Backing Tracks or Looper: Which Is Best?
by Allen Cook, Musician
There are several benefits to practicing with a backing track. To name a few:
1-it lays down the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of the tune.
2-it gives you freedom to experiment with melodic and phrasing ideas.
3-some playback devices allow tempo changes; being able to decrease the speed is great for nailing down difficult phrases.
4-it will challenge you to maintain the groove, as well as improve your ability to play in time.
If tracks have been recorded and mixed well, they can be used on gigs. This is great for solo musicians. In situations where budget is a concern, the client can have a full band sound for less money, usually but not always hassle free concerns with volume, a smaller footprint that takes up less space, as opposed to having multiple musicians and lots of gear, etc. An added plus is that the musician doesn’t have to carry the entire musical load for the duration of the gig. In addition, the guests have a drum beat to snap their fingers and bob their heads to.
Track gigs are a must for solo instruments that don’t play chords, for example, horn players. Guitarists can add some really cool rhythmic riffs to enhance the groove of the track. They can focus more on the vocals (if they sing), the melody, and improvisation. Go wireless and you can roam the home, or the venue. Depending on the instrumentation and orchestration in the track, a guitar chord melody style can be used without having to likewise carry the entire musical load. Lots of flexibility and versatility in using backing tracks.
Sometimes tracks can be too cluttered with excessive instrumentation and orchestration (big band, full string sections, multiple keyboards, etc). Since creating tracks is a MIDI thing, there are usually multiple keyboard parts and sounds. But how much is not enough, or too much?
On multiple occasions, I’ve heard solo musicians (guitar/singer, or horn players, for example) play along with tracks on the gig that are indeed over saturated with orchestration; so much so that the dynamics (especially with big band style tracks) sometimes overshadow the performance of the musician. The melody and/or the solo gets lost in the mix. If pre-recorded background vocals are added, forget about it.
Sometimes tracks even have a solo (guitar, horn or other) in the section where the live musician should be playing a solo. The performance then becomes less organic, less believable, less realistic, at least to me. I would much prefer to hear the heart and soul of the musician. This is easier to achieve with less cluttered tracks. I would venture to say that it’s possible that the musician compromises their chances of giving a good performance because they’ve become accustomed to letting the track carry the load.
Of course this is just speculation, not a fact. But I think anyone reading this would agree there’s much to be said about applying the “KISS” formula to tracks. Drums, bass and/or keys (or guitar) is often more than enough. Several bass players have shared with me that they enjoy playing in guitar trio situations a bit more than in keyboard trio arrangements because it offers more melodic and creative freedom for them. Sometimes less really is more. It takes a very skilled and confident guitarist to perform without the harmonic support of a keyboard player. Mike Stern and John Scofield come to mind.
A few musicians I know personally get their tracks from various sources on the internet. The mix levels, arrangements, instrumentation, and orchestration varies with lots of inconsistency from one tune to the next. But I get it. It takes an investment to create and customize tracks: buying the needed tools (software, gear), time, money, developing some basic studio and keyboard skills, etc. Grabbing some tracks, whether freebies and/or paid, is a way to get up and running for gigging rather quickly; it might not be quite up to par with what you really want, but it’ll serve it’s purpose.
Occasionally a track gig musician (typically a woodwinds player) hires me to play keyboards on instrumental gigs. Often times the tracks are so full of keyboards, I’m hard pressed to find a sonic space. If the big four are already being covered (piano, electric piano, organ, strings), I’ll turn the volume down and pretend. It’s true! No one knows the difference. But I usually have a synth sound that works well for solos when called upon to do so.
Hiring a guitarist (or two), in my opinion, is usually a much better option. The sound of a guitar is a bit more challenging to emulate via MIDI, though the technology is always improving. How it’s recorded and the voicings used have much to do with making it believable. But the real thing is always better, whether acoustic, nylon, solid, or hollow body.
Most often, the playback device for a solo musician is a phone or tablet. Some still use a small laptop but it’s not as common as it used to be. As of this writing, I know of one musician that still uses the old school mini disc. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
There are so many options for creating and acquiring accompaniment tracks: download freebies (though you may get what you don’t pay for), purchase them (though you may not quite get what you pay for), music accompaniment software, loops strung together from DAW recording software, etc.
Then there are loopers. Lots of product variety here. Although mainly used by guitarists, keyboard players sometimes employ them. And at times, the musician is primarily a guitarist that connects a keyboard to a looper for adding variety to the sonic presentation.
There are devices that are combination loopers and vocal harmony processors. The cool thing about loopers versus tracks is having control of when the song ends. Loops can run indefinitely, whereas tracks come to an end, as recordings do. The performer is thus locked into the arrangement of the track. If the playback device is a laptop computer, setting it to run on loop mode will keep it playing until you make the call to stop it.
Also, the overdub feature of loopers allows the performer to keep adding and subtracting parts during the performance. Loops won’t have the full band sound like tracks do, unless pre-recorded as such and imported via external storage, for example SD cards. The amount of recording time allowed in minutes is limited only by the features of the particular model. As they saying goes, the nicer the nice, the higher the price.
The venue may or may not have guidelines or restrictions for using tracks or loops. You can’t and shouldn’t be led by preconceived ideas about audience expectations. There are some that still like good old organic and soulfully delivered acoustic performances. In fact, certain songs are better performed that way-just you and your instrument. And there are those that might welcome and appreciate a little back beat to get their groove on. Mixing it up is a good thing: strictly solo, with a few backing track tunes thrown into the mix.
In case you’re wondering what I do: when playing acoustic guitar and singing, I prefer the more “organic” approach, a looper pedal to record a progression as needed for solo breaks, but not on every song.
The best thing to do (you already know this) is to experiment. Find out what works best for you and your music, your branding. One thing’s for sure, however you decide to approach your performances, there is no shortage of tools to choose from.