How To Run Backing Tracks Live: The Ultimate Guide For Your Band

Let’s face it:

Modern music is perfect. Arrangements and recordings are perfectly quantized (time-aligned to a grid) in almost all popular recordings.

Many musicians still try to fight against the grain to maintain a sense of personal integrity, but the vast majority of other bands (your competition) will be sacrificing this honesty to win in the eyes of an innocent concert-goer. 

Skip the frustration of learning on your own by watching this course from Mark Schroor on creating a backing track system.

If you and your band decide to steer down the road of using backing tracks, it’s important to understand how to implement such a system and realize the risks associated.

You can set up a backing tracks player with just a laptop computer, a digital audio workstation, DI box, and an audio interface. Many bands of the past have used MP3 players with a stereo audio splitter, but I find this is not as reliable anymore and you will be much better off by using a computer, specifically a MacBook Pro.

How To Run Backing Tracks with a Live Band

Have you ever been to a show and noticed one or two MacBook Pros on stage with the musicians? These computers are most likely either running a playback system or providing virtual instruments to be used by a MIDI controller (or a combination of the two).

Many musicians look down upon the idea of using a playback system. This is not an article debating for or against the use of one, rather it is merely a “how-to” guide if you decide to implement one.


Benefits of creating a backing track player for your band

Creating your own playback system for use live has a number of positive benefits, primarily those associated with better reception of your show.

  • Better sounding live shows – You may have additional vocals on your studio production. Using tracks can enhance your show by “playing back” these recordings while playing live.
  • Bigger sound without hiring additional musicians – Again, one of the many reasons why musicians frown upon the idea of tracks is this in itself. However, hiring additional musicians is expensive, especially in the early days of your career. You can achieve a bigger sound without increasing your budget.
  • Extensive pre-programmed arrangements – Live shows are meant to wow an audience; tracks give you the ability to do just that. Your creativity is unlimited and thus, with a playback system you can create anything you can dream up, whether that be a narrated voice you interact with, a crazy introduction, or interesting sound design throughout the show.

Downfalls of using a playback system live

Just like with anything in life, using a playback system has its drawbacks.

  • You must play with a click track, generally – Get used to playing to a beeping in your ear, as you’ll need a click track to stay on with a track system. While you don’t have to use a click track in your setup, it’s going to be much easier, especially in breaks where there are no tracks going on.
  • Setup time is long before a show – In order to make sure everything is working properly, soundchecks will take a lot longer. Additional inputs, computers, and technology will lend its hand to issues always.
  • Technical issues will arise – With the introduction of computers and technology to your show, there will be problems. This is fact, no matter who you talk to. Playback systems have the ability to skip, cut out, and even crash during your show. You’ll need to be on top of everything to make sure you have a failsafe alternative in the event that your playback system goes down.
  • There is a bit of a learning curve – It took me years to figure out exactly how I wanted our playback system to work. This is why I’m writing this today, so you can avoid the mistakes I made early on.

There is one additional downfall to using a playback system. While rehearsing with my band, if we need to hit a particular section of a song for practice, there’s really no other way to do it other than to play through the entirety of the song or practice it without the track.


The easiest backing tracks player (no iPod or MP3 player)

I have decided to not include the setups of the past which include using an old iPod with a splitter cable. I find these setups to be unreliable and unsustainable (as we move away from MP3 players in our consumer society).

Basic Playback System
This is the easiest backing track setup without utilizing an old iPod or MP3 player.

Many out there on the internet often recommend using an old iPod or a phone to playback your tracks. While, yes, this is going to be the most affordable option available, I think by today’s standards, most people also have a laptop they can integrate into this setup. I would always opt for this. Here’s what I love about this setup:

  • Full control: By utilizing music software like Ableton, you’re able to pre-program your entire show to your liking. You have the ability to move songs around on the fly and create different set lists for different shows with ease.
  • Portable: The setup you see here can easily fit in a small pedalboard case and will set next to your drum set on stage (assuming you play drums).
  • Two (or four) channels of tracks: Most simple playback setups often rely on one channel of tracks and one channel of click. My setup allows for two separate channels of tracks and even is expandable up to four (with another DI box). This gives the front of house engineer more flexibility when mixing, allowing your band to sound better on stage.
  • Personal mix: By taking either a mono send or stereo send from the monitor engineer at the show, you’ll have full control over the volume of your backing track, click, and monitor send to create the best mix for you.

