The use of backing tracks—pre-recorded material or other selected sonic elements from a band’s record—played during an artists’ live performance is essentially a public secret. The world is familiar with Ashlee Simpson’s meltdown on Saturday Night Live, while the legendary unmasking of doomed ’80s pop-duo Milli Vanilli miming to tracks forced them to have their Grammy awards revoked. The use of pre-recorded material on a live stage isn’t really new. In the ’70s, nobody actually expected Queen to flawlessly recreate the operatic melodies of their classic, “Bohemian Rhapsody” onstage: The band walked off stage while roadies juiced up the fog machine twice as hard and ran a tape of the middle section, before the band ran back onstage just in time for the headbanging part. To this day, pop and disco divas have entire sets of backing tracks to sing along to in clubs, simply because there’s no budget to hire a backing band to play the songs in real time.
But what happens when necessity turns to outright cheating? Doesn’t anybody wonder how that one dude from Tear-Stained Hanky starts swinging his bass around at the show and yet the bass lines are still coming through the PA system? Professionals have theories about where the line is and when it gets crossed. The situation is so rampant, none of the working sound engineers we spoke to would go on record with their real names. The practice has become such an industry standard, these professionals would essentially be talking themselves out of future employment.
“There are a lot of reasons,” says Ron C. (not his real name) whose career has included live sound duties at a nightclub, as well as touring with many bands in the metal, punk and hardcore genres. “Up-and-coming bands are travelling in vans and they aren’t making a lot of money. They write things involving keyboards or other ambient sounds on their record, but they can’t afford or feed another musician on the road. A lot of times, bands overdo it in the studio: They write and record parts that can’t be recreated live within the confines of a four- or five-piece band. And fans want to hear that when they come to the show.”
“The metal world is very unforgiving,” says Jeff J. (not his real name), who has produced records, toured as a front-of-house engineer and created backing tracks for bands to take on tour. “[The fans] look at that as cheating onstage. But in the studio, people cheat all the time—programming drums and other parts in—but you have to pull it off live. The things metal fans look for when they go see a band are things like, ‘I wonder how they’re gonna play that’ or ‘I wonder if that guitar player is really that fast’ or ‘if the drummer can [do] it.’ There’s cheating involved in the studio in the first place, by virtue of the technology involved. Bands have to ask themselves what they are comfortable with the crowd hearing as a backing track. Because tracks do mess up, and you don’t want to be out there caught with your pants down. You should still be good enough to play your tunes.”
“There is a lot of that, ‘It doesn’t sound like the record, these guys suck’ mentality,” says C. “Bands release their first album, they learn all these studio tricks while recording their first album, and then they’re like, ‘Well, we want to incorporate that with our live sound because we can’t reproduce that live or we can’t play that tight.’ [Laughs.] There’s a lot of poor musicianship in a lot of bands playing today. I always figure they should spend more time learning to play their instruments and less time hooking up their backing tracks.”
Both engineers readily acknowledge there are cases where backing tracks are inevitable, especially with a lot of electronic bands where it’s simply impractical for a band to have eight keyboard players on tour. (“Usually those kinds of bands will play the core parts of the songs,” says C.) But if you’re going to see a metal band or a rock band known for their high musicianship, knowing they used pre-recorded backing tracks would be similar to discovering The Biggest Loser’s Jillian Michaels had a liposuction technician on speed dial. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve gone out with bands who were solid, but just had some weird noises running behind them,” says C. “I’ve never gone out on tour with an artist who mimed their set. I’ve seen that in my club gig, though: A band will have 10 channels of Pro Tools running to the front-of-house mixer, and the live sound engineer is mixing all those Pro Tools channels.”
So where is the line between experience-enhancement and outright cheating? Well, there are variables. An epic walk-on introduction track (say, the sounds of wind blowing, church bells tolling and a spooky cathedral organ), is an accepted form. But both engineers have seen situations where they can’t believe the band are getting paid to, uh, “play.”
“Seventy-five percent of the time, a hip-hop artist will rap to his CD,” says C. “It’s in the DJ’s setup, and you can hear the [performers] shout over it. To me, that’s like, wow. You didn’t even try to take the vocal tracks off the disc, you just left them on.”
“The first time I ran live sound for a hip-hop act, I was floored,” says J. “It’s the CD you’d buy at the store and they’d just talk on top of it. I have no respect at all for that. There are artists who play hip-hop live with a full band, but for the most part, most performers don’t want to work hard to practice with a bunch of guys, meet people and get it all together. They want to hit ‘play,’ get their buddies onstage and swing towels around with half-dead mikes. Dude, you didn’t even practice that. It’s like you heard it a bunch of times on the drive on the way [to the venue].
“There are YouTube videos of Mötley Crüe's 2012 European tour,” J. continues. “At almost every show, there are three or four track mess-ups, where they had to stop the song because they relied so much on that. If you rely on tracks that much, stay home—you’re done. There are plenty of old people who go up there and rock it. I used to love Mötley Crüe and I have no more respect for them. You can’t even play the songs you’ve been playing for 30 years? You’re taking up space.”
“Everybody knows what ‘studio magic’ is,” C. continues. “It’s essentially turd polish. “Everyone knows you go into the studio and things get altered. So when people go to see bands play live, they’re paying to see the show.”
Maybe that kind of listener-forgiving group-think is yet another element in the continuously changing perception of the value of music. Consider the number of people who download music illegally, settling for a substandard bit-rate rip of a song, simply because they got the material for free. On the convex, there are listeners who feel a band’s live performance should sound exactly like their album, and any deviation from said finished work is deemed substandard. Can the scale for enjoyment really shift that much? Acclaimed EDM artist deadmau5 has openly acknowledged how the majority of performers in his scene merely hit a spacebar and begin the pageantry of live-mixing pantomime. Is it honest? Is it fair? More importantly, does anybody really care? Your favorite band “shredded,” and your “talented” pop vocalist danced great onstage without getting winded. Are we reaching the point where the veracity of live performance will be measured by the quality of hair and makeup or an onstage fist-pump, like so much planking or Tebowing?
“It’s been going on for so long that people don’t question it anymore,” resigns C. “We know it happens. The person who can best fake it, wins. The way I see it, [backing tracks] are a tool. You can use the tool or you can abuse it.” He begins to laugh. “My dad once told me, ‘Don’t lie, but you don’t have to tell the whole truth!’”
J. is a lot more pragmatic. “If you’re cheating that much onstage, you’re probably cheating on a lot of things offstage, as well. But do I think anyone cares about bands using backing tracks? One of the dudes from Milli Vanilli killed himself over this thing. Granted, it was years later, but he was depressed and his life sucked after that. Ashlee Simpson does it and no one cares. She looks fine. That’s your proof, right there.”
Go over to the AP Poll and weigh in on where you stand on the use of backing tracks during live shows.