How To Play Backing Tracks Live: A Step by Step Guide

By JohnPascuzzi

Whatever you refer to it as—playback rig, backing tracks player, playback system, tracks machine—I’ll show you how to play backing tracks live in this post.

Let’s face it, Modern music is flawless. Nearly all well-known recordings have arrangements and recordings that are correctly quantized (time-aligned to a grid). Many musicians still make an effort to go against the flow in order to uphold their sense of morality.

The vast majority of other bands (your rivals) will forego this sincerity in order to triumph in the eyes of gullible concertgoers. If you and your band decide to use backing tracks, it’s critical to comprehend how to put one in place and be aware of the risks involved.

What Is A Backing Track?

What Is A Backing Track
What Is A Backing Track

Backing tracks, to put it simply, are pre-recorded musical compositions that a band or artist plays along to during a live performance, in a movie, or just for fun at home.

Today’s live performers frequently use backing tracks to improve performances. They are significantly more economical than hiring additional musicians and are extremely simple to incorporate into a show. Backing tracks are distinct from drumless tracks or karaoke renditions of songs. 

A laptop computer, a digital audio workstation, a cable snake, and an audio interface are all you need to set up a backing tracks player. In the past, many bands have used stereo audio splitters on MP3 players, but I believe that this is not as reliable today. Instead, you would be much better suited using a computer, more preferably a MacBook Pro. These machines are probably either powering a playback system or offering virtual instruments for MIDI controllers to use (or a combination of the two).

*** Read more: How To Extract Drums From A Song: 2 Simplest Method

Is Playing With Backing Tracks Live Cheating?

Although I can’t definitively answer one way or the other, in general I don’t think it’s dishonest for a band or artist to use backing tracks. A music recording already exists, so it is undoubtedly simpler to play along with it. With only musicians on stage, it is not possible to play in a completely different way than when using tracks. 

And perhaps the problem is entirely with that. I won’t be critical of performers that use background tracks, but an organic group of musicians performing together on stage will always have its beauty. The idea of using a playback system is despised by a large number of musicians. Even so, not everybody does.

Why Your Band Should Use A Backing Track Player

Making your own playback system for live use has a lot of advantages, especially those related to better show reception. 

Why Your Band Should Use A Backing Track Player
Why Your Band Should Use A Backing Track Player

Better Sounding Live Performances

Your studio production can include additional vocals. By “playing back” these recordings while performing live, using tracks can improve your performance.

Greater sound without adding more musicians

Again, this is only one of the numerous reasons why musicians dislike the concept of tracks. The cost of adding more musicians is high, especially in the beginning of your career. You may increase the volume without spending more money.

Extensive Pre-Programmed Arrangements

Tracks provide you the power to impress an audience, which is what live performances are designed to achieve. Your imagination is limitless. You can make anything you can imagine with a playback system. There are countless options, such as a narrator you may interact with, a bizarre opening, or intriguing sound design used throughout the play.

*** Read more: Cymbal Modifications: 8 Techniques To Change A Cymbal

Problems with Using Backing Tracks Live

Using a playback system has disadvantages, just like anything else in life.

Problems with Using Backing Tracks Live
Problems with Using Backing Tracks Live

You Will Need A Click Track To Stay On With A Track System 

So Get Used To Playing To A Beeping In Your Ear. While it’s not required, using a click track in your setup will make things lot simpler, especially in gaps where there are no songs playing. We wouldn’t use click tracks, I was adamant when I first started creating our playback mechanism. I was stupid enough to think that all of the samples would be triggered instantly. I assumed that keeping time with these sections wouldn’t be difficult because I could clearly hear samples in my ears and because I keep good time in general.

It was a lofty idea, and putting it into practice was much harder than I had anticipated. Songs had to be designed, prepared, and then rehearsed over the course of several days due to the setup’s excessive complexity.

Setting Up Takes More Time Before a Show

Soundchecks will be much more time-consuming because we want to make sure everything is operating as it should. Technology, computers, and additional inputs are constantly available to help with problems.

There Will Be Technical Problems.

