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