Thursday, 2 August 2012

Backing tracks gig success.

A long time ago I talked about playing live with backing tracks and electric guitar. Last night at Wellington's very cool San Fran Bath House I gave it a damn good go. (Thanks to the almighty Snap Crackle Pop for inviting me.)

There were 2 main questions, equally important: "Can it work?" and "Can it work?".

Can I reduce the amount of gear needed to be hyper-portable?

And can I pull off rocking out to backing tracks?

Backing tracks have been used for a long time by solo musicians, buskers, etc. but they are not exactly le rock'n'roll.

So did it work? Well, I'd say about 91% success. (Y'know, roughly.) Here's some things I was looking at, I'll explain more below.
  •  Am I literally able to play live to backing tracks?
    • Yes - loud and proud in the monitor. Playing without a monitor could get interesting but should be okay too.
    • Drums mostly nice and high, although I lost rhythm just a couple of times - 1 or 2 edits needed.
    • Some of the tracks felt a little slow. This is after I sped them up to 102% of their normal speed - a noticeable difference at home, but not enough for live. Will try 104% for the next one.

  • Did it sound good out the front?
    • Yes, mostly, as far as I know. The paradox of being a live musician is you will never hear it how the audience hears it!
    • I found myself turning the guitar up during the set (as guitarists always do), and a friend told me afterwards the guitar was way too loud. So it's just a case of trusting the sound guy in soundcheck, and sticking to it.
    • I'll need more feedback on the tracks' mix, and more time practicing and tweaking. But it's mostly fine.

  • Did the mp3 player do what it needed to do?
    • Yes.
    • I'll have to get used to it, but it worked fine, and plays uncompressed WAVs (i.e. high quality original sound files)

  • Does all my gear work properly?
    • Yes - I've been getting some new guitar gear lately, and all the stuff I need worked and sounded great. Borrowed an amp (shoutout to Mitch in Snap Crackle Pop, cheers dude), so each gig will depend on what amp I'm borrowing - but if need be, I can plug straight into the PA desk.
    • Floor controller for my effects kept shutting down - new power supply needed I think.

  • Is my gear convenient and portable?
    • Yes - all I took was a small backpack + laptop case + guitar. Borrowed an amp at the gig, but in theory I could plug straight into the PA if required.
    • Some awkwardness with multiple cables, but certainly no different from being any electric guitarist in a band!

  • Do I feel good about doing it again?
    • Absolutely.
Despite being laid low for a week sick, I was my usual self on stage: jumping around, growling, belting out F# minor scales with an English voice. And the fact it felt perfectly natural to do this, like I was playing a "real" gig with a band, shows it works.

Certainly some things weren't quite right - but this is the truth for all live music. The law of all gigging: preparation is good, but the only practice for doing it live is Doing It Live.

Now hold up - some of you will be saying this is an exercise in EGOMANIA, and yes, I'll be the first one to admit it. Doing away with the need for a real band? So I can jump around and revel in my own narcissism? Well, kind of, sure.

The plain fact is, there is no substitute for a real band, and in my book there never will be. Playing as part of a live rock band with people I love has always been the best part of rock music in my life, whether my best ever mates in F451 or my awesome friends from Throw It To The Fire, and always will be.

But bands are a commitment, bigger than I can make now (my whole time in New Zealand, I've never known where I'll be in 12 months' time, and that's still true now). Bands are an expensive investment, and an emotional investment, and restricted by a whole number of factors like transport, money, time.

This is about creating a Good Second Best.

And a good second best means being independent and flexible enough to go anywhere, maybe even fly abroad, and do an awesome kick-arse gig, with minimal gear, playing songs that I believe in.

Back to last night. Aside from the backing tracks, it was classic Jez Kemp. I got the eyeliner and mascara out. I scrawled "DEVIATE" in eyeliner on a second-hand white T-shirt. I even broke a string and managed to whip out a spare and re-string, still singing along, and get back on track by the 2nd chorus. People were quite impressed.

That crucial 2nd question - does it work? Is it rock'n'roll? A) Yes, I think so.

I've seen other people use backing tracks, mostly to very good effect, but none that felt raw. In my view, this was "rock". People stopped what they were doing and watched. The feedback was good. People were impressed by my energy, which has always been an important thing to me. It's not perfect, but it's damn near good enough.

So. What's the point of all this? Why would anyone be interested?

On a vague note, other musicians may be interested to know about the technical side of things, gear used, etc. I'm always happy to geek off about the details. For instance: I've discovered a pedal that stores and plays stereo WAV files. Definitely cooler than fiddling with an mp3 player while everyone's waiting, although for about $300NZD, maybe an unnecessary expense for now.

But mainly though, it's just a status update. This is something I've been thinking about for a while; last night was the prototype, and it paid off. I'm tired but excited. Here's to more.

Some cool photos taken by Amber, thanks Amber!

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