The use of pre-recorded sound or backing tracks has been around for awhile and is very commonplace if not standard use, to some extent, in most live performances today.
Pre-recorded sound is not always a bad thing and there are many legitimate uses for it. It is only when it is overused or used dishonestly that it becomes a problem.
The uses of pre-recorded sound in live performances.
Backing tracks are often used in live performances to help augment the sound of certain instruments or vocals. When live vocalists sing over pre-recorded vocal tracks to make the mix of sound “bigger,” it is referred to as doubling.
Doubling is a very common use of pre-recorded sound and usually makes the performance sound richer. Doubling is primarily used for vocals, but it is often used for instruments such as guitars as well. I have had experience with this technique myself from recording vocal tracks for a musical/dance performance at Angelina College. I do not have a problem with this kind of pre-recorded sound because the actual live sound usually overpowers the pre-recorded sound.
Another very common use of pre-recorded sound is to add additional tracks to a live performance when it is impossible or impractical to hire live musicians for the tracks. When this technique is used sparingly, and depending on the style of music, most people do not have a problem with it.
In most electronic music for example, it is expected for some tracks to be pre-recorded, such as fast paced synth lines, and especially drum loops. In fact, live electronic dance music a.k.a. EDM, performances rely entirely on pre-recorded sound and samples. Some people think that EDM DJs simply press the play button on stage and then do nothing, but in reality they actually are doing more than that. Most EDM musicians use a combination of control surfaces and software to play samples and loops at the right times during the performance, and also sometimes have control over effects such as distortion as well. This YouTube video Dillon Francis & DJ Snake – (GET LOW) – [Launchpad Remix] by Chris Rinaldi shows a glimpse of how a control surface is used.
In symphonic metal, one of my favorite genres of music, pre-recorded strings and other classical instruments are necessary because of the cost and impracticality of touring with an entire orchestra.
When Pre-recorded sound is overused
Pre-recorded sound is a great advancement in music technology and truly enhances live performances when used properly, but it also has the potential to be abused.
More minor instances of abuse occur when musicians rely heavily on additional tracks and pre-recorded sound to the point where there is little live sound coming through. Such cases are still very enjoyable, but in my opinion, not as authentic as they could be.
A lot of the reason why some bands, especially smaller, lesser known bands, use additional tracks is that they have very few members. From my own experience from live performances, I will compare two bands; one four member band, and one three member band that I have seen live. One, the name of which I have since forgotten, was the opening band to an Evanescence concert I went to. I enjoyed their performance even though they used quite a bit of additional tracks and the vocals were heavily doubled or perhaps even lip-synced in some places. The other band, Courage My Love, used very little if any pre-recorded sound yet still sounded amazing with only a guitarist/vocalist, drummer/vocalist, and a bassist. That proved to me that it is not necessary to use pre-recorded sound to have a great live performance.
Lip-syncing and tracked instruments
There are many times when performers pretend to be playing or singing live when the sound the audience hears is actually a backing track.
Sometimes the entire backing band is tracked and just pretends to be actually playing while the vocalist is actually singing live, or it can be the other way around. Entire performances can be tracked as well, which means all the sound heard is pre-recorded.
Pre-recorded sound is heavily abused in this way in pop music. Live pop music has increasingly become more about the visual aspects of the show than the music itself. Complex dance routines, and special effects dominate live pop performances.
Pop stars have received a lot of criticism for lip-syncing during their performances. Their defense for lip-syncing is mostly that they can’t sing properly while dancing vigorously. Many people are not satisfied with that excuse however, often mentioning how the artist P!nk has performed intricate aerial acrobatics while singing live quite well. During one of Britney Spears’ performances in Australia, many audience members walked out of the show very disappointed because of how obvious it was that she was lip-syncing and her dancing was apparently not very impressive either.
One on the most notorious cases of lip-syncing was with the group Milli Vanilli. During one of their performances, the backing track began to skip, repeating the line “Girl you know it’s,” revealing that they had been lip-syncing the whole time. It was later discovered that the two front men did not sing the vocals on the album either, and were complete fakes. After they were exposed, they tried to use their own vocals, but since they weren’t very good, they lost their reputation very quickly. Even when the producer for the group had the actual vocalists from the album perform live, the group’s reputation had suffered so much that they never recovered.
Piracy and and lip-syncing
Because of piracy, most musicians cannot support themselves on recorded music sales alone because of the low incentive for listeners to buy recorded music, so they have to perform live to make up the difference. When musicians deceive audience members by pretending to sing live while only lip-syncing, they are removing the musical value of their performances and therefore leaving no incentive for people to pay them for their music.
If a musical performance is entirely pre-recorded, then it should not be able to be labeled as a live musical performance. Lip-syncing is fraud, and is hurting the only sustainable source of income that most musicians have left.