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  1. #1

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    Over the course of the last couple years, I've been fortunate enough to get a bit of experience working with a few different production companies through cruise ships and various fill-in gigs on land. I've seen the good, the bad, and more often than you might think - the cruel reality that sometimes the musicians employed are nothing more than stage furniture.


    This isn't due to a lack of musical ability, however it does represent the influence that profit-driven business models can have on art. Most of the time, the incredibly talented arrangers and composers on these shows have a bean counter that doesn't understand music or integrity breathing down their necks with the sole goal of achieving the same level of production while paying less for it.


    Less musicians employed, no qualified understudies in the case of a singer getting sick, and in general - less experienced skeleton tech crews who will work for less money.


    Backing tracks, or "canned shows"


    I think a lot of audience members would be surprised to find out that the "live stage production" they paid so much to attend is massively over-produced with pre-recorded instruments, MIDI sequencing, and backing vocals. Broadway, The West End, cruise ships, touring acts, even major rock shows like Trans Siberian Orchestra, overproduced tech metal shows, and most of the top 40 Billboard artists - they're all running a click track.


    What is a click track?
    To a musician, a click track is exactly what it sounds like - essentially a metronome or cowbell tone that runs throughout the tracked sections of the show that can keep the live musicians in check with the backing tracks and other cues. Click tracks can be synced up with timecode in the lights, motorized stage props, and automation on the sound board. Using a click track is a way to lighten the manpower needed to run a production show.


    My first experience with this was a couple years ago in college. A touring musical production of Memphis came to my University. In the pit were two keyboards, a trumpet, a woodwind specialist, and a bass guitarist. In the house however you're hearing drum set, electric & acoustic guitars, strings, and massive big band-esque horn sections. It didn't line up. I spoke to the musicians after the show and they said that the drummer and other musicians were just off stage in the wing - jokingly. The briefly explained that the show is partially tracked.


    Fast forward a few years when I got into the industry myself and I'm learning more and more about how all of this works. Click tracks are there to simplify the workload of the production crew, save money on labor, provide "sick tracks" to fill in when the actual live musicians or singers can't perform, and create an overall more consistent product. Sometimes the backing tracks are abused and are used to completely cover up the live musicians. Sometimes singers are actually lip-syncing - yes, seriously. And even still, when technology is there to simplify - sometimes the computer crashes and leaves you hanging.


    I have no reason for sharing this other than I was absolutely bored one day and wanted to write a story and film a short video sharing my experiences. Skip to 14:05 for a live playthrough with a click track if you're interested in what this gig is like. You'll hear the click track, backing tracks, live musicians, and will be able to see the music scrolling along the bottom of the screen if you want to follow along.





    Table of contents:
    0:00 - Intro
    0:50 - "Why use a click?"
    4:25 - Partially tracked shows
    7:31 - Live vs. fully tracked shows
    11:18 - "What's on a click track?"
    14:05 - playthrough of a live production
    26:40 - outro


    If you made it this far, I hope I didn't spoil anything for you. Maybe I just sound like I'm ranting, but playing to tracks makes me feel like I might as well be sitting in a cubical doing paperwork

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  3. #2

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    Thank you for doing this! I appreciate the insight and the vicarious experience. Like your Strat too!

  4. #3

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    It's been that way for decades. Musicians union always fighting shit like this, but losing more than winning.


  5. #4

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    Makes me wonder if the Stones use sick tracks. Some of the videos that I have seen of shows from recent years don't seem to match audio vs. visual.

  6. #5

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    I think a lot of classic rock bands have moved in that direction unfortunately. Guys that have spent their whole lives singing and screaming incorrectly can't keep up the same level of stamina in their 60's and 70's. I would like to think that guitar is different but who knows?

    On ships I met someone who had run FOH sound in the last decade at least for Don Felder of The Eagles. He told me that parts of his show were tracked - both vocals and guitar. I absolutely adore Don Felder's music and even knowing this, I'd still like to see him live some day.

  7. #6

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    I thought this was pretty common through the years. Clearly obvious when you watch many of those old 70s variety shows, on through Milli Vanilli. It only makes sense, from a production standpoint, to sync to a click through MIDI for lights etc. Many prog drummers would use clicks onstage in order to ensure tight meter, as well.

    I've seen several vids of classic-rock bands caught out off-track, so yeah, it's how they can do the old songs in the same, higher key as the original, rather than transposing or downtuning.

