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  • Enhance Your Live Act with Backing Tracks

    By Anderton |

    It's Like Viagra for Live Performance


    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.




    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.




    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.


    But these days, it's also possible to use machines designed specifically to play backing tracks - like the Boss JS-10 eBand (Fig. 1). This can play back WAV or MP3 files from an SD card (32GB will give you around 50 hours of playing time - perfect for Grateful Dead tribute bands). You can also create song files specific to the JS-10.






    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. 2). Cool. It's also easy to mute or solo tracks for additional changes.



    Fig. 2: 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...




    For less rigorous needs, an iPad will tale care of you. In fact, the SyncInside app ($8.99 from the App Store; see Fig. 3) lets you hook up a USB interface using the camera connector kit, and can output stereo tracks as well as a click through headphones (assuming your interface is up to the task).



    Fig. 3: The SyncInside iPad app was designed specifically for playing backing tracks in live performance situations.


    OneTrack is another iOS app for playing backing tracks, but it works with iPhone and iPod touch as well as an iPad.


    iOS solutions can also be convenient because nothing's better for live performance than redundancy. If you have an iPhone and an iPad, then an app like OneTrack can live in both places - if one device dies, you're still good to go.




    A reliable solution, and very flexible solution, is the built-in sequencer in keyboard workstations (e.g., Roland Fantom, Yamaha Motif, Korg Kronos, etc.). 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 a multitrack sequence, you have the flexibility to mute and mix the various tracks if you want to get fancy (Fig. 4). What's more, as most workstation keyboards have separate outs, sending out a separate click to headphones will probably be pretty simple.



    Fig. 4: Yamaha's workstations have sophisticated sequencing options, as evidenced in this screen from the Motif XS.


    Another option is arranger keyboards. Casio's WK-6500 isn't an arranger keyboard in the strictest sense, as it's also a pretty complete synthsizer workstation (Fig. 5).



    Fig. 5: If you're looking for a keyboard-based backing track solution, arranger keyboards, and keyboards with auto-accompaniment like the Casio WK-6500, will often give you want you want.


    However, it does include auto-accompniment features and drum patterns with fills, ends, and so on. And with a 76-key keyboard, you can enhance your backing tracks with real playing. How's that for a concept? (The price is right, too - typically under $300.)




    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!


    5318ee70b5728.jpg.c7183e3ecf460dab58aec338a5930817.jpgCraig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

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    I am a solo musician and have been using backing tracks for my live gigs for many years. Nowadays you can find MIDI and MP3 backing tracks for free all over the internet. When I started playing with backing tracks all that was available were MIDI files that I bought, made myself, or both as they always seem to needed tweaking for your module and taste. Recently I have been finding some excellent MP3 backing tracks that just sound fantstic, I currently use a Roland SD50 for my live act, it can play WAV, MP3, and MIDI files, as it has a sequencer and sound module,  you also have the abilty to change pitch and tempo to the MP3 files which is HUGE! and it runs on SD cards, so I have enough room for non backup tracks as well.  My Fender Gdec30 is another wonderful "all in one" player amp and speaker that also plays MIDI and Mp3 files off SD cards, great for practicing, and I have to say the backing track band is never late, has perfect pitch and tempo too.....

    Michael D.


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    I have the utmost respect for Craig Anderton for as long as he has been writing articles about electronics/gear...& fully realize that his ongoing support of advanced technologies makes sense, in that it welcomes new ways of creating music to new generations. But, I need to inject my "old school" mentality into the debate.  I will semi-grudgingly admit that subtle use of backing tracks or background enhancement via samples/loops might have their place, but a performer should be able to get his/her point across with instrument & voice...alone.  Yes, it's fun to hear something flown into the background, but not necessary if the raw talent is there. 

      What pisses me off is the schmoe who set up his karaoke system, hits "Play", bangs on a few guitar chords, & sings on top of a completely pre-recorded backing track...to an audience of "low information" listeners that think, "Wow, this guy sounds just like the CD!". Umm, well, yeah...because it IS the friggin' CD.!!!   Now, looping, via Kellar Williams, that's real-time creativity, but please...take it easy on using The Boston Symphony as a crutch.

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    There are some "secrets" to using backing tracks live that can determine whether your audience fills the dance floor or fills your ears with boos and catcalls.

    First, consider the audience.  If you're playing a coffee shop where people are used to hearing acoustic acts then you might not want to whip out your JS-10.  On the other hand, if you're playing a club where people want to dance they'll likely just be happy with a beat and not worry too much where it comes from.

    Next, consider WHAT to include on your backing tracks.  Drum track or beat of some sort?  Good idea if club has people who are used to dancing.  Ditto for a bass guitar or a bass synth track.   More than this and it gets perilously close to karaoke.  You can probably get away with a simple backing vocal mixed low, maybe even a quiet string pad or simple keyboard part used sparsely but if you start putting in horn sections, fiddle players, full string quartets, elaborate vocal arrangements and the like people are going to notice there's only one or two of you on stage.

    Basically, you want to play and sing the "featured" parts and any prerecorded stuff that takes the attention away from what you're doing live is likely a bad idea.

    Finally, one of the most important things to do is make the backing track sound "live."  That means the level of compression / limiting of the backing tracks should, at a minimum, be the same as the live tracks.  This usually means using raw, uncompressed tracks for the backing that have full dynamic range, same as the live performers.  You *can* go the opposite route and compress the live parts to match the backing, but then you're venturing perilously close to karaoke territory again.  The sole time (IMO) that you want to go this route is when you're streaming music up to the internet, not when you're playing a club in front of a live audience.

    My group often performs as a duo with backing tracks from my JS-10.  We already have all the instruments from our CD on separate tracks, so we create a sparse mix from those and don't compress / limit / master that mix so it sounds more live than recorded.  This has the huge advantage that it sounds complex and organic, since after all it was played by a drummer and bassist, not created in a computer program.  It's imperfect, it breathes, it has dynamics and energy, it sounds like real drums and bass because it is. An expert programmer can replicate this, but it's not easy.

    And yes, we have a "bail out" plan in case we get lost (never happens, honestly, we could play these songs in our sleep by now) which is to use the foot switch to stop the backing tracks and finish a capella, hoping it seems like flair to the audience rather than a train wreck.

    I really wish they made the JS-10 without the speakers attached, they're pretty useless at a live show and make the box bigger than it needs to be.  Otherwise, this is one amazing device, quite an improvement over the JS-3 which I used for years before buying this.

    Terry D.

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