With the massive changes we’ve experienced in the music industry over the last 10 years, one thing has become incredibly clear: Live music will never die. As streaming has changed the business side of the music industry, we see artists touring more than ever. Ticket sales, merch sales, sponsorships, and co-branded events are happening everywhere and more often than ever. There’s something tangible and visceral about going to see live music, it's an experience you simply can’t get by just listening to a song on your favorite headphones or in your car. I’ve spent the last 10 years helping artists build great live shows. I’ve worked as musical director for artists like Mike Posner, Christina Perri, Snakehips, MILCK, and many others. They’ve all had one thing in common, to grow their careers, they needed to have a great live show. These days, a huge component of most artists’ live shows is live tracks. Let’s dig into what it takes to craft a great setlist and how to effectively implement live tracks (or playback) into your performances.
First and foremost, it doesn’t matter what DAW or playback system you use to play back your tracks, but some are better suited for the job than others. I have used Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic, Garageband, Tracks Live, Reaper, etc. The most important thing is stability and consistency. I also highly recommend using a DAW where you can change the tempo and key of a song on the fly. Often, when you take a song from the studio to the stage, you’ll want to play it faster or slower or lower the key to make it easier to sing night in and night out. If you’re using a hard disk machine or a software (like Pro Tools) that isn’t particularly great at changing tempos and keys, you will limit your options in this area.
The second most important thing when setting up your tracks for your show is the layout of your instrumentation or stems. Make sure you have the BPM for each song, which may sound obvious, but it is often not given by the producer or mixer who is sending you tracks, sessions, or stems. When it comes to stems (post-mixed tracks that contain no plug-ins), my rule of thumb is to get as much separation between instruments and vocals as you can. If you are the producer or mixer, this will be easy, if not, give the producer or mixer as much information at the beginning as you can. This will save you a lot of time later. Each song’s production is going to be different but do your best to create consistent stems. A great starting point is usually- Click (very important), Drums, Percussion, Loops, Synth Pads, Melodic Synths, Piano, Other Keys, Rhythm Guitars, Lead Guitars, BGVS 1, 2, 3, etc and Lead Vocals (also VERY important and often overlooked). Obviously, not all songs will contain these exact tracks but this gives you an idea of a starting point. If you are playing with a live drummer and you want to be able to add some samples or sounds from the drum tracks, consider getting even more separation in your drum stems, i.e. Kick, Snare, Snaps, Claps, Hi Hats, Toms, etc. Ask the producer or mixer you are getting the tracks or stems from to label things clearly. This is super important as it takes a lot of extra time to figure out what a track named “red carpet 6_drops_4.3_b” means. If you’re getting stems from multiple mixers or producers, you will most likely need to rename the stems so they match from song to song. Again, this will save you a lot of time in the long run.
Once you have all of your stems printed, labeled and loaded into your DAW (keep all your songs in the same session so you can quickly jump from song to song), the next step is trying things out in rehearsal. Again, this is why it's so important to have separation in your tracks so that you can decide what parts will be played live and what parts will be played back from the computer. This is also where you’ll determine the tempo and key of the song as well as if you want to shorten or extend the arrangement. Play the songs many times on their own and within the context of your set list to determine if a certain song should be faster or slower or if it should be up or down in key. If you have separation in your stems, you’ll be able to make these edits much more easily. When rehearsing, record yourself, both audio and video. If you have the ability, record the audio from the mixing board you are using so that you can really hear how things are sounding. Sometimes the audio in the room on a video will work but it often doesn’t catch all the details that a board mix will. When it comes to video, I always say, people listen with their eyes first. How you look performing is a HUGE piece of how people will experience your music and your show.
The next step I take when putting together a live show is to dial in the setlist. Almost every artist I have worked with on a live show usually has some sense of what songs they want to play and in what order. Start with this rough idea and refine it from there. I like to use an energy value or even a numerical value assigned to each song to help me get a rough idea of the set list flow. I’ll usually assign a number between 1-5 to each song in the set, 1 being a ballad or a slow song and a 5 being a high energy, or fast song. I will also often reference shows that I’ve seen that I really liked and/or shows that the artist really likes. I’ll analyze the energy of that show from a set list perspective. Once I have a good sense of the energy flow, I’ll start plugging in songs. For the sake of this example, and since we’re talking about a pop-oriented show with live tracks being used, I’m going to assume that you want to create a high energy show that brings people in and keeps them engaged throughout the set. With this in mind, a great starting point is to start your set with two 4s or 5s to bring people and then switch up the vibe for the 3rd song. From there, its all about how long your set it. If you’re doing 10 songs, try this flow as a starting point-
Once you have run the set a few times, analyze the flow and try moving things around. Sometimes you’ll want to do something counterintuitive and put a mellow song in a different spot but this is usually a good starting point.
Now that you have everything in place and you’ve rehearsed your set several times, invite friends, co-workers, managers, labels, etc into the rehearsal room to give you feedback. This is absolutely crucial as it will help set you up for success before you take the stage for the first show. Even when I’m working with a seasoned artist who has played hundreds of shows, we still go through this process for each new set of songs or tour. Changing one or two songs in a 10-20 song set can make a big difference when it comes to energy and flow, so getting useful feedback is essential. I highly recommend getting specific feedback from your trusted team after your first few shows as well. Things always feel different on stage than they do in rehearsal. There’s no substitute for getting on stage and playing. Once you have played your first show, look at what worked and what didn’t and make adjustments.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, focus on telling a story through your performance, take people on a journey and have fun! If you’re having fun, chances are, your audience will be too!