Production Technical Theatre

Pros and Cons of Live Bands versus Backing Tracks

Musical: Pros and Cons of Live Bands vs Backing Tracks
Written by Kerry Hishon

When working on a musical with your students, you will need to decide whether you will use a live band or backing (karaoke) tracks for the music. Whether you use a live band or backing tracks, there will be pros and cons. Just select whatever method is best for your students, your budget, and your production. Here are some pros and cons to help you make your choice!

Live Bands

Pros:

  • It’s exciting for students to get to work with a live band or orchestra. My students always say the show “feels more real” when they get to work with a band.
  • A live band provides a huge, powerful sound for performers and audiences alike.
  • Some teachers will hire professional musicians to play for their shows, which is definitely exciting for students to perform with, but many will have students from their school’s music department perform as the show band. Having a live band or orchestra provides great opportunities for student musicians to get involved in the drama department, to improve their repertoire, to grow their musical resumes, and to have a lot of fun.
  • With live bands, the conductor can make adjustments on the fly if something goes wrong, such as tempo changes or adding additional repeats to cover a mistake (such as a quick change or set change that is taking too long).

Cons:

  • Live bands can overpower performers onstage. With backing tracks, you can easily bring the sound down whereas live musicians can turn their own amps up or simply play their acoustic instruments loudly and ignore the conductor’s directions. If you use a live band, your student actors will need to use microphones to balance the sound.
  • Live bands don’t always sound exactly like the recordings, so your students will need to really listen to the band and follow along with the conductor.
  • Furthermore, musicians are human and will make errors. Musicians have to learn the music just like the student performers and often in a shorter amount of time. Musicians are not making mistakes purposely to mess with the performers and vice versa. Both performers and musicians must be patient and forgiving of each other.
  • There will be increased costs in time and money if you are paying professional musicians to perform. A live band will also need additional rehearsal time both on their own and with the actors (called a sitzprobe) so that they are not performing the music for the first time at a tech rehearsal or cue-to-cue (those rehearsals are stressful enough as it is without adding a brand new band to the mix).
Backing Tracks

Pros:

  • You will always get a consistent performance with a backing track because it never changes! Your students will know exactly what to expect and exactly what the music will sound like.
  • Tracks can be more affordable because you don’t need to hire a full band or take the time to rehearse a band.
  • Tracks are more and more accessible nowadays. Many musical licensing companies provide both vocal recordings and backing tracks as part of their performance rights packages.
  • Tracks are easy to rehearse with. Depending on your licensing rights, students may be able to take the tracks home with them and rehearse on their own rather than sitting with the sheet music and a piano, figuring out the notes.

Cons:

  • Not all licensing companies provide backing tracks, so with some shows you MUST hire a live band or orchestra. Be sure to research this when making your decision on what show to do.
  • Since tracks are pre-recorded, they do not allow for adjustments on the fly. If your students speed up, slow down, or miss a cue, the music will just keep on going without them, and it can be challenging to get things back on track.
  • There are a lot of different kinds of backing track systems. Some companies use computer programs or apps and some provide CDs. You must have the appropriate playback equipment and amplification equipment available for whatever format you receive.
  • As with any other technology, using backing tracks is not foolproof. Technology can fail through power outages or damage to the equipment (such as a skipping CD). Always have a backup method available!
Click here for a printable free tip sheet for you and a mini-assignment for your students.

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. She blogs at www.kerryhishon.com.

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About the author

Kerry Hishon

Kerry Hishon is a director, actor, writer and stage combatant from London, Ontario, Canada. View her blog at www.kerryhishon.com.