It was a surprise, if not a shock, back in August 1978 when a prominent Detroit concert promotion company was indicted Electric Light Orchestra of using taped enhancements during a few stadium concerts.
The group had performed Aug. 12-13 at the suburban Pontiac Silverdome and subsequently sued Brass Ring Productions for unpaid royalties. In its countersuit, Brass Ring claimed that ELO had used backing tapes during the shows and had actually “confiscated” the tapes allegedly used. “It is not clear whether fragments or the entire concert was faked,” Brass Ring president Robert Fox said at the time. The cases were eventually settled out of court, but Fox also cryptically noted that “this kind of thing has happened in the past. Other bands have done it.”
Flash forward more than four decades later, and they’re still doing it—to varying degrees.
Although there exists an unspoken kind of contract between fans and artists, especially in the rock world, that the concert in front of them is “real” and being played in the moment, there has also long been a flickering understanding that some parts may be more Memorex than live. From triggered sounds and sonic effects to taped vocal or instrumental parts to, in the occasional case, completely pre-recorded shows, a great many concerts – “far more than anyone would guess,” according to one front-of-house sound engineer – are assisted in one way or another form.
In 2019 Nikki Sixx tweeted it Motley Crue has “used technology since ’87,” including sequences, backing vocal tracks and “undertones” blended into the overall sound. “We love it and don’t hide it. It’s a great tool to fill out the sound,” Sixx wrote.
Platinum-selling Florida rockers Shinedown have also given full disclosure of their use, with guitarist Zack Myers telling Rock Feed in 2020 that “90% of bands do it” adding that “it bothers me that it bothers people. … It is what it is … we want the sound to be the best, the can. Can we go up there, just the four of us, and do the best rock show ever? Sure. But that’s not how we want to do it.”
See Motley Crue’s alleged backing track mistake
It still feels wrong
Despite such open acknowledgments, the idea of using sounds that are not played by hand is still viewed with disdain and as a stain on an act’s credibility. Kansas memorably ended shows on his Point of Know Return tour in 1977 by striking the practice of taking bows while the final song continued on tape. Milli Vanilli’s career was destroyed in the early 90s when it was revealed that Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan did not sing on their records and lip-synced during concerts.
Recently Kiss caused a furore during a June concert in Antwerp, Belgium, when the drummer Eric Singer made a mistake during “Detroit Rock City” that threw the performance out of sync and revealed an apparent vocal backing track when no one was in front of a microphone.
Earlier Rainbow and Dark purple singer Joe Lynn Turner called it out Metal Castle like “too much… If you’re well-known and you go out there and use backing tracks, you’re not being honest; it’s pantomime. It’s not even karaoke. I feel like it’s cheating people and it’s cheating yourself . Because if you can’t cut it live, well, that’s what separates the men from the boys.”
Three-time Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan told RockFM in Spain that he considered backing tracks “cheating. … I know a lot of people who do it … it totally shocked me to say, ‘Yeah, we’re addicted to something else now.’ It used to be drugs – now it’s tapes’.
Motley Crue guitarist Mick Marswho has retired from touring with the band, admitted at Eddie Trunk’s Hair Nation that he’s not crazy about it either. “I have to say ’60s bands were my favorite, ’60s and ’70s bands, because they were real … they just got up there and kicked it up. Made a mistake? What? That sounded a little empty here or there? So what? … I could put on a Motley CD and play with it all day long. I don’t want to.”
And Chris Robinson from Black Crowes told UCR in 2021: “When you’re going to use that shit, it’s time to stop, you know? When people come to a live show, it’s got to be Directall the way.”
See Kiss’ Alleged Backing Track Mistake from 2022
Why it is done
It is, not surprisingly, a topic that artists and crew are particularly concerned about – at least on the record. But when you talk to artists, production and stage managers and sound mixers on condition of anonymity, a common thread emerges about the reasons why it is done.
“Especially after MTV, when everything became so visual, there started to be a real pressure to be perfect or pretty close to it,” explains the front-of-house mixer for a heavily touring rock band. Pop acts have generally been given a pass; audiences are more concerned with the large visual productions and choreography and accept that performing these may require some, if not all, of the vocals to be pre-recorded.