I have since moved on and beyond this exact setup, but I still support this 100%. The setup I use now is far more complicated and costs a bit more to set up, as it integrates directly into our X32 Rack monitor board.

Required Gear

In order to implement this setup, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Laptop – It’s pretty obvious, but MacBook Pro’s are pretty much the standard.
  • Audio Interface – We recommend the MOTU UltraLite-mk4 for the best performance.
  • In-Ear Monitors – Shure SE315s are still my go-to for live performance. For more information, read up on in-ear monitors.
  • Passive Stereo DI Box – Depending on how many outputs you need will determine the number of DI boxes you’ll use. I recommend using just one stereo set of tracks at first. Radial makes a stereo DI box I’ve used.
  • Digital Audio Workstation – Ableton Live works best for playback rigs.
  • Two TRS Cables
  • USB Cable
  • Various Pedalboard Case

It has come to my attention recently from a user in the comments that iConnectivity makes a product called PlayAudio12. It’s an audio interface designed exclusively for playback systems.

The best feature? You can connect two laptops, both running the same Ableton session, to the interface and sync them. In the event of one failing or skipping, the PlayAudio12 switches to the other computer seamlessly. This is similar to the Radial SW8, but is far cheaper and easier to use.

The above setup using the MOTU UltraLite will only render four stereo channels of backing tracks, but you can have up to five stereo outs with the PlayAudio12.

Prepping your backing tracks for use

This step in the process can often be the most daunting. To use this setup, we’ll need to create our backing tracks a specific way. There are many ways we can do this, but we basically need two things:

  1. Pre-mixed stereo .wav file
  2. Click track matching said .wav file

Inside your DAW, you’ll need to import your backing tracks (provided to you from your studio engineer) and create a click track that matches said track. Create a separate audio channel and manually program in a click track aligned to the grid with samples of your choice. I have included a .nki instrument (Kontakt) that makes it super easy to program a click track right below this paragraph (samples are included).

In my digital audio workstation, I have a Kontakt instrument that is specifically for making click tracks. It’s very easy to copy and paste the MIDI around the session and create the perfect click track. I have uploaded this exact instrument here for you to use as well.

Once you have your click track and pre-mixed backing track done in your session, it’s time to bounce them down. Depending on whether or not your created your click track inside of Ableton, this step may be irrelevant to you. Inside your DAW on the export dialog box, look for something that is similar or the same to Batch Export. We want to mix down the backing track on one stereo file and the click track on another.

Be sure to keep organized and always label click tracks to their appropriate songs, along with the tempos in the file names (trust me, it’ll save you later).

Setting up your Ableton session

Before we continue, it’s important to note that you can do a multitude of things in many different ways. This is just how I set my session up.

If you’re completely new to Ableton Live, I’d suggest watching this beginner’s starter guide to get familiar with the interface.

Ableton Backing Tracks Setup
This is a very basic backing track set up inside Ableton Live. Be sure to note the routing. Yours may be different depending on your interface.

In the above image, you’ll note that I have two audio channels in cyan and white. The first channel contains my backing tracks and is being sent to External Out 1/2. This output will serve as our backing track output.

The second channel in white is my click track channel. Be sure to match up each song with the correct click audio. The click track channel is going to be sent to a different External Out: namely 3/4. This output will serve as our headphone mix output.

NOTE: Ableton Live defaults to warping your files! What does this mean exactly? If you import an audio file into Ableton while it is set to a different tempo than what you’re importing, Live will automatically warp it to the tempo Live is set to. If this is an issue for you, you need to select the clip that is warped and set it to the correct tempo in the bottom panel. There is a setting inside preferences that will disable this from occurring! Adding the tempo in the scene name will also prevent this from happening in a live show.

