Have you ever been to a live show and wondered if the music was actually live or were you listening to a recording and the musicians were only pretending to play? I am constantly asked this question and it brings up a very heated discussion each time.
Lip sinking and the use of prerecorded tracks have been discussed for many years. The first time I was exposed to the practice was many years ago while playing a Holiday On Ice show. The band was doing what bands do and the leader bent down to ask if we needed a break. We were surprised by his question and responded, “What do you mean”? He explained that all of the band parts were prerecorded and if we wanted a break, we could rest for a while. So we stopped playing and to our surprise, the sound never changed. We were shocked to discover that everything we were hearing was not us, but was a recorded tape of another group of musicians. This practice is called playing to tapes (tracks) and is very prevalent today in the entertainment industry.
Every person I have visited with about this practice says the same thing, “I don’t like listening to tracks, I came to the show to hear the real thing”. When I am told this, I usually respond with “Would you accept mistakes and a less than perfect performance”? No one has ever agreed to a less than perfect show! We are so conditioned to perfect performances that we wouldn’t know how to act if we were faced with a less than perfect performance. Almost all of our broadcasts are prerecorded and if they’re not, you will be able to tell. Through the use of digital technology, we are able to speed up, slow down and even improve a singer’s out of tune note with ease. Through the wonders of science, we are now able (and are expected) to produce only perfect musical performances. Have we become spoiled? Of course we have. We want perfection and we expect perfection. If a singer has a bad day, we don’t care. If a trumpet player cracks the last note, we become very critical. The recording industry and the entertainment field have created a perfect world which does not accept anything other than perfection. The question is, can the public accept this perfect world or are they willing to give a little to the live musician?
Prerecorded shows have been around as I said for a long time and even the musicians are not sure what is live and what is Memorex. I have played shows with the singer not more than two feet away and I could not tell if he/she was going out live or if I was listening to a tape. I have many times played my heart out and was not sure if they were sending my sound out or they were hearing someone from LA who had recorded my part recorded years previous. We must congratulate the recording industry for a job well done even though we might not agree with what they are doing.
The question still remains. Is it better to go live and accept less than perfection or is it better to use tracks and give the audience a perfect show? When deciding this issue, remember that singers get sick and musicians make mistakes. Knowing this should help the average listener decide their preference. I am constantly asked by my neighbors, “Are they using tracks, or is the shows live”? My answer is the same, “What difference does it make”? Their response is also the same, “I want to hear the real thing, not prerecorded tapes”. My next response is always the same again, “Would you have enjoyed the show as much if you heard mistakes”? At that point they have nothing more to say.
Tracks do have a humorous side and you may enjoy these stories. During one of my shows, a fellow musician pointed to a person in the front row and described him as a former trombone player. While he was with the band, he purchased a broken accordion at a local pawn shop and on every show, would pick it up and pretend to play when the tracks featured an accordion (which was not on stage during the show). He became very proficient at lifting the instrument and faking his part to the point that he was eventually nominated as the best accordion player in the area. This is a true story for I visited with the player after the show and he confirmed the nomination and the condition of his unplayable instrument. Then there was the show that featured a very prominent harp (harmonica) solo. A friend of mine surprised me when he stood up, drew a harmonica from his pocket and proceeded to play the most beautiful harp solo into his mike. Later I asked him if he really played the solo and he admitted that the solo was on the tracks and he had not played a note. The reason I questioned him was the fact that I do play harp and I couldn’t tell if he was or wasn’t playing. He had all the moves down cold. He ascended in the correct direction on the harp and even tapped the harp on his sleeve as if to remove condensation from the instrument. He later shared this next story with me. While on tour with his show, he would replace his harp with a remote from his hotel room and the audience never knew the difference.
You may wonder if what you are listening to is real or tracks when you see your next show and you may find this interesting to know. Most shows rely on the drummer to start numbers and for that reason, the responsibility of keeping the tracks and the live musicians together is relegated to that musician. It is important that the tracks and live performers line up and you will need to focus on the drummer if you really want to know if you are listening to tracks or the real thing. You can usually tell if tracks are being used by looking for a light blue cast off to the side of the drummer. Tracks are triggered and controlled by a computer which can be easily detected by its blue screen. The drummer and the sound person will also be in constant communication in order to coordinate the tracks. I will warn you that knowing this information will distract you from the real reason you went to the show. Too many times I go to a show to be entertained and come home not knowing half of what went on during the show. This is a good example of “Paralysis through analysis”.
There is another issue when discussing the use of prerecorded tracks and that is the use of solo background tracks.
Many times we are asked to play a solo for whatever the occasion and have no one to accompany us such as a piano player or organ player. What should you do in this situation? Let’s be honest now for few people want to hear a trumpet by itself unless you are playing taps. For that reason I feel that accompaniment tracks are acceptable and even encouraged.
To illustrate my point, I have listed a few accompaniment tracks which could be used in situations such as these.
You get a call to play for a wedding outside and they request Ash Grove. For an outside program, it would be impractical to move an organ into the words for one solo. In that case you might want to play it this way-
A small church has requested that you perform for them and requested Victory in Jesus. Same situation as the wedding-
Victory In Jesus
The call this time is for a grave site funeral and the request is for Great Is Thy Faithfulness-
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Now we are playing an Easter sun rise service,-
The Holy City
A family gathering at Christmas time,-
school talent contest,-
On My Own from Les Miserable
Christmas party for your boss!-
Next time you are watching a television broadcast and marveling at the tremendous musicianship of the entertainer on the screen, switch your channel to American Idol and decide if you would prefer to watch prerecorded perfection or live performances on a regular basis.