Backing Tracks: How Should They Be Mixed Live?


The music industry has become heavily dependent upon the use of backing tracks in live performance. Some people love them, and others hate them. But that’s not what this article is about. As a sound engineer, I have often found it difficult to get the backing tracks sitting properly in a mix.

How do you mix backing tracks live? To mix backing tracks live, you should:

  1. Consider the source and quality of backing tracks
  2. EQ and compress the backing tracks in a way that blends well with the live instruments and vocals
  3. Apply effects in a way that creates a sense of space that is the same for both the backing tracks and live elements alike

Sounds simple, right? Well, considering you’re reading this article, maybe not so much. But that’s okay, don’t worry! Getting backing tracks to sound good live is a common struggle for many engineers, myself included. But there are some things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me tremendously and maybe they can help you too. Keep reading to learn more!

Mixing Backing Tracks Live

There’s really no secret to getting a good mix with backing tracks live. We’re using the same tools that we would use on anything else in our mix. But if that’s the case, why do we often struggle?

There’s a weird phenomenon that happens in our minds when we try to blend a studio mix with a live mix. Although we use most of the same tools in both the studio and live, the implementation is very different.

Studio mixes usually sound “larger than life” and have a ton of effects, automation and compression. Additionally, studios don’t have to worry about stage volume, crowd noise or feedback.

When mixing backing tracks live, this often causes the feeling of a “gap” between the tracks and the live instruments/vocals. This is caused by the complete isolation in the tracks versus the lack of isolation in everything else.

So, how do we overcome this?

Things to Consider Before You Start

Before we get into what you should “do”, let’s talk about some things you should consider. Taking the time to consider these things before you start can help you determine what you should do.

Mastered or Unmastered?

Whether backing should be mastered or unmastered for live use is a highly debated topic. I have my own opinions, but again, that’s not why we’re here.

The point is, as a live sound engineer you will encounter both. There will be bands that use mastered backing tracks and there will be others who use unmastered.

Recognizing which one is being used can be beneficial to you. You don’t have to ask the band about it – you can usually just tell by listening. Knowing which one you’re working with can help you know what things you should do and what things to remember during the mixing process.

Mastered

Backing tracks that are mastered will be much more consistent in level and tonality because of how they’ve been EQ’d and compressed. This is great. However, it can make it very difficult to blend your live elements properly because they simply can’t compete with the amount of processing and compression the backing tracks have.

Unmastered

Unmastered backing tracks will tend to sound much more raw in their level and tonality. This is also great in its own way. However, this can also be a challenge because of the inconsistencies from track to track resulting in the need to make adjustments much more frequently.

Mono, Stereo, or Stems?

Depending on the resources available, different bands use backing tracks in different formats. And depending on which format they choose will determine what approach you take to mixing them in with the performance. Let’s look at the top 3 formats used for backing tracks and how they will affect you in the mixing process.

Mono Tracks

Mono tracks are the solution for many bands working on a budget or wanting ease-of-use. This is where every element of the track is pre-mixed and they leave you with a mono signal to work with.

There’s nothing wrong with this method, but it is the hardest to blend well with a live band. This format leaves you with the least amount of flexibility out of all them.

Stereo Tracks

The next format commonly used is stereo backing tracks. This is very similar to the mono format in that it still leaves you with a pre-mixed solution. The only difference is that you get some amount of stereo separation in the tracks, depending on how it was mixed.

While this option is nice to have, is it really beneficial to you as the mix engineer? Click HERE to read about mixing in mono.

Stems

The highest level format for backing tracks are stems. Stems are groups of instruments/vocals/effects bounced separately into categories – e.g. All guitars are bounced to a file, all the sound effects are bounced to a file, etc…

Depending on the band and the level at which they perform, they will sometimes have 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, or even more stems to provide you.

This format gives you the most flexibility as the mix engineer because you are no longer working with something premixed. You can now mix each individual instrument (or group of instruments) independently of the others, which in turn can make it easier to blend properly with the live performance.

How Big Is the Band vs How Much Is in the Tracks

The last thing you will want to consider is how big the band is and how much content is in the backing tracks.

Some bands may have 8 members and their backing tracks only contain a couple percussion pieces and some sound effects. But, another band may have 3 members and their backing tracks contain multiple guitar, keyboard, and/or backing vocal parts. There are countless different variation of this – it just depends on the band.

Neither of these examples are “wrong” per se, it just means your mixing approach will be a little different.

Backing Track Mixing Techniques

There is no set way that you “should” be mixing your backing tracks live. The important thing is that you consider the things listed above so you can make an educated decision how you will use the techniques listed below.

There are 3 primary tools you will want to utilize when mixing your backing tracks live. In fact, they are the same tools you will be using on your live instruments, anyway.

  1. EQ (equalization)
  2. Compression
  3. Effects

How to EQ Your Backing Tracks Live

Your EQ is arguably the most important tool to you as a mix engineer. And it will play a big role, if not the biggest, in helping you blend your backing tracks properly with the live band. With the EQ, we will shape the sound in a way that helps it match the feel and tone of the live instruments. We will also use it to create “space” in the frequency spectrum for other live elements that the tracks may compete with.

