Does your cover band use backing tracks? If you don’t they’re worth considering. If you do, are you using them the best way?
Backing tracks have become a common tool for bands of many genres. If you go to any medium-sized concert you’re likely seeing a band use tracks. It’s not just big bands. Cover bands playing at your local bar, venue, or casino, are using tracks. It’s easy to understand why.
A cover band’s responsibility is to honor each song and play it as true as possible. This means capturing the life and spirit of the song. But with limited musicians on stage it can be a challenge. If you play any country, rock, dance, or pop music you know what I mean. Modern recordings have become playgrounds for layers and textures.
In the perfect world we’d be able to have 7 or 8 (or more!) piece bands. The reality is we have 4 or 5 piece bands, with everyone contributing to multiple things (“ISO rhythm guitarist with good backing vox. Keys abilities desired but not required. Mandolin a plus. Must have a trailer. Booking contacts also appreciated.”).
Some bands are able to achieve fantastic covers without any tracks. And while backing tracks aren’t always needed, I think they can be helpful for most of us.
Before you decide to dive into the world of tracks, it’s important to know when not to use them.
Doing Backing Tracks All Wrong
When used correctly, backing tracks blend seamlessly with the musicians and the song. They don’t sound out of place. They don't sound cheesy.
In theory, the audience shouldn't even realize you’re using tracks.
That’s not always the case though. There are a couple easy ways tracks can spoil your set. For instance...
Not Having The *Key* Instrument
A good way to use backing tracks poorly is replacing a key instrument. Take “Separate Ways” by Journey. If you don’t have a keys player, you probably shouldn’t play this. The keys intro is a huge part of the song.
Imagine yourself sitting in the audience and that signature keys riff starts. You look on stage and don’t see a keys player. No one on stage is actually doing anything. Where is that coming from?
It’s obvious that you’re using tracks. Once that happens the curtain is up and the audience sees behind it. The mystique is gone. They no longer buy into your performance. And once that happens you lose their attention.
Not Having The Talent
Backing tracks should never replace talent. If you can’t play the part, don’t play the song. It’s much better to take the song out of the set for a while until you can play the parts.
If you decide to play “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, you should be playing the intro lead. It’s painful to watch a band use tracks for an obvious part like this.
There are hundreds of popular songs across many genres that don’t take significant technical ability. Part of being a successful cover band is choosing a set that’s relevant, popular, and suits the musicians and band.
Doing Backing Tracks Right
So how should they be used? They should be used as a tool. Like that Germanium Fuzz Pedal you’re dying to use. It’s not critical to the song, but it sure does enhance it.
Think of the parts you’d drop live if you didn't have the musicians to play it. The little textures or less important parts. You feel the parts more than you knowingly hear them. They fill the mix but don’t stand out.
Not every band can have great musicians who are also great vocalists. Having subtle harmonies behind the lead vocalist can add a beautiful texture to the song.
The way these sit in the mix is crucial. They can’t be too loud. People will look around to see where they’re coming from.
Dial in the right volume and they add interest and a lush texture to the song.
Subtle Rhythm Tracks
Take “Sweet Child O’ Mine” for example again. You have to play the intro riff; it’s the motif. The bass has to play the melody behind it. The rhythm guitar is nice if you have one, but not critical.
That rhythm track is a perfect part to have (quietly) behind everything. You’ll feel it more than you hear it.
Levels are also extremely important here. If you don’t have your own sound engineer, do a thorough sound check. Also make sure the track files are mastered with a consistent volume across your set.
I don’t consider this to be replacing an instrument. I would encourage pads even if you have a keys player. They can easily create smooth transitions when used well. Use them over quieter parts to add texture and ambience. Start your set with pads to create intrigue.
Pads are one of the few exceptions where it’s ok if they’re noticed. Just make sure they're in the right key!
Having the band on a metronome is worth bringing the equipment in itself. Not only does this keep everyone honest on tempo, but if you automate the click track it makes transitions much smoother and quicker.
Especially when used with tracks. You can run the entire set without stopping. Or add in breaks. Just make sure you have some kind of hands-free device to start and stop the tracks.
Add, Don’t Replace
At the end of the day, you still want to be playing with musicians. Not tracks. Add some subtle dynamics, interest, and textures to your set.
Don’t replace your bassist. Don’t replace your keys player.
But do give tracks a try. You might be surprised at how useful they are as a tool. And as gigging musicians it’s nice to have one more tool in the toolbag.
How do you use backing tracks? Let me know on facebook!