When it comes to MIDI files on the Net you have two options; either trawl through the myriad of illegal pirate sites or deal with a professional. Paul Farrer separates the pros from the cons.
Anyone who has even a modest synth setup is likely, at some point or another, to have been asked to come up with a 'backing track' for a well known song. From the pushy mother hoping to turn her 12‑year old daughter into the next Bette Midler (don't ask) to the solo cabaret singer trying to put a credible live set together, over the years I will admit that in my quieter moments I have hired out myself and my studio to the worst of them.
Ten years ago your choices were fairly limited — you either got in touch with one of the tiny number of specialist companies offering this type of service or you rolled up your sleeves and worked out the chord structure and arrangements yourself.
The onset of General MIDI and the success of the Internet have done away with all of that now, and there are many younger programmers who will never need to know the pain and humiliation caused by trying to work out the chords to 'Wind Beneath My Wings'.
As with almost everything on the Net these days, you'll find that (from a search engine point of view) legitimate businesses, who offer professional MIDI files programmed to a high standard, tend to rub shoulders with all sorts of pirate sites and bulletin boards containing files of dubious origin. I say dubious because there are many sites that allow you to download 'song' files for free that then turn out to consist of little more than a single un‑quantised piano part that only lasts for a minute and a half. Very often, the better files which you find on these sites are lifted wholesale from legitimate sites and, as with anything else which you download onto your beloved hard drive, it pays to be absolutely confident of its origin before proceeding.
Pay Your Money, Make Your Choice
One of the first (and arguably the finest) places to check out has to be Comtracks —(www.comtracks.com) a leviathan of a web site that boasts access to over 13,872 titles. This UK‑based site features good search engines to help you find the exact file you're looking for and, with access to the files from companies like Heavenly
Music, Blue Fish Music and Power Trax, if you can't find what you're looking for here, the chances are you won't find it anywhere. Prices start from £3 per song and secure on‑line purchasing allows you to download your files immediately. There is a wide range of music styles, incorporating classical and country music as well as the usual pop favourites, and with 4,000 MIDI demos on offer it's easy to 'try before you buy' and get a good feel for the type of quality you can find here. Alongside individual song files, Comtracks also offers a wide range of complete albums and medley collections which, if you intend to download a lot of material, provides great value for money.
If you're looking for something exclusively classical The Academy of Digital Music (www.minuet.demon.co.uk/admusic.htm) offers a wide range of classical and baroque music compilations to download for a small fee. It also features a good amount of background information on the composers listed as well as some interesting links to other classical music sites.
Australian backing track company (www.users.bigpond.com/musicman/) offer both MIDI files and downloadable MP3 backing tracks. Their site has a particularly well laid out search facility and prices start from 15 Australian dollars.
The site at Hands on MIDI (www.hands‑on‑midi.com) greeted me with a few bars of Kylie Minogue's 'Spinning Around' the instant I logged on — I took this to denote a very healthy interest in up‑to‑the‑minute dance floor kitsch, particularly from such a big international site. This is another gargantuan site featuring huge numbers of song files searchable by both title and artist. Prices start from 7.49 Australian dollars per title and you get a good selection of free demos allowing you to gauge the quality of the programming before you buy. The selection boasts some blindingly up‑to‑date song titles (I managed to find six of this week's UK top ten) and files purchased on‑line are emailed directly to you.
If it's rhythmic ideas which you're after, point your browser at (www.drumtrax.com) a site devoted to MIDI drum patterns with the emphasis on live performance, feel and groove. The library of tracks is impressive (over 25,000 measures of drumming) and the demos on offer give a good indication of what you can expect to find should you decide to go ahead with a download. The UK's very own Keyfax (www.keyfax.com) has long been a valuable resource for MIDI inspiration, hardware and software and their site continues to offers a good variety of programming ideas for those looking for a sample CD‑type approach to MIDI. Here you can purchase on‑line from their renowned Twiddly Bits library as well as download some free goodies in return for filling out a meagre questionnaire.
More Backing Tracks
The Midimusic site (www.midimusic.com) has a number of interesting and useful links and forums and connects you to a German site for its backing‑track catalogue. You'll find a fairly impressive collection of song files here but you'll have to fight your way through the site's heavy Germanic slant — choosing to list every conceivable type of German Party music and that 'ever in demand' MIDI favourite The Austrian Chart Hits ahead of international hit singles! There are similar cultural difficulties at (www.midipal.co.jp) which boasts a large number of song files but very little English.
