Preparing backing tracks for live performance
Techniques & Tips
Published in PM May 2008
Technique : Stagecraft
For soloists, pre-recorded backing tracks can seem like the perfect way to expand and enhance a live performance, but taking the time to prepare them properly is essential.
I wrote about working with backing tracks in last month's issue of Performing Musician, and I should have considered in advance how unwise it would be to stir up all those painful memories! But the advantages of backing tracks, in the right context, are considerable. They just need careful management to avoid the risk of unseemly embarrassment on stage. Half of that management is in the preparation of backing tracks so that they work for you, rather than against you, as they so easily can do. So let's go right back to the stage where you have a blank sheet of paper in front of you and you have the opportunity of getting everything right. Right up to the moment when your performance is over and you are basking in the glory of your standing ovation (I received one once — good grief, the absinthe was strong in that club!)
I have in mind four different scenarios where you might find yourself preparing backing tracks for live performance. You might, for instance, be performing cover versions and need backing tracks quickly and in bulk. Or you might be performing covers, but you have the opportunity of spending more time and taking more trouble over your backings. You might be performing your own original music. Possibly, you have already recorded your songs and you now want to re-purpose your recordings as backing tracks. Or perhaps you are starting completely from scratch (such luxury!)
Making the most of MIDI
Have you ever fancied being a producer? Well, just about the best training you can get is to land a job making MIDI backing tracks. Just think, you get to analyse and reproduce the work of the greatest hit-making producers out there. You have to work quickly and make tracks that satisfy your market. A year spent doing that would be a year very well spent indeed. But I digress we need to consider the situation of buying backing tracks and putting them to good use.
Even simpler than buying MIDI backing tracks is to buy audio backing tracks. You can get them on CD or download them in MP3 format. Preparation for performance is a relatively simple matter of burning all the tracks you need onto a couple of handy CDs — one for the first half of your show and one for the second. Don't forget to keep them 100% free of fingerprints or you will come to regret it in a very public way. I'm not going to linger on audio backing tracks because they are so limiting; you can't change the arrangement, you can't change the key, and the turn that will be on next Saturday might be using the same tracks as you!
Back to MIDI then. At the very least, you will need a keyboard that can play MIDI files multitimbrally, or a General MIDI sound module and a MIDI file player. To explain General MIDI simply, the MIDI file itself consists of a number of tracks, each representing a different musical instrument. Each track has its own MIDI channel, through which it will send data to the sound generator. Each track is also set to a certain program number that indicates which instrument should play that track (drums, piano, clarinet and so on). In ordinary MIDI, there is no set relationship between the program number and the instrument, but in General MIDI this is fixed according to a standard table. So whether your keyboard or sound module is Korg, Roland, Yamaha or whatever, when you play back a General MIDI file it will sound pretty much the same. And you wouldn't want to hear a drum track played on the piano (or worse still, the other way round!) One manufacturer's piano, for instance, will sound slightly different to another, but, overall, the arrangement will play as intended and you can easily change the key or tempo.
General MIDI used in this simple way works very well, to a point, but the problem is that although each individual instrument can sound reasonably realistic, the overall mix does not have the overall honed quality of a professionally produced recording. In fact, although a lot of skill, care and attention has gone into the production of the MIDI backing track, the inevitable limitations in the General MIDI process lead to the word 'amateur' being stamped all over your sound. Feel free to disagree, but in my opinion and experience there is a better way
MIDI, but perfected
You could record your own backing track of any song you like, but when there are so many MIDI backing tracks commercially available it makes sense to take advantage of them as a 'Delia cheat'. But they need refinement and adaptation to your own performance style. The way to do this is to use the MIDI file as raw material to aid the recording of an audio backing track, but one that is adapted to your needs in terms of arrangement, overall sound, key and tempo.
Firstly, I would open up my favourite digital audio workstation software, which has both audio and MIDI facilities — as, I am sure, does yours. I would import the MIDI file and separate out the instruments onto different tracks, so that I could easily solo any individual instrument. Next, I would connect my MIDI keyboard, which has all the instrumental sounds I would want to use. Clearly, this will involve both MIDI and audio connections. Then I would solo each MIDI track in turn and record each instrument on a separate audio track. I don't need General MIDI for this. If I want to turn the piano track into a harpsichord, then I can easily do that. Eventually, I will end up with a multitrack audio recording. I would keep the MIDI tracks just in case, but they have fulfilled their function and I would hide them from the screen. At this point, I can mix! I can use any processes and effects, and balance the track to my heart's content. I can add new instruments, or take some away if I want. I can guarantee with absolute confidence that the result will be a hundred times better than the raw output of a General MIDI sound module. And yes, that one instrument that is so difficult to replicate via MIDI — my guitar — I can add to the mix! By the way, I could have used software instruments, rather than an external keyboard, but it's just my preference to use physical stuff rather than software whenever I can. Feel free to follow your own instincts though.
