Behind The Curtain – The Case of Backing Tracks in Modern Music

The issue of backing tracks live has become a hot-button one among musicians and music news recently. It’s an argument that has been playing out over the past few years especially and a new take on the matter pops up almost every day. While there are a billion pieces about it floating around, the most recent one involves a comprehensive and level-headed take from Jeff Scott Soto, who provided his thoughts via a Cameo request. His words are transcribed in this article.

Backing tracks are absolutely nothing new in music. It is fairly common for an act to bring part of their set on tape or hard drive and play it through the PA. It’s most commonly used for the types of instruments that rock and pop bands don’t haul around with them – strings, complex synthesizer parts and the various electronic sounds found in various styles of music. If a band comes out to an intro they did on a record that wasn’t a typical guitar/bass/drum tune, it is most likely a backing track.

The issue of backing tracks doesn’t really gain any traction when talking about that sort of use – it’s practical and no one really cares. It’s when the backing track is assisting the delivery of one of the primary instruments – guitar, bass or vocals – that musicians and fans have issues. And vocals is the big one that has caused a great deal of the back and forth in recent music headlines.

(NOTE – drums would not really have backing tracks, instead they can use “triggers” to mimic other sounds or even repeat sounds and give the appearance the drummer is playing faster than they really are. A different sort of topic.)

There are numerous names out there either outright found to be using backing tracks or very much suspected. Kiss are probably the biggest name as far as relevance to this site – Gene Simmons has ranted about backing track use in the past, yet it’s pretty evident that Paul Stanley has a track going as they wind down this iteration of their final tour. People in the Kiss camp have talked in a lot of circles about the track use, but it is there.

In other cases, musicians have freely admitted the use of backing tracks. Both Shinedown and Motley Crue members have openly stated they use backing tracks and provide various justifications for them – mainly to fill out the sound or to replicate a studio piece that can’t practically be handled live. WASP mainman Blackie Lawless has said he uses tracks to copy the layered vocals he does in studio. Other performers, like Charlie Benante of Anthrax and Marty Friedman, have spoken in favor of backing track use without explicitly mentioning that they use such tracks.

But there is a lot of buzz against the use of backing tracks. Many feel it robs the audience of an authentic performance, which is a valid argument when a track is used to cover a vocalist’s deficiencies. Piping in choir vocals for parts of one track when it’s impractical to tote a live choir around on tour is one thing, but covering for wear and tear is another. There’s an easy way for me to get a studio-worthy performance from an artist – look them up on Spotify, or put on the record or CD. I don’t see the need to spend a premium on tickets to watch that live.

I won’t personally claim to be all that off-put by these revelations about backing tracks. I’m not a purist or idealist by any means and I think that arguments over authenticity can go too far and into very unrealistic territory. But I also do see the point when it comes to buying what are pretty expensive tickets anymore just so some legacy act can piddle through their set when they aren’t actually capable of doing it. I don’t know how I’m going to retire, I don’t think I need to worry about padding Jon Bon Jovi’s 401k.

And yeah, it does have to suck for those singers that get up there and can’t hang anymore. A few rare gems like Klaus Meine and Rob Halford can keep at it, but by and large a person’s vocals fall off when they get older. And sometimes the fall-off is pretty brutal.

The issue of backing tracks doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon – rather, it gets brought up nearly every day as it clearly drives engagement and clicks. People will make their own choices on it, but it would seem the show is going on whether or not a fair part of that show is on a computer in the back. At the end of it all, the machine of the music industry will keep churning along, and the outrage vented over backing tracks will somehow become money in someone else’s pocket.

5 thoughts on “Behind The Curtain – The Case of Backing Tracks in Modern Music

  1. Great topic. Very divisive.

    Backing tracks for backing vocals have been around since the mid 90s.

    I was in bands at the time and saw the bigger bands we opened for use them. It looks like the backing vocalists are singing but they aren’t. Every time they walked up to the microphone, they would trigger the backing vocal samples.

    It then started to become used in rock circles circa 2005 for lead vocalists.

    The issue the last seven years is the use of AutoTune and different vocal AI techniques that can mimic the voice of the singer from 20 to 30 years ago.

    And if I do watch a performer live, that’s what I would like to see. Live. Warts and all.

    Liked by 2 people

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