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Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

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Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby OhMyGosh » Thu Dec 13, 2018 7:29 pm

Hi all -

I’ve just put together a band to perform an upcoming record. We will be using ableton live to run some backing tracks here and there, and I’d love to hear a perspective from live sound engineers about what works best/worst for them when mixing in backing tracks -

I’m wondering if there are any best practices to consider when prepping these tracks. I realize the best answer is usually likely to be “it depends”, but hoping there are some general guidelines I can keep in mind.

My general plan is to struck a balance between simplicity and contro with the signals. For example, if a track has a few types of percussion, I’d imagine I’d load them all on one signal. Similarly if there were a hundful of supplemwntqry synth sounds, I’d put them on one signal but separate from percussion and backing vocals.

I suppose it also makes sense to keep the decibel level as consistent as possible so that the mixer isn’t thrown off by a suddenly-louder type of signal from one song to the next.

That said, there are certainly times when - for example - a synth stem might need to play a more prominent role that another type of stem, which makes me wonder if I should just send a sub mix of all backing tracks as one signal so I can control the relative balance. *it should be noted that one variable is: the show will be designed such that all the main elements will be performed live and anything on backing tracks will be more of a support role so if that backing signals were a little too low mix-wise, it shouldn’t really throw things off too badly.

Thoughts about these two approaches?

My last question has to do with how to eq the tracks. My studio mixes are solid, but when you solo a stem - lets use synth sequences as an example - things are often pretty carved out and even top-heavy sounding so they can sit well in the studio mix. But in a live context, I’m wondering if it might make more sense to have a more full range sound? Or should I assume the same principles used in the studio should translate well to the live show? Because the quality and character of a where a tone starts is not necessarily the same as what a tone ends up being once mixed - but that doesn’t mean I’d want to start with a different base tone. And then the concern would be that something done on the mix board that was a good move for one song would not translate as well to the next.

Obviously working this out with a dedicated live engineer would be the best bet, and that is likely in the cards for at least many shows. But at this point, that function is not a part of the equation and I anticipate would not be part of the equation for every show even if I got one on board for most, at least at the beginning. So I’m hoping to get a good scenario going that someone mixing on the fly could manage well but also represent the intent of the production as well as possible.

Any and all advice based on your experiences is most welcome.

Thanks!
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby Sam Spoons » Fri Dec 14, 2018 12:31 am

It would be unreasonable to expect a casual sound engineer to mix your backing tracks as you would like them, better, if possible, to present him with a finished mix on a mono or pair of stereo tracks. If he hasn't had the chance to learn your set he is unlikely to do the best possible job (which he would, obviously want to do). But, TBH the internal mix of the backing tracks shouldn't need any tweaking, just some balancing of the overall level against the live band.

You could consider two sets of tracks, one a stereo mix for gigs where your regular engineer is not around and the other supplying stems for him to use when he is in charge.
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby djangodeadman » Fri Dec 14, 2018 8:19 am

As Sam says, unless you have your own engineer, a stereo (or mono) mix of the backing track is best. However, I've also been presented with multiple tracks on ocassion and this can work fine, provided there is plenty of time for a decent soundcheck and the band are able to explain very clearly how they want the tracks mixed. Good communication between band and engineer is always a good thing.

However, if the backing tracks consist of fairly obvious elements (bass and keys, for example), it's not too tricky to have them on seperate channels. We are used to mixing bands with bass and keys parts, after all.

I would be inclined to go with Sam's suggestion of a stereo mix for shows where you are working with a house engineer and a more complex approach when you have your own engineer who already knows what you want.

As an aside, I strongly dislike backing vocals on backing tracks, especially when members of the band mime to them. This is supposed to be live music, no?
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby Mike Stranks » Fri Dec 14, 2018 10:43 am

What they've said....

Unless your gigs are always mixed as stereo then I'd go for a mono mix, but presented as a two-channel/'stereo' file with the track on one channel and a click-track or, at least, count-ins on the other.

As a peripatetic sound-tech I have enough to worry about working with a band who I don't know and whose material is unfamiliar to me. Another complication would be when precisely to cue the backing-track. An agreed signal from the stage is enough if you've got a count-in or click to help the on-stage musos sync-in to the track.

Of course, the click/count-in only goes to monitors... make that explicit to your casual sound people!

Keep. It. Simple. :)
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby BigRedX » Fri Dec 14, 2018 11:38 am

One of the bands I play with uses pre-recorded backing when we play live.

It comprises synths, samples and some harmony vocals (other than the singer none of the rest of the band have any decent vocal ability), and is essentially the recorded version of the track with the lead vocals, guitars, bass and drums removed, and any extreme stereo effects reined in.

It is run from Logic on a MacBook using three channels - stereo mix for FoH and click track that goes to the drummer's headphones. The drummer plays to the click and we play to the drummer.

The amount of pre-recorded material varies from song to song. On some it is little more than an atmospheric intro and the occasional harmony vocal, one others there is a full "orchestral" backing. The important thing is that we can play all of the songs without the backing should there be technical problems.
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby Sam Spoons » Fri Dec 14, 2018 11:43 am

BigRedX wrote:......... The important thing is that we can play all of the songs without the backing should there be technical problems.

