Save money by using your laptop
onstage to play your mp3 backing tracks
There are many choices
available to you for playing your backing tracks onstage (Minidisc
deck, Personal Minidisc, mp3 player, DAT machine, Laptop, Cassette
etc), but there are pro's and con's you should consider for
If you haven't already read my article which compares the various
formats for backing tracks, I strongly suggest you read
it now before going any further in to this article.
already decided that mp3 is the best playback format for you,
and that you would like to use a Laptop to playback your backing
tracks on stage, then here are some tips you will find helpful...
Take care of your Laptop
OK, I know it's a bit obvious this one, but I can't stress strongly
enough how important it is that you take good care of your laptop
to make sure it doesn't come to any harm, whether that be while
using it onstage, or travelling to and from gigs.
Normal soft laptop bags are no use. If a speaker or amplifier
falls against your laptop and it's in a standard soft/material
type case, this will NOT protect it!
However, you don't need to spend fortunes on having a custom-built
flight case - a metal case like DJ's use to hold their CD's will
give good protection and should fit most Laptops...and they're
While onstage, position your Laptop in an area where it will not
be close to any liquids (by that we mean drinks)! Remember that
even a "splash" from a spilled drink a few metres away
can still cause damage so use common sense here.
Another problem that you may not have thought of is customers
or a compere or an announcer coming up on to the stage (perhaps
to ask you for a request or introduce you etc). Remember that
Joe Public doesn't belong on the professional stage and if he
ever finds himself standing on one, he's very likely to lean on
things and trip over all your cables...if he leans on your Laptop
screen, he'll break it. If he trips over the cable connecting
the Laptop to the PA or the Laptops power cable, he'll pull your
Laptop off whatever it's sitting on and it'll go crashing to the
floor. How do I know all this? I've had it happen to me...twice
(and I should've learned the first time). Don't make the same
mistake I did...
Don't be too heavy handed with
the buttons and keys on your Laptop. Laptops are designed to be
portable but they're not designed to stand the sort of abuse that
they can get onstage where the temperatures caused by stage lighting
and power amps etc is high and the adrenelin running through you
is even higher. Remember, these machines are designed for cool
air-conditioned offices, not smokey, humid, high temperature night-clubs.
My old Laptop, which I've had from new, eventually curled up and
died just through wear and tear - the outputs were buzzing, the
keys were getting sticky and it was on it's second hard-drive
and second power supply...it was only 3 and a half years old,
so looking back, I wished I'd taken more care of it. To be fair,
I often do as many as 6 or 7 gigs a week so the Laptop takes a
lot of punishment. Also bear in mind that it's a Dell Laptop and...well,
to be honest with you, every Dell desktop computer or Laptop that
I have used in the past has proved to be poorly built and unreliable.
Granted they are inexpensive, but...I suppose you get what you
pay for (none of our staff here at MP3 backing Trax use Dells
Don't let this put you off using
a Laptop onstage though. A good reliable, well built Laptop should
last you for years and wear and tear is normal so shouldn't really
be an issue (and anyway, how many Minidisc players have you gone
through in the last few years...I've lost count of the Minidisc
decks I've bought in the past)!
While on the subject of Laptop
brands, it has been suggested in some quarters that Laptops which
have "Via Chipsets" tend to suffer from audio interference
from mains power and/or lighting rigs but as far as I am aware,
this hasn't been proved or dis-proved. Best thing to do is try
the Laptop onstage before you buy it. Even if you buy from a large
PC store, I'm sure they won't object to you exchanging it the
next day for a different model if it doesn't perform right for
you onstage. After all, you'll be paying up to £1,000 or
more for a good Laptop (that's a good sale for the shop) so don't
be scared to insist that they be prepared to exchange it for another
if you take it to a gig and find it's not up to the job.
Keep it "clean"
No, I don't mean with a soft cloth (although it is advisable to
wipe all the smoke and grime from your Laptop from time to time)!
What I mean is, have as few programs as possible installed and
running on your Laptop so that there's less to interfere with
the actual playback of the songs.
