Using a laptop on stage

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

There are many choices available to you for playing your backing tracks onstage (Minidisc deck, Personal Minidisc, mp3 player, DAT machine, Laptop, Cassette etc), but there are pro’s and con’s you should consider for each.

If you haven’t already read my article which compares the various formats for backing tracks, I strongly suggest you read it now before going any further in to this article.

If you’ve already decided that mp3 is the best playback format for you, and that you would like to use a Laptop to playback your backing tracks on stage, then here are some tips you will find helpful…

Take care of your Laptop
OK, I know it’s a bit obvious this one, but I can’t stress strongly enough how important it is that you take good care of your laptop to make sure it doesn’t come to any harm, whether that be while using it onstage, or travelling to and from gigs.

Normal soft laptop bags are no use. If a speaker or amplifier falls against your laptop and it’s in a standard soft/material type case, this will NOT protect it!

However, you don’t need to spend fortunes on having a custom-built flight case – a metal case like DJ’s use to hold their CD’s will give good protection and should fit most Laptops…and they’re not expensive.

While onstage, position your Laptop in an area where it will not be close to any liquids (by that we mean drinks)! Remember that even a “splash” from a spilled drink a few metres away can still cause damage so use common sense here.

Another problem that you may not have thought of is customers or a compere or an announcer coming up on to the stage (perhaps to ask you for a request or introduce you etc). Remember that Joe Public doesn’t belong on the professional stage and if he ever finds himself standing on one, he’s very likely to lean on things and trip over all your cables…if he leans on your Laptop screen, he’ll break it. If he trips over the cable connecting the Laptop to the PA or the Laptops power cable, he’ll pull your Laptop off whatever it’s sitting on and it’ll go crashing to the floor.

How do I know all this? I’ve had it happen to me…twice (and I should’ve learned the first time). Don’t make the same mistake I did…

Don’t be too heavy handed with the buttons and keys on your Laptop. Laptops are designed to be portable but they’re not designed to stand the sort of abuse that they can get onstage where the temperatures caused by stage lighting and power amps etc is high and the adrenelin running through you is even higher. Remember, these machines are designed for cool air-conditioned offices, not smokey, humid, high temperature night-clubs.

My old Laptop, which I’ve had from new, eventually curled up and died just through wear and tear – the outputs were buzzing, the keys were getting sticky and it was on it’s second hard-drive and second power supply…it was only 3 and a half years old, so looking back, I wished I’d taken more care of it.

To be fair, I often do as many as 6 or 7 gigs a week so the Laptop takes a lot of punishment. Also bear in mind that it’s a Dell Laptop and…well, to be honest with you, every Dell desktop computer or Laptop that I have used in the past has proved to be poorly built and unreliable. Granted they are inexpensive, but…I suppose you get what you pay for (none of our staff here at MP3 backing Trax use Dells any more).

Don’t let this put you off using a Laptop onstage though. A good reliable, well built Laptop should last you for years and wear and tear is normal so shouldn’t really be an issue (and anyway, how many Minidisc players have you gone through in the last few years…I’ve lost count of the Minidisc decks I’ve bought in the past)!

While on the subject of Laptop brands, it has been suggested in some quarters that Laptops which have “Via Chipsets” tend to suffer badly from audio interference from mains power and/or lighting rigs but as far as I am aware, this hasn’t been proved or dis-proved. Best thing to do is try the Laptop onstage before you buy it.

Even if you buy from a large PC store, I’m sure they won’t object to you exchanging it the next day for a different model if it doesn’t perform right for you onstage. After all, you’ll be paying a lot more money for a good Laptop and that’s a good sale for the shop so don’t be scared to insist that they be prepared to exchange it for another if you take it to a gig and find it’s not up to the job.

Keep it “clean”
No, I don’t mean with a soft cloth (although it is advisable to wipe all the smoke and grime from your Laptop from time to time)! What I mean is, have as few programs as possible installed and running on your Laptop so that there’s less to interfere with the actual playback of the songs.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

A couple of years ago, while onstage, my Laptop was playing the backing track for a new song I was singing for the first time. I also had Microsoft Word open and was reading the lyrics (which were in the form of a MS Word Document). I noticed that I had made a typing error in one of the words in the lyrics, so half-way through the song, during the instrumental solo, I typed in the correct word and re-saved the Word Document.

