Washington Think Tank With W.: Are backing tracks okay?

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My dearest constituents, I beg your pardon. I have neglected you for far too long. In all of my efforts to finish my research into the root cause of motor-vehicle crashes, I have completely forgotten about your needs. I’m certain that your loins have been burning with Think Tank questions, yet I have done nothing but spurn your quizzical advances. Can you ever forgive me?

As an act of recompense, I am opening a user-submitted query to the Think Tank. Today’s question comes from everyone’s favorite chip dip, our beloved Guacamole Jim.

Today’s Question: Are backing tracks okay?

Let me set the mood for you. You’re at a concert in an intimate club venue. You haven’t listened much to the headlining act, but you’ve liked what you’ve heard and are curious to check out how they perform live. As the lights dim and the band comes on stage, you notice that something seems off. It takes you a few songs to place it, but you eventually pinpoint your source of frustration. This band is playing backing tracks for something behind the actual music they’re performing live. It could be lead guitar parts. It could be a bass line. It could be orchestral or key flourishes. It could be vocal tracks. Whatever it is, there very obviously aren’t enough people on stage to be making that sound. How do you feel about it?

I’ve actually experienced something very similar. I’m not a deathcore fan by any means, but when I was single I used to attend every show that came through town out of curiosity and dedication to the scene. One night I went to see Impending Doom at a bar, and somewhere around their third song I realized that the guitarist most definitely wasn’t playing the leads. My mood was soured, and a band I already wasn’t sold on completely lost me at that point. I think it might be interesting to ask why that is.

I think, ultimately, I paid to see band members play their instruments, and there was a sort of complicit dishonesty about playing a taped sound that very obviously couldn’t be reproduced live. It felt very disingenuous to me, as though I had been cheated and sold snake oil. Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar. However, this seems to beg a further question. Is there a circumstance when backing tracks are appropriate? I believe the answer is yes.

I think that backing tracks are a viable solution to bands playing unconventional instruments that they don’t actually have the personnel to play on stage. A violin or piano interlude comes to mind. Another example could be when you have way too many guitar tracks overdubbed on a studio album. A famous example would be the intro to Metallica‘s “Battery.” Typically, the band will let the intro track play then come out to actually kick off the main riff.

 

I’m sure there are some bands that find unique ways around these hurdles. I recall reading somewhere that Rush will typically stage triggers around the stage that the musicians will step on to activate their various additional layers and instruments. It doesn’t quite have the same effect as a live player, but it also doesn’t feel as dishonest as simply having a record played by the sound guy.

Well, what do you think? Do backing tracks bother you? Do you even care? Have you ever been turned off of a band due to backing tracks? Sound off in the comments below!

P.S. Do you have an idea for Think Tank? Send it to toiletovhell@gmail.com! I’d love to collaborate.

Don’t know what the Washington Think Tank is? This is a weekly column where your former President poses a pressing question and allows the top minds at the Toilet ov Hell to investigate his query.

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