The Big Question: Backing Tracks or Live Instruments

Oh, I’m so treading on dodgy ground here but I do feel this is a question which we need to get into, not so much to take sides in any direction but more to give everyone a fair crack at the whip.

I cannot tell you all the amount of times I have heard the phrase, “Why are they using backing tracks? It’s just Karaoke.” when a soloist or duo is trying to get their voice heard. Or an audience complaining about the noise levels when a rock band is screaming out Highway to Hell at a million decibels.

So I’m going to play Devils Advocate and pose and argument for and against both sides and see what we can come up with.

Backing Tracks

Ok, lets kick off with tracks. So what’s wrong with them? I suppose the big one is the fact that they are pre-recorded tracks which replaces the need for live instruments. In short, they are basically Karaoke without the graphics bit. Again on the downside, they don’t encourage musicians to pick up instruments so can be seen as lazy.

But we need to flip the coin and take a look at the positives of using backing tracks too. Firstly, by using backing tracks you just need to worry about yourself. That’s actually quite nice when it comes to being paid. Let’s face it, playing in pubs and clubs doesn’t bring in top dollar these days with the breweries squeezing the life out of landlords for every penny they can get. Also, for people starting out in the business, it gives them a chance to perform on a live stage and test the water without the pressures of being in a band. Which brings me to another point, backing tracks don’t make mistakes. Some may argue that that’s just live performances but from a musicians point of view, nah!

Now as a soloist, I have to confess that I use tracks BUT I also use an instrument. I love surf guitar and often rock out numbers from the Ventures and the Shadows as well as Knofler numbers which brings me nicely to my next positive. Backing tracks are available with instruments missing meaning the artist can still be a true musician. Personally, I do not like pure Karaoke tracks, they are a little void of life but I am a fan of proper professionally made tracks which gives an artist the chance to show of musical skills.

Live Intruments

Let’s get away from the dreaded track and talk about live instruments. As before lets start of with the downside. Two issues to note, firstly, volume. Let’s not kid ourselves here, a band in a pub with a set of drums is loud. Not so much of an issue for large venues but can be an issue when you need to say something to someone and you’re not too hot at lipreading. Secondly, the human factor can be a little bit of a gremlin. Mistakes can happen in all sorts of ways, timing, instrument malfunction (breaking strings in particular), the dreaded mind-blank. Of course most of this can be avoided by strong rehearsals and solid preparation. But you can never counter sods law. The final downside is the pay. Not a lot of money split from anything from 3 - 8 members means not a lot of dosh for a lot of work.

Right, positive time. Firstly and at the top of the list, you cannot beat a well oiled band in top form strutting their stuff. When it all drops into place, there is nothing like it. Unlike backing tracks, bands are not restricted by the time of tracks, if they want to throw in solo’s or extra verses then so be it. There is no question of the versatility advantages of bands and live musical performers. When it right, it’s brilliant. That to me is the winner of the arguments. A well rehearsed, well equipped band or artist is, and always will be the big crowd puller.

So let’s summarise. In short, both have advantages and disadvantages on the live scene. Bands are the age old way of bringing live music to venues but just because someone is using tracks it doesn’t mean they are being lazy. They are just trying to get heard.

As the editor of this mag, I will be embracing all artist regardless of what they use or how they do it. Let’s live and let live and just enjoy our music.