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iPad Air



Most performers who used backing tracks on devices like iPods or CD players had to put long segments of silence at the end of each track, to give them time to get to the player and press the "OFF" button before the next track started and then try and cue up the next track. If they didn't get to do this, the next track of their shows would play and they would look foolish. I found this sort of situation to be intolerable, so I found a better solution at the time.

For decades, I used a professional rackmounted Sony MiniDisk recorder for playing the backing tracks for my concert and cabaret shows. The reason for this was that it was the only device, short of a laptop computer with the right software, that had the Autocue and Autostop feature that would play the selected backing track, then stop and cue up the next track. For me, it was the only solution that achieved what I needed.

But MiniDisks had their own problems that made them rather unreliable. They were small floppy disks that used a combination of mechanical and digital technology and because they rotated within their little cases, they were subject to damage and failure, especially when dropped. When this happened in the middle of a show when switching MiniDisks, it was a catastrophe. The big problem was that once the actual MiniDisk was damaged, nothing could be done with it and the only way to rescue such a situation was to carry duplicate disks. I personally didn't have any problems with my MiniDisks, but I was always on edge when performing a concert using this technology.

For me, being a computer and IT guy, using a laptop computer for backing tracks was rather risky too. Imagine being on stage performing a self-contained concert show and your laptop computer with your backing tracks suddenly freezes, or gets the dreaded Blue Screen Of Death? You can't exactly tell the audience, "Folks, sit back and talk amongst yourselves for the next few minutes while I re-boot my computer" and then get on with the show after such a break. For me, this was completely unacceptable and dangerous.


When Apple released the iPad tablet, most people, including myself, wondered whether such a device would be useful. Most tech-heads already had smartphones that were easy to carry in a shirt pocket and most men didn't want to cart around a man-bag with an iPad tablet wherever they went. But the genius of Apple founder Steve Jobs came to the fore and the iPad took off like a rocket, spawning many other tablets on the market operating under the Android operating system. However, unlike Android and its problems with malware and flaky applications, the iPad was literally bulletproof because of Apple's very closely guarded environment that did not allow applications with malware to be loaded from the iTunes store.

So the iPad's screen size, portability and the fact that it was not subject to freezing or requiring re-booting made this device an ideal device to replace all those other backing track machines, such as CD players, iPods, MiniDisk players and literally anything else. But the iPad had to have the right application for this role. The good news was that Ryan Eibling of Aisle4 came up with the perfect application to do this.

Screenshot of the BackTrax application

Entertainers who perform to backing tracks need simplicity and ease of use. Concert performers need to be able to load a set of their backing tracks in the order that they will be performed and be able to be played individually and stop at the end of each song and cue up the next track. If a track needs to be skipped, this should be easy to do, because performers operating their own backing track player don't have time between songs to fiddle with lots of buttons to achieve this. The BackTrax application does all of this with great ease and a lot more and it is all done on one screen, so there is no flipping from screen to screen, which can be a real nuisance in the live performance environment.

You can see from the screenshot what it's all about. On the left is the set-list of backing tracks. These can be loaded in bulk from an iTunes playlist or loaded individually. They can be sorted into the required performance order and locked in that order unless they need to be re-sorted, so that there will not be any accidents with this during a performance. On the right side are lyrics for vocals. These are embedded into the MP3 backing tracks via iTunes and it's really easy to do. The lyrics can remain stationary on the screen, or can scroll as the song is playing. To have this feature is a real bonus, because a performer who may forget the lyrics - and who hasn't done this in a show - can glance at the iPad and see the words of the song.

On the top are various menu buttons for loading songs and playlists, editing and saving sets, clearing a set-list on the fly and preference settings. Once set-lists are loaded, sorted and saved, which is a very easy process, they can be loaded with the touch of a finger from the list of sets. A set already on the screen does not need to be cleared, as a new set can immediately be loaded on top, which saves a lot of button pushing.

The Settings controls are very simple to use. There are only five main options:

Below those buttons are two panes with options to select the set-list font size and the lyrics font size. So depending on how you like to perform, you can easily select your own parameters as to how BackTrax looks and operates for you.

Along the bottom of the screen are three controls - Stop/Start, Skip to the next track and a volume slider. That's about as simple to use as any performer could desire. Touching the Start button starts the first song in the set, however if a particular track down the set-list needs to be played, a touch of a finger will cue it up instantly, even while the current track is playing and touching the Start button will immediately play it, stop at the end and cue the next track on the set-list. If the volume of the track is too high or low, a touch of a finger can adjust it with the volume slider. Looking at all the tracks on the set-list is just a matter of swiping a finger up and down it.

One of the most useful and important features of BackTrax is that it can be shared for free on up to five Apple devices. To have a backup in case of disaster should be the mantra of every performer and this is easily achieved with BackTrax. If the performer also has an iPhone, BackTrax can be loaded onto it and the same set-lists and settings saved. So in the very rare times that the iPad may malfunction, the performer only needs to pull the audio lead out of the iPad and plug it into the iPhone and fire up BackTrax and continue with the show within a few seconds. A smart performer can have his iPhone plugged into another mixer channel and have it ready to take over if the iPad somehow malfunctions. This would be a rarity, but this sort of insurance is priceless when performing a concert.


These days there are not many options for using backing tracks that don't involve unreliable mechanical devices such as CD players, MiniDisk players or laptop computers that may suffer from freezes. However, as far as I am concerned, BackTrax on iPad is the only way to go. It's light and portable, reliable, easy to use, does everything a performer doing live shows could ever need and is ridiculously cheap for what it offers. I paid $6.49 for BackTrax and have loaded it on my iPad, my iPhone and my ballet teacher friend's iPhone so that she can use it to play music for her ballet lessons - and I still have the option to install it for free on two more Apple devices.

Solo and duo performers also need a device to play background music between sets. I found two ways of doing this, either using Backtrax or the iPad's music player. I found that if I used BackTrax for this, I would load a background music playlist and go to Settings and hit the Continuous Play slider and have to remember to turn it off again when I was about to start performing. An easier way is to toggle out of BackTrax to the iPad's music player and just select the Shuffle option and hit Play. A double-click of the iPad's Home button does this. I have over 1000 good tracks on my iPad, so there's a terrific range of background music to use. However, I could also set up various background music playlists and use them if I wanted to select particular numbers for certain audience demographics. It's all too easy.


After getting rid of my MiniDisk player and using my iPad Air with BackTrax on it, I'll never look back. It's amazingly reliable and it does everything that I need in terms of both a backing track player for concert shows, solo and duo gigs and also for background music. For the times that I use a drum machine only, I have my lyrics songbook on the iPad, so I don't even need a printed lyrics book. This one device has eliminated me having to carry a heavy MiniDisk backing track player, a smaller MiniDisk background music player and my lyrics songbook. The iPad is so light and small that it is no bother to carry anywhere.

One last piece of good advice though - if you intend on buying an iPad, I suggest you get the full-size version and not the iPad Mini, simply because the bigger screen is easier to see when performing and reading lyrics from it. But even the full-size iPad Air is very compact and unobtrusive. I strongly suggest that you get at least the 64MB version, as it gives you so much more scope to store more tracks, as well as all other applications that you wish to use on the iPad. There's no such thing as too much memory.