As many of you know, I’ve been putting shows together for artists for a couple of years now (which I now do via my company 87 Music Ltd). I started small with very new artists who (in some cases) had never played with a band or even backing tracks and it’s also worth noting that I’d never really done any real programming (apart from drum loops on my MPC 1000 for church).
Having to guide artists through the journey of getting used to this and also making many mistakes along the way, helped me come up with a few systems that now make my workflow smooth and time efficient.
I’m sure this goes without saying (hence the title) but this is really for the person who’s never programmed a show before and doesn’t know where to start, or how things are done. There’s much more to it than this and more that I’m still yet to experience and learn myself, but hopefully, if you’re just getting started, this blog will help or at least give you another perspective on how other people in the industry work.
I got tired of always starting from scratch (when it came to programming a song), and as a result of that I set up a template (I use Logic Pro X). It’s a very simple template, which contains Markers/Locate points for the sections of the average songs structure. I have also created an EXS24 Instrument, which contains programmable Clicks and Cues for the various sections of the song, which are also balanced (mix-wise so they’re consistent from song to song).
My next step is to drag in the actual song MP3 (as in most cases I don’t have the stems to hand straight away) and just drag my Clicks, Cues and Markers/Locate points around to fit that particular song.
I’m sure you get the idea here… Even if you don’t have the stems, it’s easy to start building an arrangement and if it’s a case of needing to add parts, it makes that easier, which then makes it easy to slot stems into place when you do get them.
If you’re a Logic Pro X user and would find it beneficial to have my template, drop me an email with the subject “Logic Pro X Programming Template” and I’ll send it over, along with the Click Sampler Instrument I’ve created. [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Organise Your Files:
I have a simple way of organising my files, which doesn’t seem important initially but once you have your hands in multiple projects will make the world of difference.
Each artist I work for has their own folder, then each song has its own folder. As an MD, I also give out parts and (utilising the Dropbox file sharing system) put the various band members stems organised in a file path like: Song > Drums/Bass/Keys/Guitar (all separate folders) so each band member can learn the actual record parts and program any sounds as close to the stems as possible. I’ll usually also add a Drum Samples folder there too so the drummer can program his drum pad before rehearsals.
Something as small as knowing where all your files are at any given moment will make the world of difference and help you keep on top of your files.
In Logic I colour code all of my tracks and stems. Clicks/Cues are always green. Drum stems are always blue, Bass stems – purple, Guitar stems – orange, Keys/Synths etc – yellow and Vocal stems – pink (you get the gist).
When there are lots of stems it can take a while, but in the long run when I’m editing the arrangement, needing to adjust the volume of certain channels etc., I look for the colours and then I can easily find the channel I’m looking for. In Logic Pro X, Track Stacks are amazing. If you’re going to use Track Stacks, use the summing option, as you can apply effects and processing over a group of stems and then only make those adjustments once. They also allow you to hide your tracks while there is no need to edit them and can have you only needing to bounce each Track Stack individually to get your Master Stems (instead of solo-ing and un-soloing loads of channels all of the time.
Back Up… Then Back Up The Back Up:
I’m sure I don’t need to explain why back ups are necessary, beneficial and crucial to what you’re doing but I can’t stress that enough.
I went through a phase of having some crazy issues with my MacBook Pro. Every few months something would go wrong, which seemingly would coincide with when I was about to go into rehearsals or a run of shows. Thankfully I always had a back up so could at least access the Master Stems (that I’d use on a show) or be able to load up my programming sessions on another computer.
Not too long ago I went through a phase where certain stems were getting corrupted (to this day, I’m not sure how) but the corrupted stems wouldn’t play and would cause the Logic session to crash. Since then I’ve now got a new system.
I run all of my programming (during rehearsals etc) from an external hard-drive. I then have a clone of that hard-drive as a back up. I then have another hard-drive, which literally just contains stems, so even if a stem did get corrupted, I could just replace it but even in a worst case scenario, if my drive and it’s back up somehow got damaged/lost etc, i’d at least still have the stems to start over and not have to try and source them again.
Less Is More:
It’s easy to open up a folder of stems and think you have to let all of them play. Nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of the reason why I do things the way I do is through working with Donavan Hepburn (Musical Director/Drummer) and seeing how he works and then adapting it for my working style and personal preference. I’ll never forget the a rehearsal period we were in where had us all really re-creating the record with triggers on the drums and Bass, Guitar and Keys patches all sounding so good and like the record that he could mute lots of what was on track and let the band do the work. #KeepMusicLive (as much as is possible in 2017 lol)
It’s also worth noting that there’s loads of stuff that is used in production that works well on records and in a controlled listening environment (headphones, stereos etc.), but in a live environment they just get in the way and leave less space in the mix for the different elements (both live and on track) to sit in their own space and frequency spectrum. In the FOH mix
So depending on the level of the artist you’re working for, you may get demo stems, un-mixed stems or un-mastered stems. I’ve had them all and it’s been beneficial for me having a little knowledge of EQ/Dynamics/Effects Processing etc. In some cases, I’ve mixed stems to get them sounding cleaner and more polished and in other cases it’s just been a bit of EQ/Dynamics to keep things order control or to make something cut through in the mix or stop it from poking out so much. Trust you ears (if they’re trustworthy) and don’t be afraid to experiment.