Many people think you shouldn’t alter the backing tracks at all because they are “pre-mixed”. Well, this just isn’t true.

How you EQ your backing tracks, however, will depend on the format in which they are in.

EQ’ing Mono/Stereo Backing Tracks Live

If you are working with mono or stereo backing tracks, you want to be careful of how drastic your movements are because what you do will affect everything in those tracks. However, don’t be afraid to “make space” for your live instruments and vocals.

For example – if your backing tracks seem like they’re at a good level, but your vocalist isn’t very distinguished, try cutting somewhere between 1.5kHz – 4kHz in your backing tracks to “make space” in that part of the frequency spectrum for your vocal to live in.

Or, if your mix sounds great, but there’s no definition in the low end because of the clutter, try putting a high-pass filter and/or low shelf on your backing tracks to clear up some of that room for your kick drum and bass guitar.

EQ’ing Stemmed Backing Tracks Live

EQ’ing stems live is much easier and much more flexible than with a mono or stereo file.

Depending on the amount of content in each stem, you can treat them as you would any of your live instruments. EQ them in a way that helps them blend better with your live instruments.

For example – if the guitar(s) in your stem is brighter than the live guitar, try putting a low-pass filter and/or a high-shelf on the stem to better match it with the feel of the live guitar.

How to Compress Your Backing Tracks Live

Compression is an amazing tool that can really take your mix to the next level. However, if done poorly can also take your mix down a few levels.

That said, using compression on your backing tracks can help you tame the dynamics of them to help match the dynamics of your live band. That is assuming that the backing tracks aren’t already highly compressed, which many times they are – in which case can make it even harder for you to blend them properly with the rest of your live band.

For the sake of this article, we’ll assume that the backing tracks you are using have little to no compression.

Compressing Mono/Stereo Backing Tracks Live

Compressing mono or stereo formatted backing tracks can be difficult to do, because again, what you do here will affect everything in those tracks.

Here, you want to be careful not to overdo it. Simply applying enough compression to catch the big spikes in the signal will be about all you can (and should) do.

For example – your backing tracks are at a good level, but there’s a snare sound effect that occurs ever once in a while that is overpowering. Applying some compression so that this effect doesn’t stick out too much would be a good idea.

Compressing Stemmed Backing Tracks Live

Much like EQ’ing, compressing stems is much easier than trying to compress a mono or stereo backing track. This is because you now have individual control over each element, rather than a pre-mixed file.

If you need to control the dynamics of a certain stem, feel free to do so as you would any of your live instruments.

For example – you have a guitar stem that sound great, but it’s loud parts are too loud, and its soft parts are too soft. Simply put on a compressor in which you can bring down those loud parts and bring up your make-up gain to account for the soft parts.

Make sure you are doing this in a way that matches the dynamics of the live performers.

How to Use Effects on Your Backing Tracks Live

Effects on your backing tracks??? Yes! Well… maybe.

Applying effects on your backing tracks can greatly affect how they blend with a live band. However, your ability to do this will depend on if there are already effects in your backing tracks. If there is already reverb and delay on your backing tracks, then applying more probably isn’t a good idea.

However, some backing tracks are completely dry and absent of any effects. This can create a weird confliction in how the backing tracks “feel” compared to how the live instruments feel. This is because live instruments will naturally have a more “lively” sound because of the space they’re in.

For the sake of this article we’ll assume the tracks you’re using don’t have any effects already applied to them.

Applying Effects to Mono/Stereo Backing Tracks Live

Just like the EQ and compression techniques with mono and stereo backing tracks, we will need to be careful in how we apply effects to them as well. Because as you know, what we do here will affect everything within the tracks.

That said, if you are mixing a dry set of backing tracks, it’d be a good idea to apply a small amount of reverb and/or delay to them. This will help create a more three-dimensional sounding space and help the tracks blend much better with the live instruments.

Applying Effects to Stemmed Backing Tracks Live

Applying effects to stemmed backing tracks is much easier than on mono and stereo tracks.

A good way to help blend your backing track stems with your live instruments is by sending those stems to the same effects as their counterparts.

For example – if you have a live guitar player, but also a guitar in your tracks, it’d be a good idea to send them through the same effects in order for them to sound like they’re in the same “space”. This will allow them to sound more cohesive, rather than conflicting with each other.

BONUS – Change with the Song

Backing tracks have a tendency to be very inconsistent. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask.

Regardless, something you should always do is change with the song. Your guitar EQ for one song might not sound good on the next. Or the compression you applied to your stereo tracks was perfect for the first song, but is squashing the next.

Remember to always use your ears and never “set it and forget it”. You don’t have to change things for the sake of changing them. But if your ears are telling you something is wrong, they’re probably right.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when mixing backing tracks live. Sure, you could just turn them up and forget about it, but chances are they will never blend well. So taking the time to experiment with the techniques I’ve talked about in this article should help you next time you encounter backing tracks.

I hope this article has been helpful to you!

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