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Optimizing Playback Tracks For Live Performance

By Robert Caprio / July 23, 2015

This is a plea to all those studio guys who are prepping tracks for an artist to go out and perform with.  You might think you’re doing all us live guys (actually, I do lots of both, as many of us do) a favor by making the tracks sound BIG by using lots of compression and EQ.  Well, you’re not.  In fact, you’re doing us a disservice by limiting what we can actually do with the tracks during the live show.  Don’t forget, we have comps and EQs in our desks too.  So, rather than spending time tweaking things to what you think they should sound like over a PA, just give ’em to us in a natural, flat and uncompressed state.  Today’s modern PA rigs have tons of power in all frequency ranges (especially the low end) so I don’t need to get tracks that have über bright top end and ridiculous bottom that could rattle people out of their seats.  I can do that at my desk if I need to and more than likely I don’t. As far as compression goes, less is more.  If I get tracks that are squashed that means I can’t use compression effectively at the show, again reducing my capabilities to get the right sound for that particular venue. Reverb is also generally a no-no but that’s on a case by case basis.  Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not.  When in doubt, less is more.  An exception to this general rule would be to make sure the tracks are bounced down with any signature effect included such as a phaser or chorus or things of that nature.  That’s ok, keep that stuff in there.

 

In many cases a big artist will have a dedicated playback person who’s only job is to maintain and operate a playback rig likely consisiting of a DAW like Digital Performer or Pro Tools.  Once this guy or gal has their hands on the tracks they can do whatever is necessary to make them sound right by the time they get to the FOH desk.  For their sakes it’s best to simply give them clear and concise stems of audio that they can manipulate to their liking and the needs of the show.  In fact, you can likely give a playback op the whole session file and let them make the stems the way they want ’em.

 

So, with that in mind, if you are making stems: LABEL the files accurately!  In any DAW you can rename every actual file in the session so I don’t ever want to see a folder with a bunch of “Audio 01_002.wav” files or anything like that!!!  I can’t stress that enough.  Another thing: make sure all the files start at the same point so they can be imported and lined up so that they all match and start at the same time.  This is simple to do in any DAW.

 

So, to wrap up:  bounce your files down with little or no EQ and compression (but with FX) starting at the same point and then name the actual disk file. Use simple, easy to understand titles like DRMS, PERC, KEYS, GTRS, BGVS… you get the idea.  Going a bit further, it’s even better to put the song title (probably abbreviated) into each file too. An example from Cee Lo’s tracks would look like this:  CLO-CRAZY-DRMS or CLO-FYOU-BGVS.

One last thing, if you’re in the studio prepping tracks and you have a question about something… reach out and ASK!  It’s very likely someone at the label or with management can get you in touch with the live crew so just ask and get a dialog going!

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