My vote for 'site of the month' award goes to (www.eatsleepmusic.com) which presents what it calls the world's first on‑line karaoke bar. If that wasn't enough to have you running for your life, the banner promising 'New Christian Karaoke Songs — With Lyrics!' should. Actually, if you're brave enough to fight through all the usual limp‑wristed, sing‑a‑long Karaoke crappola, you'll find a web site that effectively offers free audio streaming for a huge number of backing tracks. You see, I told you to stay with it. OK, so they come with scrolling lyrics and the quality isn't exactly Pro Tools, but as a resource for backing tracks for research and (at a pinch) performance, this has to rate as one of the best so far. There is also a page which allows you (for a small fee) to download 'professionally programmed' MIDI files from their comprehensive catalogue.
The MIDI Headquarters web site (www.midihq.com) is another site which pools the efforts of several other companies to offer over 7,000 licensed song files for sale. There is a strong American country/Latin feel to this site and it has good secure on‑line facilities and a well specified search engine, making navigating through the site easy.
Another 'Hands on MIDI' site (apparently a different one from the one already mentioned) (www.handson.co.za) is a beautifully laid out and well presented web site published by two musicians from South Africa. It has a wealth of popular MIDI files and an intelligent pricing structure which offers significant bonuses depending on how many titles you purchase, whether you want lyrics and so on. Prices are listed in US dollars, South African rand and sterling, with single titles costing around £4 each.
Australia seems to be the place for MIDI files this month and the Bandtrax site (www.bandtrax.com) is another fine example of Antipodean professionalism. This comprehensive and highly polished web site offers thousands of MIDI file titles organised in the usual way as well as allowing you to view the most popular downloads of the past weeks, months and years. Waving the Aussie flag, there is a strong slant towards bands like Savage Garden, INXS, Men At Work and Abba (obviously a Muriel's Wedding thang), but with access to their huge vaults, you're unlikely to come away disappointed. There is a good selection of free downloadable demos to try and again, the pricing structure reflects the number of titles you buy. Prices start from 14 Australian dollars.
Although not strictly a pay site, the good old fashioned fun Web award of the month goes to Perfesser Bill Edwards Professional Purveyor of Pleasingly Pianistic Pyrotechnics (www.perfessorbill.com). This site is devoted to the eponymous 'Perfessor Bill' and his burning passion for old time and ragtime piano classics. Apart from the familiar Scott Joplin, Bill displays an almost encyclopaedic passion for the more obscure pianola sounds of yesteryear and offers many great‑quality MIDI file downloads. Another good place to look when you've grown tired of the Backstreet Boys is (www.albany.net/~dowland/sound.html), a small but strangely elegant site offering a number of 'Early Music' MIDI downloads. Featuring the sounds of the lute and guitar, this is one of many interesting medieval music sites that not only teaches you about where music came from but, best of all, is unlikely to annoy the MCPS as the composers have all been dead for centuries!
The Great MP3 Debate
One of the most controversial music sites on the Internet at the moment has to be Napster (www.napster.com). Laws relating to technological developments usually come some time after those technological changes and the Napster debate has arisen from the time lapse between technological and legal evolution. The Napster web site has gained mass popular appeal while the music industry at large has been left wondering what to make of it all.
Essentially an MP3 database, Napster made tabloid headlines by putting the fear of God into copyright owners by allowing quick and easy downloading of all sorts of music and audio files. While the legal ramifications of a site such as this are highly complex and have yet to be fully established, it is presently still possible to log on and get hold of masses of free MP3 song files (see the Crosstalk column in the April 2000 issue of SOS and the June 2000 Cutting Edge feature for more analysis of the issues raised by Napster). The site requires you to download Napster's own search program which then allows you to locate MP3s of specific artists.
From the point of view of someone looking specifically for backing tracks (and while there are obviously nowhere near as many of these files as conventional recordings) it might pay you to type 'Karaoke' into the search engine and begin your search from there. As with all non‑payment sites, the main issue here is one of quality. Whilst the sound quality of an MP3 has the potential to be very good (easily good enough for a live backing‑track), a good number of the backing‑track files I found reeked of low bandwidth encoding and mediocre MIDI programming. Indeed, there are more than a few files that sound as if they were programmed by a teenager on a cheap PC soundcard and recorded directly to an MP3 encoder for uploading. Ultimately, whether or not you view Napster and other MP3‑type sites as a serious resource for hunting out backing tracks or merely a springboard for ideas about working on backing tracks of your own largely depends on the level of quality you hope to get out of the end product.