Friday, March 26, 2010

The Rise of the Machines: Pre-Recorded Tracks in Live Performance

I wanted to share my impressions of the trend I observed at SXSW of bands using pre-recorded backing tracks in their sets. I was really taken aback by how many bands were playing along with samplers. I'm sure that I have a different perspective on all this since I'm a musician myself. The joy of playing music for me is interacting with other musicians in real time, whether in a rock band playing the same songs night after night, or playing jazz or free improvisation. I'm interested in music with a human warmth and I can't help but be a little concerned about what the rise of pre-recorded tracks means for the future of live music. Maybe I'm also worried about losing my gigs to a machine!

A staple of the festival was the dance-disco-electronica duo with a live drummer and a singer who played keyboards or guitar. The band Memory Tapes is a duo with an excellent drummer who played along with the backing tracks with real fire and a strong groove. The singer also played guitar, but the huge pulsing sound of the band was coming from the pre-recorded synth tracks and electronic dance beats on the samplers. By the end of their set almost everyone in the crowd was moving. I enjoyed the music but I couldn't stop thinking that the performance would be so much more alive if there was a full band. But on the other hand, these guys made those tracks exactly the way they wanted them to sound and were now able to reproduce them perfectly at every show. Maybe some of these bands see the use of backing tracks as a way to fully realize their musical vision.

I saw a few bands whose records I was familiar with using pre-recorded tracks and they sounded exactly like their albums, which to me is a little unsatisfying. I like to see bands create their music from scratch in a live setting, reacting to things on a human scale like the mood of each person in the band, the crowd, and the sound of the venue. All these factors should make for a unique experience and a special representation of the music. I feel like this becomes less of a possibility when bands play to backing tracks. As an audience member I enjoy seeing the chemistry of a band. "Chemistry" in the true sense of combining different elements and watching them blow up, dissolve, or turn a strange color.

Another consideration is that it's very expensive to tour with a full band. If you can cut things down to 2 or 3 people touring can become a little more financially viable (meaning you might lose less money!). I saw a few solo acts as well, some only pushing buttons on the sampler to cue the next song and occasionally singing.

It was very telling to me that the last instrument to be replaced was always a live drummer. It's long been my belief that the drummer is the most important part of a band. Many of the bands I saw had a live drummer in addition to electronic drum tracks and I think a big reason for this is the visual impact. There is nothing as captivating as watching a great drummer embodying the band's rhythm with the choreography of their limbs in motion. I think when you take that away the performance crosses over entirely into another kind of experience.

All of these concerns aside, I really believe that it doesn't matter what the means are in creating music as long as the end product is something compelling enough to move people. Paradoxically, one of my favorite shows was the band YACHT who played along to backing tracks that were so loud I couldn't tell if the rest of the band was doing anything at all. Their set instantly took on the energy of a big party fueled by the two extremely charismatic singers who danced and mimed the lyrics to the songs and exuded pure style. The music was heavily indebted to the Talking Heads but the songs were infectious and really fun. The humans playing in the band wore tuxedos. The invisible machines pulsed along into the night.


  1. I recently joined a band that was previously using recorded backing keyboard tracks. My one condition for joining them was that they allow me to try recording some of the chorus backing vocals in order to save my voice for the really high stuff that was critical. The guys are great musicians, but they will be the first to admit that they are rather weak singers. They tried, but it just wasn't there. If you’re doing Journey, Def Lep, mixed with 80's dance tunes you really have no choice but to be strong vocally. So, I recorded 35 songs worth of backing tracks and we play them back live using a computer and interface. The crowd is only aware of it because of the obvious absence of a keyboard player on stage, and the incredible improvement in the sound of the backing vocals. To partially answer your question and give some insight into what bands like us are thinking, let me start by saying that I've been a working musician for over 20 years and I've never seen a crowd respond like they do to this band. Just 4 guys can reproduce "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and have it sound incredible, which I'm sure you are aware is a real feat to achieve. Also, I've beat my brains out for decades making next to no money, only to find that doing things this way makes me almost as much money as my day job; and I'm a professional. We pack houses like nothing I've ever seen by being consistent and focusing on the show. Make no mistake though, I'm still belting out the verses and important lines in real time. It may seem to be "selling out" or "faking it" to some, but I've never had so much fun performing in my life. There is still plenty of room for improv and band chemistry to manifest itself. In fact, it may even remove the worry of things falling apart and free us to innovate and perform in ways that we never could otherwise. So, my message to all of you musicians out there is to give it a chance. The only ones who may look down on you for it are other musicians. You can't please them anyway. But I guarantee that you will play to a packed house while they all play to 20 staring family members...oops...I mean die-hard fans. There are just certain songs that you can’t do without the proper accompaniment, unless you want to pay 6 or more band members; and you’re lucky enough to have them all be strong vocalists. Give it a try, you may find that you’ve really been missing out on something.

    1. Alihaymeg,
      Yes, what you are doing is not live performing, it is human jukebox cover song re-creation. I'm sure you ARE making more money at it this way and more power to you; we all have to eat. You ARE giving that audience what they want. But this type of cover song band thing is not what I think the post is about.