Backing Tracks VS Musicians: A Techno-Musical Arms Race

posted by Tlacael

An increasingly common scene in music venues over the last decade: an act steps on stage — no drummer, no bassist, no guitarist, maybe keys — and perfectly synced and mixed music begins emanating from some unknown source, standing in for the singer's live band. If you've at all followed your local live music scene in Brooklyn (or pretty much any city) you've seen this. As a drummer, I often cringe at the idea that the practice of pre-recorded backing tracks has escaped the realm of pop music and become common in the live indie-music community.

The band Oh Land

caption=Oh Land uses backing tracks on stage. */}

But their use is less indicative of lazy or cheap live acts, or the desire for perfect, error-free performances, and more indicative of aesthetic shifts towards electronic sounds. It's not just solo bandless singers that use them, but full bands that could conceivably play the songs the old fashioned way. If you're an NPR listener, you might have heard New Tech City's piece on the issue: Backing Tracks: Why Live Music Won't Be Live For Long. The host, Alex Kapelman, takes aim at the practice, saying he feels a sense of betrayal that bands are using them to augment their sound on stage — like it's something that should be disclosed to the audience. They also talk about how widespread it is — everyone from the biggest acts with huge budgets to small Brooklyn bands use them.

Why Live Music Won't Be Live For Long (Alex Goldmark/WNYC)

It's true that for less creative live shows, it can seem like a cop-out. But many bands work hard to find a balance between electronic elements and live performance and are truly aiming for new sounds rather than just pushing play on a laptop as a convenience. I understand that from the audience's perspective, it can be frustrating when you are expecting a live show and you can't figure out who is doing what or if anyone is really playing their instruments at all. But, I think the culprit here is less the musical integrity of the act and more about the current technological limitations of live performance. It's not really about musicians being deceitful in some way — after all, those musicians likely created the backing track — but that if a band wants to incorporate electronic drums, synth arpeggiators or sounds that can't be made live, they must default to the abilities of musically incompetent computers. Although, drummers can use e-drums or pads, keyboardists can use myriad synths and guitarists, well, you know what they can do. But, if you want to match what has been done in a studio, backing tracks are often the only way to go about it. And there is a clear tradeoff here between metric flexibility and the fullness of the band's sound. There's no straying from the backing track. The tempo is predetermined (and the track was likely recorded to a click, which is a topic for another blog post) and the show is now static to a certain degree. It seems that music making has increasingly become a studio art more than a performance art, and this can largely be explained by the fact that tools for music production have outpaced the tools for live performance.

The band Caribou
Caribou is an electronic producer and musician who often plays with a live band, mixing electronic and acoustic instruments.

Nowhere is this more clearly an issue than in the rhythm section. There are countless tools to make an electronic drum track. New drum machine apps come out, sample pads get redesigned, yet only rarely are there new tools that enable drummers to incorporate electronic sounds into their art. Sure, you can use v-drums or triggers, but again, you're making a tradeoff between expressiveness and the sonic potential of a programmable pad. With v-drums, the drummer becomes basically a button-pusher, leaving behind the nuance of acoustic performance. And with backing tracks, the drummer plays second fiddle, if you will, to the click track, unable to influence the rhythmic flow of the performance. We believe that musicians should have tools that allow them to express themselves on stage, taking electronic performance beyond the static and machine-lead nature of studio recordings. At Sunhouse we're working towards this vision and Sensory Percussion begins to address these issues with its focus on percussive expressivity, but its only a piece of the puzzle. Given that live shows and touring have largely become the primary means for artists to make a living, technology needs to work to reinforce the primacy of performance in the music industry. Rather than expect musicians to conform to rigid and restrictive machines, we need to send the computer to music school, so to speak, and teach it to follow the musician. In this way we can build a working relationship between age-old musical practices and digital processes and empower live musicians to reconnect with their audiences.

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