Tech Tip:Enhance Your Act with Backing Tracks


by Craig Anderton

 

 

 

Jennifer Hudson did it while singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Kiss does it. Even classical musicians playing at the President's inaugural do it. Sometimes it seems everyone uses backing tracks to augment their live sound. So why not you?

 

 

Yes, it's sorta cheating. But somewhere between something innocuous like playing to a drum machine, and lip-synching to a pre-recorded vocal rather than singing yourself, there's a "sweet spot" where you can enhance what is essentially a live performance. A trio might sequence bass lines, for example, or a drummer might add pre-recorded ethnic percussion. However, you want something bullet-proof, easy to change on the fly if the audience's mood changes, and simple.

 

 

I SYNC, THEREFORE I AM

 

 

If a drummer's playing acoustic drums and a sequencer's doing bass parts, the drummer will have to follow the sequencer. But what happens if there's no bass to follow at the beginning of a song, or it drops out?

 

 

The solution is in-ear monitors (besides, monitor wedges are so 20th century!). Assuming whatever's playing the backing part(s) has more than one output available, one channel can be an accented metronome that feeds only the in-ear monitors, while the other channel contains the backing track. If there are only two outputs the backing track will have to be mono, but that doesn't matter too much for live performance.

 

 

 

 

BACKING TRACK OPTIONS

 

 

The simplest backup is something that plays in the background (e.g., drum machine, pre-recorded backing track on CD, iPod, MP3 player, etc.), and you play to it. RAM-based MP3 players are super-reliable. They don't care about vibration, don't need maintenance, and have no start-up time.

 

 

However, you can get CD players with enough anti-skip memory to handle tough club environments (just don't forget to clean your CD player's lens if you play smoky clubs).

 

 

Another advantage of a simple stereo playback device is potential redundancy: Bringing another CD/MP3 player for backup is cheap and easy to swap out. The biggest drawback is musical rigidity. Want to take another eight bars in the solo? Forget it. A few drum machines give you some latitude (even the venerable Alesis SR-16 can switch between patterns and extend them), but with most players, what you put in is what you get out.

 

 

To change song orders, just use track forward/backward to find the desired track. But the backup track player will always have to start off the song, or you'll need to hit Play at just the right time to bring it in.

 

 

WHAT ABOUT COMPUTERS?

 

 

As many of the parts you'll use for backing tracks probably started in a computer sequencer, it makes sense to use it for your backing tracks. This is also the most flexible option; for example, if you sequence your backing track using Ableton Live (or most other hosts), you can change loop points on-the-fly and have a section repeat if you want to extend a solo (Fig. 1). Cool. It's also easy to mute or solo tracks for additional changes.

 

 

 

 

Fig. 1: Move Live's loop locators (the looped portion is shown in red for clarity) on the fly to repeat a portion of music.

 

 

 

As to reliability, though, computers can be scary. Few laptops are built to rock and roll specs, although there are exceptions. Connectors are flimsy, too; at least build a breakout box with connectors that patch into your computer, then plug the cables that go to the outside world into the breakout box. Secure your laptop (and the breakout box) to your work surface. Tape down any cables so no one can snag them. On the plus side, the onboard battery will carry you through if the power is iffy, or if someone trips over the AC cord while passing out drunk. Not, of course, that something like that could ever happen at a live performance...

 

 

 

 

Desktop machines are sturdier, and can be easier to fix in an emergency. But then you also need a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and uninterruptible power supply (remember Anderton's Law of Things: "More things means more things can go wrong"). Then there's operating system reliability. Granted, Mac OS X and Windows XP are way more stable than their predecessors, but a system crash caused by something like a rogue plug-in can ruin your evening. Redundancy is a good, but pricey, alternative.

 

 

A convenient and reliable solution is the built-in sequencer in keyboard workstations (e.g., Roland Fantom, Yamaha Motif, Korg M3). If you're already playing keyboard, hitting a Play button is no big deal. You may also be able to break a song into smaller sequences, creating a "playlist" you can trigger on the fly to adapt to changes in the audience's mood. And with separate outs, sending out a click will probably be dead simple.

 

 

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF AN EXIT STRATEGY

 

 

With live backing tracks, always have an exit strategy. I once had a live act based around some, uh, unreliable gear, so I patched an MP3 player with several funny pieces of audio recorded on it into my mixer. (One piece was a "language lesson," set to music, that involved a word we can't mention here; another had a segment from the "How to Speak Hip" comedy album.) If something needed reloading, rebooting, or troubleshooting, I'd hit Play on the player. Believe me, anything beats dead air!

 

 

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF AN EXIT STRATEGY

 

 

With live backing tracks, always have an exit strategy. I once had a live act based around some, uh, unreliable gear, so I patched an MP3 player with several funny pieces of audio recorded on it into my mixer. (One piece was a "language lesson," set to music, that involved a word we can't mention here; another had a segment from the "How to Speak Hip" comedy album.) If something needed reloading, rebooting, or troubleshooting, I'd hit Play on the player. Believe me, anything beats dead air!