There will be issues when computers and technology are introduced to your show. Whoever you talk to, this is a fact. During your show, playback systems may skip, stop off, or even crash. To ensure you have a backup plan in case your playback system fails, you’ll need to stay on top of everything.

There Is Some Learning Involved.

Years passed before I could decide exactly how I wanted our playback system to operate. I’m writing this today to help you avoid the same mistakes I did when I first started out. 

*** Read more: How To Make A Band Website: A Complete Checklist – 2022

The Simplest Player for Backing Tracks

I’ve decided to include the instructions for utilizing an old iPod with a splitter cable after giving the matter further attention. Even though I believe these settings to be problematic and unsustainable, they should be taken into consideration as a solid foundation for backing tracks.

Older iPods Used As Playback Devices

Older iPods Used As Playback Devices
Older iPods Used As Playback Devices

Do you still have an outdated iPod lying around your home? Charge it when you dig it out. It will be used as the music for your backing tracks. You should first pan all of your backing tracks all the way to the left in your digital audio workstation. Add a click track to the project and pan it all the way to the right. You only need to mix it down, and presto—backing track. You’re ready to go once you sync it with your iPod.

Now, we must make a few purchases before we can make this live. 

  • Stereo DI Box; a compact mixer (to hear the click and mix from monitor board)
  • 3.5mm TRS to dual 1/4 TS audio.

Our live setup is becoming a little trickier. Given that we already have three pieces of equipment on the ground, it might be preferable to utilize a trap table or another object to lift them off the ground.

I used to utilize my homemade trap table for backing tracks and IEMs. A piece of wood and a snare stand were my initial tools of the trade. I’ve precisely duplicated that configuration for the article’s objectives. I taped the sides using gaffers tape to make the edges more blunt. This used to be the option that internet forums most frequently suggested for playing back your tracks. Although it is undoubtedly the most economical choice, I believe that by today’s standards the majority of individuals also have a laptop that they may incorporate into this set-up.

Utilizing A Laptop As Your Playback Device

Utilizing A Laptop As Your Playback Device
Utilizing A Laptop As Your Playback Device

Without using an old iPod or MP3 player, this is the simplest way to set up a background track.

This is a considerably more expensive option, but it will end up saving you money. The possibility of having several outputs and numerous stereo signals coming to your front of house engineer when running tracks on a laptop with, let’s example, Ableton Live.

You might, for instance, route keyboard recordings in stereo independently of bass tracks! We will need a laptop, an audio interface, and a Radial Pro D8 for this technique. Here is a visual illustration:

The MOTU 828 mk3 at the top will be connected to your laptop through USB. Ableton Live will be used for playback, while the MOTU’s headphone out will provide the click. 

From here, you must connect 8 patch cables to each of the MOTU 828 mk3’s analog outputs. You can send 8 channels of songs to front of house by sending 8 XLR wires from the back of your Radial Pro D8. Is it excessive? Maybe. Your sound engineer will, however, appreciate having things organized this way.

*** Read more: How To Make A Drum Cover Video: Step-By-Step Manual

The Best Live Performance Backing Track Apps

  • The most popular program for running tracks is Ableton Live.
  • Use of the Digital Performer via Playback Control (a company that designs a done-for-you playback system)
  • No laptop required; not yet available is Idoru.
  • Dedicated background tracks software called LiveTraker
  • ShowOne is an iOS app for playing live music recordings.

Regardless of the program you pick, you’ll be able to easily build several set lists for various shows and rearrange songs around as needed.

Getting Ready For Your Backing Tracks

Getting Ready For Your Backing Tracks
Getting Ready For Your Backing Tracks

This procedure stage is frequently the most difficult. We’ll need to make our backing tracks in a particular way in order to use this configuration.

We can accomplish this in a variety of ways, but essentially two things are required:

  • .wav file with stereo pre-mixing
  • Tap the track that corresponds to the.wav file.

You must import your background tracks (given to you by your studio engineer) into your DAW and make a click track that corresponds to that track. Make a second audio channel, and manually program in a click track with your preferred sample alignment to the grid. Below this text, I’ve provided a.nki instrument (Kontakt) that makes it quite simple to build a click track (samples are included).

