Tuesday, 7 February 2017

To Backing Track, or not to Backing Track....

If you're a singing in any way shape or form, you'll have had experience with backing tracks, and probably have a preference either way as to whether you like or don't like them. It's a topic that comes up time and time again in my teaching studio, and I'm frequently asked as to whether or not singers should be using them, and actually, there isn't really a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer - there are many factors to consider! So I thought it was time for a blogpost about it!

So - what is a backing track?....
Aptly named, a backing track is simply an pre-recorded backing to a song so that you have something to perform with. Backing tracks come in a variety of formats (CD, MP3, acoustic instrument (aka: live recording) MIDI etc), and, more importantly, can vary extensively in terms of quality! Anyone can use a backing track to perform, which in itself draws out it's own issues and benefits, and there are also many reasons people may choose to use a backing track:
  • Inability to perform with a live musician, due to rehearsal time, or unavailability etc.
  • Inability to replicate the 'CD' sound of the song in question - some songs don't work well with just a pianist accompanying!
  • Some people actually just prefer having the 'full band' sound behind them, even if the band aren't really there!  
  • Some exam syllabi, like Trinity Rock & Pop, or Rockschool actually require you to perform with a backing track for exams 
Below I've listed the Pros and Cons of using a backing track: 

PROS
  • Getting Started: If you're a young singer, and especially one who doesn't know many musicians to perform with to begin with, using backing tracks to go busking/performing is a great way of getting started with live performances. 
  • Ease of Rehearsal: Using a good quality backing track for rehearsal away from your band can be a great way of getting the song in your head without relying on the singer on the original recording. It can also be good if perhaps your usual accompanist is unavailable for a session etc. 
  • Time Management: Sometimes you simply don't have the time to get a full band together for a gig, perhaps because of a short-notice booking, or a specific song request that will take too long to rehearse with a full ensemble.
  • Cost: Sometimes the person booking you has a limited budget, and simply can't afford a full band, but really want a live singer. A backing track enables you, as the singer, to still perform and get paid
  • You can change the key: Some musicians have excellent skills, and can sight transpose, or (if you're lucky) are able to use a transpose function or capo to re-work the song into a key that suit you - however, to expect this of a musician is rather demanding and unrealistic! The luxury of a backing track means, if it's not in a good key for you, you can change it using a software program like audacity. 

CONS
  • They can't replace a live musician: As much as some backing tracks can be of excellent quality and production, the simple truth is, playing with a live musician enables you, as the singer, the best chance to perform a song your way. A backing track is unsympathetic to your desired tempos, your choice of dynamics, use of rubato etc etc. You are, in essence, performing with a robot. 
  • Lack of Expression: Even the best backing tracks lose that 'live feeling', and in turn it can make your performance as the singer rather mechanical, and it's easy to get into a sense of 'going through the motions' when you perform. Part of the joy of performing live with a live band is how songs are different every time you do them. 
  • You get what you pay for: Some backing tracks you can find for a couple of quid, or even for free.... not to mince words, these are often terrible karaoke tracks with awful synth sounds. If you want to sound good, you need to pay for it. Often decent tracks come in vocal volumes (the 'You're the Voice' series is excellent), and there are some websites which offer excellent quality tracks. We're not talking extortionate prices here, maybe a fiver - but fiver's add up! - If you're booking quality gigs however, you can expect to get paid more, so it make sense to back that up with quality material (both live and backing!)
  • It's easy to lose your musicianship skills: If you become reliant on the 'backing track' sound, it's far too easy to forget how to work with living, breathing musicians. Remember, a backing track is a robot - musicians can think for themselves! They're also not mind-readers! You can't expect the live musician to know how you like to perform with your backing track. They either need to be given instruction in rehearsal, or have it written on their sheet music. 
  • Sometimes the track doesn't reflect the reality of the performing situation: A classic example of this is musical theatre audition preparation. It's all very well and good practicing a song you want use for an audition with a backing track, but if the track is a full blown band track, you're going to get a massive shock when you turn up for an audition and hand the sheet music to the pianist! I cannot stress enough how important it is to practice your audition material with a live pianist! Remember, musicians think for themselves, and they won't think like you! 

