How to Play Backing Tracks Live (Gear, Tips, Options)

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Want to know how to play backing tracks live? This article takes you through the different options you have available, from using your iPad or laptop on stage to getting your hands on some dedicated hardware.

Different Options to Play Backing Tracks

Here are some of the easiest and best ways to play backing tracks live. Any of these options will work:

  1. iPad or iPhone (With an app such as SoundCue)
  2. Roland SPD-SX (or other Sample Pad)
  3. Laptop (With DAW software and an audio interface)

1. iPad or iPhone (With SoundCue App)

If you’re looking for a very easy method then simply just use your iPad or iPhone as your backing track player.

The SoundCue app is a very nice and user-friendly option for you to quickly get up and running.

If you already own an iPad or iPhone, this is a great way to get up and running with a minimal investment. Though make sure to turn off all notification sounds from the device!

At the time of writing, this app was $14.99 on the App Store.

2. Roland SPD-SX (or other Sample Pads)

The Roland SPD-SX is a very popular sample pad that works great for playing backing tracks. You can load your backing tracks directly onto the device using a USB drive. Then you can assign the tracks to a pad and you are ready to go. Simply just hit the desired pad when you want to start that backing track.

You can connect the output of the sample pad to a PA system or amplifier using an instrument cable. The sample pad is a standalone device, so it does not need to be connected to a laptop to be used.

The Roland SPD-SX is a great option for performances since it is very reliable and easy to use. It’s very unlikely to crash on stage as its build quality is very impressive.

There are some other great options available. Check out our article on the best electronic drum pads for more information. Be sure to pick one that offers the ability for you to use your own samples.

3. Laptop (with DAW software and an audio interface)

Using a laptop is a fantastic option and it gives you the most amount of flexibility. Though you may need to make sure you set it up properly to prevent crashes or audio drop-outs.

  • Laptop: First off you need a laptop for playback. Mac is a good option. Windows is also a good option if you make sure to configure it properly.

  • DAW of your choice: Ableton Live is a great option for playing backing tracks (among many other things). Other software options include LiveTraker and Digital Performer to set up your tracks for the show. Reaper is also great for multi-track playback.

  • Audio Interface: You need to connect an Audio Interface with the laptop to get professional sound quality from it. You can connect in ¼” instrument cables or XLR cables to the interface to connect it an amplifier or PA system. I highly recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 audio interface – it’s very reliable on stage and comes at a decent price.

Reasons to Use Backing Tracks

The backing tracks are pre-recorded parts of music and vocals that are played in the background to augment and enhance the live performance. Backing tracks have a ubiquitous presence in live performance and essentially streamlines the performance. It has become the industry standard to utilize backing tracks in many different genres, so the live performances are glitch-free and captivating.

There are a variety of reasons for which artists and performers make use of the backing tracks. For instance, backing tracks are used in cases where some parts are difficult to play in a live setting and might not sound great as compared to a recorded version. Fast-paced electronic music is impractical to play in a live setting therefore the backing track comes to the rescue.

At times, it is logistically difficult during tour performances to carry heavy equipment and instruments therefore, backing tracks are utilized. The artists who are big on dance routines require backing tracks, so their vocals are not affected during the performance. Solo artists also use tracked instruments to beef up their performances.

Different Approaches to Using Backing Tracks

Various approaches from simple to complex are utilized when backing tracks are added to the performance and each approach serves a distinct objective.

1. Lip-syncing

This approach is considered debatable and frowned upon by music purists. This approach employs lip-syncing on the artist’s part only and is often not considered a live performance.

2. Mirrored backing tracks for vocals

Mirrored backing tracks are pre-recorded vocals used in conjunction with live vocals to add a certain dimension to the vocal quality of the performance

3. Replacing an instrument

Use of tracked bands is quite an economy-driven approach. Practically it is quite difficult for touring groups to bring multiple instruments with them throughout the tours, instrument-specific backing tracks are utilized. In the case of a missing band member such as a keyboardist or drummer, backing tracks save the performances.

4. Effects and background music

Some musical groups use backing tracks for effects or sounds that would be impractical or very difficult to reproduce live. This includes sounds that would require a lot of sound design work, music production, modulation, and mixing.

Bands may also use backing tracks to add more depth to the sound through extra background sounds such as synth pads, orchestral sounds, or ambient backing vocals.

Challenges and Tips to Using Backing Tracks

With backing tracks, there are a few challenges that you can concur whether you are a drummer, guitarist or a vocalist.

  • One of the common challenges is keeping track of time and flow. Artists often use click tracks so the whole band is in sync with each other.

  • Use in-ear monitors or headphones to avoid the distraction and play your part as required on the right time. Click tracks can also be used by the drummer or the entire band.

  • Technical issues are very common when technology is involved so make sure to run sound check tests thoroughly.

  • Keep backup cables and other accessories for any unfortunate events since it is a common issue.

Backing track failure can happen to anyone, so it is always essential to make sure everything is working smoothly on stage and off stage both.

Should You Use Backing Tracks?

There is a constant war of words when it comes using backing tracks for performances. Music enthusiasts and purists despise backing tracks and consider it to be a crutch for untalented musicians and artists.

However, that’s not the entire truth since the use of a backing track cannot be the only decisive factor of an artist’s talent. Over time backing tracks have developed into an entity of its own that serves various purposes and has become an industry experience.

In short, live performers are often using backing tracks to save the extensive band costs or to give the audience a ‘pitch-perfect’ performance.

Today’s performers feed into the audience’s consumption of performance that sounds exactly like recorded versions and is also high on visuals, therefore, they are bound to utilize backing tracks.

Other artists use backing tracks only for elements of the performance that may be impossible or impractical to play live, such as electronic elements that would require extensive sound design work. They then sing or play their own instruments on top of this.

There is no one correct answer if you should use backing tracks or not. It depends on your genre, your goals and your style.

If you’re playing in a genre that expects very high quality LIVE musicianship, such as jazz music, then using a backing track for a solo piece may get you laughed out of the building.

If you’re a popstar dancing around on stage, using a backing track may not be very surprising.

There are many genres that fit somewhere in between the above examples, it’s up to you to decide which one you’re closest to!

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