So your drummer quit, your bass player has taken up yoga and...
won't learn the songs, and you can't find a keyboard player willing to drive to your gigs? Never fear.
No musician likes to admit defeat. I think in the long run, we would all prefer to have the most awesome live band ever complete with personalities that don't want to kill each other and people who show up and give 1000% every second.
But we live in an imperfect world. And if you've spent a lot of time struggling to find the right band members and can't, or just can't afford to pay a complete horn section or a 25 person string section, you still have options in filling out your sound.
The solution: tracks.
First things first: Click, Click, Click
Whatever method you decide to use to integrate tacks, certain principles apply to using them. When augmenting a live band, you’ll need to send a click track to the drummer.
But, you don’t want the audience hearing that click and you probably don’t want it going to the whole band. This is where the right drummer becomes crucial. The ability to play to a click is something most drummers will claim, but that few really do well. When using tracks, the band follows the drummer who follows the click to which the tracks are attached.
Get the connection?
If the band can’t follow the drummer or the drummer can’t follow the click things can get nasty very quickly.
Setting up your tracks so that the drummer can follow that click, but others don't need to hear it, means you'll want to put it on it's own track.
So, that's step one in doing this correctly.
You'll also want to make sure your click is the right sound. Don't get creative with it thinking a bunch of cool sounds will help everyone hear it. Clicks inside recording software programs are typically something that sounds a lot like two drum sticks being struck together because they sit in the mix where other instruments don't and drummers use their sticks as a standard method of counting time to other band members.
Also - the first beat of the click needs to be either accented or a slightly different sound. This helps tell the drummer where he/she is in the measure/pattern.
Whatya Gonna Use?
Backing tracks that you purchase online come in a variety of flavors, each with its own pros and cons. If you are already equipped with a particular playback device and no budget to buy anything different, guess what you’ll be using?
But if you are new to the tracking game, you have choices.
And choose well, please. It is astounding, but we have seen name national acts show up with an iPod for backing tracks with everything pre-mixed (which means the sound crew can’t do anything but plug it in and let it run--no EQ or processing or even level control over different instruments).
CD: Perhaps the simplest plug & play solution are prerecorded CDs. Some online sources offer songs recorded in the original key and tempo. These are re-recordings by studio musicians, not the original track and it will almost always sound at least somewhat different from the original. PROS: Good audio quality, familiar format. CONS: Can skip or develop “dropouts” over time, can be a bit futzy to stop and start, especially on less expensive gear.
iPod: Yes, of course you can transfer other formats to play on an iPod or other Mp3 player. It’s not the most professional way to go, but it is doable. PROS: Massive song storage, ease of access, ability to create song lists. Instant downloads available. CONS: Less audio fidelity than CD, small connectors can be troublesome on a darkened stage. Never trust batteries in a live situation.
MIDI: Think of a MIDI sequence as an old-fashioned player piano roll; it’s a series of zeros and ones telling your sound card which virtual instrument to play, how loud, and what notes. Standard MIDI Files (SMF’s) are widely available and wildly varied in quality. Many songs sound really cheesy and fake, and none will contain backup vocals. MIDI files can be played back by some synthesizers, dedicated hardware players, or directly from a computer. PROS: An expert musician can tweak existing MIDI files to sound good. Song keys and tempos can be changed, and specific instruments may be muted or made louder. CONS: Instrument sounds are only as good as your sound card. MIDI files found on the Internet range from hideous to just OK.
DVD: While never intended for this, most DVD mastering programs allow for the use of 5.1 surround sound audio. This can, with some creativity, give you six discrete channels of audio which means you can mix them just like a traditional sound source (also known as a human). Channel One is click, channels two and three: stereo keys, channel four: backing vox, channel five can be your sub sources--kick drum and bass. And you still have one track left to burn. Knock yourself out.
LIVE TRACKING SOFTWARE: Software programs like Ableton Live and Reason have come a long way in the past 10 years and are specifically targeted towards live use. Connect MIDI controllers to trigger either sounds or particular tracks, and it's just like you've combined a DJ with your band. You might even consider hiring a tech geek friend to join your band as software DJ and master button pusher, leaving you to worry about your live performance.
You can also use pretty much any DAW (digital audio workstation - i.e., home recording), like ProTools, Cubase, or Presonus' new Studio One software on a laptop as your tracks. Keep in mind that you'll probably need to buy a digital mixer that is equipped with a USB or Firewire port in order to get those tracks from your laptop to different places or people in a separated way on a stage. Certain I/O (in/out) boxes for digital recording may also be used for that purpose. If you're going this route, you'll also need to employ the help of a qualified recording engineer to create the tracks for you if you have no experience with the program. Learning DAW software is a complex and time consuming process, so before you spend a ton of money on it, do your research to figure out what it will entail for you. This option is basically great for tech geeks who aren't afraid to get their hands and brains dirty with a lot of equipment, connections, and extra work.
DJ MEDIA PLAYERS: These new players, like the Stanton CMP.800 that blogger Shaun DeGraff recently reviewed for us, are a new and interesting option for integrating tracks into your live setup. They allow you to connect either a flash drive or hard drive with media files for playback and load those tracks into a playlist - kind of like an iPod on steroids.
The biggest challenge: you won't be able to separate the click, so you'll have to come up with creative ways inside the track itself for you or your band to lock into it. Impossible?
Live2Play blogger, Andrea Bensmiller, is currently working with the Stanton SCS.4DJ to do just this and will be reporting back on how the process works.
Whichever method you choose, we can't emphasize enough the need for practice with your tracks. Working with tracks is just like working with a band onstage - things can go wrong, and either the drummer or the band losing contact with the track can quickly translate into big ole trainwreck. So...DO IT RIGHT. Practice, practice, practice.