    I prefer improv with no net, like I assume most here do, but in pop and rock, where the music is pretty regimented, it's a sensible solution.

  8. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by McJazzer
    I think a lot of classic rock bands have moved in that direction unfortunately. Guys that have spent their whole lives singing and screaming incorrectly can't keep up the same level of stamina in their 60's and 70's. I would like to think that guitar is different but who knows?
    I think with the Stones it might be the opposite. I think that Jagger probably still sings everything, but Richards and Woodie just mug for the audience and camera. I seem to remember hearing Springsteen say that they use a click track live. Be interesting to know if any parts of it are canned fill. Again, I kinda doubt that any of his vocals are and maybe they just use the click for the band.

  9. #8

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    I read somewhere years ago that Peter Gabriel used a click track live for 3/4 of every song. The last fourth, the click wasn't audible, so the musicians could give more drive to the ending of the song.
    This made perfect sense for me at the time.

    Sergio

  10. #9

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    Quote Originally Posted by lammie200
    I think with the Stones it might be the opposite. I think that Jagger probably still sings everything, but Richards and Woodie just mug for the audience and camera.
    I have seen their set lists, with the instructions for the crew. It is all real. Someone has the job of switching on a pedal for Satisfaction (Keith Richards once said, "I don’t work a lot with floor pedals – I need my feet to stand on!”) and then turning it off.

  11. #10

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    Quote Originally Posted by sergio.bello
    I read somewhere years ago that Peter Gabriel used a click track live for 3/4 of every song. The last fourth, the click wasn't audible, so the musicians could give more drive to the ending of the song.
    This made perfect sense for me at the time.

    Sergio
    That’s interesting! PG apparently played drums when at school IIRC ... he’s hip to that kind of thing.

  12. #11

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    I’ve never done a tracked show like that - never did the ships either, although loads of people I know have done that and regard it as a real finishing school.

    I have sat in on forum member 55bar (no longer hangs out) playing a show (tracked iirc) we were watching jazz masterclass vids in the gaps. It’s fun to see how that stuff is done.

    Anyway these types of youtube vids are great for those looking to make their way into professional music.... thanks for putting it up!

  13. #12

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    Quote Originally Posted by sergio.bello
    I read somewhere years ago that Peter Gabriel used a click track live for 3/4 of every song. The last fourth, the click wasn't audible, so the musicians could give more drive to the ending of the song.
    This made perfect sense for me at the time.

    Sergio
    I've got no idea if this is true, but it sure is a sensible compromise for his sort of stuff.

  14. #13

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    Very interesting and useful thread. Thank you for the behind-the-scenes peek. Impressive. I passed it on, as a reality check, to my nephew, who is toying with the idea of becoming a working musician.

    This thread also brought back memories of the late 70s when I drove a long way to see Queen live at the New Haven Coliseum, only to find that the operatic bridge from 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was canned. In that case, they dimmed the lights and upped the smoke and the band left the stage.

  15. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by JazzPadd
    Very interesting and useful thread. Thank you for the behind-the-scenes peek. Impressive. I passed it on, as a reality check, to my nephew, who is toying with the idea of becoming a working musician.

    This thread also brought back memories of the late 70s when I drove a long way to see Queen live at the New Haven Coliseum, only to find that the operatic bridge from 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was canned. In that case, they dimmed the lights and upped the smoke and the band left the stage.
    Im sure the rest of the show was killing though.

  16. #15

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    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77
    Im sure the rest of the show was killing though.
    Totally, it didn't really detract from enjoying the song, just was a surprise, and after that section they were back seamlessly on stage in full force. It was certainly one of many memorable 70s concerts.

  17. #16

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    For the last 10 years or so the big thing in Europe are "Tribute" bands that cover the hit songs from one famous group exclusively- guess it started with the Beatles shows and went from there, now you have several Pink Floyd, ABBA, Genesis,
    Deep Purple, AC/CD, Eagles, The Who, etc.
    ALL these acts rely heavily on sequenced pre-produced parts - otherwise it would be way too expensive / too many musicians.
    I have subbed for one VERY busy and successful BeeGee's act and the three front singers (one played acoustic guitar, one "operated" the single keyboard, one solo voice) were backed by guitar, bass and drums ONLY ! EVERYTHING else came from the click track, controlled by the drummer. The audiences ate it up, they loved every minute of the shows and I never once heard one critical comment .... That way of music making becomes boring and stale VERY quickly and I don't miss it all.
    I have very fond memories of the 7 years I spent working at a Variety Theatre, some 15 years ago. We were a 5 piece band in the pit and every note was actually played live, plus the dinner music in between the 3-part show. It could not have been done any other way since we backed not only the singer, the dancers, the comedians etc. but also the circus artists who relied on giving us their cues WHEN THEY were ready. It was a fun, challenging and rewarding experience and I am grateful and glad to have had the opportunity to learn this special craft. My younger colleagues will not have this chance.

