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The home music industry seems primarily to be targeted at synthesised and loop-based dance music. If, like me, you prefer more traditional contemporary music, such as rock, jazz, country or folk, which is (thankfully!) still created using real instruments, the options are much more limited. It's all well and good if you have access to talented musicians, but many of us don't - and even if we did, they might not choose to play our style of music - at least not for free! However, help is at hand! There is some remarkable software out there that can create dynamic and authentic-sounding backing tracks in almost any musical style you can imagine! They can become your virtual band.
Band-in-a-Box (www.pgmusic.com) and Jammer Pro (www.soundtrek.com) make use of MIDI technology to generate quality instrumental tracks which can then be used as the basis for a complete song. You don't even need to be able to play an instrument, although an understanding of the fundamentals of music is certainly an advantage. All the musician has to do is input a chord progression and tempo and select a style and these programs can generate a complete backing track. They can even add melodies, instrument solos and create chord progressions for you. These programs are now so good that an increasing number of music producers are turning to them, rather than real musicians, to create commercial tracks. You can download demo versions of the programs from the respective websites.
The 2 programs have different strengths. Band-in-a-Box has literally hundreds of different available styles (although you pay extra to get them all) and creates up to 5 instrument parts plus a melody and solo instrument. As a guitarist, I tend not to use the melodist and soloist musicians, although some of the piano ones are especially good. Jammer Pro has less styles (and again you have to pay extra to have all of them). However, it can be more readily customised and allows you to easily work on just a short section of a song, auditioning different riffs until you find the one you want. It can also add far more different instruments and create complex drum and percussion parts. Jammer's only slight weakness, in my view, is that the piano parts are not especially dynamic - this is an area where Band-in-a-Box excels. So if you're really serious about creating the most dynamic tracks, you may want to consider owning both programs.

It is possible to complement the tracks created by Band-in-a-Box and Jammer using professional MIDI samples from other sources. Probably the best of these have been created by Keyfax (
www.keyfax.com). These MIDI samples are superb as they have been recorded by professional musicians using special MIDI controllers. The individual samples can be transposed, inverted or edited ad infinitum using clicks of a mouse to suit your song.

The only real drawback with creating backing tracks in MIDI format is that even the best MIDI synthesisers and sound canvasses in the world don't sound totally convincing to me. However, it is an easy matter to import the MIDI files into your sequencer and use them to trigger quality multi-sampled sounds in a software sampler/ player. As long as both the sampled instruments and the MIDI data are of a professional standard, they can convincingly replace a live recording of a real performer.

You can then also add extra sounds of your own to your song by sequencing notes using your computer mouse or a MIDI keyboard and by recording audio tracks such as extra guitar and vocals.
To demonstrate the difference between the sound of MIDI and audio created using sampled instruments, here is a demo MIDI file created in Jammer Pro: smooth_sync.mid.
This MIDI file triggers your computer's own on-board MIDI synthesizer.

Here is the same MIDI file after it has been imported into a sequencer and used to trigger quality multi-sampled instruments: