Not every piece of music suits a backing track

Any piece of music can be produced as a backing track. ANY. However, there are some pieces of music that, although they can be produced as a backing track, playing along or singing along with that backing track afterwards could be nigh impossible.

One such case was a customer who is a violin player who asked us to produce a backing track of a classical piece so that she could then play her violin ‘live’ on top of the backing track. We’ve produced many tracks for this particular customer but this time we had to decline. Yes, the backing track would have been relatively easy for us to produce for her, but I knew she would have had an absolute nightmare trying to play along to it.

Here’s my reply to her with the bad news that we couldn’t do this particular work for her:

Hi

Unfortunately we are unable to do the track for you so I contacted another arranger friend I used to work with many years ago who has arranged for many orchestras in the West End.

He just got back to me yesterday to say that unfortunately he can’t do it either.

The problem that we all seem to have with this piece is that it is without tempo and no-one (myself included) can find a way to make it work with any sort of tempo.

In the original you sent through you’ll notice that the violin player is playing very much to his own timing and the orchestra is following him (i.e. the orchestra constantly speeds up and slows down depending on how the violin player is phrasing the passages he’s playing). In other places, the opposite is happening and the violin player is taking some cues from the orchestras lead.

With a backing track this is not possible because a backing track is pre-recorded so its timing is “set in stone” and won’t change with you as you play.

This means that the violin player (i.e. you) would need to keep time with the backing track…and if there is no tempo on the backing track to guide you this would be almost impossible to do.

Even if you did practice and practice to play in time with the backing track, you’d still lose all the feeling in your playing by being restricted to the timing the backing track dictates.

In some pieces of music you can get away with having a few little out-of-tempo parts (as long as there aren’t too many and they’re not too long). You would just learn the timing of these parts to make sure you keep up with the backing track.

But in a piece of music like this one where the whole song has no strict tempo anywhere in it at all, there is no guide for you and it would be nothing short of a nightmare to play along to.

If you do manage to find anyone who says they can produce this backing track for you, just be careful. Make sure they are willing to do as many remixes for you as you need because I suspect that you’ll be sending it back and forward to them for remixes quite a bit to change the timing of certain passages that have ended up too quick or too slow in places. It may be easy enough to produce a abcking track for this song but it’ll be a nightmare to get right.

The problem is that the whole song depends on the violin player and the orchestra both playing together and working together.

With any backing track that’s just not possible to achieve…

USA and UK confusion over cable sizes

Gallons and litres, centimetres and yards. It’s all Europes fault!

In one of your articles, “If you don’t connect your iPod to your mixing desk with the right cable, you’ll lose half your sound!”, you talk about buying a 3.5mm Stereo Jack Plug to 2 x 6.3mm Jack Plugs to get both sides of sound on my P.A. system. The thing is, I live in the United States in Austin, Texas and I can’t find this cable anywhere online except on U.K. websites! They do not ship to the U.S. So do you know anywhere or anyway I can buy one of these cables?
Nick

Hi Nick

The cable I describe in the article is a standard cable that you can buy in any good electronics shop or music shop and is used worldwide, including the USA.

In the USA they still use the old imperial measuring system (gallons instead of litres and centimetres instead of inches etc).

So Americans call a 6.3mm jackplug a 1/4″ jackplug and a 3.5mm jackplug a 1/8″ jackplug.

The 3.5mm (1/8″) jack is sometimes called a mini-jack but shouldn’t be confused with another types of mini-jacks that some mobile phones use for their headphone outputs which are a little bit smaller at 2.5mm (3/32″).

Ah, I do love a challenge!

Okay Steve, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet, let the challenge begin LOL!

Hi, 
Under Backing Track Articles you say MP3 is the best format for live. So how do you get round venues,loads of people,carpet. Large hall,no people no carpet and so on.Once you’ve mixed down that’s it you have no control,you can’t change anything.I would love to go out with just an MP3 player.If you can prove that MP3 is better than MIDI with total control over bass,drums,keyboards I’ll change now.
Steve

Hi Steve

Different size venues with different acoustics and varying numbers of audience members only cause global changes to your sound – individual instruments on a backing track are not affected by any of these factors in any way.

If you are in a small venue with only a small number of people, then the master volume should be turned down. Conversely if you are in a larger venue with lots of people you would turn your master volume up .

If you are in a venue where the acoustics in that venue make your sound very boomy, then you would EQ your master output to decrease the amount of bass. If the room is boomy then every single instrument (even your microphone too) will all suffer from the same boomy acoustics of the venue so everything needs the bass cut, not just one instrument.

I spoke to one of the sound engineers who worked on one of the Kylie Minogue tours and guess where the sound was balanced and set for the tour? The sound for the tour was set in a recording studio in Los Angeles! After that, the sound settings for each band members instruments did not get touched for the whole of that world tour.

All they did at each venue on the tour was change the master graphic equalizer connected to the output of the desk to suit the acoustics of each venue.

The settings for the individual band members instruments, drums, bass, guitar, keyboards etc were NEVER touched.

If one night they were in a concert hall that was a bit boomy they took some bottom end off the master EQ.

If, the next night, they were in a venue with lots of obstacles that were deadening the sound they boosted the top end on the master EQ.

Nothing else was touched.

Even though artistes like you and I may be a little further down the ladder than Kylie, Michael Buble, U2 or Madonna etc, we can still be as professional as they are and still achieve the same quality of sound at our gigs as they do. All we need to do is exactly the same as they do – have our sound perfectly set, perfectly balanced, and then don’t touch it ever again.

The only thing that we should ever be changing at each gig is the master EQ and master volume.

If at different gigs you feel you have to change particular instruments on a backing track which are not cutting through during a performance, then it’s because your backing track was badly balanced in the first place.

That’s why good quality well mixed backing tracks are a must if you have a proper professional approach to your act.

Unfortunately the acts who won’t be able to achieve this quality of sound are the ones who don’t use proper professional backing tracks.

Sadly there are many acts out there who, because they only ‘sing a bit’ at the weekend in the pubs and clubs to make a bit of extra money, don’t bother to use properly produced and professionally balanced backing tracks. Instead they usually use a mixture of different backing tracks from different places they’ve collected over the years.

I even saw one girl singer who just used a bunch of sunfly karaoke songs as her “backing tracks” – one punter put it perfectly when he remarked that the she was “just karaoke without the telly” (she definitely didn’t do herself or her act any favours)!

There’s an old saying which says “Rubbish in, rubbish out” so acts that use a mixture of tired old backing tracks which are all different quality, different levels, and different instrument balances within each track will never be able to achieve a proper professional sound so there’s really no point in them even trying.

The only way to achieve a perfect sound every time is to use good quality tracks and do what the professionals do. Set up all your gear in an acoustically treated room (a recording studio is ideal for this) and mix your sound till you’ve got it perfect. Then, don’t touch your settings on your mixing desk ever again (except to change your master volume and your master EQ at each venue).

But if your backing tracks are just use a mixture of tracks you’ve bought from different companies, karaoke tracks, stuff you’ve downloaded from the internet, derived from midifiles, swapped and shared with friends etc, then you can pretty much forget about everything I’ve said above! Unfortunately you’ll always be tweaking your bass and treble and fiddling with your volume every 5 minutes!

There’s not much you can do to get a good sound when the original material you’re using is poor in the first place. Sadly this is why so many excellent singers who really do have the talent and ability to do better than just the pubs and clubs never achieve anything better than playing pubs and clubs.

But if you do things right and professional you’ll sound fantastic, every time, in every venue.

Changing the tone of your voice

Kenny
If I may avail of your knowledge please. Over here in Northern Ireland my wife has been approached to try a Kylie tribute. She has the attributes to pull it off but her vocal is a lot more wholesome than Kylies high pitched synthesised voice. Is there a vocal processor or some sort of professional add on that I could add to my PA. Cheers
Gary

Hi Gary

It’s not easy to change the natural sound of the human voice – in fact trying to change the way your natural voice sounds by singing in a different way could do irreparable damage to your vocal chords. Actually I have no idea how impressionists/mimics manage to change their voices and do all those different characters. I reckon their voices must be very different to a normal persons voice. I suppose that’s why there’s very few really good impressionists around. Very few people have this unusual gift and when you think about it, there’s even less impressionists around who can actually mimic someone singing. That probably tells us something.

There are some things you can do to process and alter the way your voice sounds when it comes out of the speakers though and this is much safer than trying to change your voice in any way yourself.

In other words, you would sing as normal (so as not to damage your voice) and let the technology make the changes.

The easiest and simplest form of vocal manipulation is to alter the EQ of the microphone. For example, removing some of the bass from the microphone will often make the voice sound thinner and weedier, whereas adding bass can do the opposite and “beef up” a wispy or thin voice.

There are also a couple of hardware vocal machines you could take a look at.

The TC Helicon is a standalone hardware machine which is designed mainly for harmonies but does alter the voice in other ways too:

http://www.tc-helicon.com/

Also take a look at the Antares Autotune. They do a hardware version of their machine and the Antares Autotune is used on about 99.9% of all records in the charts right now:

http://www.antarestech.com/

Low volume problem on the Creative Zen

Hi Kenny. I’ve recently switched to using a Creative ZEN mp3 player for live gigging. 3.5mm jack to twin 6.3mm jacks on a stereo channel. Works great, but I have to rack the input level right up and the channel volume, and it still doesn’t give me sufficient volume. I have to turn the main volume up, but then have to turn the mic channel way down to balance the vocals with the music. I bought a stereo preamp from maplins. It seems to boost the Input signal to line level, but is badly distorted. Any ideas? Thanks, 
Tony

Hi Tony

Without actually hearing and seeing your settings it’s a bit difficult to troubleshoot.

However, generally you would do the following steps:

1. Use the headphone output of the mp3 player with the players volume close to fully up (around 90 – 95%).

2. “Trim” the input signal at your mixing desk using the trim control. If your desk doesn’t have a trim control for each channel you should seriously consider getting another desk – even cheap mixing desks nowadays all have trims for each channel.

3. Finally, adjust the two L+R channel volumes.

The most important part of the above process is adjusting the trim as this is what determines the signal level that’s going in to the desk. If your trim is set too high you’ll get distortion. If your trim is set too low you’ll have to whack the volume of the channels up so high you’ll get hiss and noise.

Hope this helps….

Hi Kenny. Thanks very much for the quick response. I took the stereo preamp back to Maplins today, and they advised swapping it for a “headphone amplifier”, which about the size of an iPod shuffle and sits in-line between the mp3 player and the mixer (3.5mm in/out jacks). It just boosts the mp3 output, and works great. Very clear sound. Thanks again for your help.
Tony

Clicktracks explained

We all know that you can’t get blood from a stone and you can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear. We should also add to those phrases the one that says “You can’t get a stereo signal from a mono signal”

Hi team, 
Drummer left channel (click) with right channel; backing track. Q? How can I get a stereo feed from the right channel (Bk trk) in to the mixer. Previous set-up was with an MD player; L channel to mini mixer and R channel to one channel on the desk. Used a DI box with this set-up. Worked well. Want to use an ipod now. Any suggestions for this set-up. 
Many thanks
Mark

Hi Mark

Stereo consists of two independent channels – left and right. So, with any stereo piece of music there are only two audio sources – the left side and the right side.

In other words, stereo consists of a left mono signal and a right mono signal.

You can’t have a click track on the left and also stereo music on the right because that would require your audio file to have three channels of music on it. Stereo recordings only have two channels of music (left + right).

The only way to get 2 channels from the right is to pan whatever is on the left channel to the right and whatever is on the right channel to the right so that both your channels (L+R) are then going to the right side of the mix. However that would give you the click through your PA as well as the music and this isn’t what you want…

Good news is that if you are moving from Minidisc to iPod, you would set up everything up exactly the same as before.

The iPod, just like your Minidisc, puts out stereo left and right audio signals in exactly the same way as a Minidisc puts out stereo left and right audio signals.

So you can unplug your Minidisc and plug in your iPod and it will work exactly the same (assuming you’re using the same backing tracks and have the left and right channels going to your drummer and PA system just as before).

Yes, our tracks can be transferred on to Minidisc

A common question about buying songs from us in mp3 format and then putting them on to Minidisc…

Hi 
I have been using mini disc for a lot of years. If i buy songs from you and you send them by e mail can i transfer them to my mini disc from the headphone line from my computer. Would i loose the quality of the track if i could do this. Your tracks are very good. I look forward too hearing from you 
Mike

Hi Mike

Yes, you can play the mp3’s on your computer while recording them to your minidisc recorder via the line out or headphone out.

The quality of audio out will be as good as the quality of the soundcard you have in your PC.

Fortunately many budget computers these days have reasonably good quality soundcards.

You may find this article on how to record mp3 to minidisc useful.

Bose L1 in an ‘L’ shaped room

Thanks to Peter for this question about getting sound around corners…

I have the tl1 system with 2 subs and i sing with backing tracks,although the sound is good in a square long room its not so good in a l shape room ???would it be that i have to purchase another speaker so then i could direct it round the corner ???What would i require to do this ???? 
Thanks
PETER

Hi Peter

This isn’t a Bose L1 problem. This is an issue about sound and sound waves and how audiences hear sound waves.

The music that comes out of loud speakers is simply sound waves which anyone within earshot of the speakers can hear fully. But if you’re not within earshot of the speakers you won’t hear the sound fully.

Conventional speakers throw out sound waves at around 90 degrees, so any audience members who are in front of those speakers within a 90 degree radius of them will hear the full sound of the speakers.

The Bose L1 throws out sound waves at around 160 degrees, so if you use a Bose L1 then more of the audience in front of the speakers will hear the full sound of the speakers.

But the main thing to note from above is that in both scenarios, I say “the audience in front of the speakers will hear the full sound of the speakers”.

That means if the audience are NOT in front of the speakers, if they are, say, around a corner, then they won’t hear the full sound that’s coming out of the speakers, no matter what type of speakers you use.

They will hear something…but it’s more likely to be a bit of a dull thud than a proper sound because low frequency (i.e. bass) sound waves carry further than high frequency sound waves (i.e. mids and highs).

This is also why when a teenager in his car stops outside your house with the music blaring on his car stereo, all you hear is a thud, thud, thud. Inside the car, the teenager is hearing a well balanced (albeit very loud!) sound. But you are outside the car. You are not directly in front of his car stereos speakers – he is. So you only hear the bass frequencies (which travel better than the mids and highs). The cars body is blocking many of the sound waves getting to your ears, especially the mids and highs.

It’s the same when an audience are around the corner in a dog leg or L shaped room.

If you want audience members who are round the corner in an L shaped room to hear your full sound, then you need to put a speaker around the corner facing them so they can hear all the bass, mids, and highs.

Understanding ‘up a key’ and ‘down a key’

Thanks to Gordon for this question about keys. Those of us who are musicians work with keys every day of our lives and often forget that singers who don’t play an instrument can find it confusing. Hopefully I can shed some light on the topic of “keys”…

Hi Kenny,
A semi tone is half a key and a tone down is a whole key……. Is that correct??? Just to clarify…… If the first track of a medley is key of lets say A….. Then i want it to be G (and the rest accordingly) 
Regards.
Gordon

Hi Gordon

Yes, that’s correct, if the reference was the key of A then a semi-tone down would be Ab (A flat) and a tone down would be G.

Semi-tones and tones and keys of songs were something that singers never used to need to be aware of, but due to so many singers singing without musicians nowadays, it is something you now need to know about.

As it happens tones and semi-tones are standard music theory terms which have been around for hundreds of years (as every musician who plays an instrument and has a knowledge of theory knows) but in recent years it has caused some confusion as solo singers try to get to grips with the terminology.

And it’s not as straightforward as you’d think.

You see, years ago, the singer just sang…..and the band (musicians) would take care of the music side of things like the key he sang each song in etc.

But nowadays many singers work with backing tracks instead of live musicians so they now need to know a little bit about music theory which up until recently was only really required to be known by musicians.

And even though musical terminology like semi-tones and tones haven’t changed in hundreds of years, technology and the way singers use it has…and not in a good way I’m afraid.

The main problem is the proliferation of all these cheap karaoke machines and pitch shifting programs which don’t give proper readouts.

Many singers have become rightly confused because many of these cheap karaoke machines and software programs only have +1, +2, +3, -1, -2, -3 etc and don’t actually tell you what +1, +2, +3, -1, -2, -3 etc actually means!

To further confuse things, in some machines +1 will mean up one tone. But in another machine +1 will mean up one semi-tone.

Some don’t even use tones or semi-tones, they just “put it up a bit” or “put it down a bit” and don’t adhere to any exact pitch range!

I remember many years ago a friend of mine who’s not a professional singer went to a karaoke night and got up on stage to sing his big song (he sings it everywhere he goes, it’s the only song he knows)! The key wasn’t correct for him and he sounded dreadful. Yet this was despite the fact that he had explicitly told the karaoke presenter to put the key “down one” for him. He was convinced that the karaoke presenter had deliberately sabotaged his big song because it was far too low for him.

But it turns out that the karaoke presenter was using one of those old karaoke machines where selecting -1 takes the key down a full tone, not a semitone as he wanted. In fact it didn’t even take it down a tone – it took it down a little bit more than a tone…kinda in between keys so a tone and a bit in fact!

I don’t know if my friend ever went back and apologised to the karaoke presenter (if he didn’t he should have because it wasn’t really the karaoke presenters fault).

In saying that, this is one of the problems with DJ’s and karaoke presenters who think that all there is to presenting karaoke is putting a CD in the tray and handing the punter a microphone. Sadly they rarely have even the most basic musical ear and don’t know how to pick the correct keys for the singer. Then usually they don’t know how to set the right balances between the music and the singing (every singer has a different voice so some singers need their microphone boosted in volume where others need it turned down a little bit).

I must confess I don’t particularly like karaoke – not because I’m flying the flag for pro entertainers or anything like that though. It’s just I’m sick of going to karaoke nights out where the music is too quiet in the background while the microphone is blaring out (usually feeding back) while swimming in echo. To top it all, it usually all goes through a cheap little DJ mixer and amplifiers/speakers that distort like hell and sound just awful.

Rant over…!

Mp3 players are so cheap – You MUST have one, even if it’s just as a backup

We all know that there are other media devices available that can play backing tracks besides an mp3 player. The main thing is that you use whatever media suits you and your act and you’re most comfortable with on stage. But make no mistake, mp3 players are cheap nowadays and can hold ALL your backing tracks, so it makes sense to have all your tracks on an mp3 player, even just as a backup in case anything happens to your Minidisc, laptop, DAT, CD player (or whatever you use onstage)…

hi kenny first all may i thank you for the interesting emails you send us musicians on varuios subjects that maybe we did not know. in my particular case i work with a girl singer as a duo and we work with mimi disc i have 2 minidiscs both on lp4 which enables me to have about 80 tracks on each disc, obviously in mono, each minidisc has a foot switch start the track and then a automatic stop. would an ipod be better taking into account although we are season pros as far as performing is concerned,  a little older than most and have difficulty seeing anything so small your advice would be very helpfull cheers
rory

Hi Rory

There are advantages and disadvantages to using Minidisc on stage.

Using mp3 rather than Minidisc is without doubt the way to go forward, if for no other reason than the fact that Minidisc is an older format which is dying out and as time goes by Minidisc decks are getting increasingly harder to find (as are blank minidiscs).

But it also has to be said that mp3 players work slightly differently from Minidic players so the decision to move from Minidisc to mp3 could very much depend on your particular set up it and how much particular Minidisc operations are essential to your way of working.

For example, the first thing I noted from your email was you say you use a start-stop switch with your Minidisc.

If this is absolutely necessary to your way of working then that could be a bit of a problem with mp3 as most mp3 players generally don’t support start/stop footswitch operations (at the time of writing this I don’t know of any mp3 players that do, although that may change in the future).

MP3 players don’t usually auto-pause but that doesn’t necessarily need to be a problem, there are ways around that. You could put some silent songs after each song in your playlist which would act as a stop at the end of each song (see http://www.mp3backingtrax.com/actpromotiontools/ipodautopause.htm).

You could also buy a wireless controller to start/stop your mp3 player and could use that instead of a footswitch. Or if you have an iPod Touch, there are apps that can display a large button to start-stop the playback (and will auto-pause at the end of each song).

At the moment with your set up of two Minidiscs with 80 songs on each disc, you can have 160 songs all set up and ready to play (i.e. 80 x 2).

But with an mp3 player though you could have thousands of songs all set up and ready to play on just the one mp3 player.

As well as that, you can be cueing up the next song while another song is already playing, organize your songs in to set lists before you go on stage, make up background music to play during your breaks etc.

MP3 players can hold more music and organise all that music much better, without a doubt. If you perform very strict set lists and only need 160 songs, then maybe that wouldn’t be much of an advantage to you I suppose.

But if you do need more than 160 songs available to you at a gig, then using an mp3 player would be a definite advantage – it would certainly save you having to swap discs in and out of the Minidisc players during a gig.

As I say, it really depends on how you like to work on stage.

For example, a guitar player won’t have the same flexibility to change his playback music and cue up songs as a solo singer has because he’s restricted to having to work with a guitar around his neck.

Similarly, one solo singer may do pub/club type gigs where turning away from the audience for a couple of seconds to pop over to his backing track player at the side of the stage and select the next song isn’t a problem. But another solo singer who does theatre type venues or has a very intense visual type of act where leaving his audience for a second or two to change tracks would lose him his “connection” with the audience would find that it wouldn’t work for him at all (mind you, neither would Minidisc under those circumtances).

Last but not least is of course the size of the screen.

There’s no getting away from the fact that mp3 players were designed for personal listening so just don’t have the advantages of a big screen/readout that you get from other player formats. Many entertainers use their laptop to play backing tracks on stage though. That way they get all the advantages of being able to store, list, organise and play back thousands of mp3 backing tracks with a massive big screen readout (see http://www.mp3backingtrax.com/article15.htm).

MP3 players are relatively inexpensive so why not buy one and try using it on stage and see how you get along?

Even if you find you can’t work with it because it doesn’t suit your particular way of working, then at least you will have a backup of all your backing tracks with you at all times in a little machine that fits in your pocket wherever you go, and that could prove vital in getting you through a performance should your Minidisc pack up half way through a gig one night…