You are performing on stage, and you need some backing tracks, right? Well, you need to understand how the systems work before doing what you need.
Some people call it playback rig, backing tracks player, playback systems, tracks machine, and many other names. And whatever you think it is, I will be taking you through steps to use one, just like in this video.
The truth is, modern music is quite demanding. This is because of the level of perfection expected from audiences and performers. We see perfect arrangements and recordings that are perfectly time-aligned all around us.
Technology is catching up with us, many of which try to make things easier for musicians all over. Even though there are many musicians who still hold to the old tradition guided by personal integrity, there is always that temptation to try “something new”.
We are all in a competitive world, where consumer demands keep rising by the day. If you think your honesty will reward you, your competition is sweeping theirs under the carpet to capture the hungry eyes concert-goers – most of whom are innocently fed with “unreal” voices.
If you feel like giving in to the temptation, at least you need to know how the systems work and how to use them. And I will be teaching you that.
Backing tracks basics
Before you use the systems, it is vital to know what it is, and what you will need. Backing track means using pre-recorded pieces of music for live performance. In other words, a band, or an artist plays-along to a live performance, video, or any other area.
Many modern artists use backing tracks to make their performance better. It could because they are easy to add in a show and cheaper than hiring extra persons on stage.
Many people confuse backing tracks with karaoke versions of songs and drumless tracks. Understand that these are two different things.
Setting up backing tracks may require you only to have a laptop, a digital audio workstation, cables, and an audio interface.
In the past, bands use MP3 players integrated with a stereo audio splitter. This process is no longer used because of reliability issues, unlike using a computer laptop computer.
I love a MacBook Pro for this kind of job. And they are very popular with modern musicians. You may have even noticed some of them once or twice on stage; this should mean the band is using them as MIDI controller.
What are the options for using backing tracks?
As stated above, using backing track systems is very easy. All you need to do is pick your method, and you are good to go. In this case, there are several options to pick from. Consider the following:
Using an iPad or iPhone
The thing about using these options is portability. It is the easiest method, where you only need your iPad or iPhone as the backing track player.
And there are many applications to help you with this. For instance, the SoundCue is an app that is easy to use and compatible with many user needs. It will get you running within minutes,
If you already have an iPad or iPhone, then you don’t need to buy anything else. But make sure you turn off all notifications from the device so that you don’t get interruptions in the middle of your performance.
Using sample pads
And sample pads, like the Roland SPD-SX, have become very popular because they allow you to play along your backing tracks.
Roland has been at the forefront of creating cutting edge technology for drummers, and this item does not disappoint.
The SPD-SX lets you easily load your backing tracks directly from external storage, like a USB drive, or connect to a laptop computer.
It is very easy to use too. All you do is hit the pad you want, and everything falls into place. You will get the backing track assigned to the pad running immediately.
Also, the pad lets you connect directly to a PA system of an amplifier with a cable. And the best part is, you can use a sample pad as a standalone device. You don’t need to connect to a laptop is for you don’t want so many devices around you.
The SPD-SX is very easy to use. This is why it has become a favorite tool for many musicians. And it is very sturdy on stage, which makes it very functional.
Using your laptop
You will need to instant a DAW software as well as an audio interface on your laptop to use backing track features.
With that set-in place, a laptop can be the most flexible way to use backing track functionality. However, you will need to make sure it does not crash on stage. This happens a lot and makes many performers feel embarrassed when their audience discover they have back up tracks playing.
In this case, there are three important things you should set right:
- The laptop. You will need a reliable laptop to use playback. May play love using Mac Pro because it is one of the most reliable machines on the market. Besides, it is compatible with any music software. You will need to get the right configuration a well.
- DAW software. One of the most popular DAWs is Ableton Live. It is an excellent choice for playing backing tracks and can do much more, including recording your music. There are many other options like LiveTracker and Reaper, which will give you great satisfaction too.
- Audio interface. An audio interface is professional music hardware that lets you connect the audio ins and outs to your setup. You will need to connect this interface to your computer to get the right sounds out. It comes with ¼-inch jacks and XLR connectivity. This will help you connect an amplifier, a PA system, and get the right sounds for enhancing your performance.
Various methods or Using backing tracks
Apart from the options above, there are various approaches that can be utilized to create a remarkable performance. Some of them are easy, while some are a bit complex. It all depends on your needs and preferences.
Consider the following methods:
Lip-syncing is a method that does not sit well with many musicians. It is one of the most debatable options you will find around.
Music purists feel that it is a method to not the right way to entertain your audience. Lip-syncing involves the artist’s lip-singing alongside a track. This method is not considered live performance, though. And this is why it is very debatable.
Mirrored backing tracks
Mirrored backing tracks are used for vocals. They are pre-recorded vocal music pieces used for live performance.
Using this approach adds a certain dimension to the quality of performance. It lets the performer concentrate more on-stage presence than on the singing.
Many performing vocal artists use this method. And it is very easy to implement, something that makes them extremely applicable.
Many people use tracked bands as an economic-driven approach to offering entertainment. For instance, touring musicians may not be able to carry all their equipment all over.
Drums and similar hardware are usually very heavy. As such, moving around with them can be costly and impossible.
Hence, they use instrument-specific backing tracks. If a band is missing a keyboardist or a drummer, they will simply play the saved tracks to save the performance.
Using effects and background music
Drum backing tracks are used not only so a full performance but for effects sounds as well. There are some sounds that cannot be produced during a live performance. Therefore, the drummer pre-records them using sampling pads or other electronic drums gear.
