Understanding the Terminology
Before I get started, I'll introduce some common terms and their definitions in the recording industry for this exercise.
A DAW, or a digital audio workstation, is a software that allows you to record and create sounds.
In this tutorial I'll be using Cubase as the DAW. You can also use other popular DAWS including Protools, Logic Audio, and Sonar.
How you'll create a cover song is by first finding a MIDI version of the song. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.
When you find a MIDI track on the internet and download it, you are downloading a file that essentially tells your recording software, in this case Cubase, what notes to play for specific tracks.
The MIDI file itself does not contain any sounds or instruments, it is simply a data file that tells the software to play a specific instrument or set of instruments using specific notes and velocities.
A DAW generates instrument sound by using plug-ins called VSTs. The acronym VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology and essentially it is a sampler that generates the sounds of the instrument that was programmed
Most VST sounds are samples of actual instruments, the creators will record actual drums or guitars and create samples from them, which lends to their ability to sound like a real musician played the instrument and not a computer.
For this tutorial I'm using the following VSTs:
- Shreddage II VST—guitar sounds
- Shreddage Bass VST—bass guitar sound
- Native Instruments Kontact Sampler with Drum Lab VST
- Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5—guitar amp modeler
To make music sound more produced you'll also want to apply some basic effects. Some of the most commonly used effects include reverb, compressor, limiter, delay, and chorus.
Where to Find Free MIDI Files
You can find finished MIDI files, for a project, on the internet and the best part is most of these file are completely free to download.
There are a few sites that sell hard-to-find MIDI files which are typically newly released songs or hard to find songs, but for the most part you will likely be able to find a MIDI cover song that you want for free.
You can find a song by typing in [name of the song] MIDI into a search engine.
In this tutorial I searched for I Love Rock and Roll Joan Jett MIDI.
There are several sites that host free MIDI files, two of the most popular sites are http://free-midi.org and http://midiworld.com. I have also found links to free MIDI files in YouTube, Vimeo and SoundCloud as well.
Once you've downloaded a MIDI file and installed Cubase—or a similar DAW—you can get started making a cover song track with the following steps.
Setting Up a DAW
Import a MIDI file by going to File > Import > MIDI file and select the MIDI file from the file explorer.
The tracks and their instruments will display. In some cases a MIDI file may not list the instruments like shown in the below graphic, which will force you to guess which track is assigned to which instrument.
This is a rare case that can be dealt with either downloading a better MIDI file, or by assigning pianos to all tracks and using your ears to figure out which is bass, drums, and so on, through auditioning each track separately.
Assign VST instruments
Now give the tracks instruments; follow these steps to assign the VSTs.
I'm using Drum Lab which is available inside the Kontakt Sampler. Select this VST by clicking in the VSTs black menu space to open the menu, then select Kontakt 5.
Double-click the Drum Lab.nki option as shown.
You'll see the Drum Lab VST to the right. You can tweak settings but the defaults will be fine for this exercise. Once you are done, close the sampler by clicking the red X.
I'm using Shreddage II which is also available inside the Kontakt Sampler, you can follow the same steps as for the drum VST.
Shreddage II will appear in the Kontakt Sampler. You can tweak settings, but the defaults will be fine for this exercise. Close the sampler by clicking the red X.
Shreddage Bass is loaded to the same Kontakt 5 Sampler, however instead of selecting it from the left-hand side as you did with Drum Lab and Shreddage II, you'll drag-and-drop the Shreddage Picked Bass Combo.nki from the file explorer window into the sampler.
Shreddage Bass appears in the Kontakt Sampler. You can tweak settings, but the defaults will be fine for this exercise. Close the sampler by clicking the red X.
Guitar and Bass Amps
The guitar and bass right as-is will not have distortion or other effects that you might want, it will sound the same as the natural instruments do through an amplifier that has no effects.
You'll need to insert an amp modeler to give the instrument the sound you want. In this tutorial I'm using Guitar Rig 5 and the Rammstein amp modeler.
- Click on Inserts as shown in the below graphic to drop down the window
- Select the amp modeler you like by following these steps
- Select Guitar Rig from the Inserts menu
- Select Guitar Amps inside the Guitar Rig sampler
- Select the amp model you desire
Select the preset you require. Tweak the settings, if you like, by adjusting the rack items on the right.
Inserting Compressors, Reverb and Other Effects
Select effects the same as you selected the amp modeler in the first step. This graphic shows the selecting of a reverb effect from the same Insert menu.
You can learn more about the use of effects in the MIDI Effects In Cubase tutorial.
Optimizing the mix is rather complex when doing full commercial productions.
Skill, as well as a trained ear, is needed to balance the levels of instruments and to find the right EQ and effect settings so instruments don't clash or sound bad, but for the purpose of this basic tutorial I've only presented how to mix the track down using defaults.
Go to File > Export > Audio Mixdown
The Export Audio Mixdown window will appear.
Setup the mixdown as follows:
- Enter the name for the track in the File Name field
- Select the path you want to save the file to in the Path field
- Select the File Format, for this tutorial I'll mixdown an
MP3, however you can also select
.aifffile from the menu if you prefer
Leave the bit rate at 320 and the sample rate at 44.100kHz.
If you want to see the file name and other info in an MP3 player, check off ID3 tag and then click the Edit ID3 Tag button to bring up the ID3 tag window where you can enter your metadata.
Click the Export button when you set all the parameters.
The file will export to the location you selected in the path file.
Setting up a DAW to record cover songs is a rather easy endeavor for non-musicians with the new MIDI and VST technologies. This means that a singer can save not only time, but also money by producing their own cover song backing tracks. While audio recording software can look intimidating, following the basics in this tutorial will allow you to create a basic yet quality cover song for your demo or for a karaoke night.
While this tutorial focused on setting up Cubase to use Native Instruments samplers and VSTs, you can apply the same technique to other digital audio workstations, as well as other brands of VSTs.
Once you've created your first song, you can use this song as a template to speed you up on future cover song productions. The more you practice the art of producing music, even cover songs, the easier producing music will get.