:thumbup: :thumbup: :thumbup:
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby OhMyGosh » Fri Dec 14, 2018 11:45 pm

Everyone - thanks for your advice. Looks like a mixdown is the way to go unless we’ve got a dedicated engineer - and I suppose even then a mixdowm may be best depending on what works for them. And really, because no element in the backing track will have a forward role - vocals, drums, bass, keys and guitar are all live - that really does make the most sense the more I think about it. The tracks are largely just added vibe of various kinds, so one fader to balance the vibe against the main elements makes a lot of sense. I really want it to feel like what’s happening on stage is what’s coming out of the speakers - anything else someone hears chalked up to live sequencing (which is essentially what keyboard player will be doing with ableton).

djangodeadman (and whoever else wants to chime in): I hear ya re: backing vocals. I’m not actually 100% I’ll go that route, esp if I move forward with a live backup singer I’m talking to. But if i did, it will be fairly invisible - like, some doubles of what I’m singing live on the chorus kind-of-thing, maybe an occasional harmony to sweeten a word or phrase here and there, again, tucked back.

I’ve also considered going the tc helicon route, but then I’m like “well, I’ve already got the keyboard player sequencing backing elements, why add another device?” Which leads to this question about folks opinion: does someone using a tc helicon com across as more “live”? Or does it amount to the same thing in terms of how it reads? keeping in mind that whether I use helicon or back tracks, the vocal signals are gonna fall in the tucked-back-layers category, doubles and some subtle harmonies.
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby Sam Spoons » Sat Dec 15, 2018 10:01 am

My live performances don't reach the level of sophistication of yours and Music Wolf's with backing tracks and such but I have experimented with TC Helicon VoiceLive's of various flavours (I've had at least 5 over the years and currently have a VL Play GTX) and, if I was already using backing tracks I would put the backing vocals on the track. The VoiceLive devices are good (as are similar offerings from other makers) and work pretty well buried in the mix. They do stuff like doubling best but harmonies in particular don't sound as good as real backing vox so you'd be adding an extra bit of tech to achieve lower quality vocals than you would get by recording the real thing.

BTW, the suggestion of a stereo track with click (for the drummer) on one side and track on the other is what I would do, most PA systems run in mono and using a simple stereo track means you can easily have a 'backup' backing track on a phone or iPad (or any other playback device) without needing a multitrack player.
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby Music Wolf » Sat Dec 15, 2018 10:44 am

I'm no longer using backing tracks (now with a regular 4 piece) but I'm still using a TC VoiceLive 2 on backing vocals.

When I did use backing tracks, when we had no drummer, I would work with mono backing + cue track. In other words - a regular stereo .wav with backing panned hard right and cues (count in / clicks etc) hard left. The RH track goes to front of house and monitors, the LH to monitors / in ears only. For playback I used an iPad / SoundCue app with an iPhone or iPod as backup (although never required).

I prefer to use the VoiceLive for harmonies as it's more 'real'. Whether the audience could tell one way or the other is another matter. The exception was our version of The Beatles 'Nowhere Man' where we recorded the third harmony and sang the other two live.

A word of caution on backing - it takes no prisoners. It's fantastic that the backing never makes a mistake (it also turns up on time, so nothing like a real drummer. In fact the only similarity to a real drummer is that it never gets a round in), but that means that you can't make a mistake either - at least not concerning the structure. I was gigging with the 4 piece last night and the singer came in 4 bars too early on one song. No problem, we just followed him. With backing, you have to be spot on.
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby Sam Spoons » Sat Dec 15, 2018 11:05 am

That last point is probably the biggest downside of backing tracks, you can't just do an extra couple of choruses off lead solo (I'm a lead guitar player ;) ). And you have to be spot on all the time. I aim to use the VoiceLive for the same purpose as you, to boost the B-Vox (for which it is perfectly suited).
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby ronmac » Sat Dec 15, 2018 3:39 pm

As a live sound engineer, I have been passed all manner of tracks on every format imaginable (often a minute or two before a performance) and expected to sift through the pile, find the one that is titled "track7" from a stack of CDS or multiple folders on a USB drive, and hit the cue while reading instructions from a napkin written with a wet pencil.

Those days are over....

These days when I am asked to play a backing track I explain that I will treat said track as a member of the band. Send me a feed of the correct song, at the right time, using your device from either the stage position or beside FOH. Period.
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Re: Live sound wizards: Backing track best practices?

Postby OhMyGosh » Sat Dec 15, 2018 8:59 pm

For those of you who are performers with back track experience - has anyone had any experience with Ableton Live vs just a straight recording? My understanding was that it was flexible enough that, with the right setup and right operator, one could very well do extra choruses, or whatever...that it’s able
to be set up with some flexibility, on the fly. My key player is the one diving into Ableton, so maybe he’ll report back differently, but that’s been my assumption. Anyone tried it in their setup?
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