If you've ever thought about upping your game as a performer and taking your live show from a typical 25 minute set to a more immersive, well produced experience then you've probably thought about playing along to tracks before. Many bands these days play along to some sort of track, whether it just be a long sample at the start of the show to create atmosphere, extra instruments like synth pads to create a fuller sound, MIDI triggers for patch changes, or a metronome for the musicians to play along to - many use tracks for all of these things and more. Playing to tracks can allow you to add sounds you weren't able to do before, tighten up your live performance and even deliver a more "like the record" sound. They really open up new possibilities and are surprisingly easy and cheap to put together. Here I'll be covering how we can create backing tracks and/or click tracks, and what kind of set up you will need to run the tracks live. I'll be covering several methods here so that you're aware of some of the possible ways to take advantage of playing to tracks.
Why Play to Tracks?
Before we start making tracks we need to understand the what tracks can provide for us. Playing to tracks live allows us to do any combination of these things:
- Play to a metronome while performing, allowing for a tighter performance
- Use time-based samples during songs such as other instrument parts that the members of the band can't/don't play, or bass drops at the start of a new section
- Use samples when not playing, killing the silence and entertaining the crowd while you tune or prepare for the next song
- Send MIDI* information for the purposes of patch changes, lighting rig control etc.*Sending MIDI information can be complicated and it's hard to demonstrate this without knowing exactly what you want to do with MIDI and the software/gear you use. Because of this we won't be covering much of it in this tutorial, just the gear necessary to make MIDI changes
Creating Backing/Click Tracks
Now that we know what options we have, let's take a look at how to create tracks for us to play along to. The first thing you'll need is some kind of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) in which to make audio tracks. Step 1: Map Out Your Songs
First thing we want to do is make sure that we make "maps" or "blueprints" of the songs we are using samples with, this way we know where everything is at a glance and can easily place our samples in the right place. You can use markers or labels in your DAW to mark each section of the song (Count-In, Verse, Chorus, Solo etc.) Make sure you have the correct number of bars for each section with the correct tempo and any time signature/tempo changes are marked in as well. You may have to consult your DAW's manual if you're not sure how to do these things already. You're probably going to want to add a couple extra bars at the beginning of the songs so that your band can get a feel for the tempo before starting. Typically I use one bar for the drummer to hear the tempo, and a second bar for them to count the rest of the band in. If you want to avoid having the drummer count in all the time, you can also use a sample at the beginning that fits the tempo of the next tune.Step 2: Record Your Click Track Channel
Now we want to record our metronome track, this will be the track that only band members can hear, not the audience. You can do this by either setting up the click in your DAW and recording that signal, or recording the metronome off of an external device like a metronome app on your phone, or a metronome with a headphone out. It's worth noting that if you use something other than the metronome built into your DAW you may have issues keeping the click in time. Without getting into an entirely different subject, not all metronomes line up properly despite being set to the same tempo. It may seem in time at first but after several minutes you'll see the two tempos start to drift. Thankfully there is an easy fix to this which we'll get to in a minute.
Regardless of how you record your metronome, you're going to want to record it and make sure it's lined up properly with the bar/time lines in your DAW. If you use the DAW's native metronome this will already be done, but if you use an external metronome you'll want to hit record, then play the click for the proper amount of bars and then go back and line it up once it's done. If you find out that your external metronome doesn't line up with the bar/time lines in your DAW (as mentioned above) all you need to do is cut yourself a single bar of click track, line up the downbeat in your audio clip to the beginning of your first bar in your DAW and cut your clip so it is EXACTLY one bar long in your DAW. From here you can just copy and paste your one bar loop and it will line up perfectly no matter how long the track is.
If you want a little more structure in your click track some bands also record their voice before each section, saying something things like "Guitar solo coming up next" or "2 bars until bridge" to reinforce your sense of space within the song. Some bands I've talked to even include recorded parts from their albums, whatever helps you keep time and know where you are in the song!
