The Complicated Reality Of Playing To A Track On Stage

There’s a stigma amongst musicians about performing on stage with a backing track for the simple fact that most artists are largely expected to be the ones responsible for generating all the sounds coming from the stage. But with things like bedroom producers gaining popularity and more solo artists looking for ways to save money on the road, the use of backing tracks is becoming a more frequent occurrence on stage. Even traditional bands are beginning to broaden the creative potency of their live sound by way of backing tracks. But stigmas aside, playing to a backing track can be complicated, frustrating, and possibly detrimental for an artist’s live performance.

Backing tracks don’t listen or adjust or care

Adding a track to live performances is a risky endeavor even for the most seasoned musicians. The main reason comes down to the cold, robotic nature of backing tracks. Unlike a human musician who can listen, interpret music instantly and adjust for errors or in-the-moment changes, coming in early or playing the wrong section with a backing track can result in an absolute musical trainwreck on stage. And while mistakes made in a traditional band setting are inevitable and can be fixed, blowing it while playing to a track opens musicians up for situations where all they can do to salvage things is stop the song and start over.

Mistakes get particularly gruesome when track-generated bass lines and chord progressions are involved. Playing the wrong thing over a percussion pattern is one thing, but starting a section with the wrong chord progression or melody can cause a dissonance that everyone in the audience will hear right away.

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Nailing the feel and mix of a backing track

Like with normal performances, a great deal of practice is needed to get things sounding right when adding a track to the live show mix. But pulling off backing tracks requires more than practice and musical proficiency. Consider the mix of a typical live show, for example. A hopefully competent sound engineer’s job is to interpret and present an artist’s music the best way possible by mixing and treating each individual instrument one at a time. When you throw a bunch of different musical elements into a single backing track, the engineer has no way of separating those sounds and treating them. This means that you’ll need to be able to mix a great-sounding backing track if you want your music to translate positively on stage. You and the musicians you play with might sound stellar, but a muddy mix can compromise the overall sound of your performance. And finally, consider the whole mono vs stereo thing for a second. Some venues don’t have the equipment to play backing tracks in stereo. Play a stereo backing track at a place like this and you’re going to get missing parts and major issues in your set.

This also goes for those among us who aren’t tech-savvy when it comes to mixing and bouncing tracks. Mixing a track the wrong way can lead to big and embarrassing problems on stage. Experimentation is needed to get things right, but if you’re far along in your career, you probably won’t have the opportunity to potentially blow a performance for the sake of getting a backing track to work the way you want it to.

Like the title of this article suggests, backing tracks can be complicated. But in today’s musical performance climate, it’s a complication probably worth your time getting right.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

AgniThe Complicated Reality Of Playing To A Track On Stage

6 comments

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  • 10K-DB - February 27, 2019 reply

    its similar to playing to a rhyhtm track when recording

    Wake Theory - March 5, 2019 reply

    If you have a truly great drummer there shouldn’t be any problems.

  • Meade - March 6, 2019 reply

    If you’re a solo musician, backing tracks can actually enhance performance. As a vocalist/keyboard player I use backing tracks on a few of my songs just to provide a change in the feel of the show and add more juice to certain songs. It takes a while to get the right feel but if you have a good ear you can mix it pretty well to give a more presence in the performance.

  • William T Anderson - March 6, 2019 reply

    Since I almost always write, and play, all of teh parts, they are getting 500%+ of me when I perform live. The parts on SD card are simply prepared beforehand. In fact, I was doing this one-man show since the early 90’s. Now it is more acceptable. I’m getting ready to take my music back out into the world as I type these words. I got a lot closer to doing that today, when I set up my MIDI pedal, and my Eleven Rack. Yesterday I programmed volume pedal for all patches on the Eleven Rack, as well. I was originally planning to also bring my piano keyboard, but I think I’ll just play guitar live, the way I used to do. The piano keyboard is quite heavy, and I’m rather handicapped, so the less stuff to load in/out, the better. I do wish I could, but it also means carrying my Surface Pro, as well, and that could easily get swiped. Until I start making some money, the piano will stay home. Toio bad no one make s a 49 key piano-feel keyboard…

  • Feline - March 7, 2019 reply

    This is ridiculous in so many ways. You make mistakes in stage? Well then GO PRACTICE. Cold and robotic nature, hm? We played with backings for ten years now which hugely define our sound, and give us a lot of possibilities, and, yes! FREEDOM! The point where he nails it though is the sound. Most backings I hear are considered background noise by the FOH and simply not loud enough. I always start introducing the computer as “our fourth band member”. Sometimes that works…

  • Q - March 7, 2019 reply

    Also, have a back up plan if the backing track fails. Or, if you have to stop the track if someone misses their cue. Some backing tracks are simply cut and you can keep playing. Others have multiple instruments.
    For example; the band I’m in does Hella Good by No Doubt as a cover. The synth bass line and some sound FX are on a backing track that the drummer uses a click to keep in time. If, for any reason something goes south, I can pick up some of those parts manually on my synths. Some have to be sacrificed. But at least the song doesn’t come to a screeching halt.

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