Playback 101: A Musician's Guide to Using Backing Tracks
Playback & Backing Tracks - they’ve been around longer than you think!
By the late 1960s, and especially into the 1970s, studio experimentation and technology had become so advanced that it was possible to make a song that was impossible to actually play.
Some bands, like The Beatles, just stopped playing live altogether; other bands, such as The Who, sought out ways of allowing technology to bring those studio recordings to life on stage.
Complex multi-track arrangements could often represent the work of dozens of takes with dozens of musicians. In the case of acts such as Pink Floyd, there were even sounds and rhythms composited from tape edits, which were literally impossible to perform “live”.
The answer was to bring the recording studio to the stage, and perform as much on stage as possible, whilst allowing the studio recordings to flesh-out a live performance.
The problem then however, was getting musicians and tape machines to play together. Not an easy task, especially with the size of tape machines in the 1970s!
The challenges of playing to backing tracks
“You can’t talk to a playback rig the way you can communicate to live musicians on stage. Your playback rig has to be 100% solid so that the musicians know it’s going to start on time and it’s not going to fail. All they have to do is stick to that click.”
- Alexia Stratton, FOH Engineer and Production Manager for Billie Eilish
There’s a very different skill set, and a very different set of disciplines involved when playing live to backing track. Your author has played possibly hundreds of gigs as a musician to playback.
If you drop a drumstick, miss a beat or fall behind, a backing track WILL. NOT. STOP. It’s a relentless juggernaut which will plough on with or without you. It’s therefore essential that when the playback train starts-a-rollin’ that you’re on-board!
How do you make sure you’re playing in time to the backing track though? It’s here that the infamous “click track” comes into play. If you’ve ever played along to a metronome you’ve effectively played along to a click track.
As with the origins of playback itself, the click track came from the recording studios of the 1970s. A metronome click was added to a track on the tape, giving a fixed timing reference so that musicians could stay in time, regardless of what else was on the tape.
That same timing reference, the click track, allows a musician (typically the drummer) when playing live, to “lock-in” to the tempo of the piece, and to start at the dead right moment of the song.
Provided the drummer’s in time, the band’s in time; that’s the theory anyway! Playing to a click track is an important discipline and a true test of a drummer’s skill and timing.
On-stage monitoring is vitally important to putting on a good show (see our Monitor Masterclass blog for more information). It’s especially important when playing to a backing track.
It’s important that your drummer can hear the click track perfectly against the rest of the band and the backing track. For this reason drummers will often use headphones or in-ear monitors.
We include a dedicated, high-power headphone monitor output built into the PlayAUDIO12 for exactly this reason. You can use the headphone monitor out to create a perfect headphone mix from your DAW.
But isn’t playback for people who can’t sing?
“Playing with playback is pretty much the standard on most pop oriented gigs these days. The more solid and stable playback you have, the less stressed you feel.”
- Andrew Marshall - Drummer with Billie Eilish
No discussion on playback would be complete without touching on the accusation that using playback is in some way “cheating”. Frankly, we don’t care how you use our audio interfaces, we’re not the talent police. However, history has a cautionary tale…
In the 1980s, Frank Farian, the producer genius behind acts such as Boney M, created a fictional R’n’B group called Milli Vanilli. The records sounded amazing, as they featured some of the best session musicians around. The problem was… well, have you ever seen what session musicians look like?
Frank Farian hired two young, good-looking guys to front Milli Vanilli and perform at all the TV appearances, promo and shows. Heck, these two guys even collected a Grammy award in 1990! There was just one, problem: neither of them could actually sing!
The wheels fell of Milli Vanilli’s train when the backing track they were performing to began to skip in front of thousands of adoring fans at a gig… which was also being filmed. The facade had been exposed and the end was nigh for Milli Vanilli.
What can you learn from this?
Your playback rig must be 100%, cast iron, solid, dependable, and bullet-proof reliable. This is especially important if your show relies very heavily on a large proportion of pre-recorded content, such as cabaret and theatrical shows.
Perfect Playback: It’s why we built the PlayAUDIO12
Pooling our collective years of live experience, both as engineers and musicians, we wanted to finally end the compromises with old, clunky, unreliable playback systems.
PlayAUDIO12 is the answer: it’s compact, portable, reliable, has enough outputs to keep your FOH sound engineer happy, and a dedicated headphone monitor so your drummer can keep time.
From the dawn of playback systems on-stage, to today. You could say that Perfect Playback has been 40 years in the making!