Getting your monitor mix inside your Ableton session

If you have the luxury to get a monitor mix at the venue, you’ll need another audio channel. Navigate to Create -> Audio Channel.

Ableton Session with an additional audio channel for your headphone mix from the monitor engineer at the venue.

You’ll probably get either one or two XLR cables from the monitor engineer that will be connecting to the front inputs on your audio interface.

Inside your Ableton session on the new channel we just created, make sure Audio From -> Ext. In is set to 1/2. Your other channels, Backing Tracks and Click Tracks, should have their Audio From set to None.

To avoid sending your monitor mix back to the PA, make sure your External Out on this new audio channel is set to 3/4 (your headphone mix).

Make sure to toggle the ‘In’ box under Monitor, else you will not hear any signal to your headphones!

Controlling your playback rig on stage

Now that we have our computer ready to go, it’s important to figure out how we’re gonna control this thing, right? In Ableton, you can press the Enter or Return key to launch songs.

You’ll be able to see them highlighted, so you’ll know which one is set. You can also use a MIDI controller to launch songs. I actually use a Roland SPD-SX to launch each individual song in our live set.

Making soundcheck go smoother

After implementing a setup like this, it can often lead to a delay in soundcheck and many things going wrong. Here are a few things you can do to ensure a fast soundcheck every night:

  • Have backups of all cables and accessories – This is a no-brainer and should apply to any gear you use in your band. Always keep backup cables, files, sticks, etc.
  • Create a “test track” to use at soundcheck – Sometimes our backing tracks take a minute to kick in. You should make a separate backing track scene inside your Ableton session that kicks in right away and features your loudest volume, ensuring your sound engineer won’t be overwhelmed in the middle of the show.
  • Stage your gear off the stage prior to soundcheck – If you’re opening up for a band, always stage gear during their soundcheck (if allowed) to ensure the fastest soundcheck. This can be setting up cymbal stands, connecting cables for your playback rig, etc.
  • Pack your setup efficiently – Design your playback rig in a way that doesn’t require you to take it completely apart. Can you keep the laptop secured and velcroed to your pedal board? Can it stay plugged in? If so, do it. Any place you can cut out time helps in the high-stress environment known as the soundcheck.
  • Share your drum kit – I know this isn’t a drummers favorite option, but one way to make a stage less cluttered is to share the drum kit. Whether you’re the headliner or the opening act, be open to this idea.

Keeping your gear safe

If you’re doing a lot of touring with your band, you’ll want to keep that laptop safe.

Having a playback system means that your laptop now is the most valuable thing in your possession. Losing it could mean cancelling shows, or worse, the entire tour.

Best Way To Run Backing Tracks with A Live Band

I suggest keeping a separate laptop for work and one for play. What I mean is dedicate the playback laptop as band only, and your other one can be for daily activities such as checking email, watching videos, playing games, etc.

This way, you won’t have to worry about loading it up with a bunch of files and slowing it down. The last thing you want in a playback system is an unreliable computer.

As far as transportation, you should find some sort of case and keep it locked up with all your other gear. I house my laptop on tour in a Pelican case, though they can be pretty expensive. If budget is a concern I’d recommend checking out some of these affordable Pelican alternatives.


Do you use a playback rig? Let us know down below how your setup works. If you think we missed something or got something wrong, we’d still love to hear from you. Thanks for reading!

*This article may contain affiliate links, which means we may recieve a commission if you click a link and purchase something we have recommended. This comes at no additional cost to you. Please check our full disclosure policy for more details. Thanks for stopping by!
11 comments
  1. With Abelton Live, you should be able to set up your tracks so that keys on your laptop trigger different sessions of a song. I haven’t done it personally, but I have seen a tutorial in the past that shows how to do this. As an example, you could program ‘c’ for chorus, ‘v’ for verse, ‘b’ for bridge, etc.

