Key Changes: 'We Can’t Give the Industry Enough Playback Engineers'

As live shows increasingly incorporate a synchronized audio-visual experience, playback engineers have stepped into the spotlight.

June 5, 2023

The dry ice Yusuke Sato B.M. ’15 ordered never arrived, so he improvised. Using heat reflective blankets and some broken lantern sticks, he created a shelter of sorts to block the sun from the two laptops—one primary, one backup—he was running to power playback for JP Saxe at the Rise Festival, a two-day concert in the Mojave Desert.

The 2021 event was Sato’s first major role as a playback engineer, and Saxe was a big draw, with two scheduled performances (Saxe’s 2019 hit song “If the World Was Ending” had taken on a whole new meaning during the global covid pandemic).-->-->

Sato wasn’t taking any chances.

“I’ve played festivals in hot places,” Sato explains. “I’ve had laptops go down.”

But a dead laptop isn’t an option for a playback engineer, who controls everything from the clicks and cues musicians hear in their earpieces and the prerecorded studio sounds that play behind them to the synchronization of lights and other special effects.

“In my opinion, playback is the most stressful job in live entertainment,” says Sato, who has also worked as a session guitarist and in other live sound engineering roles. “If my laptop dies, there is no show.”

Yusuke Sato

Yusuke Sato

Image by George Lindsay

Increasingly, if there’s no playback engineer, there is no show. Today, audiences expect live performances to sound like the studio-produced songs on their Spotify playlists. Because playback engineers—and the ever-changing technology they use—make that possible, the role is in high demand.

“We can’t give the industry enough playback engineers,” says Michael Bierylo, chair of Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design Department.

Loudon Stearns, director of Berklee NYC’s Live Music Production and Design program, which launched in 2021, agrees, adding that playback engineers are integral to the success of live shows.

“Today, the language of the studio is really the language of the song,” Stearns says. “The effects that are used, the sounds that are used are just as important as the lyrics. Once you get to that point, it’s incumbent on us to present that in a live event.”

Spacebar and Beyond

There are many sound engineering roles in music. At a live event, for instance, monitor engineers are responsible for getting the right sound to the right musicians, and front-of-house engineers mix the sounds together for the audience. Playback engineers control all of that sound, and much, much more.

Loudon Stearns

Loudon Stearns

“It’s the brains of the show,” says Jaymz Hardy-Martin III ’00, who has done playback for Mary J. Blige and Ne-Yo, among others. “It’s the membrane. The lighting people are depending on me, the video people are depending on me, and, of course, the band is depending on me. That’s job security.”

Bierylo says the disconnect between studio sound and concert sound became noticeable as far back as the 1960s. But, until the advent of personal computers, playback wasn’t really possible on a broader scale. In the 1990s, Bierylo lugged around a Macintosh SE/30, piping in electronic sounds as part of performances with a band called Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.

Hardy-Martin remembers burning tracks to CDs that could then be loaded onto hard disk recorders; any edits to a show required that the whole process be started over.

“It was a superlong process,” he says. “Between shows, I got no sleep.”

Technology has driven most of the changes in playback engineering. The rise of digital audio workstations (DAWs) changed the field dramatically. Playback engineers can now use DAWs to curate entire events from start to finish on rigs they often customize for their own—and their musicians’—comfort. One of the most popular DAWs is Ableton Live, first released in 2001. The software has several versions and is now on its 11th edition.

“Ableton Live was a game-changer,” Bierylo says.

Jaymz Hardy-Marty

Jaymz Hardy-Marty

Early playback work—and even some playback today for musicians who are just starting out or have a straightforward live show—was pretty simple, usually handled by a drummer or keyboard player.

“It used to be you were just the spacebar guy,” says Hardy-Martin with a laugh. “You hit the spacebar to start the track and to stop the track.”

But modern DAWs allow playback engineers to become musicians in the show. They can jump from place to place in a set at an artist’s request and make last-minute changes to arrangements. Daniel "Vago" Galindo B.M. '14 once quickly recorded the name of a couple who was getting engaged and dropped the audio file into the track for the lead singer, who was then able to announce the happy occasion.

“That was very stressful,” he remembers.

Sato, who has been touring with corook (Corinne Savage B.M. '17) since last year, says playback engineers help translate ideas into reality.

“I love being able to take an artist’s vision and not just create it but blow them away,” he says. “There’s no limit.”

