Using iTunes for audio and SFX playback at live events

Hi all,

iTunes is a great music player app for organising your music library and buying tunes from the iTunes store. However with a few very simple tweaks it can be a very effective live audio and SFX playback system. Read on for more details…

OK, strictly speaking this isn’t a live VIDEO tip, but it’s live MEDIA, so it’s close enough, and I think it’s pretty useful, so here goes…

There’s a good chance you already use  iTunes from Apple to organise your ripped CD and MP3 collection (all legally obtained, of course!), but here’s a way to make it useful as a live playback control app for SFX or audio stings or inserts during a live show.

I’m sure you have all been in a situation at a VLOBLIVE gig where you need to play in some clips of music, or sound effects etc. during a drama or live presentation. You can stick them on CD, but then it’s fiddly to cue, or you can put them on an MP3 player like an iPod, but then they are small and not always easy to randomly select tracks.

Here are some tips on how to use iTunes for live playback:

  1. If you have CDs you want to play, just import the tracks you need into iTunes. Remember that you can uncheck the little tick-boxes in the list of CD tracks BEFORE you import to exclude tracks you don’t need.
  2. I suggest setting the import format to ‘Apple Lossless’. It makes bigger files, but preserves all the audio quality of the original CD, which is important when you are playing it back through a monster PA system.
  3. You will want to make up a playlist of just the tracks you need for a particular event, in the right order. Remember that you can drag stuff around in a playlist to get it in the order you want.
  4. Most importantly you want to UNCHECK the little tick-boxes next to the tracks in the playlist. This ensures that at all times iTunes doesn’t try to play the playlist one after the other, but instead plays only each track when it is selected. This prevents the anxiety about it running on into the next track and is pretty much essential if you are playing in short spot FX sounds which may only be a few seconds long.
  5. When you are operating, use the keyboard, not the mouse – you can use the up and down arrow to move through the playlist and then use ‘enter’ to trigger the playback of the track. This is great since ‘enter’ is a nice BIG key and hard to miss, and you can re-trigger a sound just by hitting ‘enter’ again.

The only slight pain in this approach is that iTunes will not automatically advance the selection to the next track in the playlist, all set to play it when you hit ‘enter’, so you still have to manually move to the next item. I’m guessing you could probably implement that functionality using an applescript, but it’s a bit beyond me.

Other advantages of using iTunes in this way is that you have access to a library of pre and post- event music to play and can access specific tracks that a customer may request via the iTunes music store.

Finally, if you are worried about using the iTunes interface in a live context, remember that on recent versions of OS X (you ARE using a Mac for live events, aren’t you??) you can press the CTRL key and use the mouse scroll wheel (or two-finger scroll on the trackpad) to zoom in the whole UI to make it more readable from a distance.



One Response to Using iTunes for audio and SFX playback at live events

  1. Anthony says:

    I always wondered what those check boxes were for… Thanks for this post and keep up the good work!

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