As the Laptops resources switched from concentrating on playing the song to saving the “new” Word Document, the audio “skipped” and put me right off!

Remember that a little milli-second skip on a normal desktop computer while working on an Excel file or a Word file wouldn’t even be noticed, but a milli-second jump in an audio file playback sends the timing completely out and you’re then put under great pressure to find exactly where you are in the song!

So, the rule of thumb is…the less you have on your Laptop, the less there is to interfere with the audio playback. If you want to be on the safe side, only have Windows, your mp3 playing software, and your songs on the Laptop – nothing else. Get rid of any games, internet, email etc and just leave the music.

If you’re brave enough, even leave out anti-virus software as some Anti-virus software likes to scan and “analyse” the audio file while it’s playing and can cause glitches and skipping. If you are the only person using your laptop, and you are the only one who is loading in the backing tracks (and it’s never connected to the internet – very important!), then there’s probably no need for any AV software anyway.

Choose the right MP3 playing software
There are now thousands of mp3 player software programs to choose from, many of them free. So, which one should you have installed in your laptop to play your backing tracks?

Well, up to a few years ago, Windows Media player (which comes free with Windows) was the obvious choice because it was written by Microsoft specially for Windows, so worked really well with their Windows operating system. However, as years went by, Microsoft started introducing all sorts of bells and whistles to the program and now it takes so many resources to produce the bells and whistles (like psychadelic graphics which move in time to the music etc) that all this takes resources away from the actual playing of the song.

In the paragraph above I talked about the need to keep it clean and simple, and that’s definitely the case here. Windows Media Player is now too bloated and “heavy” in my opinion and should be avoided – instead, choose a simple, straightforward player that’s designed purely to play the songs and little more.

At this particular moment in time, my favourite is WinAmp (edit – now discontinued). You may be surprised that I haven’t chosen MusicMatch Jukebox for playback as we recommend it elsewhere on our website. That’s because MusicMatch is also a program which draws heavily on your computers resources – it’s the best program for RECORDING but, like Windows Media Player, it’s a little too heavy on resources for playback. The rule of thumb, again, is, keep it simple…

Onstage performer
There’s a fantastic software program available called Onstage Performer which is well worth a look at (edit – now discontinued). It can play your mp3 backing track and also run your light show etc…all from a mp3 song on your laptop.

If you want to make your stage show in to a spectacular production, then this little program is worth checking out, and it’s not expensive considering what it does.

Playback tips
The best playback tip is to organize all your mp3 backing track files in the one folder alphabetically. Open up the folder and maximise it so that it fills your full screen. With a 1028 x 800 resolution, you should be able to see 50 or more songs at any one time and can use the up/down arrow keys to scroll through them.

When your cursor is sitting on the song you want to playback, just hit the enter key and WinAmp or whatever MP3 playing software you are using will start to play the song.

If you use WinAmp to playback your tracks, it can be minimized (hidden) at the bottom of your desktop leaving you a full screen of all your backing tracks to look at. The advantage of WinAmp is that it continues to work while minimized so doesn’t keep popping up and blurring your view of the songs every time you play a new song.

If you want, you can also make up set-lists before you go onstage and WinAmp will step through your chosen songs one by one – great if you are doing a cabaret show where the set-list must adhere to a strict time limit or sequence of songs.

Another playback tip is to use the alphabetical keys (the QWERTY keyboard) to “find” songs. For example, if you’re singing “My Way”, your cursor will be sitting on that song title. However, if your next song is going to be “Amarillo”, then just hit the A on your laptops keyboard and it will jump the cursor straight to the beginning of all the songs beginning with A. Then just use your up and down arrow keys to get to the exact song, hit enter and it’ll start playing.

By the way, did you know that you can scroll around looking for another song and then cue it up ready to play, even while your present song is still playing?

You can’t do that with a CD or a Minidisc!