  18. #17

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    Quote Originally Posted by McJazzer
    Over the course of the last couple years, I've been fortunate enough to get a bit of experience working with a few different production companies through cruise ships and various fill-in gigs on land. I've seen the good, the bad, and more often than you might think - the cruel reality that sometimes the musicians employed are nothing more than stage furniture.


    This isn't due to a lack of musical ability, however it does represent the influence that profit-driven business models can have on art. Most of the time, the incredibly talented arrangers and composers on these shows have a bean counter that doesn't understand music or integrity breathing down their necks with the sole goal of achieving the same level of production while paying less for it.


    Less musicians employed, no qualified understudies in the case of a singer getting sick, and in general - less experienced skeleton tech crews who will work for less money.


    Backing tracks, or "canned shows"


    I think a lot of audience members would be surprised to find out that the "live stage production" they paid so much to attend is massively over-produced with pre-recorded instruments, MIDI sequencing, and backing vocals. Broadway, The West End, cruise ships, touring acts, even major rock shows like Trans Siberian Orchestra, overproduced tech metal shows, and most of the top 40 Billboard artists - they're all running a click track.


    What is a click track?
    To a musician, a click track is exactly what it sounds like - essentially a metronome or cowbell tone that runs throughout the tracked sections of the show that can keep the live musicians in check with the backing tracks and other cues. Click tracks can be synced up with timecode in the lights, motorized stage props, and automation on the sound board. Using a click track is a way to lighten the manpower needed to run a production show.


    My first experience with this was a couple years ago in college. A touring musical production of Memphis came to my University. In the pit were two keyboards, a trumpet, a woodwind specialist, and a bass guitarist. In the house however you're hearing drum set, electric & acoustic guitars, strings, and massive big band-esque horn sections. It didn't line up. I spoke to the musicians after the show and they said that the drummer and other musicians were just off stage in the wing - jokingly. The briefly explained that the show is partially tracked.


    Fast forward a few years when I got into the industry myself and I'm learning more and more about how all of this works. Click tracks are there to simplify the workload of the production crew, save money on labor, provide "sick tracks" to fill in when the actual live musicians or singers can't perform, and create an overall more consistent product. Sometimes the backing tracks are abused and are used to completely cover up the live musicians. Sometimes singers are actually lip-syncing - yes, seriously. And even still, when technology is there to simplify - sometimes the computer crashes and leaves you hanging.


    I have no reason for sharing this other than I was absolutely bored one day and wanted to write a story and film a short video sharing my experiences. Skip to 14:05 for a live playthrough with a click track if you're interested in what this gig is like. You'll hear the click track, backing tracks, live musicians, and will be able to see the music scrolling along the bottom of the screen if you want to follow along.





    Table of contents:
    0:00 - Intro
    0:50 - "Why use a click?"
    4:25 - Partially tracked shows
    7:31 - Live vs. fully tracked shows
    11:18 - "What's on a click track?"
    14:05 - playthrough of a live production
    26:40 - outro


    If you made it this far, I hope I didn't spoil anything for you. Maybe I just sound like I'm ranting, but playing to tracks makes me feel like I might as well be sitting in a cubical doing paperwork
    Any idea what software/hardware is used to coordinate everything?

  19. #18

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stevebol
    Any idea what software/hardware is used to coordinate everything?
    Probably Ableton Live on a Mac....

  20. #19

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    Quote Originally Posted by JazzPadd
    Totally, it didn't really detract from enjoying the song, just was a surprise, and after that section they were back seamlessly on stage in full force. It was certainly one of many memorable 70s concerts.
    Would love to have seen Queen in their pomp...

  21. #20

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    In the "Bring on the Night" film, you can see Omar Hakim using a metronome. If it's good enough for him...

  22. #21

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stevebol
    Any idea what software/hardware is used to coordinate everything?
    For organizing and coordinating, QLab has quite a following.

