Saturday, February 15, 2020

Backing Tracks in a Live Setting

Lately I've been hearing all kinds of complaints about this band is using backing tracks and this performer is lip-synching with so many people having very strong opinions about both. In most cases people are very critical of artists who are even suspected of doing so with most of these artists being called a fraud in one way or another. So I thought I would take some time to reflect on this discussion and offer my own thoughts on the issue.  

Click Tracks 

I have performed with backing tracks several times in multiple bands. I will admit that there was never an effort in any of these groups to hide that fact from the audience as one band had one keyboard player but still had multiple keyboard parts while another project was made up of a singer/guitarist and myself on drums, which led to this person tracking the bass parts himself since he was unable to find a reliable bassist and didn't let that obstacle keep us from the stage.

Being the drummer of the group I had to play to a click track and while that is not something I prefer to do I accepted long ago that this is a reality in today's music world. The only time I grew somewhat frustrated with it was when we had a great gig with an energetic audience because one tends to feed off the energy of the crowd. This led many of the songs to feel really slow but of course that didn't stop the performance from being spot on as the click track kept my adrenaline from taking over, thus, making sure that I didn't choke the song by playing it too fast.

This of course allows us to take a detour in the discussion as there are also those who have opinions on the use of a click tracks. I have used a click track for years when I work out on my practice pad and when I work out certain rhythmic patterns on my electronic drums. As a drummer I always need to work on my consistency so I have no problem using a click track when I practice. However, this is not a performance setting so one is rarely criticized for using it while they practice but that doesn't mean that using it in a live setting makes a performance less musical.

Take for example when the band Queensryche had their drummer play to a click track in order to stay in line with the video presentation that was playing behind them during their musical performance. In this case I think most musical purists tolerate such a thing if they in fact found the video portion of the performance to be of great importance. Of course the audience loved it so when it comes to doing good business we can already see that Queensryche did the right thing.

Of course there are those who refuse to use click tracks in the studio and speak of how the classic rock artists never used them (um, sometimes the truth is that the in fact did...anyway) so why should we? Well, consider this for a moment. Do we honestly think that they would not have used this and/or any other forms of technology if it was in fact available to them? I have done several sessions where it saved us time and money when we were able to take a part of the songs that was in perfect time and copied and pasted it on a part that was not in perfect time. In each case the project didn't have a maximum budget so yes, we had to get things done with what little time and money we had. What is wrong with that?

Back to the live setting: when a band is in their heyday and their tour has a bigger budget to work with they may hire extra musicians to join them onstage.  Years later they work with what they have but that doesn't necessarily mean that their audience wants to hear a stripped down version of their songs so if they have to fill the sound with a little bit of technological assistance then so be it. Maybe they need to use prerecorded background vocals because they can't afford to travel with additional singers. If it's the lead singer and perhaps Father Time has already had an impact on their voice then maybe they need a bit of help when it comes to hitting certain notes. I know that seems like a mark against the singer but I would suggest we consider being a little less critical in this case.

There are other options as well. Sometimes the backing tracks are being played by a keyboardist offstage and while this is not a prerecorded track it is certainly not a group of live background singers. Is that also taboo to those with a purist attitude? If not, is it simply because it is not a prerecorded loop? If so then I guess the big problem is the click track and not the prerecorded track. If that's the case then this whole debate is absolutely ridiculous. 

It's NOT just singers who age and sometimes can't perform the way they did in the past. As a drummer I have seen many drummers who later in their careers lack the power and feel they had in their younger days. We also see guitarists who also seem to have lost a bit of their skill over the years and while many people will in fact comment on such things we don't see them under the same scrutiny as lead singers. Further, if musicians are so critical of performers being able to pull off certain things in their later years then perhaps they should think more about the future while are younger and smoking up a storm or knocking back drinks like there is no tomorrow. Obviously there are more than enough examples of performers who have more than demonstrated the harm that comes with such behavior.

There are many reasons why a band's sound changes and it's not just from how a musician sounds as they age. Aside from aging it can also be from changing members as each musician has their own unique sound and approach to playing both their instrument as well as a song. Either way, if you don't like the sound of the band you are free not to listen to them and in this case, not to attend their concerts.