As you can see, there's a equal weight of argument both for and against the use of backing tracks - ultimately, it's down to you as the performer to make the judgement call on what would be right for you in the performing situation you're in. My own personal preference is for live music - I perform as a self-accompanied singer, or with my band. That's not to say I never use backing tracks. On a few occasions I have found myself being requested to perform solo, but they ask for a song which just won't have the desired impact without a band, or that I don't have time to rehearse with a band, or the client simply doesn't have a budget to accommodate a full band of live musicians. I even have a playlist ready for times when I can't accompany myself (for example, when I sprained my wrist and couldn't play either piano or guitar!) - Below is a list of Dos and Don'ts, designed to help you make the right call about backing tracks:
  • DO your research: spend some time searching for decent, good quality backing tracks. If these are something you will use regularly, either in your practice or performance, you need to invest. 
  • DON'T get complacent: either about using the track, or not! If you're used to using a track and are suddenly going to need to work with a live musician, remember you need to convey to them what it is you want from the song, but remember that everyone interprets music in their own way - their natural interpretation of a track might not align with yours! If you're not used to using a backing track, remember, it can't mould itself around you, or do what you want, you will need to adapt to the track. 
  • DO consider recording a live musician: If you have a piece of music for which there is not a backing track, and for whatever reason you can't use a live musician for the gig, don't rule out asking a musician (or your music teacher) to record themselves playing the song for you without you singing. That way, at least you have the accompaniment exactly as you want it. I have done this quite successfully for many of my students using only garageband to great results. (PS: don't expect them to do this for free though!)
  • DON'T judge: It's really easy to be critical of another singer's performance that actually has nothing to do with their voice! If you're an advocate of the live musician backing and hear a singer performing with some crappy backing tracks, just remember, they may not be as fortunate as you to know a lovely musician who will play for them! Likewise, if you're used to performing with quality backing tracks that make you feel confident and you hear a singer performing with a musician who perhaps isn't as skilled as they need to be to support the singer, remember, this could be their first gig trying to perform a live set! Listen to what's really there - the artistry, the skills, the connection with the music and the connection with the audience, and try to keep bias aside (and any negative thoughts/comments to yourself!) 

Useful Links / Products: 

www.karaoke-version.com
- Although the name suggests 'karaoke' type tracks, if you spend some time and go looking (and listening) you can find some quality tracks, many of which are pretty much identical to the original song. They also have a 'custom' option, by which you can include or discard things (like backing vocals) should you wish.

www.jazzbacks.com
- If you're a jazz singer, the quality and variety of the tracks available on this site are fantastic. You have to pay a bit more (about £3.99+ a track), but it is absolutely worth it.

www.pianotracksformusicals.com
- An excellent site for budding musical theatre performers perhaps looking for a backing track for a college showcase, or rehearsal for an audition. These tracks feature ONLY a piano backing, which makes them great for practicing a song for which you know you will only have a piano backing.

www.trinityrock.com
- The backing tracks for exams are generally only available with purchase of the grade books (they come on a CD) - however, their website has a free Transposition Tool, which enables you to transpose ANY track you might have into another key.

'You're the Voice' - vocal series
- This is an excellent series of vocal anthologies, featuring songs as performed by famous singers, recorded by live musicians. I can personally vouch for the Eva Cassidy, Billy Holiday and Ray Charles editions, but there are many other volumes available such as Amy Winehouse, Frank Sinatra, Katherine Jenkins, Michael Buble etc. The books cost around £12-15 (www.musicroom.com), and you get a book of piano/vocal music (excellent as it is 100% faithful to the track, which means you can confidentially give it to a pianist to play) and a CD of backing tracks, approximately 12 songs per anthology. A worthy investment.