Using your own music
I have a theory that there are two types of people who read Performing Musician: those who perform and those who record, but have a burning ambition to get out there on stage. Recording may have been seen as the 'cool' thing to do for quite some time, but now I think it is time for priorities to be realigned. So, as a performing musician, you probably want to be playing in front of a live audience, but it's handy to have a little recording setup at home, particularly for preparing backing tracks.
Recently, I've had the opportunity of listening to and looking at quite a few multitrack recordings from a variety of sources. One thing I have learned is that although the final mix of a song may sound fantastic, the original multitrack recording can be in a pretty messy state. So you might find yourself pondering the notion of re-purposing some of your recordings as backing tracks. But are you sure you are fully aware what kind of can of worms you might be opening up?
Firstly, you will need to find your multitrack recordings. How good are you at labelling your media? And if you are in the habit of recording different versions of your songs, which was the one that made the grade? These kinds of memories fade very quickly with time, but at least it's some kind of solace that you can start to label your work properly from now on. Next, what format is your original multitrack recording in? I recently found myself in the loft, hunting for some of my old work, and it was on half-inch, 16-track tape! I had to buy a second-hand Fostex E16 tape recorder and an additional eight-channel digital audio interface, just to transfer it into my digital audio workstation software. Expect the above to resurface on eBay sometime soon.
Even if your recordings are archived onto disc, however, there may still be some problems (and that's assuming the discs actually work). Naturally, in your recording setup you are using the latest version of your favourite Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. Except, the recordings you want to remodel into backing tracks were made using a much earlier version. Fortunately, it is likely that all of the audio will play, although I have heard reports of occasional timing problems. But also, it is likely that you won't have the original plug-ins you used. So the song just doesn't sound the same. There's nothing that can't be resolved with a bit of work, but if you were expecting that re-purposing existing recordings as backing tracks was going to be a breeze, then you may find that you need to think again. For the future, I have developed my own set of recording 'mottos', so that I can come back to my work at any later time and find it easy to work with: 1) name tracks logically, 2) order tracks sensibly, 3) print each track to one continuous .wav file so that you can import the recording into any software, and 4) label media very clearly.
Should a backing track sound like a backing track?
This is a point worth thinking about very early on. Imagine your favourite artist. Victoria Beckham? Probably not, but she'll do for this example. Now imagine her singing live on stage, to a backing that is a Spice Girls' original recording with her voice dropped out. So what you see on stage is one Spice Girl, but it sounds like all of them, in the studio. It should be clear from this image that even though the vocal is live, the whole thing is going to sound incredibly fake. The moral is that a perfectly acceptable studio recording isn't necessarily going to stand up on stage. But why is this?
The answer is that we expect studio recordings to be polished and richly complex. We expect a live performance to sound correct in relation to what we see on stage. And since there is already an incongruity caused by having a backing track, then having a backing track that is richly orchestrated with complex vocal harmonies is only going to make things worse. In fact, the best route to a successful backing track is to imagine what instruments it would be practical to have on stage, and use just those instruments in your backing. Concentrate on getting each sound strong and powerful, don't overdo the processing and definitely don't overdo the effects. And perhaps most importantly, don't forget that your performance venue will have its own ambience. You don't need to add reverb. Or, in fact, you could use a little 'venue ambience' while you mix, but switch it off for the final bounce down.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, what could possibly go wrong in a conventional live performance? Lots of things: you could forget your words (been there), the performer whose cue you were expecting does something different instead (done that), a lady of mature years in the audience might try to tweak your privates during the second chorus of 'Johnny B. Goode' (now there's a T-shirt I'm not having printed up!) But whatever goes wrong during a purely live performance, the one thing you can do is recover. When you are playing to a backing track, it is perfectly possible that things can go wrong that completely mess up your performance. Let's look at a few areas that are worthy of mention
Firstly, the start of the song. In the majority of instances, this will be easy; just wait for the introduction to play through and then start singing. But some songs start with the vocal, and in others there isn't a great deal to get your pitch from before you come in. The solution to the pitching problem is to record an entry note before the song starts. My preference is to use a clarinet sample about 10dB down from the rest of the track. This is easy for me to listen out for, but it doesn't draw the audience's attention. For a count-in, the traditional clashing of drumsticks works fine — even if you have to buy a pair specially. Four different hits will be much more natural than repeating the same one four times.
