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.
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.
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.
THE LAPTOP FACTOR
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.
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...
THE iPAD OPTION
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.
THE SEQUENCER SOLUTION
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.)
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!
Craig 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.