Bands or solo musicians may use backing tracks to add extra instrumental or vocal tracks to a live performance, to enhance the sound (as in the employment of doubled backing vocals) or to replicate more closely the instrumentation on record (as in the use of additional recorded parts such as string sections.) A singer or vocal group performing without a band may sing along to pre-recorded music. A music track without lead vocals may also be called a karaoke, minus-one track or playback. Music backing tracks are also available for instrumental practice and jamming. Backing tracks are also known as jam tracks. If bought commercially backing tracks use non-original instruments or backing vocals.
In electronic music, some parts which have been programmed are too fast or complex to be played by a musician. Backing tracks are also used when some or all members of a group are miming the playing of their instruments, lip-synching or using guide tracks.
Also, certain situations may dictate that a backing track must be used; many television programs require that acts perform only the vocals live to simplify the process of mixing the performance.
Backing Tracks can also be bought online through a backing track supplier and used for home use, church and other events for a small fee.
Prior to the advent of computers, backing tracks were generally employed through the use of audio tape synced with the live performance. In the 1980s, Timbuk 3 was one of the first bands ever to use backing tracks in live performances and helped to make the usage popular and with both artists and accepted with the general public by openly displaying the "boom-box" and usage of as art on stage, as the third (3) in the band. Singer songwriter Pat MacDonald wrote performed and pre-recorded all the tracks live. T3 was made up of Pat, Barbara K. and the Boom Box and started out as a cheaper way to play on the streets of Austin, Texas, to moving up to appearing on Austin City Limits, MTV, Saturday Night Live, and many other national shows. T3 was best known for the hit song "The Future's so Bright" and the band was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artists. Timbuk3 could be considered an important transition and major impetus in music/backing track evolution. Digital sequencers afforded a new option for bands based in electronic music: a sequencer could be programmed with the MIDI control data to play back an entire song live, by generating the sound on the spot from synthesizers. However, it was not until the advent of the computer (and more specifically, the digital audio workstation) that musicians were given any real choice beyond the use of tape. Today, the methods used for backing tracks vary; smaller bands frequently use CDs, DAT playback, MiniDisc or even an MP3 player; larger acts more commonly use computers or standalone MIDI-and-audio playback devices with onboard sound modules.
The use of backing tracks has drawn some criticism from the world of music. Many fans dislike the use of tracks live, feeling that it detracts from the integrity of a performance; however, the amount of criticism tends to vary with the amount of tracks used. Simple playback of additional audio such as complex synthesizer parts tends to draw the least criticism; the heaviest is usually reserved for more complex performances. Some musicians have also spoken out against the use of backing tracks; notably, Elton John made the news when he lambasted the issue in 2004, saying that "Anyone who lip-syncs in public onstage when you pay 75 pounds to see them should be shot." (Specifically, he levied this criticism at Madonna, who does use backing tracks on tour, although accusations of lip synching were immediately denied by her management which is not the same as miming. John later rescinded his claims of lip synching, although he continued to criticize her use of backing tracks.)
However, some musicians continue to defend the use of tracks. For instance, Pet Shop Boys state that "There's no sneaky secrecy about it" and that their electronically based music would sound "sloppy" if played live, a view that has been echoed by other electronic groups. More seriously, Roger Waters has admitted to using a pre-recorded vocal track to augment his live vocals on certain songs; his bandmember Norbert Stachel has agreed that it would be better for Waters to use the track than to lose his voice.
Various sorts of tracks can be used in performance. This list includes artists who use each practice as illustrations; each list is not, however, authoritative and provides only a few examples.
- Playback of pre-recorded backing vocals to augment the live performance - as used by Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Danity Kane, The Pussycat Dolls and others
- Playback of additional or selected lead vocals (e.g. to enhance the performance) - Journey (in 2006 only), Madonna (has ceased the practice), Roger Waters
- Playback of additional musical parts such as keyboards - Kasabian, Keane, Madonna, Muse, U2, "Weird Al" Yankovic (by way of video screen playback, mostly in Fat or White and Nerdy)
- Playback of large portions of the backing music - Buckethead, Ehron VonAllen, Pet Shop Boys, Thomas Dolby, The Wiggles
- Total playback of backing music - Girlicious, Morning Musume, The Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, Village People,
- Semi Professional Musicians and singers using backing music (backing tracks) to provide primary and secondary forms of work and income by supplementing live components such as a singer and guitarist in a live performance.
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