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Q. What should I use to play my backing tracks live?

Published June 2004
By Paul White

I need some way to play a stereo backing track when playing live with my band. There's a keyboard part on the left channel, which would go to the PA, and a click track on the right channel, fed to our drummer's headphones. I don't want to use a CD player, as they skip, but I'm wondering what other options there are. Something with a start/stop footswitch or remote control would be good.

SOS Forum Post

PC laptop.Editor In Chief Paul White: I too use backing tracks with my band, and I've just recently stopped using a CD player in favour of a Mac laptop, although standing the CD player on a foam cushion fixed the skipping. If CD is the most convenient format for you, and your only concern is the danger of skipping, you might consider making a foam mount for a portable CD player (good quality ones will feature extra buffering to prevent skipping) or, even better, buying a professional, rackmounted CD player. There are numerous models to choose from, and most of them will provide separate left and right outputs as well as a headphone out, often with its own level and balance controls, which could be handy for your drummer, and can be triggered by a remote control.

You could also consider a portable or rackmounted Minidisc player. While MDs are compact, durable, less susceptable to skipping and more tolerant of knocks and vibrations, you'll lose a little sound quality to MD data compression. I've also found that many portable MD players are far less hard-wearing than the discs they play and, with all their small moving parts, ageing machines have a tendency to misbehave.

Another option is to use a portable MP3 player — they're small, light and affordable, and skipping is practically unheard of. Better models will play WAV files as well as MP3s, and some will even play AIFFs. You'll need to use a signal splitter to send separate feeds to the PA and to your drummer, and some gaffer tape to ensure that the mini-jack doesn't get pulled out of the player by mistake.

When I play live with backing tracks, I find using a laptop to be the most convenient option. I have all the backing parts arranged in my sequencer, where I can use the Solo function to select which ones will play. You can configure various controls, including Return-to-Zero and Play, to be triggered from a small MIDI keyboard or, indeed, a footswitch.

For me, the other benefit of using a computer, and one I'm sure you're too professional to need, is that I can create dummy MIDI tracks under my audio backing mixes and arrange them as coloured boxes with text in them to tell me where we are in the songs! I'm told Peter Gabriel does something very similar. If you use a USB audio interface with multiple outputs, you can play your backings in stereo as well as providing a click track, though my own motivation was to allow me to experiment with four-channel surround backing parts live.  

Published June 2004