intro clicks, and even a spoken word vocal cues to remind users of song sections and hard to remember lyrics. All tracks of course being completely custom mixable and saveable so you can get every song exactly as you want it.
As you can imagine the whole project has been a massive undertaking, much more complex and involving than we originally thought but one that we hope really serves small churches where they are at, right now. And as with all technology in worship, you don’t have to use it all the time just because you have it available and it should never be about replacing people, just augmenting what you have until real, skilled, live players become available.
But if they don’t be encouraged by Charmaine Wistad who wrote on our Facebook Page “At our little country church we currently have ZERO musicians and no one to lead singing. We use Worship Backing Band tracks exclusively and we WORSHIP from our hearts every single Sunday. If the Lord blesses us with musicians and lead singers someday, that would be great. But if not, we will unashamedly continue to sing our worship to God with the help of these very well produced worship tracks.”
Andy Chamberlain, founder of Musicademy and Worship Backing Band