Warning - choosing the wrong
track format could seriously damage
format should I use to play my backing tracks?
There has been much debate
about which format is the best for the playback of backing tracks
and we hope that in this article we can seperate the fact from
the fiction and dispell many of the myths you may have heard regarding
different formats etc.
The first thing you
should be aware of is that most musicians and singers tend to
be creatures of habit. They don't like change, especially to the
way they work on stage, so if you ask any fellow singers or musicians
what the best format is for playing backing tracks (eg mp3, CD,
minidisc, or midi) don't be surprised if you get a totally biased
opinion from them - I'll hazzard a guess that they'll probably
advise you to use the same format that they use!
This is not
necessarily the best format format for you.
I know of one singer
who still uses cassette tapes (yes, they are a nightmare to
cue up and all hissy and horrible, but he's been using them
since the mid-seventies, is comfortable with them and refuses
So, if you want an
unbiased opinion on audio formats for backing tracks, read on...
Quality and ease
of use onstage are the key
There are two criteria you should consider when choosing a backing
track format. The quality of the backing track has to be
good enough for your purposes. Next, the ease of use in
which you can select songs and begin playback of them during a
live performance is critical (especially when you will constantly
be singing in environments where there's flashing lights, a high-energy
atmosphere and the adrenalin is flowing).
For both quality and ease of use reasons, we will totally dismiss
cassette tapes - they are unsuitable for backing tracks. They
are noisy, hissy, regularly go out of pitch and take valuable
seconds (often minutes) to cue up to the next song. Even if you
use a double-cassette or two cassette decks, you will still spend
more time working the machines than working your audience - take
our advice and forget you even ever heard the word cassette!
CD is the best quality - no if's or but's. CD is un-compressed
audio so is the best quality of all formats and it's also the
standard by which all other music formats are measured. But before
you opt for CD, it has some serious drawbacks when you're using
it "live" so please read this full article before making
Minidisc is compressed music at a quality ratio of 5:1. What this
means is that the audio signal has been squeezed down to 20% of
it's original size. The advantage of this is that you can fit
15 - 20 songs on to one of those tiny little minidiscs which are
a fraction of the size of a CD. Minidisc is also an enclosed format
so unlike CD, it won't be prone to fingermarks and scratches etc
which can cause skipping during playback. Although the minidisc
song you are hearing has been compressed, in tests most human
ears cannot tell the difference between minidisc and full CD quality,
even when using high quality sensitive ear-phones.
Midifiles are only as good quality as the instruments you are
playing them through because they are not actual audio files -
midi is only a stream of digital data which tells the instrument
that it's connected to what notes to play (a little like one of
those old player-pianos which used rolls of paper with little
holes punched in them and appeared to "play itself").
Midi should only be used for backing track playback if you are
an accomplished musician/sequencer and know how to manipulate
these files properly, because if you don't, midifiles can sound
very cheap and nasty (see our article which gives a midi
versus mp3 demo).
MP3 encoded at 320kb/s is a ratio of 4:1 so mp3 (at this bit-rate)
is better quality than minidisc. Just about everywhere you look
though, you will see that mp3 is generally encoded at a bit-rate
of 128kb/s which is actually a ratio of 10:1. You'll often see
128kb/s described as "CD quality" but technically that's
not true (as CD is un-compressed - ie 1:1 ratio). However, and
here's the thing, the bottom line is that if the whole world is
happy to term mp3 encoded at 128kb/s "CD quality", what
this means is that they can't hear any difference in quality between
a CD and an mp3. This makes sense too because mp3 works by discarding
the frequencies that the human ear can't hear (that's how it manages
to compress the music). It "throws away" stuff that
is outwith the human audio range, working on the idea that your
ear can't hear these frequencies anyway, The other advantage of
this is that there should be no ultra-high frequencies that can
blow your speakers horns or bass rumbles that can blow your bass
bins - mp3 has taken these "dangerous" frequencies out
of the audio spectrum.....so mp3 could help protect your PA system
as well as giving you great quality.
Ease of use "Live"
CD, minidisc and mp3 all give quality which is, without doubt,
more than good enough for "live" performance. In a "live"
onstage situation, we defy anyone, even with the most highly trained
ear, to tell them apart, However, they are not all as easy to
physically use onstage.
CD should be
avoided at all costs. The fingermarks and scratches that can get
on to CD's will cause skipping and even just one little skip while
you're singing a song will throw you off completely. CD will make
you look totally unprofessional as the audience wait for your
next song while you wipe the next CD you're about to load with
a soft cloth (or maybe your shirt or blouse!). It's just not good
enough and loading CD's in to a CD player during a performance
will make you look loke some amateur karaoke singer rather than
a profesional entertainer. Not recommended!
Midi can be used quite effectively "live". You
have control over the individual instruments sound and if you
have an expensive music keyboard or module with a zip drive, you
don't need to swap floppy discs half-way through a performance
etc. Remember though, the sound of a midifile will only be good
if you have very expensive, high quality musical instruments to
play it through and you have programmed the midifile to suit the
sounds in those instruments. While onstage, if you're using a
midifile, you will find yourself spending a lot of time on your
mixing desk rather than concentrating on your audience as it's
a lot of work to balance all the bass, drums, brass, guitar etc
etc for every instrument on every song (yes, I know these should
already be pre-balanced but the fact is that different venues
have different acoustics and you will always have to make adjustments
everytime you perform). Also, you really need to be musically
proficient in programming, playing and sound engineering to get
that all important "good sound" so they are not recommend
for non-musician solo singers.
much easier to use onstage than midi and CD. It is an enclosed
format which means that you don't have to worry about scratches
and fingermarks and each song can be named, instantly located
and cued up to play in seconds. It's stereo so there are only
two cables required to connect it to your PA system (left + right)
so you can set up quickly. The disadvantage of minidisc though
is that they can only hold 15 - 20 songs so you have to turn your
back on your audience from time to time to load up a different
disc. Also, you have to wait till one song is finished before
you can cue up the next song. Although this probably doesn't sound
like a a major problem, believe me, sometimes that couple of seconds
it takes to find the next song can be crucial in a live situation.
Up until a year or so ago, minidisc was the most popular format
for playing backing tracks but it has now been overtaken by mp3.
That's because mp3 has all the advantages of minidisc but none
of the disadvantages (see next paragraph).
MP3, like minidisc,
let's you instantly access the songs stored on it so is ideal
for onstage use. Many MP3
players can hold 10,000 or more songs (compare that to the
paltry 20 songs a minidisc holds!) and you can navigate to any
particular song on an mp3 player just as quickly as you can scroll
through songs on a minidisc, sometimes quicker. In addition to
this, mp3 lets you create playlists (set-lists) etc - you can't
do that with minidisc without unprotecting the minidisc and "moving"
the songs in to a different order. Also, you need to "swap"
minidiscs during a performance which can cause embarrassing silences
during your set but with an mp3 player you have 5000 songs at
your fingertips and, most importantly, you can cue up the next
song while the present song is still playing...
I reckon, without doubt, that mp3 is the best format of all for
playing backing tracks. It is streets ahead of any other format
for playing backing tracks and has all the advantages of
every other other format and in addition to this, addresses and
solves all the issues and disadvantages of these other
There are no moving parts on an mp3 file so it's more reliable,
it's kinder to your speakers & amplifiers, it gives fantastic
quality, it's smaller, more managable, easier to use...need I
go on further?!
Article Written by Kenny Campbell
(This article cannot be reproduced without express
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