Footswitch to start and stop backing tracks

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

In this article I look at solutions for guitar players who need to start and stop their backing tracks using a footswitch contol…

The problem
Sadly there’s much less call for bands nowadays. With good backing tracks, a solo act can get just as good a sound as a band and it’s cheaper for the venue to pay one person rather than pay a four or a six piece band.

Bands also often have a limited shelf life before they eventually split (usually citing “artistic differences” which really means they split up over arguments about money or women…usually both)! Ok, I’m joking. Some band members just become too busy with their other jobs or leave the band to pursue other careers. Other members may move to another town or city (usually with another band members wife). Take it easy, I’m joking again!

All light-heartedness aside, there are less bands around today than there used to be which has prompted many ex-band members strap their guitar over their shoulder and re-invent themselves as a solo act. These guitar players use guitar backing tracks to create the sound of a full band, playing live guitar on top of the tracks.

But finding a solution which allows them the ability to start and stop their backing tracks without taking their hands off the guitar has always been a bit of a dilemma for guitar players. The ideal solution would be some sort of footswitch which, when pressed, will start or stop or pause the backing track.

At the time of writing I know of a couple of solutions to this problem. They consist of start/stop controls for a laptop, a minidisc, and the iPod.

Laptop and Minidisc Footswitch
I only play guitar in the studio these days, not live on stage, but I regularly work with a guitar playing friend of mine and over the years he has used both a laptop with a footswitch and a minidisc player with a footswitch to great effect. These were not off-the-shelf solutions though. He employed a local electronics engineer to create these start/stop footswitches specially for him.

So first thing you should do is pop in to your local music shop and have a word with the engineer there and ask him his advice. If you explain exactly what you’re trying to achieve with the footswitch and the hardware you are curently using for playing your backing tracks, he may just be able to advise you of an off-the-shelf device that will do the job or he may be able to build you a bespoke solution.

iPod Start Stop remote control
The start/stop workaround that I suggest for the iPod is not actually a footswitch, so may not be entirely suitable for a guitarists purposes. But don’t write the idea off yet – read on…it could still get around the problem of your hands needing to be on your guitar.

The solution is a wireless (RF) remote control which is small enough to stick on to your guitar body. I suggest using a piece of double-sided velcro so it’s within easy reach. Using this solution, you only need to take your right hand off your guitar strings for a split second to operate it. This should work fine for most songs because if you use good guitar backing tracks they should all have count-in before the track starts which gives you plenty of time to start your iPod and then move your hand on to your guitar strings.

Similarly, at the end of most songs you will most probably be sustaining a chord – normally you would sustain the strings on your guitar with your left hand while your right hand performs the last and final “strum”, leaving your right hand free stop the iPod via the remote velcroed to your guitar body.

Even songs where there is a bit of a “rall” or a busy guitar piece right at the end where you will be playing some stuff over the final bar, you should still have more than enough time to hit the stop button on the iPod remote on your guitar. And even if you don’t, inserting one of our silent songs for the iPod will give you that extra few seconds you need.

Navigation and set lists
All three playback methods mentioned above – laptop, minidisc deck, and iPod – allow you to navigate between songs and make up pre-programmed sets etc.

For navigation and set lists the laptop does this job better than the others. Queueing up songs and organising set lists is easier on the laptop purely because of the large size of its screen and the amount of software that’s available for laptops.

The minidisc deck is not so versatile when it comes to organizing set lists, although you can move around the order of backing tracks on a single minidisc to put them in to a particular order.

Just be careful if you’re doing this though. I know one singer who did this and accidentally wiped his full disc! You see to “move” the tracks around on a minidisc deck, you have to unprotect the minidisc first because the page function you call up on the deck to move a track uses a function which is usually only available through the edit button and that same edit button is also used to divide tracks, combine tracks, and yes you’ve guessed, ERASE tracks too. Make one wrong slip and you could be left with an empty minidisc in the machine!

The iPod has fantastic navigation albeit a small screen. You can organize your tracks in to albums, make up playlists, and also use the on-the-go playlist function to make up a playlist literally seconds before you go on stage. A little tip/trick you can use is to give all your backing tracks the same album name (e.g MyTrax). This will keep them all in one single folder making them easy to access during a gig. This helps keep your backing tracks seperate from other music you may have in your iPod like background music that you perhaps play during a gig break or even just your own personal listening music.

An alternative tip to keep your backing tracks seperate from the other music in your iPod is to precede the name of every backing track with a particular number or character so that they display together within the big pool of music that’s on your iPod and can be easily identified. I can think of nothing worse happening than starting your backing track of “Hey Jude” only to find you selected the Beatles singing “Hey Jude” by mistake because you had the original song AND the backing track on your iPod!

So an example of how to avoid this problem may be to label your backing track 00My Way, 00New York New York, 00 Strangers in the night, which means all your backing tracks will appear right at the beginning of your list so you don’t need to scroll too far to select them during a gig.

Another example may be traxMy Way, traxNew York New York, traxStrangers in the night (you get the idea).

For a list of backing tracks specially created for guitar players with all the guitar parts removed – so you can play live along with the track – have a look at our guitar backing tracks section.