Playback and Miming

         Playback and miming        

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Sorry, no names - but you can work it out for yourself. Any bands where the lead singer keeps covering his mouth with the mic, or where he or she is using a head-mic and keeps covering the mic with the hand, or where there are laptops on stage, or where you hear instruments that are nowhere to be seen, or where the lead singer suddenly features harmonies in different keys, or where FOH uses a DAW, or just where the sound is too good to be true!

Anyone working in live sound will smile at this one!

Just as there are 50 ways to leave your lover, there must be 50 ways to skin this cat.

It ranges from the mild use of pad progressions on keys, through to a complete playback with absolutely nothing being done live.

It often begins with the keyboard player programming in some fancy progressions or arpeggios onto something like a Triton or Karma. This then progresses to the point where half the drum kit is actually coming from the keyboards, leaving the drummer just the task of filling in the fiddly bits.

The next step up (so to speak) is for the keyboard player to trigger MIDI-driven events, usually using ProTools or Ableton Live (or whatever he knows and likes). In this way, he can actually cover whole sections of the band, from all guitars to the vocals if needs be.

In all things, it depends on the budget and on the level of musicianship available. If you have a stadium filler on your hands (i.e. massive budgets) and absolutely zero talent, but they are supposed to be some kind of rock band, or similar, then total playback is the only option available. In that case, stick the whole thing on a couple of Radar rigs (one live, one backup) and just hit the locate points for the songs.

Nearly always, however, there will be loads of space for the lead singer and other band members to do live things. Intros, banter with the audience, key solos and perhaps one or two things that they actually can play. For that reason, it is best to have the whole thing on multitrack, so that there is a choice between playback and live for all the parts.

Very often, if the lead cannot sing for whatever reason - too much dancing involved, or in the case of one very famous female singer, abject fear during the first couple of songs - then a back stage sound-alike can be used. This person can also be used if the singer's voice is on the blink,but the act do not want to invoke their contingency insurance.

Which leads me to a story -

A VERY famous band from the 60's was playing Europe. The lead guitarist was once quite a star, but by this time he was fat, coke-head, alcoholic, incapable and a megalomaniac all rolled into one. He was so completely out of his skull that he had a sound alike play most of the lead parts off-stage and did not seem (nobody was really sure) to even notice that it was not his playing being fed to FOH.

The star gave his tour manager such a hard time, that he walked out without warning at the beginning of the tour.

At the same time, the show was not selling and the promoter had to cancel nearly all the shows and pull the sales together with one big show and live with the losses. He did the old trick of telling the press that sales had been so wild that he had to book a stadium, so now "there are just a few seats left for those who hurry!"

Our star had his vintage guitar collection, together with his two guitar techs, fly in a separate Lear Jet. Because of the last minute changes and because the tour manager had legged it and taken all his notes with him, the Lear Jet with the vintage guitars and the techs went to one city and the band went to the nearly empty stadium in another. They were North of the Alps and the Lear Jet was South of the Alps.

For a big gig like this, the insurance company will have a man on the spot and in this case they had more than one.

The star screamed and shouted that under no circumstances could he go on without his guitars. A local guitar shop was asked to send round every good guitar they had and some 20 really good guitars were sent round, together with a couple of guys to set them up.

But the star and the rest of the band had now dug their heels in, no guitars, no techs, no show.

Then someone took the insurance men to one side and told them that the star was not really playing anyway, so they dug their heals in. They assumed that the whole thing was a set-up to cash in on the contingency policy and that the guitars were in a completely different country (and with a pilot who refused to fly through low cloud at night over the mountains) as a deliberate ploy to cover for the fact that the band leader was legless and incapable of going on stage.

The end of the story was -

After about two years of legal battling, the insurance company had to pay up and reimburse the promoter for the advance fee to the band.

The insurance company listed the band as acts they no longer wish to insure - i.e. they black-listed them and ended their careers.

The band leader died three years later anyway.

The promoter went to prison for tax fraud for two years (though this has absolutely nothing to do with the story).

Insurance companies now know about sound-alikes and play-back and have adjusted their policies accordingly.

1. where exactly is that fine line between something that is considered still live playing with some augmentation and something that is "playback" ???

2. are studio and live production becoming so close that they will kinda merge into one thing ???

3. will most of bands just dance to prerecorded backtracs ?

4. do ppl care/hear the difference ???
1. Well, in the US, 100% playback could be regarded as consumer fraud. That was the problem facing producer Frank Farian when the Synclavier crashed during a Milli Vanilli gig.

(The 'band' left the stage and then the Synclavier started up again without them. Then the two boys were stupid enough to come on stage and continue miming, to be booed off-stage by the audience.)

Nowhere in Europe do we have a clear line like that and even in the US, it is a very grey area. It's not so much where you draw the line, but how. Is a progression played off a synth playback and therefore fraudulent? Who is to police every synth and harddisk?

2. The CD is completely dead as a mass-market commercial product (please note, mass-market, not niche-market!) Studio recordings (i.e. the conventional CD) can be given away with the Sunday newspaper, sold cheaply at gigs, come packaged with the concert DVD, or act as entrance tickets to gigs.

That's not just my opinion, but the cold wind of reality. CDs are not selling.

So there is a sort of strange fluid process that allows song-writing, rehearsals, recording and making play-back tracks to morph into one process.

3. No, the trend is the other way. Most stadium fillers are live. With stadium filler, I mean acts that can rely on getting 50,000 audiences at $200 a head. With gig money for the act of between $2m and $5m for a show, there is enough air in that calculation to pay for very good musicians. A 20-week tour can make $100m for the act (gross), so an extra $1m or $2m for a really solid backline is no big deal. It is also a great deal less than sound, lighting, staging, transport, insurance and the 101 other things that go to make up a big tour.

Another type that is live are the geezer bands. Old guys that have been in the business for decades. Here, I am thinking of acts like Government Mule, Tower of Power and a whole host of others that just would not know how to use playback.

Apart from the very obvious things like jazz and classical, nearly all start-up rock bands pride themselves on being live.

That leaves the big group 'Yesterday's Heroes' - i.e. acts who no longer are charting or filling large venues. They do not have the budgets to pay for top-flight musicians and they usually do not have the talent to be brilliant without some form of backing or support, so playback is the only way out.

These are the acts that promoters will only book if they are cheap or at least prepared to be paid according to sales. No act is so dangerous as someone who had a big hit five years ago.

4. Yes.

As Churchill stated, you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time. If you want to have a short career and your one day in the sun, playback is a great way to put on a show.

If you want to have a long term career, musicianship is the only card you can put on the table.

--- As a final thought, have alook at any orchestra or chamber orchestra and you will see one young and good looking person after another. These are some of the World's best players and we are talking about drop-dead good looking boys and girls in their twenties who as as much at home with Bach as they are with boogie-woogie, jazz, heavy metal or any other type of music.

So why bother with has-beens who can't play their instruments when there are so many brilliant real musicians around?


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