Covering Your Tracks

by Dan Daley
in The Biz
Tour Supply’s Nashville studio. The setup includes an Allen & Heath Qu-16 digital mixer.
Tour Supply’s Nashville studio. The setup includes an Allen & Heath Qu-16 digital mixer.

Diners should sometimes be cautioned against looking into the kitchen of a restaurant they plan to eat in. So it goes with live music shows: the audience comes to be entertained, not edified. There is no need to look behind the proscenium curtains to see how the tour sausage is made. Too bad, since these days there’d be a lot to see, including the category of playback systems for live tracks and effects, and people to operate those systems. The expanding dominance of pop divas and divos has only accelerated the need for complex backing tracks in the live mix, as has the demand to have the recording-studio experience recreated live on stage for every show.

Put in terms you might have heard at Davos (had you or I been invited), backing tracks are a cost reducer and productivity multiplier, lessening the number of people needed for a production and trimming the production’s overhead touring costs while enhancing the production’s presentation.

Not completely, though. As the tracks get deeper and precise synchronization takes on greater importance in show production, prerecorded vocal, instrumental and effects audio and control sometimes require the services of more people, in the form of programming and live operation. However, like every other complex proposition that digital gets into, even these systems can be simplified and automated.

William 'Viggy' Vignola

‡‡         Playback Control Gets Viggy With It

That’s the point behind Playback Control, a joint venture by leading vendor Tour Supply and William “Viggy” Vignola, a programming legend, system designer and drum tech for Mötley Crüe, Godsmack, Aerosmith, Sevendust and other bands that generally start out at 11, as well as few less-loud artists including Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder, the Spice Girls, Hanson and Justin Timberlake. Vignola had been one of a handful of boutique track-system builders and programmers — another is Mike McKnight, who has done systems for Shakira, Mariah Carey and Roger Waters. Vignola began collaborating with Tour Supply about five years ago, synergizing his programming chops with their customer reach and marketing. About three years ago, that synergy reached a point where the track-playback systems could be productized, under the brand Playback Control, and although they remain highly customized, the systems and the demand for them has reached a point where in June Tour Supply has opened a dedicated demo showroom for the systems, in a new studio and service department located across the hall from its existing location at rehearsal hub Soundcheck in Nashville. There, Vignola and Tour Supply technicians can assemble a bespoke and perfectly synchronized track-payback system, using Pro Tools files supplied by the artists that are converted into a show file and loaded onto a system template that includes a pair of Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro computers, a Radial SW8 matrix switcher, and multiple MOTU playback interfaces with DP9 software, all synched using SMPTE time code. A fully redundant Playback Control can cost about $14,000, which includes the dual-redundant system (a single-computer system runs about $10,000) and custom programming by Vignola and his team. It takes about 18 man-hours to assemble a rig, with programming time on top of that. These are loaded into 5-U Pelican cases to make them as light as possible and avoid having to ship them as freight.

‡‡         Everybody’s Trackin’

But what this really underscores is how ubiquitous and deeply integrated into contemporary live performance the idea of using prerecorded tracks has become in all genres of music. Once mainly the purview of R&B, hip-hop and certain pop stars, prerecorded tracks have now become an everyday fact of life for rock bands and country acts as well. What’s changing is that more artists below the top tier of touring acts need and want precise control of a larger amount of prerecorded content synched to a live performance, for the same reasons that the top-draw artists do. It’s a tough world out there, and audiences are expecting the best — and then some.

“I would say that more bands are performing with accompanying backing tracks today than not,” Tour Supply CEO Lance Wascom says. “This has increased significantly in the last 10 years. As we see more electronic music and hybrid rock/electronic bands out there, the need for consistent playback is now greater than ever. I believe it will continue to evolve going forward. Furthermore, the ability to automate MIDI control [for guitars, keyboards and percussion] is an attractive feature that many artists desire. Automation allows them to play their instrument and perform for their audience rather than worrying about stepping on pedals or otherwise relying on manual patch changes. And from a production standpoint, there is also the advantage of synching the other live elements via the playback system: lighting, pyro, video and so forth can reliably be fired in time with the band to help improve the overall live show experience.”

Wascom has noticed how the use of tracks has become an everyday proposition, but also how it’s become nuanced. For instance, he’s done a rig for country star Kenny Chesney, but points out that the artist is using it very selectively. “If you suddenly stopped the hard drive, you wouldn’t miss anything — he has a seven-piece kick-ass band and singers,” he says. “Kenny’s using it for the occasional effect, like a whistle, to bring in elements that fans are familiar with from hearing the songs on the radio or on Spotify.” (Notice he didn’t say “the record.”) Other artists, of course, have come to rely almost completely on tracks, which can allow them to configure live musicians on stage based on the economics or logistics of a show — a quick fly date may only need the guitarist to play the solo or a single backup singer.

Wascom says the idea of prerecorded tracks is about as old as modern pop music itself — he remembers supplying customers ADAT tapes 25 years ago for that application. As digital technology has made them more accessible, they’re being used by a wider range of artists for a broader array of applications. For instance, Dan Donegan, guitarist for Disturbed, has eliminated that small city of stomp-box effects that many guitar players have to dance around on stage, using a Playback Control rig to automate the switching. Wascom emphasizes the importance of “rock-solid, bulletproof” synch, whose criticality would increase with the amount of reliance a show puts on tracks, as well as ease of use — Playback Control’s app lets users drag and drop to create a set list — as more entry-level users look to integrate tracks into their shows. In fact, Vignola’s own quotes from the press release further underscore this: “Bands can literally ‘set and forget,’” he says. “Gone are the days when a musician had to run over to a pedal board to switch to a different MIDI effect during a live performance.

Prerecorded tracks are now a regular part of the technology menu for live shows, the “fifth Beatle” that can create seamless unity with music’s recorded versions. (Or an Ashlee Simpson/SNL nightmare.) And perhaps a new product category for pro audio. It’s certainly becoming a flagship offering for Tour Supply. “We have to get it right,” says Wascom. “We need them to keep calling us for gaffer’s tape.”