    1. Yep!

      This is totally possible. I haven’t done it personally because we haven’t had the need. If you have sections of a song that need to vamp or need to jump back to a certain section with ease, this is doable.

  2. What about the separate instruments in the backing tracks as different mixer channels? Any sound man will tell you that different rooms need a different mix. Can Ableton allow for mixing more bass, less drums, etc.?

    1. Absolutely. Thanks for the comment, Mike. This is actually what I do with my band, though setting this up is a little trickier.

      In my Ableton sessions I have group channels of Synths, Bass, Aux Percussion, and Harmonies that are all split out to different outputs. The X32 receives these different inputs on the back via ADAT. This is honestly the best system to have in place since it gives the FOH engineer total control of the mix, rather a pre-mixed bounce of everything.

      The basic setup is:
      Ableton Live -> Macbook Pro -> MOTU 828mk3 (outputs via ADAT) -> X32 Rack (in-ears) -> X32 Console (AES50).

      The wonderful thing about this setup is you don’t need an XLR splitter or additional DI boxes for track inputs.
      In a perfect world, we’d have two Macbook Pros with a Radial switcher in case one went down.

      1. Probably late to this party, but instead of the Radial switcher, you may want to look at the iConnectivity PlayAudio12. $600 for failover of 10 channels of audio AND MIDI. Only downsides are it is USB 2.0, so it’s great with “older” laptops, and the MIDI output is Ethernet, so a peripheral (iConnectivity MIDI4+ $200) is needed, plus some setup learning curve. Once you get it set up though, it’s brilliant, small (half rack space for each unit) and works great. 2ms failover time means you don’t even hear the click get interrupted.

        1. Steve,
          You’re not late to the party; this is a game changer. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. The PlayAudio12 simplifies the workflow entirely, and it’s much more affordable. I wish I had heard of this prior!

          1. Sorry for the long reply, but thought you’d be interested in the setup.

            We use the PlayAudio12/MIDI4+ combo for our tribute band, and I just helped a pretty well-known metal band from the ‘80s switch over to it from their Radial system. (don’t know if it’s cool to mention them by name, so I’ll refrain). Ironically, with both of us the guitarists are the only ones using MIDI. The other thing I forgot to mention is that you need a MIDI device to plug in to the host port of the PlayAudio12 to start both computers simultaneously, but just about anything can be mapped to Ableton for this, so it can be really cheap. We use the AKAI MPD226. The pads are mapped to scenes (64 scenes can be fired across the 4 banks), and I have the faders set up to turn off individual tracks for times when we have a guest 2nd guitar etc. The rotary encoders are mapped to video scaling parameters in our video program which lives inside Ableton as a plugin. DMX and video are always sent from the second computer so if there’s a failover we still have that going. It has saved our skins a couple of times already, and we didn’t even know it failed over. Our drummer just happened to look at the laptops and notice the primary was dead, and none of us knew it had happened. Audio, Video, DMX, and MIDI were all still going strong. It’s definitely worth looking into if your setup has all those elements.

    1. Thanks, this looks fantastic! I haven’t heard of it yet, but I’d love to add it to the article if it’s as easy as it looks.

  3. Hi guys, I just discovered this article. Does someone know an online article that describes more details/options for singers? Such as adding FX (compressor, delay, reverb) in different sections of the song. If I want for example, different FX in the chorus than in the verse, and so on.

    Thanks!!

    1. Hi Dan,

      I hope you found the article somewhat helpful! I’m a little curious as to know how you stumbled upon it? It seems to be one of my most popular posts.. appreciate any insight.

      Regarding your question though, the best way to go about doing this is to use a click track alongside pre-programmed automation within Ableton Live. The routing would look as follows:

      Vocal Microphone -> Audio Interface -> Ableton Live -> Front of House (Audio Interface Out)

      In the session, you’ll need a cue track (or a backing track) that helps keep you on pace with the effects.

      The effects will trigger using the chain selector and manual automation of the “guide track.” I’m working on making a video demonstrating this that will be super easy to follow along with. Do you have a way I can send it to you?

      Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

You May Also Like