Backing Track Options For Live Shows

Rold SPD6.jpg

Bands often ask me what to do about backing tracks in a live situation. They either want to trigger some sounds or play to a click track with some elements like Sub Hits, Drum Machines, Keyboards, and Effects coming out of the PA. In the studio, we will often record some elements of a song that the band doesn’t have the means to play back in a live situation, at least without a backing track. In this post we will investigate some of the ways to go about getting this to work live!

First Things First
The first thing you need to do is decide if you want to play to a click track live or trigger clips. If you recorded your record to a grid/click track it should be easy to get your files in line. Simply ask your engineer to give you Cick Track in your Left Ear and all the instruments you want to play through the PA in the Right Ear (the ear assignments are very important if you are going to be using a sampler, it is also important to keep the tracks consistent). Have the engineer make you a high-quality MP3 of the track and you are good to go. If you did not record to a click, we are going to need each clip isolated into small phrases. How small a phrase will be on a case by case basis. Once we have this we need to determine how to reproduce these clips live!

The cheapest and easiest option for live backing tracks that were recorded to a click is the iPod. iPod Nano’s can be had for pennies and there is not a band in America that doesn’t own one. The only thing you need in addition to the iPod is a a Y-Cable (1/8″ inch male to 2 1/4″ Male) (pictured below) which can be had at any music store and a set of In-Ear Monitors. Simply give the backing track output to a Soundman’s DI Box and the Click Track output should be plugged into your In Ear Monitors or Headphone Amplifier. Be warned the ouputs of the iPod will not be loud enough to for your in-ears unless you play very quiet music. Make sure to keep the iPod output at 7 or below so you do not distort the DI box or your headphone feed.

If you miss the count-in on the click, you do not realize it till it’s WAY to late and the results can be disastrous. Very easy to select the wrong song.
18th to 14inch.jpg

Another tool every band already has. You can run a laptop in a few different ways live. The easiest way is to use it in the same way you would an iPod via iTunes. The more complex way is to use Software like Ableton or Pro Tools to play back wave forms. I suggest testing this rig out extensivley before you use it with software other then iTunes since some of these platforms will sneak up on you with a crash. An added advantage of using a laptop is you can bring a small USB/Firewire sound card and give one output to the soundman and use the headphone amplifier for the click. If you utilize a MIDI controller like a Roland SPD-20 (pictured below) or a M-Audio Axiom 25 you can trigger samples in a Sampler program like Kontakt. This technique is essential for triggering phrases not recorded to a click.

Running software other then iTunes can be difficult to run and can easily crash. Expensive.
SPD20.jpgRold SPD6.jpg
Roland SPD-S
The Roland SPD-S is an amazing option for performing with or without a click. Boasting 512 MB of sampling memory (after purchase of a expansion card) you have plenty of sampling space for a whole set (if you use MP3s). You can simply hit the pad when you want to either start a full backing track or trigger a phrase. When performing live, simply give yourself the Headphone Output and if you don’t want the Soundman to get your click track give him the Right output. You can also do a hybrid of both triggering phrases while playing a backing track at the same time!

Cons: Expensive and not very easy to use for a novice.

Jesse Cannon is the editor of Musformation. He produces records at his studio Cannon Found Soundation. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseCannonMusF. For more info please visit his website.

  • Tyler

    im confused you say “Simply give the backing track output to a Soundman’s DI Box and the Click Track output should be plugged into your In Ear Monitors or Headphone Amplifier” when the ipod only has 1 output. how do you split the click track signal and the backing track signal?

  • Jesse Cannon

    You get a splitter cable. Prefferabley stereo 1/9th inch (ipod end) and then it splits to two 1/4 cables. Label these cables which side is which (click or backing track)

  • Anonymous

    my drummer uses a mini mixer to run his headphones from. Do I run splitter from laptop out into 2 mixer channels, pan one left and run an xlr from the desk to his mixer? Do i need to do anything else?cheers.