SONGWRITING: Backing Track Preparation & Options
Been getting more and more into this, lately, as every band I’m in is a duo of some sort. And I’m beginning to play live with each project… especially in the next few months.
EHX 45000 with footpedal
laptop running Reaper 5, with footpedal or Launchpad
Akai MPC Live
Each of these options ranges from $400 (laptop+controller) all the way to $1200 for the Akai and Elektron. A bit overkill, many may say.
Leaning toward the RC-300. It can store 3 hours of WAV files internally, and you can easily export from your DAW, to the pedal. Has 100 presets. About 15-20 of them could each store a full song, spread across 3 WAV files (drums, bass, keyboard parts, or extra guitars). That’s about 120 to 150MB per song. I think the total storage is about 2GB, in the pedal. It can also read from SD memory, which is great. Plus, it’s just a killer looper in general. Lots of fun and many uses… not just for a foot-controlled backing track player.
Cons, that pulled me away from all the rest:
Boss RC-505 – no foot use… just hands. Awesome little pedal, but I play guitar a lot, and/or drums or keys live… this wouldn’t be ideal. Great for vocalists and beatboxers, though.
Roland SP-404SX – decent, and used by a lot of pros. I could live without those unbalanced RCA outputs, though (are you kidding, Roland? In 2017?) Can store 120 samples per SD card (and reads FAST– loads everything quickly upon startup)… each sample can be LONG, from what I understand)… but again… the outputs?!
Roland SPD-SX – can only be used with drumsticks, basically. Nice bit of gear… 4GB of ram. Can store a ton and has a lot of fun options. But… you’re stuck holding sticks. However, Jack Garratt kicks ass with his, while playing 100 other things (see below)
EHX 45000 with footpedal – read that it’s prone to errors and bugs. Nice design, though.
laptop running Reaper 5, with footpedal or Launchpad – everyone’s usually against the use of a laptop, live… but certainly, this is the cheapest option. The con is it takes a lot of configuring, to do what you want it to (such as with Reaper 5, and a MIDI footpedal).
Akai MPC Live – too expensive, and the hardware OS/software is still “in beta”… and a LOT of crashes/bugs. For $1200? No thanks. Fix your bugs entirely, and we’ll talk.
Elektron Octatrack – Same price as above…. much-loved. I don’t know much about it, but it is powerful as hell. Doesn’t seem to offer a lot of sample storage, though.
What I did in Beauty’s Confusion (please follow us on Spotify!) over 10 years ago is the basic way most people do it:
click-track panned hard left
music mixed in mono, hard right (if you want, you can put music at a lower volume, along with the click, so you don’t just get bombarded with a click in your ear while you play).
I used to use a shock-proof CD player for our tracks (at first a Numark CDN88, I think)… and then I upgraded to a Pioneer CDJ-800. And then eventually, I just wound up using a Dell laptop for the tracks. The audio interface only had a cable from the RIGHT output, into a direct box, into the mains. My earbuds and/or headphones plugged into the headphone output of the interface, so I got the click in the left-ear only, and the music in both. I played drums mostly, or did keys/guitar, depending on the song. This is the standard way to do backing tracks, but… you’re stuck with exactly that track… so you better start when you need to, and not come in late with vocals, or early… the backing track is unforgiving (a way to combat this is to use something like Ableton Live… where you can have different “Scenes” to trigger variations of verses/choruses/jam parts, etc).
I did this same backing track setup, also in an indie/electronic trio I was in, in 2007. We made tracks in FL Studio, and used that same workhorse Dell laptop live, running Ableton. Singer played bass, guitarist played guitar, and I drummed, sang vocal harmony, and triggered the tracks.
It’s relatively easy to prepare tracks for live use, if you’re using a laptop, especially if you spread the tracks to more than one– drums, bass, keys, extra guitars… it’s easy to mix live after a rehearsal with a PA system… you can see what’s too loud, and what’s not loud enough, and take notes, or fix on the go using automation. However, if you’re making tracks for a foot pedal or hardware unit (one simple mono mix)… you’ll need a lot of trial and error, and you’ll need to get the mixes PERFECT… again, a PA system or a friend’s in addition to yours, would help nail the balance of the tracks, against the live instruments and vocals.
The crappy thing about preparing these tracks for the hardware stuff such as the Roland or Boss stuff is that the WAVs need to be completely “blank” and devoid of metadata. Otherwise you’ll run into errors such as “unsupported format!” when you try to import them into the SDP-SX, SP-404SX, or RC-300.
I hate all this tech shit… and there isn’t much information on google about it.. so I wanted to try and help anyone, if I could… it’s partially for me, to help remember what I need to buy and do, but mostly for you… to help aide you in your quest for live performance as a duo or solo artist. Not all of us are blessed with musician friends that have the time and talent to do what we need them to do, at moment’s notice… haha.
More to come! Hope this helps some of you so far…