Cover Bands: Configuring a Band to Balance Size, Cost… and the Right Sound

Horn section of Ojos de Brujo - photo by Axelv

Horn section of Ojos de Brujo. Photo by Axelv

Q: My cover band is about to start learning new material of tunes released over the last couple of years. We’re a 5-piece (vocals, guitar, bass, drums, keys) and a lot of the songs have synth parts – more than one keyboard player can play – and brass parts that I feel are important to the sound of the song. How do we choose which parts to leave out, and who plays those extra synth parts?

A: That’s a tough question to answer with broad strokes. In general, I would think that you will have to make those decisions on a song by song basis.

Other than using pedals to affect your bass tone – like synth or octave – there’s not too much that you can do on your own. By adding a synth or octave sound, you can really thicken up he low end, but you can’t really abandon your bass lines too often. If you guys are serious and really want to bring it and perform these tunes as accurately as possible, you may want to consider the use of sequences. Creating sequences for each track with horns, percussion, strings and anything else you’d want in there goes a long way to providing a full stage sound, and it will certainly help you replicate the tunes you are covering.

The caveat is that the band will likely need to beef up the gear. At the very least, the drummer would have to use IEMs (in-ear monitors) so that he’s locked with the track. Ultimately, it works best if everyone is on in-ears. This likely means that you also have a dedicated monitor engineer starting and stopping the sequences as well helping to tweak everyone’s mix.

The sequences should also have separate tracks for individual parts of the sequence, including tracks that are only sent to the band containing a vocal cue with the song title and a click track, which not everybody needs to have in their ears.

Different bands use different rigs for running the sequences and sending them to the band (and front of house), but most bands I know seem to use Digital Performer on a laptop to run the sequences. That is then sent to a digital board to control the individual mixes, which are then sent to the various wireless transmitters for each person’s receiver and IEMs.

An alternative is to use a sampler to control pre-assigned horn hits and synth lines. This works well for a lot of people, but it’s little less reliable because each trigger relies on a well timed hit on the pad (usually by the drummer). One fumbled trigger hit, and you have an entire horn line which is out of sync with the rest of the band. However, the pre-assigned horn hit approach is a much more cost effective way to go. Without spending a ton of money and running a more complicated set-up or expanding the band, you are left with having to suss out what individual parts of the song can be left out without detracting from the overall musical statement. That can be tough and will likely take little trial and error. I suggest you record a few rehearsals and see what works and what doesn’t. Typically, any part that you find yourself singing is worth including. If a few people in the band can provide background vocals and the keyboardist can emulate any key synth lines or horn hits, you can usually get it to a pretty good place.

Sequences are the only way to really make it happen without compromise, unfortunately, other than hiring another keyboardist. We often take for granted how much life some simple background vocals and a little percussion add to a track. Listen to any Stones track carefully and you will likely recognize that the parts you are singing or remembering from the tune are technically background parts and layered strings or synth pads. This is why sequences are the go-to for many big stage bands out there, unless they have the dough to tour with a 12-piece band.

Sequences got a little bit of a bad rap with the uninitiated because they got lumped in with lip-syncing. That’s a case of something good being used for evil (kidding, but… not really). Used thoughtfully, sequences are the only way to really bring highly produced recorded music to the stage without hiring a tone of keyboardists, auxiliary percussionists and singers.

Admittedly, I have limited experience with this stuff. I’ve never played in a quality cover band and I’ve only toured with a few bands that use sequences. Much of my advice here is anecdotal.

Readers, let’s get the conversation rolling! What are your experiences with this realm of music making? Please tell us in the comments.

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  1. Mike

    I play bass in a 4-piece cover band – female lead vocals, guitar, bass, drums. Our singer does do some minimal keyboard parts. I really think you can do a good job on almost any song with your current instrumentation. In my opinion – the key to a successful cover band is VOCALS – you need a dynamic front person who can really sing and at least one other player who can sing harmony. In our band both the guitarist and I sing back up. I do use a synth pedal (EHX Bass Microsynth) on some songs, along with distortion and chorus. I sometimes play more than I usually would – to fill in extra space – but often I play LESS to keep the basic groove of the song intact. Our guitarist is very good at picking out the essential parts of a song (whether guitar, keys, horns, whatever) and coming with guitar patches to replicate the sound. You have to think outside the box sometimes too – like maybe have someone sing a critical synth line if it’s not possible to play it. Nothing wrong with using sequences, but I think there’s something to be said for musicians all playing live and interacting.

  2. Main theme and melody, then do your own thing, rearrange if needed ;) loopers are a great help sometimes too ! Also Rebecca Johnson is a good inspiration, she covers many Stevie Wonder tunes requiring synths and horns, only with her trio ! see set list

  3. I’ve got no aesthetic problem with “playing to tracks” – done it hundreds of times myself. The downside is, it makes the band sound like a human jukebox, rather than sounding like they’re having fun. It doesn’t allow for much variation or improvisation either – want to play another verse and chorus because the dancefloor is packed? Sorry, the track says no…

    The old school way to do it is to [lay live and rearrange the parts so it SOUNDS like a bigger band, which would require not playing “just like the record”. This approach is kind of becoming a lost art these days. Students often ask me about my RH technique, and I tell them I developed it by having to cop 16th note sequencer parts on dance tunes in the 80’s and 90’s, Before live sequencing was available or affordable. We did what we had to to make the music work.

  4. Bonevegas

    What about hiring horn players that can also double on keyboard?

  5. Geoff

    if you got a keyboard player don’t bother with sequences as far as I go. I play in a 3 piece and we use sequences a bit. I use an mp3 player with the music on the left and the click on the right. I give the drummer the click and follow him. It’s easy. If a drummer can’t play with a click he don’t play with me.

    You are a cover band do your best and don’t worry about being perfect, have fun and make money. Sing good, look good, don’t get drunk,and everyone watch their weight.