It’s time to bounce them down once you’ve finished your click track and pre-mixed backing track in your session.

Whether or not you made your click track in Ableton will determine whether or not this step applies to you. Look for something that is comparable to or identical to Batch Export inside your DAW’s export dialog box. The click track should be mixed down separately from the backing track in a stereo file. Always identify click tracks to their proper songs and include the tempos in the file names to stay organized. 

Make sure to match the appropriate click audio with each song. The click track channel will be sent to an alternative External Out, specifically 3/4. Our headphone mix output will come from this output. Make sure Audio From -> Ext. In is set to 1/2 inside your Ableton session on the new channel we just created. The Audio From setting for your other channels, Backing Tracks and Click Tracks, should be None.

On this new audio channel, make sure your External Out is set to 3/4 to prevent transmitting your monitor mix back to the PA (your headphone mix). If the ‘In’ box under Monitor is not selected, no sound will be sent to your headphones.

*** Read more: Traditional Grip vs Matched Grip: Which Is Better!

Managing Your Playback Equipment On Stage

It’s critical to consider how we’re going to control this device now that our computer is ready to use. You may start songs in Ableton by using the Enter or Return key. They will be highlighted for you to see, so you’ll know which one is selected. Songs can also be started using a MIDI controller. Each song in our live set is actually launched by myself using a Roland SPD-SX.

Managing Your Playback Equipment On Stage
Managing Your Playback Equipment On Stage

Smoothing Out Soundcheck With Backing Tracks

A configuration like this can frequently cause soundcheck to be delayed and many other problems. You can follow these steps to guarantee a quick soundcheck each night: Ensure that all cables and accessories have backups. This goes without saying and should be true for any equipment your band uses. Keep backup cords, data, sticks, etc., at all times.

Make A “Test Track” For Soundcheck Use

Sometimes it takes a minute for our backing tracks to begin. Making a separate backing track scene in your Ableton session that begins right away and has your loudest volume can prevent your sound engineer from becoming overloaded throughout the performance. Set up your equipment off the stage before soundcheck. Always stage equipment during a band’s soundcheck (if permitted) if you’re opening for them to achieve the quickest soundcheck. Setting up cymbal stands, attaching your playback system’s connections, etc. are examples of this.

Organize Your Setup Effectively

Make sure you don’t need to disassemble your playback setup completely. Can you velcro the laptop to your pedalboard and keep it there? Can you keep it plugged in?  If so, carry it out. Any opportunity to save time during the stressful soundcheck is beneficial.

Exchange Drum Kits

I realize that sharing the drum equipment isn’t a drummer’s preferred solution, but it can help a stage look cleaner. Be receptive to this concept whether you’re the opening act or the headliner.

Safeguarding Your Equipment

You should keep that laptop secure if you frequently tour with your band. If you have a playback system, your laptop is now the most valuable item you own. Losing it can result in postponing performances or, worse, the entire tour.

*** Read more: Birch Vs. Maple Drums: The Difference Between Them

Best Practices for Running Backing Tracks with Live Music

I advise keeping a work laptop and a play laptop separate. What I’m saying is that you should use your second laptop for daily tasks like reading email, viewing movies, playing games, etc., while keeping the playback laptop solely for your band. You won’t have to be concerned about clogging it up with too many files and slowing it down this way. An unreliable computer is the last thing you want in a playback system. You should find a case of some kind and keep it locked up with the rest of your equipment for transportation.

Final Thoughts

When background tracks from previously recorded songs were used by performers during live performances, it was sometimes thought of as a form of “cheating.” But in today’s society, playing backing tracks live is common and seen as an integral component of the live music experience. Computer systems are frequently found behind or below the stage of bands that advertise themselves as having a traditional guitar-bass-drums straight ahead rock & roll sound, either to augment the live sound with extras like synth sounds or more guitar tracks as a backup in case of problems during the performance. You’d be surprised at how many well-known bands do this—almost all of them, to be exact! 

Leave a Comment