Playing backing tracks through your PA system

(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)

Beware – there’s much more to using backing tracks on stage than just plugging in to your PA system and pressing play..!

Minidisc players and MP3 players are recommended for playing backing tracks because you can jump to the exact start of a track that you wish to sing in an instant.

Cassettes should be avoided because they are difficult to cue-up and usually offer poor and “hissy” sound.

CD’s are prone to fingermarks which cause “skipping” during a performance – wiping the CD on your sequened shirt or blouse while your on stage is not recommended!

We do recommend however that you use an “enclosed” sound format for your backing tracks such as Minidisc, or better still, MP3.

The new hard disk based mp3 players like the Apple ipod, Microsoft Zune and Creative Jukebox allow you to save thousands of backing tracks on a player the size of your hand, access any song in an instant, create a set-list (the order in which you are going to sing your songs) and cue-up the next song, even while the first song is still playing.

Position your speakers
Make sure that your backing track music and singing can be heard out front. Place your speakers at the front of the stage, up high, where your audience can hear them best and use a monitor or foldback speaker so that you can hear sound on the stage.

Don’t allow pillars or obstacles to block the sound as this will reduce the sound heard by your audience and may cause feedback (feedback is that horrible high-pitched squeel you hear, usually caused by a microphone being too close to a speaker but feedback can also be caused by badly positioned speakers or obstacles in front of them).

A good tip is to walk around the venue after you have set up your PA and if you can actually see the front grill and horn of your speakers from every angle in the room, then it’s a fair bet that the sound will be reaching every part of the room. This is based on the assumption that if a customers “eyes” can see your speaker from, say, 50 metres away, then his/her “ears” (which are only a couple of inches from their eyes) will hear everything that comes out that speaker clearly.

Remember that obstacles muffle sound, especially the high frequencies, so if an audience complains that your sound is too bassy or woolly (or to use laymens terms – a bit too boom, boom, boom!), there’s a fair chance that you have incorrectly positioned your speakers and the high-frequencies are being muffled by some obstacle(s) and the only frequencies getting through are the bass frequencies. That’s why when, say, a teenager passes by in his car with his stereo up loud, all you can hear is the bass. If you sat inside the car with him you would be able to hear the more balanced sound that he is hearing (ahem, can we use the terms “teenager” and “balanced” in the same sentence)!

Joking aside, the car body has obstructed the high frequencies and all anyone outside of the car can hear is the bass frequencies.

The same happens to your sound on stage if something or someone is blocking your speakers output. The general rule of thumb is to place your bass speakers (if you have seperate bass bins) on the floor, and all other speakers up high.

Be heard
Pump up the volume! Don’t be scared to keep your volume levels high when you use a backing track. It’s a common mistake that singers often make. It will always stand you in good stead if you imagine you are working with a live band on that stage behind you – how loud would the music be? OK, you get the idea!

It’s a myth that customers don’t like loud music – it’s poor quality sound “grating” on their ears that audiences don’t like. Most people who complain about music being “too loud” are not complaining about the volume (that’s just the way that a layman describes what he/she hears). They are actually complaining about the uncomfortableness of their ears – there’s a BIG difference.

An entertainer who plays poor quality backing tracks through a small under-powered 100 watt PA system will sound uncomfortably “louder” than the same entertainer playing quality tracks through a 2000 watt PA system.

Why? well, 100 watts of harsh, grating sound hitting your ears is very uncomfortable, whereas 1000 or 2000 watts of pure quality sound hitting your ears is comfortable.

Always remember that when a customer is complaining about your volume, 9 times out of 10 he’s not actually complaining about how loud it is, he’s complaining about how bad your sound quality is – his ears are uncomfortable.