Although I send groups of different stems to FOH (I’ll touch on this later) I tend to try and have everything balanced in a stereo mix with everything in context with each other and balanced for 2 main reasons.
- If you listen to your grouped stems in isolation you won’t realise that one set of stems is considerably louder or quieter than the other or that frequencies are getting congested. Realistically speaking, the engineer should only have to gain and pan track channels and if any processing is needed, it’s more to do with the room than the mix on your stems being poor.
- If you ever need to do a quick change from multiple stem outputs to just a stereo set of outputs and a click, you know that it’s already balanced and you won’t have to do a completely new mix.
I often get asked about using a Compressor/Limiter across all outputs. I’m not a massive fan of that unless all of the music is at the dame dynamic level and so the dynamic of each song is (essentially) the same. When an artist’s music is more varied and dynamic, you don’t want the slow, spacious Rock Ballad to have the same dynamic as the song with massive programmed synths and hard Electronic Drum grooves etc. Basically… Use your ears and get the balance right for the music you’re working with.
If you’ve read ”Playback Machines: Why I Chose Cymatic Audio” before, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of Playback Machines and so I won’t go into that here. Check out that blog for more on that.
So… you’ve got everything programmed, your files are organised and everything’s backed up… How do you take this to the stage?
Bounce Master Stems. For example, all of the percussive channels as “Drums/Perc” and all of the melodic channels as “Music” and all of the vocal parts as “BV’s/VOX” etc. I’m sure you get the idea.
Don’t run your session (especially if you’ve done lots in the way of effects and processing) live on stage. Bounce your Master Stems and if you are using a DAW for playback put them in an arrange, into your favourite DAW etc. (or if you’re me, a Playback Machine) so you’re not using lots of CPU, which will make the chances of your computer crashing much slimmer.
For small to medium size shows, most people run either stereo backing tracks (plus a click) or 3 stereo groups (plus a click and possibly a cue track) which is usually between 7 and 8 channels of track. This usually goes something like this:
Channel 1: Track L
Channel 2: Track R
Channel 3: Click
Multiple Outputs: (as i label them but you can arrange them how you want)
Channel 1: Drums L
Channel 2: Drums R
Channel 3: Music L
Channel 4: Music R
Channel 5: VOX L
Channel 6: VOX R
Channel 7: Cue
Channel 8: Click
These channels are essentially your Master Stems.
Using multiple outputs allows the FOH engineer to have more control over the track elements and ride faders throughout the song (like s/he would the live instruments) and makes for an overall better track/band mix/blend.
What’s the Cue?
There are a few shows I’ve programmed where the artist also plays an instrument. On the Click channel, I have the actual Click and also vocal Cues to guide the band through the sections of the song. The Click is normally double-time depending on the feel of the song and where there is an artist who’s playing parts in the bands the engineer will route the Click to the artist’s IEM’s (in ear monitors).
The Cue is useful for when there’s an actual “show” going on. Not just, song, stop, song stop etc. The Cue channel has a half-time Click (so it doesn’t get in the way of the music) but is really helpful when there’s light choreography, dancers, lighting changes and can help with the artist’s chat sections between songs making the transition from chat to song smoother. Also, if there’s a song that starts with vocals, you can put a pitch Cue to make sure the artist starts on the note/in the right key. These are all things that can really glue a show together and make things smoother.
Having the Cue track prepped proved it’s worth when I was programming the show for Nicole Scherzinger… We were in rehearsals and Nicole’s schedule changed. I sent over rehearsal recordings/live arrangements and all was cool. However just before it was show-time, we had to make some arrangement changes (adding/cutting sections of the songs etc.) and so having the Cue was priceless as it gave Nicole the peace of mind that she’d be guided through all of the sections etc.
Hopefully this has been helpful for you and given you a brief insight into how to get started, which will help you on your way to programming a show.
Tags: Backing Tracks, Click Track, Cymatic Audio, EXS24 Sampler Instrument, Live, Logic Pro X, LP-16, Matt Wills, Nicole Scherzinger, Playback, Playback Machine, Production, Programming, Programming Template, Review, Show, Stems, Tayá, Tips, Tour, Tricks, uTrack24