Performing live to backing tracks
Published in PM April 2008
Technique : Stagecraft
For soloists, pre-recorded backing tracks can seem like the perfect way to expand and enhance a live performance, but it's important to know how to use them effectively.
If you have — or have ever had — a band, you will know just how difficult it is to keep a band together. And you will know how headstrong and unruly band members can be sometimes; they just keep on wanting to go their way, which is a different way to yours. Well, that's the price you have to pay for being an unrecognized genius. You know in your heart that you could be successful, if only you had a reliable band of musicians backing you up.
Or, you might be a member of a band that is directed by someone else, and he's a bit of a tosser. You're only playing in the band for the chance to gig, and when you can get around to it you'll gather together a band of your own. These people will appreciate your talent and leadership skills. One day.
Or, it could be you don't like sharing the gig money among four, five or six people — you want to keep it all for yourself!
So, there we have three very good reasons for not having a band. There are probably many more. But what can you do if you don't have a band? How can you play live effectively? Well, one answer is to learn to play the keyboard or acoustic guitar. Both serve very well as accompanying instruments, so you can be your own singer and band, all in one handy package. I play like that myself with just an acoustic guitar on the rare occasions that I can fool a promoter into believing I'm better than I actually am. But raw keyboard or acoustic guitar can be rather plain and audiences mostly want more exciting sounds. So what is the solution to this problem?
The answer, of course, is to play to a pre-recorded backing track. You can have any combination of instrumental sounds you want on your backing track and you simply sing over the top, and perhaps play an instrument too — any instrument, since it doesn't have to supply a complete arrangement. Yes, this can work, and audiences can be amazingly accepting of it. But as with anything, there are good ways and bad ways to do it. There are ways that will intrude into your act, and there are ways where it can actually become part of your act. First, let's explore the kinds of scenarios where performing to a backing track can be musically and stylistically acceptable.
When to use pre-recorded backing
I probably wouldn't have thought of writing about backing tracks had I not ventured into my local social club a few weeks ago. It's the kind of club that once would have been called a 'working men's club'. They had a special offer on membership, the only pub in the village was closed for decorating, and they had a 'turn' on — The Blues Brother (yes, that is singular) — otherwise I might have missed a very interesting experience. Oh yes, and the beer was cheap too.
The Blues Brother, as you might guess, was a clone of Jake or Elwood (I'm not sure which one) from the movie The Blues Brothers. He had the suit, the hat, the shades, the moves, a saxophone and backing tracks on CD! He was actually very good, although I have to comment that the PA seared my ears to charred crisps. In a future article I'll investigate ways of self-operating a PA without decimating your audience!
During the interval, the club's management came over to sort out my membership, which was a good opportunity for a chat about entertainment in this kind of venue. I'm no stranger to playing in working men's clubs from days of old, but things have moved on and there is now a lot more money on the table. Apparently, a medium-grade Elvis, without a band, can command £600 a night, as long as he can tell a few jokes between 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Are you Lonesome Tonight?' This, to me, is saying that performing to a backing track is absolutely legitimate in this context. There wouldn't be that kind of money available otherwise.
Moving to the other end of the scale of live performance, you could easily find yourself at an arena or stadium gig and a large proportion of the instrumental backing is pre-recorded. The cynical among you might wonder whether some of the vocals are pre-recorded too, but let's not dwell on that. The reason for playing to pre-recorded backings here is clearly not commercial. There are musicians on stage getting paid anyway. The plain fact is that studio recordings can be so complex and so precise that they are virtually impossible to recreate accurately on stage. While it would easily be possible for top-level professionals to perform a live backing that was just as good, the audience often expects to hear exactly what they heard on their CD or download. So pre-recorded backings are the only option.
Pre-recorded backing tracks are used in other high-level professional contexts too, such as television. TV is expensive to produce and having a singer perform to a pre-recorded backing, even if there are musicians on camera, can be an economic necessity.
There is, of course, an in-between level, and this is where you are performing with your band, but the arrangements call for elements that are not practical to perform live — loops, for example. So the pre-recorded backing track doesn't replace the band; it augments it.
I could go through other examples of the use of pre-recorded backing tracks, but my conclusion is that they are fully legitimate, as long as they are not used to fool the audience. Often, the audience is complicit anyway, and — as in the case of TV — understands the deal and doesn't really care too much. So, if we are going to use backing tracks, let's make them good ones!
Are we still taped?