Here's an example of what I mean. A couple of years ago, while
onstage, my Laptop was playing the backing track for a new song
I was singing for the first time. I also had Microsoft Word open
and was reading the lyrics (which were in the form of a MS Word
Document). I noticed that I had made a typing error in one of
the words in the lyrics, so half-way through the song, during
the instrumental solo, I typed in the correct word and re-saved
the Word Document. As the Laptops resources switched from concentrating
on playing the song to saving the "new" Word Document,
the audio "skipped" and put me right off!
Remember that a little milli-second skip on a normal desktop computer
while working on an Excel file or a Word file wouldn't even be
noticed, but a milli-second jump in an audio file playback sends
the timing completely out and you're then put under great pressure
to find exactly where you are in the song!
So, the rule of thumb is...the less you have on your Laptop, the
less there is to interfere with the audio playback. If you want
to be on the safe side, only have Windows, mp3 playing software,
and your songs on the Laptop - nothing else. Get rid of any games,
internet, email etc and just leave the music.
If you're brave enough, even leave out anti-virus software as
some AV software likes to scan and "analyze" the audio
file while it's playing and can cause glitches and skipping. If
you are the only one using your laptop, and you are the only one
who is loading in the backing tracks (and it's not connected to
the internet), then there's probably no need for any AV software
Choose the right MP3 playing
There are now thousands of mp3 player software programs to choose
from, many of them free. So, which one should you have installed
in your laptop to play your backing tracks?
Well, up to a few years ago, Windows Media player (which comes
free with Windows) was the obvious choice because it was written
by Microsoft specially for Windows, so worked really well with
their Windows operating system. However, as years went by, Microsoft
started introducing all sorts of bells and whistles to the program
and now it takes so many resources to produce the bells and whistles
(like psychadelic graphics which move in time to the music etc)
that all this takes resources away from the actual playing of
In the last paragraph above I talked about the need to keep it
clean and simple, and that's definitely the case here. Windows
Media Player is now too "heavy" in my opinion and should
be avoided - instead, choose a simple, straightforward player
that's designed purely to play the songs and little more. At this
particular moment in time, my favourite is WinAmp.
You may be surprised that I haven't chosen MusicMatch
Jukebox for playback as we recommend it elsewhere on our website.
That's because MusicMatch is also a program which draws heavily
on your comouters resources - it's the best program for RECORDING
but, like Windows Media Player, it's a little too heavy on resources
The rule of thumb, again, is, keep it simple...
There's a fantastic software program available called Onstage
Performer which is well worth a look at. It can play your
mp3 backing track and also run your light show etc...all from
a mp3 song on your laptop. If you want to make your stage show
in to a spectacular production, then this little program is worth
checking out, and it's not expensive considering what it does.
The best playback tip is to organize all your mp3 backing track
files in the one folder alphabetically. Open up the folder and
maximise it so that it fills your full screen. With a 1028 x 800
resolution, you should be able to see 50 or more songs at any
one time and can use the up/down arrow keys to scroll through
When your cursor is sitting on the song you want to playback,
just hit the enter key and WinAmp or whatever MP3 playing software
you are using will start to play the song. If you use WinAmp to
playback your tracks, it can be minimized (hidden) at the bottom
of your desktop leaving you a full screen of all your backing
tracks to look at. The advantage of WinAmp is that it continues
to work while minimized so doesn't keep popping up and blurring
your view of the songs every time you play a new song.
If you want, you can also make up set-lists before you go onstage
will step through your chosen songs one by one - great if you
are doing a cabaret show where the set-list must adhere to a strict
time limit or sequence of songs.
Another playback tip is to use
the alphabetical keys (the QWERTY keyboard) to "find"
songs. For example, if you're singing "My Way", your
cursor will be sitting on that song title. However, if your next
song is going to be "Amarillo", then just hit the A
key and it will jump the cursor straight to the beginning of all
the songs beginning with A. Then just use your up and down arrow
keys to get to the exact song, hit enter and it'll start playing.
By the way, did you know that you
can scroll around looking for another song and then cue it up
ready to play, even while your present song is still playing?
You can't do that with a CD or
a Minidisc (or any other format I know of)!
Article Written by Kenny Campbell
(This article cannot be reproduced without express
(all rights reserved)