Educational Setting 

Now I would like to take the discussion in a different direction and remind us that live settings are more than just concerts. Take for example a person who leads a Master Class. Personally, I don't care for such appearances when the person plays along to a backing track. I want to see them play something on their instrumental that we normally don't see them do with one of their bands. I once attended a Dave Weckl drum clinic where he played to several backing tracks from his solo CD so he could break down what he played for the audience. I also saw Peter Criss do something similar but he actually brought in his band at the time and they played live for us before he discussed his drumming concepts. Any thoughts on which presentation was more musical? Well, that depends on your view of using backing tracks in a live setting but I can say that I actually enjoyed both presentations.

Years ago I was totally against the use of drum machines, electronic drums and the use of backing tracks. To be honest I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was not familiar with how to work with such devices both in composition and live settings. I don't think it had anything to do with being afraid of the change that was occurring in the music world but there was certainly a level of ignorance on my part. (

Meanwhile, I am currently looking at some possible solo drumming appearances and in order to vary things up a bit I am considering playing along to some backing tracks. If that's the case then yes, I have come a long way in my opinion of playing to prerecorded tracks. In this case, it would allow me to work without having to rely on other artists to put a group together with me while also giving me a chance to present my own musical vision. How is that a bad thing?

The Only Guarantee is Change

Things change and it's not just the instrumentation onstage. It's also in the way music is sold, the way musicians network as well as how people learn from music teachers as we see more people making use of video when it comes to working with a teacher. I'm sure no one would deny how much better it could be if the student was present with their teacher but this is way things are done now. And, by doing things in this way music teachers can now expand their pool of students as they are no longer limited to the area in which they live. Of course sometimes the instruction is not that personal as a monthly payment leads to having access to an instructor's videos without the option of asking questions. While that also might not be the way a student wants to learn from a teacher it's still something that they wouldn't have without technology. This has also given students access to their favorite high profile artist as many of them are now offering instruction in this way.

We also buy instruments without trying them out first, which I think is totally crazy. I mean, how can I fall in love with the crack of snare drum without hitting it first? Music stores continue to stock things at a minimum so unless I go to an event like the NAMM Show and try the drum out first hand I have no idea what it sounds like. Of course, even if I buy it later from an online seller I am still not trying out the instrument before I buy it so I can argue that I'm still taking a chance with my purchase. Be it as it may, this is another change that isn't going anywhere and it isn't going to change any time soon.

So opinions vary on the issue and that's fine. All I sought to do with this blog is encourage people to expand the conversation a bit in terms of what a live setting actually is, which I think shows that we don't exactly hold all musicians to the same standard. I don't think a musical setting should dictate the purity of one's performance but that's just my opinion. I also want people to consider the fact that using a backing track is not in fact a crime. A purist attitude is fine but it doesn't make you a better musician or a better music fan. All that matters is that the music continues to move people and we know that a live performance is in fact a great way to experience the music.

Finally, the personal approach to music is in fact more than a live setting and while some people may not find Master Classes, networking and the purchase of instruments to be as important as a show I do think we underestimate their value in terms of the impact they have on others. Master Classes give us a very intimate look at an artist in a more instructional setting while also giving us a chance to ask questions ourselves rather than be at the mercy of a journalist who conducts and interview with the artist that we want to learn from. As far as musical instruction, many of us have had some amazing teachers and it was in fact that personal time we had with them that made all of the difference in the world. However, there was a time when a student may have to travel to see an instructor that did not live close by, which also meant that this personal time with them was more minimal than they would have preferred...until the internet came to be. Again, how is that a bad thing?

Musical genres change, the distribution of music has changed, the way we network for gigs has changed, the way we record music has changed and notice I didn't say whether any of these changes were good or bad. They are simply real and if this is the direction the business is going then so be it, we have to adapt to the situation or we're going to be sitting in our rehearsal rooms going nowhere. The same thing applies to how music is performed. Backing tracks are here and whether the purists like it or not they are now a part of the business of musical performance. So, if you want to keep working you may have to ask yourself how important your pride is when it comes to paying your bills. 

Carlos Solorzano

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