A while ago I made a blog post about why your band should consider using backing tracks and it was hugely popular and generally, well received.
Like, really well received.
That being said there were those who suggested that I should offer a counter-point to that post so that both sides of the coin get their say.
Well, I have been described as a master debater so I figure what the hell? Let’s do it.
Before I get into the list I will say a lot of the push back I received about using backing tracks were not great arguments.
If you as a player think that the freedom to EXTEND your solo break or that your drummer having bad internal meter disguised as “feel” brings anything to your audience you may be navel gazing.
Our ultimate goal as entertainers is to appeal to the general population and a lot of the backtalk I received was purely self-indulgent.
That being said here are the reasons why your band shouldn’t use backing tracks.
Reason Number One- New players or sub musicians:
Maybe you don’t have a solid lineup of players and need some fluidity of arrangements when a new musician is on a gig.
Sometimes you get a call from a group the day of or night before a gig and they need a guitarist in a bad way.
COVID has really amplified this as of recent.
Being able to recover when a player gets lost in the moment is a good reason to keep things on stage simple and streamlined.
Reason Number Two- The audience may not miss what isn’t there.
Small band lineups can provide great entertainment and if they are putting on a fun show and know how to get the crowd up and dancing it may not matter if there isn’t a keyboard player.
I’ve seen an acoustic duo whip an entire bar into a frenzy with nothing more than their enthusiasm and stage presence.
I have performed many trio gigs without tracks and had great success with them.
If you know how to put on a good show, you can rely on that to fill in the gaps.
Reason Number Three- Time
Depending on your workflow it can take a lot of prep work to add tracks to your live show.
When my 80’s project started I poured probably over a hundred hours into track prep.
Just to clarify I wasn’t sourcing those from the normal backing track sites and building them manually so don’t get too freaked out about that.
If the band is already playing out and doing well maybe now isn’t the time to consider tweaking your live show.
Reason Number Four- Resources
At minimum getting a band on backing tracks will require in ear monitors for your drummer, a device to play them back with and DI’s for your outputs.
For my band it includes a 16-space rack with an Ableton rig.
These kinds of setups can take a while to dial in and do cost money.
That money may be better spent on other things for your band.
Also you will have to dedicate rehearsal time to making sure the arrangements are locked in and that your players can keep solid time to a metronome.
If you’re just getting started with a project it can be a lot of upfront investment to get something set up for backing tracks.
Reason Number Five- Probability of Failure
This is a situation all bands who use tracks fear.
More production items added to your show introduce more potential points of failure
In most cases a track misfiring or crashing isn’t a huge deal as you can easily bail and go without them.
But train wrecks can happen and they’re not pretty.
There’s plenty of examples of backing tracks gone awry videos on YouTube
I think the Mariah Carey Today Show one may be the most infamous
Besides the infamous Ashlee Simpson/SNL debacle.
But again I’m not talking about lip syncing as that is most certainly a different problem altogether
Don’t come for me.
But if that tracks computer is also changing your amp patches via MIDI or sending DMX to your lights it can basically kill your gig full stop.
This is one of the more relatable reasons I get why bands don’t go down that road.
So, there you have it. Those are the top 5 reasons bands don’t need to use backing tracks!
But, if I could speak to those who agree with this approach for a minute, I’d like to say a couple things.
I think that all bands can benefit from playing to a metronome live.
I have played in countless bands over the years, and I don’t think the groups that played without a net sounded better than the bands that played to a click live.
It is an easy way to instantly tighten up your band and make sure someone having a good day or bad day affects how fast you start “Honky Tonk Woman”
Also, please get off your high horse about this to other musicians or bands.
The idea that a band doing something your band doesn’t do is “cheating” makes you seem elitist and frankly, music isn’t a competition.
Agree or disagree, there’s space in the market for all of us.
And the sooner you realize that, the better off you will be.
Last week I got invited to participate in a Chris Cornell tribute show in Atlanta and I was asked to play “The Day I Tried To Live” by Soundgarden
A song I have sang along to in the car a thousand times but never performed live before.
It is easy as a vocalist to assume you know a song but if you are in the cover or tribute industry it is very important you really do your homework and make sure the lyrics are correct and dialed in.
Your audience is usually expecting to hear them just like the record and any flubs on your end can pull your audience right out of the performance which we definitely don’t want to do.
So when my band onboards a new song here I what I do to memorize the lyrics....
Actually, strike that. The first thing I DON’T DO is read the lyrics from my iPad.
I can only speak for myself, but if I start using a cheat sheet when performing a song it becomes exponentially more difficult to remember the lyrics.
Knowing you have a crutch to fall back on will prevent your long-term memory from kicking in and storing that information so I tend to avoid using iPads for this kind of thing.
My go-to process is to download the best version of the lyrics I can find (the first thing to show up on google may not be the most accurate) and work either line by line or verse by verse.
I’ll read it a few times, say it out loud a few times, then play the song and sing along without looking at the words.
If I lose track or mess it up, I stop the song and start again.
I’m not sure if you’re the same way, but usually there’s one particular section that I’ve already got burned into my head and then some section that I can’t latch on to to save my life.
The repetition allows you to not only get a feel for the flow of the words and the melody, but to generate the muscle memory to execute it when the gig arrives.
This particular song has the added hurdle of a compound time signature so I not only have to remember the words and how they flow with the melody, but I also have to account for a bar of 7 every other measure.
This process can take some time but in the +20 years I have been performing it has been the most effective method of learning new songs.
So how did it go?
The show had a late start but I opted to show up early to sound check which ended up paying off in a big way.
Since I was the only vocalist at soundcheck I got to run my song all the way through and get the monitors dialed in the way I like them.
As far as the performance goes I managed to get through the song without flubbing any lines and the place was PACKED.
Getting a chance to sing a tune like that in front of a couple hundred people was awesome.
I don't have any footage unfortunately but I was grateful for the opportunity and hope my little adventure helps you learn new tunes for your project!
On episode #160 of the podcast we did an interview with Eric Hogan from the Nirvana tribute band Nevermind. Here are some highlights from that conversation!
On episode 104 of the podcast Adam did an interview with Jordan Olds AKA Gwarsenio Hall about how his show, Two Minutes to Late Night, and how they come up with their cover songs and arrange them.
If you're not familiar with the show, check out this cover of "Ace of Spades" with Mel from Royal Thunder and Mutoid Man:
It was a fun conversation and Adam managed to keep his geeking to a minimum.
Adam and Dan play in bands. They're pretty good.