Backing tracks used to be taboo. Sure, people did it—but they didn’t want to admit it.
However, times change. Big-time touring bands use backing tracks, which has given at least an air of legitimacy. Perhaps an even bigger factor is that with downsizing the norm for live performance, solo and duo acts are increasingly common. It’s understood that if there’s no place on stage to set up a drum set, you have no choice for drums other than a backing track.
Of course, some still consider backing tracks akin to cheating. But somewhere between something innocuous like having a drum machine play in the background, to the cardinal sin of lip-synching to a pre-recorded vocal instead of doing your own singing, there’s a “sweet spot” where you can enhance what is essentially a live performance. For example, a guitar duo might sequence bass lines, or a drummer could trigger pre-recorded ethnic percussion from a drum pad.
There are even alternatives that can enhance your performance without adding backing tracks per se, like the TC Helicon VoiceTone Harmony G XT vocal harmony pedal, which generates harmonies by processing your vocal. Guitarists can use electronic/MIDI guitars, which allow applying an octave divider effect (like the Electro-Harmonix Micro-POG) to the lower strings. This adds a semblance of a bass part.
Regardless of how you decide to enhance your act, remember that we’re dealing with live performance—you need something bullet-proof, easy to change on the fly if the audience’s mood changes, and simple.
Backing Track Options
The simplest solution is audio that plays in the background (e.g., a drum machine, pre-recorded backing track from a smartphone or tablet, MP3 player, etc.), while you play the up-front parts. Smartphones are a good choice—as long as you remember to put them into airplane mode before going onstage! The screen can be a little cramped, though, so a tablet is often more error-proof. Several tablet holders can clamp on to mic stands, like the Ultimate Support JS-MNT101 (Fig. 1)
An advantage of storing backing tracks on a tablet or smartphone is that most of them can stream audio via Bluetooth, and many powered speakers designed for live performance (like Bose’s S1 Pro or the Mackie Freeplay-Live; see Fig. 2) have Bluetooth so you can stream right into them.
Some acts still prefer backing tracks on CDs, because if the CD player has a remote, calling up backing tracks can be less obtrusive than working a tablet or smartphone on a mic stand. Just make sure you get a commercial-grade unit, with enough anti-skip memory to handle tough live environments. For example, TASCAM’s CD-200BT (Fig. 3) is a sturdy, rack-mount unit with 10-second shockproof memory.
The CD-200BT also has a Bluetooth receiver. Although you can’t stream from the CD-200BT to a Bluetooth-compatible amplification system, if the CD-200BT connects with wires to your amplifier, you can stream via Bluetooth to the CD-200BT or playback CDs.
Regardless of the playback medium you choose, redundancy is vital—if you forgot to disable your wi-fi, and your smartphone starts doing a 20-minute update in the middle of a set, you’ll want a backup. If nothing else, burn your tracks to a CD and bring an inexpensive CD player…just in case.
Laptops for Live Performance
Audio files you created for backing tracks may have started in a computer sequencer, so it may make sense to use a computer to play them back in live performance. This is also the most flexible option; for example, you can sometimes add loop points on-the-fly, so that a section can repeat if you want to extend a solo. Or, have a couple variations on a track, and mute the unused ones for different performances so that there are at least some differences between sets.
Regarding reliability, though, few laptops are built to rock and roll specs. Connectors are flimsy, too; at least build a breakout box with connectors that patch into your computer, then plug the cables that go to the outside world into the breakout box. Secure your laptop (and the breakout box) to your work surface. Tape down any cables so no one can run into them. On the plus side, a laptop’s onboard battery will carry you through if the power is bad (of course, not that any club ever has substandard power), or if someone kicks out the AC cord.
Here you have two options. Arranger keyboards are optimized to generate backing tracks, and for some solo acts, that might be all you need. These cover a wide variety of price ranges, all the way up to a high-end keyboard like the Yamaha Genos (Fig. 4).
The Genos not only includes over 500 factory styles, but 1.8 GB of flash RAM for storing your own sounds. It has lots of effects, does vocal processing, and can also assemble playlists for automatic playback.
Workstation keyboards are designed as more general-purpose instruments, with comprehensive on-board sequencing instead of a collection of styles and arrangements. The Korg Kronos 6 (Fig. 5) is representative of this option—it has a 61-note, semi-weighted keyboard, and nine different sound engines. But what makes it suitable for backing tracks is the 16-track audio recording/16-track MIDI sequencing on-board sequencer. When you want your own backing tracks, this allows more customization than typical arrangers.
With live backing tracks, always have an exit strategy. Many years ago, I had a live act based around some unpredictable gear. So I patched a Minidisc player (now you know how long ago this was), with several humorous pieces of audio recorded on it, into my mixer. (One piece was a “language lesson” set to music that involved a word we can’t mention here, another had a segment from the “How to Speak Hip” comedy album.) If something needed reloading, rebooting, or troubleshooting, I’d hit Play on the Minidisc so the audience could have a humor break while I stressed out over what was going wrong. Just remember—anything beats dead air!