Tape — whether cassette or reel-to-reel, analogue or digital — was supposedly wiped from the face of the earth in the most recent extinction-level event. It does still exist in the fossil record and people do still talk about 'taping' a programme on their Sky Digibox. The good old compact cassette, however, was for a long time the provider of choice of the pre-recorded backing track. The coming of DAT (Digital Audio Tape, in tiny cassettes, if you remember) removed all the fuzziness and speed instability and was a great medium for backing track playback.
Tape still has two great advantages that are difficult to ignore in a discussion of pre-recorded backing tracks. The first is that tape is easy to operate. There is a play button and a stop button. Press play to start, press stop to stop. Yes, you can do that with Minidisc, solid-state recorders and digital audio workstations, but they have a lot of other complications besides. Tape is tape and everyone understands it. The other considerable advantage of tape is that when you stop it the tape stays put! All you have to do to pick up from where you left off is press play again. Disc-based systems are inclined to wander back to the start, or to some neutral 'nowhere' position, which makes errors more likely. Of course, tape isn't foolproof
There I was, some years ago, operating a tape playback system in London's Purcell Room — a small, yet prestigious concert hall on the South Bank of the River Thames. Except, it wasn't my playback system. I had been hired to record a concert of modern classical music and, "Oh, would you mind doing a bit of tape playback?" somehow crept in. I wasn't particularly daunted that the tape medium was actually VHS video tape, and there was a magic box attached that allowed the video tape to store and play back digital audio. I had previously used a similar Betamax system, so I didn't expect anything to go wrong.
Since I had unwittingly got myself into tape playback, I had unwittingly got myself into operating the PA for it too. So I was stationed at the back of the auditorium, rather than the green room, which was my usual recording control room location. The music — all acoustic, apart from the playback segment — was complex, and although I can follow a normal musical score with not too much difficulty, this one was like the dotty scrawl of a drunken chimpanzee. So I arranged with the conductor that he would give a special over-the-head wave of his baton and I would press the play button. The music started. I waited, with my finger hovering. The conductor gave the cue. I pressed the play button and nothing! No sound. The conductor vigorously waved his baton again, but still nothing happened. So he had to stop the performance. He turned round and glared at me with that withering look that conductors give to miscreant performers. The whole of the audience looked round and glared at me too.
Fortunately, I had an unusual rush of quick thinking and I noticed that the digital audio processor attached to the video recorder had a mute button — why, I can't possibly imagine. My mixing console had slid forward a fraction and pressed it. I un-muted the system, re-cued the tape and signalled OK to the conductor. Everything worked fine this time, but I have never felt such embarrassment either before or since that event, so I count myself as very well qualified to comment on how bad things can get when performing with pre-recorded backing tracks.
Tape has an elegant simplicity that I need to mention before we move on to how backing tracks can be operated reliably. That said, we can move on...
Pressing the button
There are three candidates for 'hot finger' duty. If you are a lone performer with your own PA, then I'll leave you to guess! If you are a band that needs to replay elements of the arrangement, then it makes sense for the keyboard player to operate the playback system. Why? Because keyboard players are used to dealing with technical gubbins and one more piece of equipment won't add much of a burden. Anyway, his or her keyboard might provide a nice flat surface to gaffer-tape a DAT, Minidisc or other device to. (No, don't just stand it there, it will only end up on the floor!) The other option is to delegate operation of the playback system to the front-of-house or monitor engineer.
Now, I've worked with engineers who were fully competent in the operation of playback systems (unlike myself, apparently), and I haven't had any problems in that respect. However, clearly there is much that can go wrong. One decision you will have to make very early on is whether your backing material will play continuously, or whether it will stop and start for each song. This depends largely on your style of music. If you are the next Radiohead, then you can prepare your entire first set as one long backing track, then all that has to be done is to press the play button once. For 'arty' music (let's talk plainly!), you don't have to work the audience. The audience wants and expects to be in thrall to the music, and you don't need to stop and tell any jokes. Other styles of entertainment, however, absolutely demand interaction with the audience, so there is no alternative than to stop and start the backing. If the engineer is doing this, then you need to arrange a very clear signalling system, and the engineer has to understand that he or she needs to pay attention to the stage, which some — it has to be said — do not do enough.
