Backing Tracks: Not Just for Milli Vanilli Anymore?

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Not long ago, performing to pre-recorded backing tracks was considered cheating—and if taken to Milli Vanilli extremes, still should be. If you’re playing contemporary hits in a cover band, though, the dense vocal layering and precise, repetitive sequecned elements of many of today’s productions can make some use of backing tracks necessary if a live show is expected to “sound like the record” and doesn’t have the budget for a dozen or more musicians. In this first installment of a new series about backing tracks, we’ll examine the basic elements involved in their creation and use.

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Why Use Tracks?

Percussion loops are excellent backing track candidates. Not only are options for playing them live (e.g., on a keyboard or drum pad) prone to timing errors, they also tend to be a waste of your musical “body bandwidth,” often forcing you to hold down a single key for one or two bars repeatedly throughout the song.

Precisely sequenced bass lines or sixteenth-note synth ostinati can likewise be tedious to play throughout an entire song. In any case, it’s a good idea to put the more repetitive parts on backing tracks and reserve the more fun-to-play parts for the live musicians.

The most common (and sometimes frowned upon) use of backing tracks is for background vocals, and though they can add a great deal to your show, discretion is certainly advised. The extent to which you track vocals should vary according to the number and abilities of your band’s vocalists, but even in a band of strong singers, I often quadruple-track each note to create big harmonized sections. The ideal situation is to have each harmony represented in the backing track and sung live. The combination works because audience members hear the sheen of stacked studio harmony plus the emotion of real vocals.

Depending on how track playback is implemented, it’s likely you’ll be locked into exact tempos and arrangements. While not as big a deal if songs are always played exactly the same way, things get dicey if the band is inclined to stretch out arrangements—or if band members aren’t as rehearsed as they should be. That said, there are ways to modify arrangements on the fly, such as Ableton Live’s time-locked clip playback and Apple MainStage’s Playback plug-in (shown above), which features realtime tweakable loop and repeat functions.

Another bone of contention can be other band members’ attitudes toward backing tracks. I’ve played with drummers who swear it compromises their groove, but to be blunt, this usually means they can’t play to a click—something the key timekeeper in the band should certainly be able to do, since a click is really just a metronome.

Finally, backing tracks can open up a perceptual can of worms as to the integrity and abilities of the players. Opinions vary, but I stick to the idea that tracks should be used to enhance a show’s soundscape, not as a substitute for musicianship.

Ridin’ On the Grooveline

The rigidity of fixed tempos can be ameliorated somewhat by programming tempo changes in tracks as a live drummer might play them. You might begin a song at a particular tempo, click it up a few bpm for the verse, then speed up a bit more for the big chorus, bring it down for a second verse, and so on. Another simple way to make tracked material sound more “live” is through clever use of quantization—or lack thereof. Though it’s tempting to just quantize to sixteenth-notes and be done with it, it pays to consider not only the musical genre, but your drummer’s general groove tendencies. If they aren’t obvious, you can record the drummer playing to click and see where kicks and snares fall in relation to the grid. If you want to go all out, most DAWs allow creation of custom groove templates—MOTU Digital Performer was one of the first.

Who Hits Play?
Another important consideration is who will physically run the device playing back tracks. In my experience, this is always the drummer, for a couple of reasons. Bands are accustomed to the drummer being the one who counts off tunes, so this maintains the standard. Also, since most songs immediately begin with drums, if another band member presses “go” and the drummer isn’t ready, you’ve got a train wreck.

In future installments we’ll cover more specifics including pros and cons of different playback platforms, live mixing and monitoring, how to create great sounding tracks, and more.