    For actually playing the instrumental sounds, some use MainStage on the Mac.

    I was very surprised, not that long ago (but when it still existed), at a performance of the Ringling Bros. circus. Every instrument I could hear was represented by a live musician way up in the mezzanine – perhaps as many as 15 musicians.

  23. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by gitman
    For the last 10 years or so the big thing in Europe are "Tribute" bands that cover the hit songs from one famous group exclusively- guess it started with the Beatles shows and went from there, now you have several Pink Floyd, ABBA, Genesis,
    Deep Purple, AC/CD, Eagles, The Who, etc.
    ALL these acts rely heavily on sequenced pre-produced parts - otherwise it would be way too expensive / too many musicians.
    I have subbed for one VERY busy and successful BeeGee's act and the three front singers (one played acoustic guitar, one "operated" the single keyboard, one solo voice) were backed by guitar, bass and drums ONLY ! EVERYTHING else came from the click track, controlled by the drummer. The audiences ate it up, they loved every minute of the shows and I never once heard one critical comment .... That way of music making becomes boring and stale VERY quickly and I don't miss it all.
    I have very fond memories of the 7 years I spent working at a Variety Theatre, some 15 years ago. We were a 5 piece band in the pit and every note was actually played live, plus the dinner music in between the 3-part show. It could not have been done any other way since we backed not only the singer, the dancers, the comedians etc. but also the circus artists who relied on giving us their cues WHEN THEY were ready. It was a fun, challenging and rewarding experience and I am grateful and glad to have had the opportunity to learn this special craft. My younger colleagues will not have this chance.
    A big exception to pre-recorded tribute band are The Analogues. The best Beatles tribute band on earth. Seriously. Not only do they never use any samples, they only use analog technology, so no Moog emulations, but the real Moog. I've seen them live and they are incredible. They do use a click track, but the only reason they do is that their click track is based on the actual Beatles songs. With a metronome, it would not be correct, as there is a subtle amount of drift in most songs.

    Fun fact: when Ringo Starr was interviewed about how they kept tempo in the 60's, he said: I am the f*cking click track...
    In reality he kept tempo by looking at Johns ass. The screaming was so loud he usually couldn't hear a thing, but Johns moving ass gave him the correct tempo.

  24. #23

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    Thanks for the info. You pretty much validate my observations.

    A related topic is how reliant older acts are on technology, i.e., Santana, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart. Hard to tell what's "real" and what's contrived. If the real parts (vocals, guitar solos) are good and the show is entertaining, I don't care too much.

    I have always enjoyed seeing groups with a minimal setup, especially when they are starting out. I saw Lucinda Williams with Blake Mills on guitar (about 20 feet from the stage), and I can tell you every single note came out of their voiceboxes and their instruments. Old Crow Medicine Show...Devil Makes Three...Wilco...St. Paul and the Broken Bones...Nathaniel Rateliff...lots of great groups out there keeping it "real"...

    BTW I recently saw the Vegas production of Cirque du Soleil's Mystere. I assumed as I was watching it that it was mainly prerecorded, and maybe large parts of it are tracked, but a little research shows that there is a huge band of talented singers and musicians who participate. Sounded flawless, and one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen in the last year.

  25. #24

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    I am such an amateur.

    I'm good with that.

    Thanks for this.. it was truly interesting stuff.

  26. #25

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    Quote Originally Posted by Doctor Jeff
    Thanks for the info. You pretty much validate my observations.

    A related topic is how reliant older acts are on technology, i.e., Santana, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart. Hard to tell what's "real" and what's contrived. If the real parts (vocals, guitar solos) are good and the show is entertaining, I don't care too much.

    I have always enjoyed seeing groups with a minimal setup, especially when they are starting out. I saw Lucinda Williams with Blake Mills on guitar (about 20 feet from the stage), and I can tell you every single note came out of their voiceboxes and their instruments. Old Crow Medicine Show...Devil Makes Three...Wilco...St. Paul and the Broken Bones...Nathaniel Rateliff...lots of great groups out there keeping it "real"...

    BTW I recently saw the Vegas production of Cirque du Soleil's Mystere. I assumed as I was watching it that it was mainly prerecorded, and maybe large parts of it are tracked, but a little research shows that there is a huge band of talented singers and musicians who participate. Sounded flawless, and one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen in the last year.
    Holy shit if you go see Cirque do you really give too much of a shit about the music? I know it’s an integral part of the show but it’s not what I remember.

