A Beginner’s Guide to Using Tracks in Live Worship

Using tracks gives you greater versatility and professionalism in worship.

Imagine this: You’ve found the perfect song for worship. The lyrics complement the message perfectly, the melody is memorable and the band is nailing their parts in rehearsal. Now, imagine adding a string section and three extra musicians to play synth and percussion parts live. While this might feel like a dream, playing along with tracks allows you to make this dream a reality every time.

Backing tracks, stems, multitracks?

Before we talk about how to use them, it’s important to clarify what I mean by “tracks,” which can mean different things to different people. For the sake of this conversation, tracks, or “stems,” are isolated components of a song or arrangement that are created for live performance. They are aligned to a click track so you can stay in time with the tracks along with a spoken guide calling out the sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), so you can stay in sync with the arrangement.

They don’t have a lead vocal but have each instrument separated out so you can create your own custom mix, mute the instruments you already have onstage and use the parts to support your live band. For the sake of this article, we’ll call these “tracks.”

WHY USE TRACKS IN THE FIRST PLACE?

There are two main benefits to using tracks in a live worship context. You’re able to supplement the sound of your band with parts from the original artist’s studio recording. Now you can have a string section “onstage,” plus drums loops and synths that you can’t reproduce live, and add extra parts that will broaden your sound.

Another benefit is the ability to fill in for missing musicians. This one isn’t as popular to talk about, because no one wants to imagine a musician not getting to play because of a computer. But the reality is, you could have a musician call in sick early on Sunday morning, because they are sick or their kids are sick, and you’ve got to have a backup plan in that scenario.

You could do an acoustic set, but if the rest of the band is there and ready to go, minus the bass player, you could also use tracks that morning. Un-mute the bass stem and connect a cable from your interface to the bass player’s input, and it will show up just like the bass normally does at the console.

Now, let’s talk about how to make this happen.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Before you start using tracks, you need to be using in-ears, and your team needs to be playing live with click. I can’t stress this fact enough, that you need to make sure you’re already doing those two things before you can begin using tracks. Don’t decide today that this Sunday you’re going to switch to in-ears and start playing with click and tracks. If so, you’ll be thankful you have tracks, because you won’t have a band to lead with—ha! Take the time to transition your team to in-ears, and then slowly introduce click. Once they are comfortable with both, you can start using tracks.

CHOOSING A COMPUTER

In order to use tracks onstage, you’ll need to make sure you have a computer that can sufficiently run everything well. It’s very possible the laptop you already have is more than sufficient, but you’ll want to make sure it meets Ableton’s minimum system requirements.

If you’re going to use a laptop that you also use for work, make sure you’ve got plenty of hard drive space available and that you do your best to keep it running smoothly. Don’t install too many apps. Do manage your files well. Consider reinstalling your OS once a year, to start fresh.

Also, and perhaps most importantly for running tracks, make sure you use an SSD (Solid State Drive), either internal or external. Because solid-state drives can be expensive as internal drives, you may want to consider buying a smaller internal SSD and using a larger HDD (hard disk drive) for storing and archiving files. This way you can use your SSD for performance but store and back up your files long-term on the HDD.

WHAT EDITION OF ABLETON LIVE?

If you’re going to use tracks live, the undisputed champion of live performance is Ableton Live. But if you’re looking to use Live for tracks, what edition of Live should you get? There’s Intro, Standard and Suite. I generally suggest people start with Intro to get a feel for the program and decide if they want to stick around. But if you want to use tracks onstage, without any limitations, you’ll want to upgrade to Standard. It removes any track count limitations, which will make running tracks much easier and more enjoyable.

If you’re looking to create your own content, consider purchasing Suite (with all the built-in sounds and effects) or adding plug-ins to your set to use in Standard. Once you have your computer configured and your copy of Ableton Live, we need to talk about content and how to control your machine and get sound out of your machine.

FINDING CONTENT

If you’re looking to use tracks in a worship environment, you’re in luck. Getting tracks from MultiTracks.com allows you to perform with the original parts from the original recording. Imagine having musicians from Hillsong Worship and Bethel Music play with you on Sunday morning. If you’re using the original tracks, this is possible. You can purchase credit bundles (250 or 500 credits) that will allow you to save even more when purchasing tracks in bulk.

Some people may not be able to afford tracks, or if you do a lot of original music, you’ll want to create your own tracks to perform with. As I mentioned earlier, for creating your own tracks, I would suggest upgrading to Ableton Live Suite or purchasing extra plug-ins to record your own tracks for performance.

DON’T LOOK LIKE YOU’RE CHECKING YOUR EMAIL ONSTAGE

While the easiest way to get started “triggering” tracks onstage is by using your computer’s keyboard (i.e., pressing spacebar or “2” for song 2), it’s not the best long-term solution. When you use a MIDI controller, it allows you to avoid looking like you’re checking email on your computer onstage.

I remember someone asking me after a service what I was doing with my computer onstage—watching YouTube? It reminded me that although a computer onstage might look normal to a musician, it can still seem out of context to someone in the congregation. Getting a MIDI controller can allow you to move your computer out of the way and stay focused on leading worship.

You can find a MIDI controller that fits into your setup and works best for you, so it feels more like an instrument and less like a productivity tool.

GETTING AUDIO OUT

Next, you’ll need a way to get audio out of your computer. The easiest way to get started is to connect the headphone out of your computer to two direct boxes using a cable like the Hosa CMP-153. You’ll want to make sure you put your click and guide tracks on a different output from your music tracks so that you hear the click and guide in your in-ears only and not in the house. While this may seem like a daunting task, realize that once you get the sound out of your computer, it will connect to your soundboard the same way as your acoustic guitar or bass guitar does, through a direct box (DI).

MORE IS … MORE

While using your headphone out of your computer is an easy way to get started, it’s not the best way. For starters, often your headphone jack is noisy, and it might even have interference from your power supply. This makes the sound going to the console less than optimal. Also, you’re limited to two outputs: one for click, and one for mono music tracks. If you use an audio interface (highly recommended), you can get more than two outputs, and you can create a better experience for both the congregation and your audio engineer.

With multiple outputs, you can, at the very least, send click and stereo tracks now. This is incredibly beneficial if your house sound system is in stereo, and especially if your in-ears are in stereo. If your audio interface offers more outputs, you can give your sound engineer even more control. For instance, with eight outputs, you could have a setup like this:

• Click
• Guide
• Keys Left
• Keys Right
• Drums Left
• Drums Right
• Synth Bass
• Aux (Perc, Strings, Brass, etc.)

With stems separated out like this, you allow your sound engineer to mix tracks, just like they are another instrument onstage. Turning up pads no longer also turns up the shaker. With synth bass as a separate output, you can treat it differently than other instruments so that it has maximum impact at front of house.

Ultimately, more outputs in the hands of a capable audio engineer can give you a way better experience when using tracks.

START WHERE YOU ARE

While this list might sound overwhelming, and you may feel like you don’t have enough in the budget to make this happen, I want to encourage you to start with what you have. Start by triggering tracks using your computer’s keyboard and using the headphone out of your computer, and slowly add gear to improve your experience.

First published on Sweetwater.com. Used by permission.