The vast majority of Primary Schools we record in will sing along to Backing Tracks. These are typically sourced from CDs of school songs or found online and played through a school laptop. Often dealing with this is the most complex part of our set up when we arrive at a Primary School.
Once we have set up all the microphones and our engineering desk, we turn our attention to the school sound system. There are two ways of dealing with backing tracks when we are on location but generally it’s easier to use the school sound system although we do carry speakers which can be used in an ‘if al else fails’ scenario.
The issue generally is not so much the school audio system but the variety of laptops which we find. Ultimately if the sound is coming from the laptop then it means everything is coming via the headphone or output jack which on some basic windows laptops might not be that great. In an ideal world the school will have a CD player connected to an amp and this will always give us a better result if we can take a direct output from either the CD player or the amplifier.
However sometimes we are faced with a laptop connected to a basic amp which has no other outputs on it. In this scenario we have to ‘intervene’ and split the signal from the laptop to send some into our Digital Audio Workstation and the rest into the school amplifier and audio system. This of course is not ideal because you are then reducing the quality of the signal, which may not have been that great to start with. Nevertheless getting some sort of direct signal is better than the microphones just hearing what comes out of the speakers in the school hall as that will always end up being boomy on the final album if you are not careful.
Quality of the Backing Track
Perhaps the biggest variance is between the quality of the backing track which is being supplied. If it is a properly recorded track from a CD or similar source then the chances are we will take most of the original quality of that and directly feed it into our system which results in little or no degradation. However, sometimes we are faced with something off You Tube which is supplied via an old laptop. We are then up against splitting the signal from a poor quality output plus the unknown quantity of the You Tube track.
This is our biggest issue when using backing tracks of unknown quality. The sound off you tube might be ok through the speakers, but it could be mono, or stereo or contain quite a lot of noise. And of course if we are taking a direct feed then we are faced with a mono backing track against stereo singing or we are introducing unwanted noise into an otherwise clean recording.
Of course you might start to think we can clean that up afterwards – to some extent yes we can, but we also need to ensure our school recordings are priced economically. If we had to introduce several days of post production that would no longer be the case. And ultimately as any techie will tell you, unless you are starting with a decent quality signal in the first place, no amount of audio processing will really improve something which was actually not that good in the first place.
Ultimately there is no easy solution to this. We cannot dictate or even predict what sort of audio system the schools will have. There are some schools which have similar setups with a proper amplifier and multiple inputs. This makes our job really easy. But some schools just have a very basic CD player or once we came across a school still playing tapes (only last year 2017). Similarly when it comes to tracks sourced online we cannot predict the quality of these tracks, nor can we really insist that schools send the tracks to us for evaluation before they use them as again this gets unnecessarily complicated and time consuming.
We therefore just have to do our best with whatever is presented to us on the day. Luckily having been doing this in schools since 2004 there isn’t much which fazes us too much and usually theres a perfectly reasonable solution which can be found.