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

Using backing tracks is a modern and very useful way to make your live performances shine. Backing tracks are often used for effects the are pre-recorded, added back vocals, added layers to emphasize certain parts. In a nutshell, everything to improve the sound of your performance.

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.

Purpose and Benefits of Backing Tracks

As mentioned in the intro section, backing tracks are a very modern, creative and, useful way to make your live performance sound better. They are essentially pre-recorded musical pieces that are later played while performing live.

Their purpose is to improve your live performances with pre-recorded back vocals, or effects, or even pre-recorded instruments if the band or artist is lacking band members.

In a nutshell, playing a backing track while performing live results in a better sound overall for your show that also saves you the cost of hiring other musicians to play certain instruments, which in this case are pre-recorded and played while you’re performing live.

Backing tracks shine when they’re used alongside in-ear monitors that feature a metronome click with a pre-programmed arrangement of the song. You know exactly which part is coming and which part is amped up with a certain emphasis from the backing track.

Where there are benefits there are also downfalls. The downfall in this situation is that many technical errors will occur during your setup for a show.

Backing tracks or playback systems are good but they tend to crash, skip, or even not play at all if not set up properly or from a random malfunction. This is because they’re most commonly used on a laptop or through different methods.

The other downside is that you always have to be equipped with an in-ear monitor to track the metronome click so you can’t improvise that much and you have to stick to the arrangement.

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 fantastic 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 to 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.

Other 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 streamline 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.

Gearing up for Backing Tracks

Different methods are used depending on what type of gear you’re planning on using.

When it comes to using backing tracks, they’re mostly used through a laptop, in which case you will need a solid medium or high-quality laptop, equipped with an audio interface and a digital audio workstation like Ableton Live.

Now, this is important because a good-quality audio interface and workstation will be running your backing tracks. There are various audio workstations out there so you just need to choose the right one that’s best suited for you in order to play your backing tracks successfully.

A few things need to be done, first of all, you need a lot of cables, for example, if using a laptop you will need a USB cable, two TRS cables, depending on the outputs, you might need a snake cable.

Everything else falls short If you’re not equipped with an in-ear monitor. Now, this is extremely important because you can’t very well play the audio to the whole crowd because of the metronome click.

For this reason, you would need an in-ear monitor so only you and the people performing with you can listen to it while the outgoing audio is the one without the metronome click.

I know this is a lot but these are the things that are completely necessary for this situation. In order to get the best live performance possible, you need to set up everything correctly and be ready.

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

The 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 with whether you are a drummer, guitarist, or 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 distraction and play your part as required at 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 to 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 pop star 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!


Backing tracks are a crucial part of the live music industry. Musicians use them as a tool for support.

Backing tracks can provide you with a flawless experience on stage. With in-ear monitors or headphones to stay in sync with your group and click track for accuracy.

Backing tracks are used by all musicians at one point or another.

Technical issues are very common when technology is involved, make sure everything is working smoothly both on stage and off the stage.

Even though backing tracks are used by musicians today they can be a crutch to untalented artists. It all depends upon your genre, your goals, and your style if you should use backing tracks or not.

Mike O'Connor
Mike O'Connor

I've been playing drums for over 18 years. I work as both a session drummer and a drum teacher, and I love to share my knowledge and tips on this site. You can also find me on the Electronic Drum Advisor YouTube channel.

  1. Should you use backing tracks? I think a resounding … YES!
    I was in a duo for nearly 20 years with a talented singer/guitarist. He refused to use backing tracks in any capacity as it was ‘cheating’. K. Should I not use my keyboard sampler then? How about the drummer with a cool multipad unit. Is that cheating?
    HERE IS WHAT I KNOW about audiences based on over 30 years of playing out. They. Dont. Care. About 98% of them don’t anyway. They want to be entertained. Dance. Have a beverage. Forget about work for awhile. The other 2%? Usually it’s musicians like my buddy and former bandmate … a musician’s musician if you will. Even without backing tracks and using real players only they’ll find something that could be better. Honestly … that’s not my target audience. It’s the people that want to be entertained.
    I play regularly at an awesome winery … and have for 10 years. I have regular conversations with the owner (our boss!) who recently shared with me,”You know, 3 or 4 years ago you could have a duo play that might be just two guitars or a guitar and keyboard … especially on Sundays. That’s all changed. Now people come out to the winery on Sundays and want to dance and kick up their heels a bit. The successful duos and trios I’m hiring now all use backing tracks.” Pretty clear message from the guy who hires the bands … yes? I’m all in. John is gone but the tracks are definitely in … in moderation of course!

    • Some great points, Stephen. I couldn’t agree more! The argument of ‘cheating’ in music can be very closed-minded and can bring you down a rabbit hole. Having a good perspective is very important to make sure that you can stay open-minded and strike a good balance between entertainment and artistic integrity.

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