    It’s cool they have a band and they’ve found a way of making it work with what is an unbelievably complex and potentially life risking show.

  27. #26

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    Cirque is a great example of a partially tracked show. They have some incredible musicians behind the scenes. There are sections that are largely tracked with synth and ambient tones, and also parts that are orchestral sounding. There's a click that is started and stopped by the music director and then he or she will also que the tracks to run along with the live band. On my third ship contract, our stage manager had previously done two touring contracts with Cirque. I was interested in that gig for awhile but he talked me out of it. It sounds like even worse living conditions than on ships. At least on ships you can unpack and don't have to live out of a suitcase all the time.

    In the past on ships I've seen them use Pro Tools and Ableton for running the tracks and automation for the live band.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences. This has been equally informative for me! I've never done a cover band gig before

  28. #27

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    Thank you for creating and posting this. Very, very interesting.... candidly, after watching the video of you playing, my thought was how in the world would you do that without a click track in your ear?

    I am consistently in awe of the players who perform in pit bands/orchestras. It seems incredibly demanding, regardless of the scale of the production. Full disclosure: my son is a music director/keyboard player in NYC (or he is when the theaters are open), and has done his share of cruise productions. Hopefully, all of you guys can get back to work in the not too distant future.

  29. #28

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    Just as an aside, historically, there have been two contracts for touring of Broadway Shows: a Bus and Truck contract, and a Production contract. The Production tour pays the same scale as the actual Broadway show, and includes the same number of musicians. The production may travel by plane, from one large city to the next; these usually play in each location for a month or more.

    A Bus & Truck contract (the cast travels by bus, the sets & equipment by truck) is cheaper, and will usually have a full complement of actors, but may cut down on music personnel. Under this contract, the company may only stay in one place for a few nights or a week, and it uses a different scale than a production contract (the minimums are lower).

    It seems, however, that Production contract tours are largely a thing of the past. My friends who are still performing tell me that nowadays almost all tours are bus & truck, so the number of music personnel may well be limited to what is necessary beyond electronic reproduction.

    Long ago, I was in a summer production of Brigadoon for a theatre in California. This theatre had a practice of recording all the musicians in advance (full orchestra), and then the conductor, listening to the recording over headphones, would conduct the actors via a monitor strategically located where the actors could see him but the audience could not. The sound was really first-rate, and I doubt that anyone could tell from listening that it was a recording; but if something happened, there was no going back or skipping to another part.

    One night an actress skipped one whole short scene in the middle of the reprises near the end of the show, leaving me to stand alone on stage with nothing to do, as the music cues came and went; meanwhile the cast members in the background scrambled to figure out whether they should follow the cue of the lines spoken on stage or what the music was telling them to do. The director, who happened to be in the audience that performance, was furious, but I thought it was hilarious, even if I was hanging out to dry.

  30. #29

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    Ukena - thank you for the insight! I don't know much about land touring but that is good to know. I had never heard of the production touring you had mentioned - maybe because I'm young and still pretty fresh to the game. That sounds like it would've been much better than a bus and truck contract. I can't imagine living out of a suitcase from hotel room to hotel room and having to sleep on a bus sometimes. That would be rough. Then again, there are plenty aspects of ship life that are equally as terrible.

    I've definitely developed a similar attitude to you though. When **** hits the fan in a performance, I'm usually the one laughing about it.

  31. #30

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    Why do we even have musicians at all anymore? With all of the backing tracks and computer power,as well as an audience who doesn't care! Or even know what it takes to actually learn music.

    We sorely need an audience that has some serious musical appreciation first and foremost.And then keep the music education funding in all schools.
    Why is it Japan ,Europe,etc are so far ahead of us in the music America originally created? Profit Driven and Bean Counters need to not be Music Producers in any shape or form!

    Rant Over!

  32. #31

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    Smiling out of both sides of my mouth for this one. "Marginalized" may not be the best word to describe Keef, but I can't think of a better one. Not sure what to think about the drum, bass and synth tracks. TMI, I suppose.


  33. #32

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    Quote Originally Posted by lammie200
    Smiling out of both sides of my mouth for this one. "Marginalized" may not be the best word to describe Keef, but I can't think of a better one. Not sure what to think about the drum, bass and synth tracks. TMI, I suppose.

    I like Charlie's kit.