Expanding Opportunities

Sato, who had majored in professional music, took a Berklee Online course on synchronization and began teaching himself Ableton Live during the pandemic because he thought playback engineering skills would make him a better music director. Today, he does playback work on his own and for Electronic Creatives, a company founded by Laura Escudé, a prominent figure in playback engineering.

The idea of playback engineering as a skill that can be cultivated and taught is a relatively new one, Bierylo says, adding that Escudé has been at the leading edge of that trend.

“She trains people to go out and do these shows,” he says. “She has a whole educational program.”


“I’m already booked for the summer, and I have three tour offers for the fall,” he says. “Learning playback is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, 100 percent.”

— Yusuke Sato

For years, students at Berklee have had the opportunity to learn the basics of playback engineering, including in a course dedicated specifically to the role and in preparation for Berklee’s major live events such as commencement, Singers Showcase, and Great American Songbook.

But students were looking for more, says Stearns. That’s why he helped design Berklee NYC’s one-year Master of Arts in Creative Media and Technology program, which offers three specializations. The one Stearns directs is called Live Music Production and Design.

Daniel Galindo

Daniel "Vago" Galindo

“We want to teach the way shows are actually being put on now,” Stearns says. “And the way shows work now is you make your music in a studio, you use all the tricks you want, and then you hire a playback engineer to figure out a way to replicate that on stage. We created this program with the assumption that there will always be a computer at live events. That’s the paradigm.”

The Live Music Production and Design program brings together about 20 students who rotate through all the roles required to put on a live show, including playback engineers, front-of-house and monitor engineers, lighting designers, camera operators, technical directors, video operators, and content creators, among others. Every Friday, the cohort puts on a live show together.

Julianne Merrill M.A. '22, a pianist and music director who has worked mostly in musical theater, was part of the first group of students in the Berklee NYC program. With her background in keyboard programming—she worked on the Tony Award–winning musical A Strange Loop while she was in the Berklee NYC program—she found playback engineering to be a good match for her skills and talents.

“My interest has always been the integration of technology and music in the live experience,” she says. “My creativity comes from problem-solving and execution.”

After graduating from the program, Merrill, who works under the professional name PatchMaster Productions, was hired to do playback for the Broadway musical Some Like It Hot. In that role, she used a proprietary software she and Stearns developed that makes it easier for conductors to control playback tracks from the pit of a Broadway show. Merrill is also piloting the software, called Go Button, as the playback engineer for a new off-Broadway show called White Girl in Danger.

Because musical theater prioritizes the role of live musicians, playback engineers on Broadway don’t carry the weight of an entire show on their shoulders: Unlike Sato in the desert with JP Saxe, if Merrill’s computers go down, the show will go on.

Julianne Merrill

Julianne Merrill

Some Like It Hot has a 17-person orchestra,” she explains. “If Ableton goes down, it’s not like those 17 other people aren’t going to be able to play. But playback does make the show that much more sparkly.”

Meeting the Moment

Playback engineering—like many roles in a live performance—requires a certain temperament and an ability to perform under pressure.

“It’s nerve-racking,” Stearns says with a laugh. “I hate it.”

Others thrive in that environment.

“Every single show, no matter how small or big, I get super anxious and nervous, but I love it; I can’t wait,” says Galindo, who recently wrapped a 10-day residency with Elvis Costello and is creating playback tracks for Juanes to use on tour with songs from his album Origen.

“It’s a lot of stress,” Merrill agrees. But, she adds, the result—a seamless performance— is worth it.

”The biggest compliment an audience member could give me would be that they have no idea which timpani are mine and which are real, which harp is mine, and which is real,” she says.

For her contracts with Some Like It Hot and White Girl in Danger, Merrill negotiated for— and received—the official title of playback engineer (past playback personnel on Broadway have been listed as “Ableton programmers”). This was strategic on her part—an effort to stake her name to a skill set that is now ubiquitous, not just in concerts but in live events of any kind.

“All the genres are melding,” Merrill says. “More stadium-style shows are coming to Broadway; more Broadway shows are being filmed live for television; movies are being made of Broadway shows. It made sense to use the same nomenclature so the role would be a constant.”

On the concert side as well, opportunities abound. Since Sato added playback engineering to his resume, he’s been busier than ever. When he was working primarily as a session guitarist, “I was not that booked,” he says.

Last year, he spent all but four weeks on tour, mostly as a playback engineer. In addition to corook and JP Saxe, he’s worked with Oh Wonder and Walk the Moon.

“I’m already booked for the summer, and I have three tour offers for the fall,” he says. “Learning playback is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, 100 percent.”

This article appeared in the spring/summer 2023 issue of Berklee Today

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