During the song, the most likely problem is that you could lose your place in relation to the backing track. This is most likely if the backing track is repetitive in nature, as I found out
We have fire safety rules in the UK that limit audience sizes; in some countries, they don't. The club was packed. I was the opening act and for my first number I had chosen to come on stage alone, without even the benefit of a guitar to hide behind. The backing track had a long, repetitive, atmospheric opening, but I knew that all I had to do was count the bars and I would find my entry OK. However, something was amiss: there I was on stage, hundreds of sweaty bodies pressed up close, but no backing track. I stood professionally impassive for a while, and then I became aware of a strange rumbling sound in the background. My track! It was coming through front-of-house, but not through the monitors. I hadn't a clue how far through the intro it was. Fortunately, I knew that I would have a half-second heads up before the vocal was due, so I concentrated on having a supply of air ready in my lungs. In the end, I got the entry right and the foldback returned, but it was scary stuff at the time.
What I learned from that experience was to specifically record a cue at any point where there was even the remotest possibility of missing my entry. The audience doesn't have to be aware of it, but it makes performing to a backing track a much more secure experience. It is also possible to take this one stage further. Let's suppose that you are not at all comfortable with the lack of security imposed by performing to a backing track. Well, at least you're psychologically normal then! How about having the vocal on the backing track so you could, if you wanted to, just open and close your mouth and pretend to sing? No, I know you're not going to do that because it really would be cheating. Not that it's never been done, of course No, what you do is record the vocal, but mix it in at a low level, around 6 to 10dB lower than it would normally be. This way, when you are singing on top of the recorded vocal, you are virtually obliterating it and it will sound almost as though the recorded vocal isn't there. But suppose there is a mishap in timing? You will hear the recorded vocal because you are conscious of it and pick up the song again, and the audience probably won't notice that anything has happened.
It's worth pointing out that many songs are very straightforward to perform to a backing track and these ninja techniques will probably not be necessary. But from experience, I have found that it is often useful to have a little extra in reserve.
Ending the backing
Generally, there is no need for the structure of a backing track for live performance to be any different to the recorded version of a song. However, there is one important point: in live performance, you can't have a fade at the end! OK, you can, but it won't work and I can tell you why. Firstly, imagine a completely live band doing a fade. The band could perform as normal and the front-of-house engineer pulls the master fader down. That will leave the monitors and guitar amps active (not a nice sound really). Or the musicians could get quieter themselves (try this once and you'll never want to repeat it). Or perhaps the musicians could leave the stage one by one. Hey, we've just invented Haydn's 'Farewell' symphony where they do just that. No, none of those methods will work other than as a novelty, and the overriding reason is that the audience doesn't know when to applaud! Applause is a surprisingly important component of performance. Performers bask in it, audiences willingly give it, but the audience needs to be told when to applaud. The performer has to ask for — no, demand — applause at the right moment. For this reason, each of your songs needs a 'proper' end, tempting though a fade might be. More than that, the end of the song should come very soon after you stop singing. Rehearse in front of a mirror and you'll see how daft you look if the virtual band plays on after you have finished.
In summary, playing live to a backing track is not an easy option, but it can be a practical one. A few careful steps in preparation will make sure that everything runs smoothly. 0
For your ears only: recording cues
I've discussed recording cues in the backing track to give a little bit more certainty on stage. If anything goes wrong when performing to a backing track, it is likely to go badly wrong. The problem with this, however, is that whatever you put in to aid your performance will also be heard by the audience. It is easily possible to make the cues unobtrusive so that the audience will not notice, but if it were possible for only you to hear the cues, then they could be made much stronger, allowing you extra certainty and security. There are two ways to do this. The first is to use a playback device with more than two channels, and clearly more than two outputs. It would be nice to be able to use something like a four-channel CD player. Unfortunately, although four-channel operation is allowed for in the original CD specification, no one — as far as I know — ever got round to manufacturing one. A laptop computer with appropriate software and a multi-channel audio interface is a suitable, although rather more cumbersome, alternative. Suitably equipped, you can send a stereo signal to front-of-house, and the same signal plus whatever cues you need to your foldback. Performing amid such luxury is better than getting a lift in the back of Simon Cowell's Maybach.
However, you don't need multiple outputs to do this; you can do it with a simple stereo player. We live in a stereo world these days (with occasional glimpses of 5.1), but in live music performance stereo is largely wasted. Think about it — most of your audience will be much closer to one speaker system than the other and they won't notice any stereo effect at all. This means that you can prepare your backing tracks so that one channel is the mono feed to front-of-house and the other channel is your foldback. You will be surprised how well this works and how little difference it makes to the front-of-house sound for the majority of your audience.
Published in PM May 2008
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