Live Band or Backing Tracks?

Are backing tracks better than live music?

I personally feel that you can’t beat a good live band… note the word ‘good’, and there lies the problem. Working with other musicians can be great and for experienced performers has to be preferable to using backing tracks. The advantages include the ability to improvise and manipulate the songs into your own format or key to provide a fresh, interesting and unique sound. The energy provided by a band of musicians also helps to enhance the performance and can motivate the singer to perform at a higher standard, but this depends entirely on the ability and experience of the individuals involved.

An inexperienced and un-rehearsed band can destroy the singers performance and confidence by playing out of time, tune and not communicating with each other on stage. Volumes can become an issue for singers who work with a band, especially those with loud drummers or guitarists who like to be heard above everyone else. Even one musician who plays magnificently but forgets to ‘listen’ and ‘watch’ the singer can cause problems for a newcomer who may be unable to anticipate the music or lack sufficient knowledge on how to attract their accompanists attention. Whilst these problems can be solved over time with practice and experience, it may cause loss of confidence and performance anxiety in the amateur singer.

Practising and performing with both good and bad musicians will enable the singer to become more experienced at recognising and solving problems, improvising and coping with mistakes, but it helps if these issues can be addressed before launching yourself onto the public at large. The best way to approach this is to perform at open mic & jam nights which provide newcomers and professionals alike with the ability to hone their performance and work with musicians of varying standards. Vocalists who are part of a band need to get as much practice with the other members as possible, this may take the form of a full band rehearsal or could be with just one or two other members.

Backing tracks may well be the answer for many singers and certainly have their advantages and disadvantages. The amateur singer may find using backing tracks provides them with stability. Practising to the track in rehearsals allows the singer to learn the song and perform live with the knowledge that there will be no suprises in the arrangement or intro, although there is always the possibility that the disc may jump or the player cease working!

Most backing tracks available in retail stores are only available in easy or original keys, although there are companies who supply single songs, medleys or custom arrangements on CD, Minidisc, DAT, MP3 or Audio Cassette. Another option is to use midi files which you can manipulate using a software program or dedicated hardware to mute instruments and change the effects/pitch and key.

Care should be taken when choosing the type of tracks you purchase, some singers work well with songs containing backing vocals but others do not, arrangements may differ from the original and it is difficult (although not impossible) to change the key on audio tracks. Using a pitch controller works but slows or speeds up the tempo which can sound odd and distract from the performance. Another disadvantage to using backing tracks is the issue of what the audience perceives. Many performers have been accused of ‘Lip Synching’ or ‘Miming’ even if they don’t and if you make a mistake there is no-one to compensate or cover up for you!

One of the biggest advantages to using backing tracks is the ability to work in any venue regardless of how small or large. The equipment you use may vary in wattage and sound quality but a well recorded and balanced backing track can be used through virtually any system that has the right player. Although backing tracks can be constricting and cannot cover any errors by the singer like an accompanist or band, the artist has complete control over what is played, when and at which volume! Although a backing track lacks the dynamics of a live band, they don’t take up the same amount of space – no worries about stepping on any toes during a lively dance routine! There is an added financial benefit as any income remains with the artist instead of being split between several people.

The best advice I can give is to practice with musicians and backing tracks in rehearsal and see which you feel more comfortable with. If you intend to work as a professional singer then it is likely that you will have to perform with live musicians at some point in your career, so even if you prefer to use backing tracks in your act, it is worth taking time out to practice with live musicians – you may end up a convert! The same applies to bands who prefer to perform music live, rehearsing to backing tracks can help the learner to tighten up their timing and some bands suppliment their live performance with the use of extra drum tracks, bass lines and backing vocals.

There is a lot to be said for ‘keeping it live’ and although it’s true that some people distain the use of backing tracks, their use has been responsible for opening up new venues to singers and bands alike. Even the introduction of ‘karaoke‘ converted many previously non-music venues to expand into the area of live music. Whatever you may think, both types of accompaniment have a place in the entertainment industry and a wise singer is one who is open to learning to work with all options.