“And that’s what the rock bands have to compete with,” adds the mixer. “That’s the standard that everybody’s trying to live up to now. You can’t do a raw, down ‘n’ dirty show when [other acts] is out there blowing people away with these big, pristine productions that … sound just like the records.”
Some of the enhancement decisions are also based on age and skill, kind of at the same time. The vocal ranges change to the point where the keys have to change, and in many cases that means the songs will sound drastically different. So instead of dropping them entirely, acts weave in recorded elements to make the performances possible. And instrumentally, if a recorded part proves too difficult to reproduce, especially in the midst of the adrenaline of a live show, a recording can be substituted to recreate the aural experience.
“There’s more technology available than there’s ever been,” says one veteran manufacturing executive. “You try to one-up each other and stay current and raise the bar. That’s the way of the world. Everyone’s trying to outdo each other.”
The production manager adds that “you can’t paint this with too broad a brush,” noting that there is no single, codified practice for improving performances. Some tracks may have full orchestras recorded or instruments that are not part of the band’s on-stage lineup. “If there’s not a keyboard player or a saxophonist or anything really in the group, do you bring someone out just to play on the songs that need them?” another production manager thinks. “It’s expensive, especially when it’s easy enough to just plug the part into the mix.”
Some productions, meanwhile, use technology more extensively, but one stage manager says that, at least on the rock front, bands generally try to use only what is deemed necessary. “At the end of the day, most of these guys came up playing and still want to play; they just want the show to be great.”
How it’s done
When done right, the improvements are generally slick and smooth and go undetected unless you’re looking for it or there’s a crash. Sometimes they are triggered by the musicians themselves with devices on stage. More often, there’s a crew member with a laptop containing the audio files on Pro Tools and other software, which they carefully sync with the band’s performances and send out to the soundboard just like another instrument in the mix.
“It’s a critical role because they start a clique [track] that the drummer hears and keeps everything in sync,” explains the front-of-house mixer. “It’s absolutely critical to keep everyone in sync. The band is locked into the drummer playing to a click started by it [person onstage].” It’s the most organic route, he adds, acknowledging that “sometimes everyone plays to a track, which is a little more like karaoke.”
When the tapes fall out of sync, it can be a mess, and all parties UCR spoke to recall seeing acts “stumbling through the set” when the technology fails or ends the show prematurely. Canceling entirely due to a technical error “happens more than you think,” the mixer adds.
And sometimes bands have fun with their tricks. The mixer recalls working on a one-off performance for a major act that used a lead vocal backing track to double the actual singing effort. During one song, the artist let the track continue and then began performing his live parts in a call-and-response manner, rolling his eyes throughout.
“Obviously he acknowledges every embellishment and embellishes it at his own expense, as a bit of schtick to fit the band’s personality,” the technician recalled.
Another frequent—”extremely widespread,” according to one sound mixer—practice is the use of teleprompters, primarily by singers. “I don’t think it’s really cheating,” says a production manager. “It’s just a reminder of where you are. It all started with cue cards on television – ‘What are you going to say?’ Where’s the rule that says a rock band can’t have the same? Symphony musicians can’t use a music stand?”
Some bands allow their teleprompters to be more visible than others, but there seems to be less attempt to hide them completely anymore. Some acts even post the city name above the screen to try to prevent a faux pas. They also allow bands to change the set list or insert different songs that may not have been prepared during rehearsals. It certainly proved useful Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band to call audibles, and also when he would wander into the audience and come back with signs requesting certain songs that he would call out on the spot.
Little Steven explains how he uses teleprompters on Bruce Springsteen tours
“The guy who controls [the teleprompter] could call up the lyrics and put them on the screen and we’d be able to do a good version of the song,” guitarist Nils Lofgren told this writer a few years ago.
“I see people very surprised that someone has a teleprompter, but to me it doesn’t matter,” says one sound mixer. “If anything, it works in favor of the show. They still play live, and mostly from memory. It’s just a very useful aid.”
Like ticket prices, it is the audience that decides whether they will accept the practice of concert enhancements, and so far they have. Before being interrupted by the pandemic, concert attendance and revenue improved each year to the next, and the full-scale return in 2021 only continued that trend. It may still be surprising in some cases, but it’s no longer shocking, and it’s likely to become more of a fixture for the foreseeable future.
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