If the backing has to be stopped and started, and if it is on tape, then the tape will always stay put when stopped. If it is on a disc or solid-state medium, however, it may be that the engineer has to actively select the correct track. They need a set list, therefore, and a clear understanding of what consequences will follow the wrong track being played! You might of course wonder that compared to performing on stage, stopping and starting the backing track really isn't all that difficult. One problem that engineers have, however, is that they often don't have enough to do to keep their minds fully on the job. I've come close to making slips myself for exactly that reason. For ease of mind, it is often better to have control of playback on stage.
Also for ease of mind, I will just take a moment to mention foldback. Hearing your backing track clearly in the foldback is absolutely essential and worth taking some care over. I could tell you a near-disaster that happened to me once when the foldback dropped out, but the front-of-house kept on playing, almost inaudibly to me. I'll promise you the full story for another day, but clearly you can see the potential for performer embarrassment and someone getting a damn good kick up the backside.
I have mentioned some options for playback devices already. In the old days, there was cassette tape, then DAT and Minidisc, then computers, CD players and now solid-state memory playback devices, otherwise commonly known as MP3 players. You could ask why I have listed CD players after computers, when clearly they were available long before computers could handle audio. The reason for this is that you have to make the CD yourself, and for that you need a computer! Or a standalone CD recorder, but they became available around the same time as computer-based CD writers and software.
There is one more playback device you could use: you could play back MIDI files into a General MIDI sound module. Indeed, there is a thriving industry producing MIDI backing files for exactly this purpose. You can buy MIDI backing tracks for just about every popular song under the sun. The advantage of a MIDI track compared to an audio recording is that you can easily change the key to suit your voice. However, the output of a General MIDI sound module often sounds rather mechanical compared to a well-made audio recording.
It is worth mentioning, simply because I am often asked, that it is sometimes possible to remove the vocals from a commercially released recording. If you are performing in a venue that is licensed for music, then I can't see any legal problem in this — but hey, I'm not a lawyer, so judge this for yourself. The trick is to combine the two channels of a stereo recording, but before you do that flip the phase of one channel. Any sound source that is central in the mix will disappear. This can have unfortunate sonic side effects, but it can be worth a try if this is what you want to do.
Going back to The Blues Brother, who performed so well at my local social club, he used a CD to source his backing tracks. And I can tell you that not only was he a virtuoso on the saxophone, but he was a virtuoso performer on the CD buttons too. It helps, of course, if you have a big-buttoned CD player like the Numark CDN25. If I were going to use a CD backing, then I would regard a unit such as this as an essential. The Blues Brother, however, had nimble fingers and indeed could take out one CD from his dual player, replace it with another and cue it up, while still performing the saxophone break from the previous song. Extraordinary!
It would be ever so tempting, wouldn't it, to play back from a laptop computer? There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't just use your regular digital audio workstation software for playback, as long as you are confident enough that it won't crash or give you a 'can't get data fast enough' message for no good reason, as they sometimes do. You could consider using DJ software, although they are often complicated, with too many features that you wouldn't need in this context. You might even think about playing your backing tracks from iTunes. There is a trick though. iTunes by default will play all the tracks in your playlist without stopping. If your set runs continuously, that's fine. But you might need to stop between songs and engage with the audience. In this case, you will notice that there is a little check box to the left of each track name. If you uncheck them all, then only the selected track will play.
One thing I would strongly recommend to any lone performer is that the playback device is easily accessible, in a manner that doesn't get in the way of your contact with the audience. Crouching down to operate a computer with a squinty display, like iTunes, is not going to help your rapport.
Which brings me to a scenario that I haven't had the opportunity to test myself yet. When I perform on stage, I like to be able to change the running order according to how I sense the mood of the audience. What could be better, then, than to attach an iPod or other easy-to-use MP3 player to a mic stand and have it right in front of me? I could operate it without turning away from the audience, and indeed the audience would see exactly what I am doing, which makes the whole process of using a pre-recorded backing track more honest. I do foresee the problem that the MP3 player might be of the kind that doesn't have the ability to stop at the end of tracks. That could be solved by inserting a period of silence at the end of each track, to give ample opportunity to stop it manually.
In conclusion, there are many ways to work with pre-recorded backing tracks. But in my opinion, the one most important point is that it should not merely be a replacement for a missing band. The pre-recorded backing track should be presented in an honest fashion to the audience, so that they know their experience is being enhanced, rather than being fobbed off with something second best. And when you, as a performer or band, fully incorporate the pre-recorded backing track into the artistry of the performance, you will have the confidence that your show will blow the audience away. And that no one is going to push the wrong button! 0
Published in PM April 2008
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