It sounds that would require a lot of design work, production, and mixing are made in a studio first. Then they are carried to a performance for additional support.
Some bands also use this approach to include a more in-depth approach in the background. You may hear sounds such as synth pads, orchestral music, or ambient vocals playing in the background during a performance.
This is just one way of making a performance livelier and giving the audience something more.
How to set up a playback system with a laptop
Using a laptop is the most expensive approach to a drum backing track setup. But it is also the most reliable.
You will need a good software like Ableton Line, that gives you many options for outputs and stereo signals. It will get you everything you in a single setup.
For instance, you can route keyboard sounds inside a stereo, far from bass tracks. You will need a laptop, an audio interface, and a Radial Pro D8.
The laptop connects to the top unit through a USB. The playback will take place directly through the Ableton Live, and the click comes out of the MOTU through the headphones.
Next, you have to connect eight patch cables from every analog output on the audio interface. The 8 XLR cables go into the front of the house from the back of the Radial Pro D8.
Seems too much, right? Well, for the best sound output, having everything separated this way will is an assurance.
One thing I love about this set is that it gives you fill controlling. You will be getting the best out of music software like Ableton, which is not very easy. You can also pre-program the entire show as like.
But you will first have to pick the right software. Here are a few popular choices.
- Ableton Live Digital Performer
No matter what you choose, you have the ability to move to choose the songs are you desire and set them in different lists for varying shows.
The setup is very portable. You can easily carry it inside a pedalboard and unroll it in your next drum set up on stage.
Also, you get two or four channels of tracks. Most simple playback setups only offer one channel or of tracks and one-click channels. But with this setup, you get up to four channels.
Besides, you can also create and use a personal mix. You can do this by either using a mono sent or stereo send from the monitor engineer at the show. This price gives you more control as you can create the best mix for the show.
What you need
For the laptop setup, make sure you have:
- A laptop
- An audio interface, ling the MOTU UltraLite-mk4
- In-ear monitors; a good choice is Shure SE425s
- XLR Male to ¼-inch TRS Snake cable. This depends on the number of outputs you want to achieve.
- Digital Audio Workstation. Ableton Live is the most recommended software for playbacks.
- Two TRS Cables.
- USB cable.
Is an audio interface necessary?
The audio interface is hardware that enables the laptop to play the audio. In other words, your computer becomes more reliable and stable during a show.
If you don’t want to use one, you can still run mono backing tracks with splitter cables. You will need a click panned to the right while the tracks keep to the left.
But I would recommend you invest in an audio interface. You can connect up to two laptops and enjoy unlimited streaming.
Get your backing tracks ready
This can be a very tiring process. You want to ensure your backing tracks are ready and set in a specific way.
And there are many ways to do this. You will need a pre-mixed stereo .wav file and click track matching said .wav file.
Import your desired tracks inside the DAW and create a separate audio channel for manual programming. Copying and pasting MIDI is easy.
And once the tracks are all on-boarded, you are ready to bounce down. The export dialogue inside the DAW will be useful. You can start mixing down the backing tracks and click on another until you have everything organized.
Set the Ableton
There are many ways so going around this process. But in this case, you can use two audio channels; one goes to the external Out ½ while the other is your track channel.
Also, note the click track channel that goes to the External Out ¾ as the headphone mix out.
Ableton Live defaults to warping your files. Meaning, it sets your tracks automatically to the Live tempo. You can easily correct this using the built-in tempo functions.
Not you can get the Monitor Mix inside your Ableton session. For this, you will need another audio channel. Go to CREATE -> AUDIO CHANNEL and create one.
On this new channel, check that the Audio From -> Ext. It is on ½ set. Set to ‘NONE,’ you other channels, backing tracks, and Click Tracks. Also, ensure the Ext. Out set to ¾ so that the monitor mix back is not sent to the PA.
Using the setup on stage
Now you have everything setup, controlling your playback rig on stage should be easy. Press the ‘Enter” or “Return” key on the Ableton to launch a track. You should see them highlighted. You can also use a MIDI controller to start a song.
Backing track player pros
There are a few benefits to creating your won playback system. They include:
- Enhance sounds for live performance.
- Larger sounds without spending on extra musicians.
- A wide range of pre-programmed arrangements to wow your audience.
Backtrack player cons
There are also downfalls to this technology.
- You have to use a click track, which may break during a performance,
- A long setup times.
- Potential technical issues.
Is it ethical to use backing tracks?
This is a question that has brought up various reactions from many experts. Personally, I don’t see anything “wrong” or “right” about using backing tracks.
If you are in a band, I don’t think you will be cheating if you use backing tracks. This is because modern bands have a lot to give to their audience.
You will find an audience expecting a lot of mixes and interfaces, just to make the performance livelier. Hence, you can use play-along features recorded music.
This enables you to achieve a unique performance. But it may not be easy for performing sole musicians on stage.
That is perhaps where the issues arise. A mechanical mix of performers on a stage can always find their way around the performance. You will notice artistes using backing tracks while trying to entertain their audiences.
However, lots of music experts and artists criticize the use of playback functions. They think it is just something you can scoop so low to do. Not everyone has the same opinion, though.
I will leave you to decide since we are not discussing the good and bad of using backing tracks.
Meanwhile, let’s get back to ‘how-to’ use one effectively.
There is a continuing debate on the viability of using backing tracks in a performance. Some purists consider it is a show for untalented musicians.
It is not entirely true, though. When it comes to drumming, there is so much one has to do to satisfy their audience. Therefore, using backing tracks become the best approach. If anything, it should make you a better musician – my opinion.