How do bands listen to the same thing when they're playing live?
February 24, 2014 9:29 PM   Subscribe

My friends and I are in a band and we plan on performing in a way that would require us to simultaneously listen to the same backing track without the audience hearing the backing track. We've considered using headphones and multiple splitters, but that restricts our physical mobility and forces us to drape a lot of wires across the stage.

I don't want to get into the details of the performance - it's primarily a novelty - but the cheaper the solution, the better; and wireless, in-ear would be perfect. Are there any cheap in-ear systems? What should we be looking for? What's the absolute cheapest way to do this?
posted by LSK to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In-ear monitors. You can also get wireless headphones. Or just aim your regular monitor so the audience can't hear (unless you want to keep it entirely secret).
posted by klangklangston at 9:40 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm curious about, specifically, how your drummer gets the inputs for his headphones. Are they coming from the computer? Are splitters involved?
posted by LSK at 9:51 PM on February 24, 2014

Response by poster: Yikes, that's pricey! Well, if we ever have $1000 to spend...
posted by LSK at 10:08 PM on February 24, 2014

Yes, wireless in-ear monitors are the way to do this correctly. We could only afford to outfit some of the band with these, which worked totally fine for our purposes.

At first we depended upon getting a dedicated monitor mix from the house, which worked great exactly once and we never had time to set it up again. Pro tip: bring a small mixing console with you so you can handle your own headphone mix.

However, it sounds like you need something quicker and dirtier, not to mention cheaper.

What you want is a semi-legal* FM transmitter and some portable FM radios.

*semi-legal because it's possible to violate the FCC's Part 15 regulations with a device like this. There are regulatory limits to the field strength of your broadcast (and considerable fines for the violation thereof). Field strength depends on weather conditions and local topography and transmission frequency, not to mention the construction of the venue, antenna design/location, and at least a few other variables. It's complicated, but a 0.5W transmitter is theoretically capable of violating Part 15 under the right conditions. In order to determine that, however, someone would need to triangulate your signal, then measure the strength of your transmission, then identify you, then send a letter informing you of the violation and threatening a fine. By then, you've long since ceased transmitting and your band has probably broken up and everyone involved has written off their losses. If you're anything like us, that is. This is not legal advice, I am not a lawyer, I am not anyone's lawyer, I am certainly not your lawyer. Namaste.
posted by sportbucket at 10:11 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get one of those little fm broadcasters you can have on your MP3 player, buy dollar store pocket radios for the band members. Thirty buck solution, five if you borrow the transmitter.
posted by Iteki at 10:56 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Since sound fidelity may not be a huge issue, two pairs of cheap wireless headphones could work well. I bought a $40 pair from Radioshack a few years back that would work great for this purpose; they look goofy as hell but maybe that would jibe with the novelty effect of your show?! Just make sure to also get a cheap headphone amp if the backing track is coming from a laptop's soundcard, or you could invest in an inexpensive audio interface to boost the signal.
posted by andruwjones26 at 6:21 AM on February 25, 2014

FWIW the Apogee Quartet is just an (expensive) audio interface. There are much more cheaper options for simply getting multiple outputs from your computer.

I'm not clear on exactly what you're trying to do here, but I'm going to be performing with backing tracks using a laptop and a Focusrite Scarlett 6i6, sending one mix to the drummer's headphones containing backing tracks plus a click, and another mix to the house containing just the backing tracks.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:58 AM on February 25, 2014

I'm curious about, specifically, how your drummer gets the inputs for his headphones. Are they coming from the computer? Are splitters involved?

I do sound for a living, here's the simple solution I see bands do all the time:

You're creating your tracks in a multi-track program like Reaper or Logic or ProTools or such, yeah? So first you create a final stereo mix where you pan the click track all the way to the right, and all the other track stuff all the way to the left. (This means you can play back your tracks live using pretty much any media player program, depending on how you format/convert your stereo mix track. I've seen plenty of bands just use an iPod, and even burn to CD & carry a cheap portable CD player as a backup.)

Then you get a 1/8" stereo (TRS) to dual 1/4" mono (TS) cable and a small 2 to 4 channel mixer, like a Behringer or a Mackie or Yamaha (some examples from Sweetwater here) and a DI box a.k.a. direct box (Sweetwater examples here.)

The drummer gets the small mixer. Use the cable to output from the computer (or iPod or iPad or even smartphone), the right side 1/4" end (the click side) goes directly to one of the inputs of the small mixer, the left side 1/4" (the music side) gets plugged into the DI. The DI will have an XLR (mic cable) output that goes to whatever sound system you're using. It will also have a 1/4" output that gets plugged into another channel of the drummer's small mixer.

Then the drummer plugs headphones/in-ears into the small mixer. Now the drummer is the only one hearing the click track, and he or she is also hearing the music track and can adjust the levels and balance of both.

simultaneously listen to the same backing track without the audience hearing the backing track.

Usually, of course, the audience is supposed to hear the music that's on the backing track, so having the track play through stage monitors is fine, as whatever's coming through the monitors is (more or less) being masked or drowned out, from the audience's standpoint, by the sound that's coming out of the main sound system. To do this you do at least need a set up that allows you to send one level to the mains and a different level to the monitors.

If you're looking at a situation where the audience is really not supposed to hear any of the backing track at all, then you need to go with some kind of headphone or in-ear system.

Are there any cheap in-ear systems?

As far as wireless systems go, not really, no, at least not yet, depending on what you mean by "cheap." I can find a couple of Nady systems that seem to go for about $100, and a few no-name systems that go for even less, but prices generally seem to start at about $200 per system and go up from there.

Even then, though, IMProfessionalO, "cheap" wireless anything is just asking for trouble - the gear tends to break easily, it sounds bad, you'll get all kinds of interference from various other RF sources, etc etc etc.

So if you're really going to incorporate the ear system into your performances regularly, I think it's worth spending $400-$600 per system. But if this is just a one-off or a small handful of shows, try experimenting with some of the radio solutions suggested above, or go wired and just live with the lack of mobility and mess of wires and/or incorporate it into the show somehow.

And whether you go with a "real" in-ear system or the radio solution, you'll definitely want to try them out before the gig and do quite a bit of practicing with them, as playing live with headphones or ears can be a really different experience than you're used to.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:28 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was in a band for a while that used Ableton, etc. Instead of requiring the drummer to lock to the loops, I used the "tap tempo" feature and locked the loops to the drummer. That way, if the band changed tempo or wanted to improvise, they could. I don't know if this solution would work in your case, but: no group monitoring required that way.
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:34 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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