Step 3: Insert Audio Samples
After your click track is done and lined up perfectly with your song you can start dropping in (or recording) any audio you want in your backing track. You can put in pre-recorded instrument parts, bass drops, reverse snares, backing vocals, whatever you want! In order to make sure that the audience hears these samples but doesn't hear your metronome track, you're going to want to pan everything you want the band to hear to one side, and everything the audience should hear to the other. Yes, this does mean that your samples will output to the audience in mono. This is not a problem unless you have some stereo-specific samples, in which case you will have to run your tracks off of something that can output more than just a single stereo feed. Most of the time stereo effects are just a hassle, since only a fraction of the audience will be in the right place to get the full effect and even then it won't make a huge difference in most venue sizes. If you absolutely have to use stereo samples then a laptop or other multi-output device is the way to go.Step 4: Program MIDI Changes
Lastly if you want to be able to send automatic patch changes and other MIDI information to external devices you'll have to program them in yourself. This changes depending on what you want to do with your MIDI information, what software you use and what devices you send it to, so I won't go into detail with this. All you really need to know is that if you need to have MIDI information sent automatically you'll need something like a laptop and probably more external hardware depending on your needs. Step 5: Testing and Volume Balancing
Once we've put our tracks together and everything is panned properly we need to start testing things out in a live scenario. This does involve setting things up the way you would in a live scenario, so go ahead and skip to that below and then come back to this step, since this will be an ongoing process. Our goal here is to make sure that the samples are not all the same volume, but rather that they are properly audible in each section of the song. Because we're playing live we don't have the same controlled environment as in the studio, meaning our performances are a lot more dynamic. You're going to go through a lot of trial and error with setting levels so that your samples follow the dynamic of your band throughout the song, making the samples louder during choruses and softer during verses. Whatever the dynamic of the band is the samples should follow too. And of course during this time you should make sure that everything is panned properly, the noise level is low, and that everything sounds good at stage volume. If you can, rent out a place with a proper PA system so you can actually set the band up just like a performance situation. If you have the option you can also bring your computer with you so you can mess with volume levels on the fly instead of the "guess and check" method every time you go to practice. This is a time-consuming process and will require lots of automation and testing, but it'll be worth it in the end. You'll be thankful you did all this troubleshooting when you play your live show!
Gear and the Live Setup
Congratulations, the majority of your work is done and we're almost there! There are several ways to playback the tracks you've made and your setup can vary depending on what you need to do. As I've said before you need a laptop and external hardware if you are going to be sending MIDI information and that's something you'll have to figure out on your own, since things can get very specific when working with MIDI. However, if you're not using MIDI there's a general formula for your setup that should work with various devices.
You'll need to find something to play your tracks off of like an MP3 player or a phone. Once that's done you need to find a way to split your Stereo signal into separate Left and Right mono signals. A standard 1/8'' to Left and Right 1/4'' will work for the vast majority of these devices. Go for a higher quality one, just for the sake of durability and getting rid of noise. Once you split the signal you're going to send one signal to the band, and the other to the front-of-house. The front of house one should typically go through a DI, which in some situations has helped get rid of noise and just provide a better signal for the sound guy. The other lead will be sent to the band via some sort of hardware interface. If you have an in-ears setup for the entire band then you can just plug into that and be off. If you're just sending it to a single member (probably the drummer) then you'll need either an audio interface or headphone amplifier to make sure your drummer has enough volume. As long as we can boost the signal to a loud enough volume for the drummer and make sure they have their own control over the level of what they are hearing then you're good to go!
- If you find the tracks aren't loud enough make sure you've mastered your tracks as loud as possible in your DAW before trying to amplify the signal with outboard gear
- If you use bass-heavy effects like bass drops make sure you try out your tracks on both standard PA systems and systems that have a subwoofer, you may find that your drops are way too loud on a system with a sub but just the right volume on smaller PA speakers that don't support those low frequencies as well. You could always make two sets of tracks for each type of setup
- Once you make all your tracks think about how you want to play them. You can organize them into a playlist with gapless playback (everything track just segues right into the other without breaks/with set lengths of space between them) or you can add a bunch of silence to the end of each track so that you can control the tracks manually, and once the band is ready for the next tune just skip to the next song
- Not all music fits perfectly to a click, so you may have to get creative with endings that progressively slow down, or intros that are in free time
- If you want samples or sounds that don't need to be tied to a click track you can always buy a looper pedal and load up your samples into that, triggering them manually. This works great for things like bass drops, or intro/outro samples
So that's about it, we have our tracks, our audio player, our splitter cable, and our two hardware devices for the band and the sound guy. It's a lot of time and effort to put together these tracks but they have the potential to add so much to your live show. It's a big improvement to any live show and relatively cheap to do as well. You'll sound much tighter as a band, thicken up your sound, and have the opportunity to fully automate your entire set. All you have to do now is hit play and have fun!