Playing live

Having access to production tools is a recent phenomenon for musicians. 30-40 years ago musicians usually use to stick to their own instrument and leave other aspects of producing music to other specialists. You would seldom see someone who was a drummer and a guitar player and a keyboard player and programmer and arranger and producer and recording engineer and mixing engineer and mastering engineer. Today this is routine and most musicians are now what we can call “generalists”.

Obviously being a generalist while producing music has a spillover effect when the same musician plays live. Most bands now bring their in-studio production elements to the stage. This might be limited to looper pedals to create extra layers, special automated FX to re-create mixing tricks all the way up to using numerous backing tracks and have the band play to a click.

Most pop music tends to have backing tracks when they play live. Some use lightweight Pro Tools sessions, some use Ableton live and trigger loops & samples – and some use dedicated hardware players that have multiple outputs such as the Etymotic Audio LP series players.

The challenge most of the time is to make sure that the backing tracks are properly balanced – as a live performance will allow for the tension to vary between high and low. Backing tracks are limited in this way, especially if the band is using a stereo mixdown of their song minus the elements that are playing live (drums, bass, guitars, main vocals). For example a band playing their hit song might want to let the audience sing the chorus and normally the band will drop the tension of their playing – however the backing tracks are not aware of this tension drop so it will keep on playing on 10.

The front of house (FOH) mixer should be able to help to balance the tracks while there are spontaneous tension changes during a live gig – or maybe the keyboard player has a small mixer that allows him to make the necessary changes on the fly.

The next challenge is to make sure that all the songs are balanced against each other so that their place in the mix is reflected while playing live. This is not simply matching the max loudness to an arbitrary loudness unit (LUFS). You need to consider the levels of the elements in the backing tracks and how loud they should be with the live band playing.

The best way of figuring this out is to play the whole set live once using a PA system (before a live gig during soundcheck) and have your sound guy to make notes on the levels of the backing tracks. Maybe he lowered the tambourine 5 dbs in the first song but increased it up to -3db for the last song.

After his notes are done, go back to the studio and make the necessary changes – so that all the volume levels are printed in to the files and the backing tracks can be set to a static gain at the FOH mixer desk for the whole show and the levels will be correct throughout the show.

This might take a few tries to get it right, but essentially it is no different than mixing in the studio. The difference is that you probably will have to go back to the studio to make the changes. Unless you are using the exact same session on stage that you used in the studio, and you merely mute the elements that are already playing live on stage. Given that most projects today have a lot of tracks & extensive processing on each track, having a heavy project loaded during a live show is asking for trouble. I advocate for the leanest solution possible – with a backup in place.

Working with a professional with experience in live backing tracks to help you prepare your backing tracks for live usage will definitely cut the effort and time you have to invest. If you are struggling to get this right – all you need is to contact me and we’ll discuss what you need.

Until next time,


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