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Solo Performers: Use Recorded Backing Tracks

6:00 am Live Sound

I don’t suppose anyone reading this remembers The Perry Como Show, a musical variety program that ran in various forms on NBC-TV during the 50s and early 60s. Perry Como was a Bing Crosby-like crooner who enjoyed immense worldwide popularity in those years. I remember watching his show from time to time back when I was about 9 or 10 years old.

At the beginning of each show I saw, Como would sit in what looked like an ordinary living room and perform an opening song. Now, here’s why I’m telling you all this. Before he started singing, he would turn and lift the tone arm of a phonograph on the table next to him and then drop the needle on the opening grooves of a record. Music would swell, and Perry would croon. That’s right, he sang along with a record, karaoke style!

At the time, I couldn’t figure out why he did this, but later I realized that it was a clever artifice to gloss over the fact that Como’s singing was accompanied by lush orchestration despite the lack of any actual musicians visible on the set. (Earlier versions of show had featured a live orchestra, but by the time I was watching it they were apparently down to just a record player.)

If Perry Can Do It, You Can Do It

Here’s the thing. If you are a solo performer who goes out on stage with just a guitar, or who sits alone at a piano and sings, maybe you could benefit from using some form of the Perry Como technique. Because let’s face it - no matter how musical and charismatic you are, a dozen songs in a row of just you singing and playing acoustic guitar is bound to seem a bit, well, monochromatic to the audience.

These days, there’s no need to bring your record player to the gig! Here are three suggestions for spicing up your solo shows with backing tracks. The first two involve running a CD player through your PA, while in the third approach the CD player is replaced with a multitrack recorder.

1. Use the “karaoke plus” approach.

If you get up on stage and start up a CD player, and then all you do is stand there and sing along with the music, well, that’s just karaoke, or one of those “musical” video games. At least that’s what your audience will be thinking! But, if you play an instrument and sing over backing tracks on CD, the perception is transformed. Now it’s the backing tracks that are playing along with you!

There are many sources for backing tracks intended for use at karaoke parties and the like. Although these backing tracks feature full bands, you can play along on your acoustic (or keyboard) to put your own stamp on the arrangement.

2. Record your own backing CDs.

This takes the previous suggestion a step further. If you are a home recording hobbyist with a multitrack recorder, why not make your own backing tracks? You can play the parts yourself, or have someone else help out. Then make a stage-ready mix of the song and burn it onto a CD to play onstage. This DIY method may strike you as more valid (and therefore less “cheaty”) than the near-karaoke approach above, in which only one voice and a single instrument is actually you.

3. Use a multitrack recorder.

This is the fanciest, and most flexible, approach of them all. Also, this is the way to go if you have other musicians who sometimes, but not always, appear with you at your gigs. Here, you record your own backing tracks as in the previous suggestion, but instead of mixing them down and burning a CD to play at the gig, you bring the multitrack recorder itself, all set up with the mix you want to play along with.

You will want to have one instrument or one vocal on each track, so if you have “big” arrangements you will probably need to use an eight-track recorder rather than a four-tracker. (These units are available at relatively low cost as used equipment, if you don’t already have one on hand.)

This approach pays off when your buddy who plays bass offers to sit in with you at tonight’s gig. But you use backing parts on some songs that include bass. No problem! Just turn the fader on the “bass” channel all the way down and let him play instead. If your buddy sings too, you can also turn down the “bass player backup vocal” fader, otherwise leave it up. In other words, use only the backing instruments and vocals that you need to fill out your ensemble for a particular performance. (If everyone shows up, you can just turn off the recorder and play!)

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2 Responses
  1. Gee Baldwin :

    Date: January 8, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    Just caught this site, and was wondering how much coverage of this subject was out there. I have been playing in bands since 1965, and it is tougher and tougher to keep a band going since the popular music culture has imploded, and virtually the only music out there is on country stations. There are clubs that cater to the boomer generation, of which my current 3-piece band services, but they are fewer and far between. I have a friend in Vancouver that has been a single act using his own recorded BG tracks for many years. My first foray into recording and using BG tracks was in order to land a New Years gig for the 2000 Millenium. There are not a lot of pro-quality musicians in the Atlanta area, and indeed, most of the ones I had access to did not want to play on that particular New Years celebration. I began work on 3 sets of BG tracks for my wife and I to perform at a large party, and it was surprisingly successful. I use all analog instruments, including a real drum set, and I mixed the basics, drums, bass and one guitar, all fairly dry. I eq’d the drums for punch, especially the bass drum, put the bass slightly off-center in the stereo field, and same for the guitar—this gave a sonic impression of a band onstage, where the bass and guitar amps would be to either side of the drums. I place my live amp opposite the recorded guitar, and played all solos live, while my wife and I sang. I recorded ancillary bg vocals, and I did process those with some reverb. The entire crowd actually danced right from the first song—-very strange indeed—I am still not comfortable doing this recorded BG gig, always afraid someone will call it ‘kareoke’….so I periodically mention that I recorded the tracks, and that makes me feel better. Basically, audiences really don’t knopw, nor do they care. If they did, there would not be any such thing as a dj—-The fun part of all of this is that I can play the songs I like, and I can play my Rickenbacker 12-string with impunity, either recorded on the BG tracks or live. Not sure how far i want to go with this, but at least the tracks are there to use if a great gig comes up.

  2. Bill :

    Date: May 10, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    I’ve been using backing tracks to add to my vocals & guitar for a couple of years now on solo gigs. I agree, it sometimes makes me second guess my method, but there is no replacement for being able to provide such variety (can you imagine Saturday In The Park-Chicago with just 1 guitar & 1 voice?!

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