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Ghost in the Machine

Oct 03 2006 Posted by in music | Comments Off on Ghost in the Machine

Live bands who play with prerecorded backing tracks. Many conflicting feelings here to sort out.

Today’s songs are far denser than those of the past. A five-piece band using up 48 tracks is very common, unlike the Beatles or early Pink Floyd who were on the cutting edge with four tracks that would get bounced down a couple of times for maybe nine or ten total parts. Or even jazz troupes blowing live in a studio to a single mono track that got pressed directly onto the vinyl as they jammed. My own first CD was cut on two eight-tracks synced together. Now, even in a $5000 home studio, the sky’s the limit. Our sky being a CPU.

Any pop-diva-du-jour is probably hogging at least eight tracks just with supporting voices, and nu-metalheads layer up their drop-tuned guitars maybe six times over to get it sounding thick and rich and chocolatey. It’s no surprise these folks can’t hack it live, and often it’s not for lack of talent. They’ve set an expectation with their recordings that can’t be reproduced by a band they can afford to tour with. Enter . . . backing tracks.

A laptop or disc player is all that’s needed to fill in all those holes perfectly. Watch for the drummers who wear headphones; they’re listening to a click that keeps them in sync with what’s already in the can, and the band usually just follows his lead. Last I saw, there was only one female in Evanescence, but the background vocals on stage are decidely estrogenic with no lip movement from the boys. Steven Tyler is the only singer in Aerosmith, as you can easily distinguish on record, layered ad infinitum. But you also magically get the same experience live, his voice coming out of the mouths of Perry & Co. at the same time as his own.

The problem, obviously, is the original recording. They’ve outproduced themselves to make their 3.5 minutes of fame jump out of your radio speakers and into your iPod. Any soul the tune ever had, long obscured by mascara and auto-tune.

I take no issue with a little peripheral percussion or sound effects or occasional synth coming from offstage if the band doesn’t typically have that element in their sound. But just knowing those tracks are there serves up a steaming plate of doubt in my mind. There’s nothing stopping them from recording the vocals or the guitars as well and passing it off as live. I find that insulting as a fan who pays outrageous ticket prices to see them perform live. Which ironically is also their exact justification for it. Even more disturbing is that this is becoming an “accepted practice” among even cred-touting bands who are unashamed of it.

On the other hand, I play small venues as one half of a duo for extra cash. The backing tracks are obviously prerecorded, as all that’s onstage is a microphone, guitar, and piano. We’re not fooling anyone, and everything you see is live. It doesn’t allow a lot of flexibility for improv, but it gets our music out to more places while passing the savings on to you. It’s also a technical nightmare, since I actually have to write, perform, and record all those backing tracks myself.

So next time you see the “craziest show ever,” question how much of the screaming crowd noise was actually being pumped through the speakers by a digital audience from Rio De Janeiro three tours prior.