A Guide to Backing Tracks and Click Tracks for Drummers

If you’ve played as a drummer in the cover band scene, then chances are you’ve come across a band or several bands that use backing tracks. These backing tracks may have backing vocals, additional keyboards or even bass guitar on them depending on what the band has decided to play live.

Bands will use backing tracks because sometimes it’s not possible or profitable to have musicians to play all the parts on a song. For example, a five piece rock cover band (drummer, bass guitarist, guitarist, keyboard player and singer) may be playing songs that require a percussionist or second guitarist. Instead of having additional members, they might choose to record these parts on backing tracks instead.

Preparing your backing tracks

If you’re playing in an established cover band, they’ll have this sorted. If you are making your own backing tracks though, or are purchasing pre-made tracks, then you’ll need to make sure your backing tracks are prepared correctly. This is for more ‘advanced’ users.

Audio files (such as Mp3’s) are almost always in ‘Stereo’, with a ‘Left’ channel or a ‘Right’ channel. You’ll want to mix your backing track and click track in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) on two separate channels. Pan the two channels so that the backing track is on the ‘Right’ and the click track is on the ‘Left’. Export the audio as an Mp3 and upload it onto your iPad, iPod or computer. I’ll be assuming for this article that you’re using an iPad.

Playing with a backing track and click track

Count ins and when to start the track:

As a drummer, you’ll be responsible for starting the backing track and counting in the band. Hopefully you’re using an app such as ‘Backtrax’ which makes playing and managing the songs and set-lists easy. Make sure you check what sort of count in you as the drummer will get, and how many clicks to give the band as this can change between bands. For example (and assuming we’re playing in 4/4), some bands will allow the drummer two bars of count in, meaning that the drummer can have one bar of count in for his/herself and give the band one bar of count ins. Other bands will halve this amount: one bar before the track begins meaning two clicks for the drummer and two clicks for the band. Be sure to check in advance!

Keeping the band in-time:

In most cases, you’ll find that you’re the only band member who can hear the click track. That means that you’re responsible for keeping everybody in time even when there isn’t a drum part in a particular section of the song. In this scenario, keep time on the hi-hats or ride cymbal. Don’t play this part too loudly if there’s no intended drum part for that song/section, but avoid playing too softly to the point where the band can’t hear you. Gauge the body language of the musicians on the stage, and listen to their playing. Make your own assessment as to whether they are in time, and adjust your time-keeping role accordingly.

Keeping yourself in-time:

Hopefully you’ve done plenty of practice playing with a metronome. This is the key to playing along with backing tracks and click tracks. Essentially, click tracks are metronomes that have been recorded alongside a backing track for the purpose of keeping the drummer in time with the track.

If you’re struggling to play, get your hands on a backing track with a click, put some headphones on, and practice playing along.

What you’ll need (My recommendation)

An iPod, iPad or Computer:

You’ll want to play your backing tracks off an iPad or iPod if you have one. There are several apps devotes to playing backing tracks. ‘Backtrax’ is an example of one if these. If you don’t have an iPad or iPod, you can use any Mp3 player including your phone or computer. Just remember to put your phone on flight mode during the gig. I’m going to assume for this article that you’re using an iPad.

 

In ear monitors or headphones:

If you haven’t owned a set of in ear monitors before, I recommend getting a fairly basic set to start out with. You want to buy something that has the ability to significantly reduce the amount of drums you hear. I have used both th3 Shure SE215 and Etymotic MC5’s. Both are great starter in ears. I personally prefer the Shures as I find they have a better bass response, and they come with optional foam ear pieces for an even greater volume reduction.

Shure Inears
In Ear Monitors – Photo owned by Shure.
Image used for Educational Purposes.

 

A 1/8″ to 1/4″ ‘headphone’ extension lead:

The leads on in ear monitors are never long enough for a drummer. They’re designed for singers and guitarists with wireless packs on their belts! Having a headphone extension lead will fix this. If your extension lead is 1/8″ sized on each end, you’ll need a 1/8″ to 1/4″ converter.

Headphone Extension Lead

 

A small Mixing Desk:

Having a mixing desk will allow you to control your own in ear mix. Any small mixing desk should suit you fine. I opt for an 8 channel Behringer 802 with 2 mic preamps. This allows me a degree of flexibility as to what you can hear in your in ears. You may for example want to take a ‘send’ from the sound engineer, as well as a channel for the click track, backing track, and even plug your electric drum kit into a channel if you’re using one. Having separate channels for these separate items will allow you to fine tune your mix on the go without relying on the sound engineer.

Behringer Mixing Desk
Mixing Desk – Photo owned by Behringer.
Image used for Educational Purposes.

 

A 1/4″ Patch Cable:

I use a small guitar patch cable for sending the backing track from the ‘DI’ back to my mixer. If this doesn’t make sense, hopefully it will after you read the ‘how to set it up’ section! This cable will plug into the ‘thru/insert/sent/output’ of the DI.

Patch Cable

 

A 1/8″ stereo jack to 2x mono 1/4″ jack lead:

This is for your iPad/iPod/Backing Track device. The 1/8″ ‘headphone’ sized jack plugs into the device. One of the two 1/4″ jacks will plug into the input of the sound engineers ‘DI’. This jack should be for the backing track. If you’ve prepared your backing tracks as per my instructions above, this will be the ‘Right’ or ‘Red’ jack. The other 1/4″ jack will plug into a spare channel of your mixer. This is for the click track. If you’ve prepared your backing tracks as per my instructions above, then this will be the ‘Left’ or ‘Black’ jack.

Audio Lead

 

How to set it all up

Below is a diagram of how this equipment should be set up.

In Ears Diagram

1 – Set your mixer up and plug the leads into the following inputs:

  • In-ears (with headphone extension) will plug into the ‘Phones’ input
  • One 1/4″ mono jack (LEFT with click) from iPad into a channel input
  • One end of the 1/4″ patch cable into another channel input

2 – Set up the DI box:

  • One 1/4″ mono jack (RIGHT with track) from iPod into the ‘Input’ of the DI
  • Other end of the 1/4″ patch cable into the ‘Thru/Return’ of the DI
  • Sound engineer will plug an XLR cable into the ‘Output’ of the DI

3 – Set up the iPad:

  • plug the 1/8″ end of the stereo 1/8″ to 2x mono 1/4″ lead into the ‘headphones’ output of the iPad

4 – Check if things are working:

  • Turn everything (including the Master and Phones levels) on your mixing desk down to 0
  • Turn your iPad up to full volume
  • Put on your in-ears
  • Turn up the volume on the click track and backing track channels of the mixing desk
  • Turn up the master volume, then click play on a backing track (play a section you know has sound)
  • Slowly raise the volume of the ‘Phones’ level on the mixing desk and see if you can hear anything
  • If you can hear click and backing track, adjust levels until you’re comfortable, and have a play along to make sure you’re happy

5 – If you can’t hear anything:

  • Trace all the leads and make sure everything is plugged in correctly
  • Check your mixing desk for a visual signal strength – i.e. are there LED’s on the desk lighting up to show a signal?
  • Make sure your iPad is turned up
  • Make sure you’re playing a backing track that has audible parts
  • If you’re using a Behringer desk, make sure ‘CD/Tape to Mix’ and ‘CD/Tape to CTL’ are de-pressed
  • Still no signal? Feel free to get in touch with me directly via my contact page or by leaving a comment below. Pictures of your set up will help me to help you!

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve learnt something by reading this. I’ve certainly found it difficult to explain the process using words!

If you feel I’ve left something out or have any questions regarding the article, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below.

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