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Playback rig, backing tracks player, playback system, tracks machine, whatever you call it — I’ll teach you how to set one up in this article.
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.
The vast majority of other bands (your competition) will be sacrificing this honesty to win in the eyes of innocent concert-goers. 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.
What is a Backing Track?
Simply put, backing tracks are pre-recorded pieces of music that a band or artist plays-along to in a live performance, video, or just for fun at home.
Backing tracks are extremely common among today’s live artists for enhancing performances. They’re relatively easy to integrate into a show and are much more affordable than hiring additional musicians. Backing tracks are different from karaoke versions of songs or drumless tracks.
You can set up a backing tracks player with just a laptop computer, a
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).
Is Playing With Backing Tracks Cheating?
I can’t say either way, but I generally don’t believe using backing tracks is cheating if you’re a band or artist. Certainly, it is easier to play along with an existing recording of music. Using tracks allows for an entirely different performance, one that isn’t possible with solely musicians on stage.
And that in itself may be the issue entirely. An organic ensemble of musicians on stage will always have its magic, but I won’t criticize artists who use backing tracks.
Lots, and I mean lots, of musicians look down on the idea of using a playback system. But not everyone does. Take for instance this video from Adam Neely. He explains it perfectly that there is a case for both.
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 Using 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. 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, there are unlimited possibilities.
Downfalls of Using Backing Tracks 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.
When I initially began designing our playback system, I was determined we wouldn’t be using click tracks. I had a naive notion that all the samples would be triggered in realtime.
Because I could hear samples in my ears loudly, and since I am a solid timekeeper, I figured syncing up to these sections would be no problem.
For certain sections of songs, I would trigger samples, and for others, Chris would take care of it with his FCB1010 and other various pre-programmed keys on his 88-key controller.
It was a lofty idea and implementation was far more difficult than I expected. The setup was overly complicated and required days of extra work to design, prep, and then rehearse songs.
Eventually, I succumbed to the idea of simply using Ableton Live and our stems from studio sessions.
Setup Time is Longer 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 a 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
Upon further thought, I have decided to include the steps to using an old iPod with a splitter cable.
Though I find these setups to be unreliable and unsustainable, they are worth noting for an absolute starting point for backing tracks.
The Old iPod for Playback Systems
Do you have an old iPod laying around in your house somewhere? Dig it out and charge it. We’re gonna use it for your backing tracks.
First, in your digital audio workstation, you are going to take all your backing tracks and pan them all the way to the left.
In the same project, add a click track and pan this all the way to the right.
Mix down and viola, you have a backing track. Sync it to your iPod and you’re good to go.
Now, for getting this going live, we will need to purchase a couple things.
- Stereo DI Box; I recommend the Radial Pro DI (you can get away with using a mono DI, but if you plan to upgrade your system in the future to our next solution, get stereo)
- A small mixer (to hear the click and mix from monitor board)
- 3.5mm TRS to Dual 1/4 TS Audio Cable; TNP makes a decent cable
Our live setup is getting a little more complicated.
Because we now have three pieces of gear on the ground, it might be better to use a trap table or something to hold them off the ground.
When I first started out, I used a piece of wood and a snare stand. For the purposes of the article, I have recreated that exact setup. For the sides, I used gaffers tape to dull the edges.
This used to be the most recommended option on internet forums to playback your tracks.
While, yes, it’s probably 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.
Using a Laptop for Your Playback System
This is a much more expensive route, but one that will save you in the long run.
Having a laptop running tracks with, say, Ableton Live, gives you the potential to have multiple outputs and many stereo signals going to your front of house engineer.
For example, you could route keyboard tracks in stereo separate of any bass tracks! In this method, we will need a laptop, an audio interface, and a Radial Pro D8. Here’s a picture example:
Your laptop will connect to the top unit, the MOTU 828 mk3 via USB. Playback will be done inside Ableton Live and you will get your click from the headphone out on the MOTU.
From here, you will need to add 8 patch cables from each of the analog outputs on the MOTU 828 mk3.
The front of house will take 8 XLR cables from the back of your Radial Pro D8 and you will have sent 8 channels of tracks to FOH!
Is it overkill? Maybe. But your sound engineer will love having everything split up this way.
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. But, let’s pick a software first (though I do recommend Ableton Live).
The Best Backing Track Apps for Live Performance
- Ableton Live — most common software for running tracks
- Digital Performer — Utilized by Playback Control (a company that designs a done-for-you playback system)
- Idoru — no laptop needed, not available yet
- LiveTraker — a dedicated backing tracks software
- ShowOne — iOS app for running backing tracks live
No matter which software you choose, you’ll 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 pedal board 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 Pros are pretty much the standard.
- Audio Interface – I recommend the MOTU UltraLite-mk4 for the best performance.
- In-Ear Monitors – Shure SE425s are now my go-to for live performance. For more information, read up on in-ear monitors.
- XLR Male to 1/4″ TRS Snake Cable – Depending on how many outputs you need will determine the number of channels you’ll need on the snake. ProCo makes an awesome snake — I recommend going with 20′ just in case you need the extra length at a gig.
- Digital Audio Workstation – Ableton Live works best for playback rigs, in my opinion.
- Two TRS Cables
- USB Cable
- SKB Studio Flyer (optional) — now, of course, you don’t need this rack, but I love mine. It keeps my computer safe on stage and even houses it in transit.
What is an audio interface and why is it necessary?
In the list above, I’ve recommended picking up the MOTU UltraLite-mk4. This piece of hardware is an audio interface that allows your computer to send audio signals to different outputs.
An audio interface helps your computer takes over the job of playing the audio, essentially making your computer more reliable and stable during shows (though, CoreAudio is rather good without an interface).
I suppose if you wanted to skip out on the audio interface, you could run mono backing tracks with a splitter cable, with the click panned to the right and the tracks to the left.
Sweetwater still sells Apple iPods, so there is that option as well, but I can’t recommend it.
As far as choosing an audio interface, there’s tons of options. I happen to like MOTU as a company. However, there is an even better option you should know about.
It has come to my attention recently from a user in the comments that
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:
- 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. You can download it below.
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.
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 Smoother with Backing Tracks
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 pedalboard? 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 canceling 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. 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!