Ableton Live for Musical Theatre: Click/Backing Tracks

The waveform of a click track - click in left channel, backing in right


The waveform of a click track - click in left channel, backing in right


While MD'ing for the Concept Players's production of Evita I was met with an unexpected challenge; how to use backing tracks during a live musical. As we were using the 9-part orchestration, rather than the 18-part one, the Really Useful Group provided us with backing tracks of all the missing instruments, which the band would need a click track to play against to support the singers. The click tracks provided where stereo files - one channel backing track, one channel click. We were also provided with individual stems of each instrument in case we wanted to mix in a more venue-specific manner, though these weren’t necessary.

 

Challenges

- How to start a click track exactly when needed

- How to output the click to the necessary players and the backing tracks to the mixing desk

- How to allow for any rubato or tempo deviation from the singers

 

Hardware Used

- Novation Launchpad

- MOTU Ultralite Mk3

- Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

 

Software Used

- Ableton Live

 

- How to start a click track exactly when needed

Based on my experience of cueing audio, Ableton Live felt like the perfect DAW for this sort of work. Not only is it outstandingly reliable and stable, it is designed for live shows where cueing audio has to be as responsive and immediate as possible. As I’d also be conducting at the same time it was clear that some sort of physical interface would be needed, and Novation’s Launchpad (not the Pro one!) fitted the bill perfectly. I could then set up audio tracks in Ableton with each of the click tracks, set them playing by pressing a button on the Launchpad, and all would be well. I also added a one-button gap to each of the cues to make sure that I didn’t hit the wrong one by accident, which would have been disastrous for a live performance.

 

- How to output the click to the necessary players and the backing tracks to the mixing desk

One of Ableton Live’s greatest strengths is it’s community. For any area of difficulty there are clear user instructions (the official documentation is SUPERB), detailed user contributions and a wealth of online videos and tutorials. In this instance I mainly followed THIS tutorial (“Is there a way to split a stereo track in Live”) which allowed me to route the left channel (click track) and the right channel (backing track) as independent audio streams.

 

In our case we’d need one output for the backing tracks (going off to the front-of-house mixing desk) and nine audio outputs of the click tracks for all the band members to hear. In our case I used my MOTU Ultralite Mk3’s 8 outputs to send the backing track and 7 of the clicks, while another band member used their Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 to route the clicks to the remaining 2 members. I also took link feeds from the band member’s DI boxes so that a small amount of in-ear monitoring could be done, in addition to the front-of-house monitor feeds.

 

- How to allow for any rubato or tempo deviation from the singers

This was more a case of rehearsal preparation - as soon as the click tracks arrived I made sure that, as musical director and rehearsal pianist, I used the click tracks whenever possible so as to familiarise the performers themselves of the rhythmic nuances of the clicks. In the case of Concept Players they really rose to the challenge and really understood when they could or could not take rhythmic liberties.

 

One moment in the show which required finer editing was during the song “Buenos Aires” - toward the end of the song, Eva (sung by Rhiannon Rose, a paradigm of hard work  and dedication) has the final words of “A little bit of star *pause for dramatic effect over a timpani roll* quality”. While the click made allowances for this pause, I wanted to ensure that the singer had the control to make the decision of when to finish the phrase, and so with that in mind I separate the click into two sections - one section would be the whole song, which would finish on the word “star”, then when the singer started on “quality” I could start the second click, leaving the space for the musical freedom that clicks are known to restrict. This worked perfectly for every performance and gave the audience the climax it deserved!


Hopefully that’s interesting/helpful - if you’d like me to explain more then do get in touch as I feel backing tracks are becoming more and more of a staple in live performance and musical theatre and making sure that they can be worked alongside of, rather than against, feels absolutely essential for getting the best audience experience possible.

 

The final Ableton Live project used for our production of Evita


The final Ableton Live project used for our production of Evita


Copyright © 2018 Richard Jackson - Musician. All rights reserved.