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.
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.