Let’s face it. Modern music is perfect. Arrangements and recordings are perfectly quantized (time-aligned to a grid) in almost all popular recordings. Most musicians 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.
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, 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.
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).
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.
In order to implement this setup, here’s what you’ll need:
- Laptop – It’s pretty obvious, but MacBook Pro’s are pretty much 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
- Passive Stereo DI Box – Radial ProD2; ’nuff said
- Digital Audio Workstation – Ableton Live generally works best for playback rigs
- Two TRS Cables
- USB Cable
- Various Pedalboard Case
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:
- Pre-mixed stereo .wav file
- 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.
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.
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.
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, so if budget is a concern I’d recommend checking out some of these affordable options.
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!
Hey there fellow drummer, thanks for reading the post. I’ve got a private Facebook group called Drum Junkies. It’s made up of people just like you and me who are sharing pictures of their drum kits, talking about industry trends, and sharing tips about drumming. I’d love for you to join! Here’s a link to the group; we’ll see you on the inside.