September 30, 2022
Modern recordings can be complex and hard to duplicate on stage. Whether it’s because you’ve layered four guitars and only have one guitar player, you’re using loops and sampling creatively, or the sounds you make in the studio are impossible to create with live instruments, you may find yourself struggling to figure out how to recreate a beloved recording on stage.
Of course, many big acts use pre-recorded tracks to perform, whether it’s performing karaoke-style to a “TV Mix” (a mix of the actual record without lead vocals) or lip-syncing or even having the whole band basically fake their playing. But if you don’t want to do that, you still might need to playback those extra creative elements that simply can’t be played.
Mixing live performance with pre-recorded material can be tricky, but it is doable. Here are a few approaches you can take.
The simplest way to use pre-recorded tracks is to put them on a device like your phone or laptop. Use a Y-Cable to output the headphone output to two channels and use two channels on the mixer for playback. If you’re on a bigger stage, you might need to carry two direct boxes so you can interface with the main snake.
In the simplest configuration, if you have tracks running through an entire song – let’s say a drum track – you can just start the song up and play along. A couple of issues pop up immediately:
If you’re just using backing tracks karaoke-style, this setup works, as long as you can hear the track. One well-known rapper, for example, was known to travel with a portable CD player and nothing else. He would talk a bit about a song, reach over and play the next track, and start rapping. Audiences loved his show despite its simplicity.
For a little better control, look to electronic acts for inspiration. A typical setup for this kind of act is a laptop and some kind of MIDI controller. That could be footswitches, controller pads, or even keyboard controllers with controls mapped to trigger certain samples.
Software like Ableton Live is built specifically for live performance, so you can employ that technology to build dynamic performances using pre-recorded tracks or samples. You’ll have to prep the session ahead of time, and you’ll still have to practice, but the show will likely be smoother.
Using this method, you can set up a show full of full-length backing tracks, or you can trigger snippets on command. If you do this, beware of tempo. Your snippet will play back at its set tempo, and if your band is playing without a click, your snippet will almost certainly not sync.
The best way to combat this is to have the drummer or even the whole band listen to a reference (like a metronome) that isn’t sent to the house system. This works best with in-ear monitors because even though stage monitors are for your benefit, the audience may still hear them. Now when you trigger snippets that are sync’d to the same click, you’ll be right on.
If you don’t want to bring a laptop, iPod, phone, or CD player on stage, another option is to use looper pedals or hardware samplers. In fact, many singers use looper pedals to pick and playback songs. It’s easy to do with your feet, and these devices are simpler and sturdier than a laptop.
So far, we’ve only talked about stereo output. If you’re ambitious, you can output multi-tracks to play along to. Typically, this would be done with a DAW on your laptop. This setup requires that you bring an audio interface that can output multiple channels. An even more robust option is to purchase a dedicated digital multitrack player.
In either case, you may not have as many outputs as channels in the original project, but you can create special stems to output – say two channels for extra backing vocals, two for a stereo synth pad, two for extra percussion, and so on.
Send these outputs to the house mixer and now the sound engineer has full control of the mix, which can greatly improve your sound across venues. You can also output the click to a monitor and send it to the drummer or other band members. Pro Tip: Program the click to stop at the end of the song so players don’t continue playing.
There are a few things to keep in mind when preparing your backing tracks. First, consider that live venues are typically very reverberant. So, you may want to back off on the reverb sends for your live tracks.
Next, if you’re using a DAW, especially with multiple track output, print any effects and processing to the track so the computer isn’t using processing power to handle plugins. Plugins running in real-time can cause delay, and the more you ask of your computer, the more chance of hiccups or failures.
Finally, if you’re using multi-track output, make sure that your track layout is consistent. For example, if backing vocals are on channels 1 and 2 for song one, keep them on those channels for all the songs. For any unavoidable changes, make notes, and lay out your songs in order, no matter what device you’re using.
Using pre-recorded tracks isn’t the easiest way to play a show, but when done right, it can open a world of options you wouldn’t otherwise have. Give it a go – but practice a lot first!
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