Sync or Swim: Mariah Carey Is Far From Alone in Using Pre-Recorded Audio for Live Performances

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Utilizing some form of pre-recorded vocals or instruments has become the norm for today's performers.

Live performing isn’t what it used to be, as an increasing number of large-venue artists take advantage of digital technologies, turning stage shows into feats of engineering. While Mariah Carey’s techno-glitch on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve made painfully clear how reliant artists — and audiences — are on the stream of data feeds that wind invisibly through a show, the honey-voiced singer is far from alone. There are, in fact, very few acts today that don’t utilize some form of pre-recorded augmentation to improve live sound.

This can range from simple vocal enhancements, like octave doubling, to adding a particular instrument, most often percussion or keyboards. Full playback — where both the vocals and instruments are canned — is unheard of for typical concert or festival settings, but not uncommon for televised live performances, where there is only one chance to get it right.

Not Just for Lips

Old fashioned lip-syncing, while still in use, has become a mash-up where there’s no limit to what live and canned elements are combined to make a live presentation sound and look better. “Television definitely adds a layer of complexity to any live performance,” AEG Live senior vp Joe Litvag said. “It’s a double-edged sword, because it potentially exposes an act to a much larger audience, but any mistake is going to live forever on YouTube.” Litvag, who is based in St. Louis and handles AEG events in the Midwest, where the Rocklahoma and MoPop music festivals take place, said TV’s heightened interest in broadcasting from fests has resulted in complicated negotiations between bands and networks. “There are a lot of variables we leave to the artist, their production team and the TV producers to hash out,” Litvag said.

Even for television, it is more typical to combine a mix of pre-recorded and live music. For high-visibility live TV — something like the Grammys or the NFL Super Bowl halftime show — a typical approach would be to feed the hero audio live, with backing tracks like bass and drums pre-recorded.

“The Super Bowl is pre-tracked, with one or two live mics,” says Jack Boessneck, Eighth Day Sound executive vp, global operations (taking care to point out that his firm doesn’t handle music sound for the Super Bowl, which goes to AtK AudioTek). As for other special events, like presidential inaugurations, playback tracks for a show as special as the Super Bowl are custom recorded days before the gig.

“Those artists do perform live, just not all at the same time,” Boessneck said. “Usually it’s the lead singer and one or two key instruments. They just can’t rig up a whole stage show in the middle of a football game like they would for a concert tour. It’s not practical, but of course they want the sound to be great. There are restraints with TV, and the Super Bowl is first and foremost a TV show.”

In this era of sampling and remixes, there are rap artists who tour with only prerecorded tracks, and even some alt rock bands whose stage show includes tracked bass, drums and keyboards (or some combination thereof). On tour, as in the studio, vocals are regularly “filled out” by digitally layering in additional tracks (sometimes known as octave doubling). With live mixing boards averaging between 56 and 80 in/outs, and sometimes going into the hundreds, that’s a lot of sound sourcing.

What Is "Singing to Track"?

Boessneck — whose firm is the second-largest live sound equipment rental house in the world, after Clair — said for big acts, particularly those with elaborate choreography, it is now standard practice to have recordings for the entire show’s lead vocal tracks ready for a playback engineer to feed in at various points, allowing singers to catch their breath, or providing cover should their voice become raspy.

“An artist has to be up on stage, dancing like crazy, all through set. I don’t know any athlete in the world who can do that for more than an hour and not become winded. That’s why there’s a simultrack running. If an artist happens to not be able to hit the notes, that backing track helps. That’s only fair. If all the audience wanted was for an artist to come out and sing their songs, they would all do that. They all can. That’s what Barbra Streisand does. But Beyonce fans expect quite a different experience, and if she didn’t deliver, they’d be disappointed.” Major tours that have rented equipment from Eighth Day include Madonna, Rihanna, Coldplay, Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga, in addition to Beyonce.

While the equipment firms provide the gear, artists employ their own team to operate it, and producers and mixers who can engineer great playback — whether specially recorded, or re-worked from existing material — are highly valued in a market where live revenue accounts for major earnings power, no one wants to disappoint the fans, and credibility can hang in the balance.

While all live shows are subject to changing conditions that can throw curve balls at a concert’s production staff, the key is to anticipate variables and have a contingency plan in place. “On almost all shows, something is going to take you by surprise,” Faculty Management and Productions founder Jared Paul cautioned. Paul — whose firm represents clients including NKOTB, Sabrina Carpeter and Il Divo, and through Faculty Productions has mounted Julianne and Derek Hough’s Move Tour and Dancing with the Stars Live — said a lesson he lives by is “be truly pre-produced” (which is not to be confused with pre-recorded). “You have to have everything in order so that you can throw your focus to those challenges on the given day and not be playing catchup.”

So is there anyone who just goes onstage with amplification the only thing between the band, the instruments and the fans? “There are still some artists that insist on playing everything live,” said one touring company manager. Who? “Mainly older groups, the ones that have been performing since the '80s, the '70s, maybe longer.” In other words, this is not your grandfather’s concert stage — unless the performers are old enough to be grandfathers.

Why Weather Matters

Weather presents its own unique hurdles. Paul has soldiered the New Kids through many a torrential downpour, from Fenway to their return on the Today show’s outdoor stage in 2008. “We joke now that it’s not a major event outdoors if it doesn’t rain on the Blockheads.” But even indoor venues have different seasonal factors. A stadium in Minnesota that has snow on its roof is going to have a lower ceiling load than it did in summer, which will affect how you hang lights and speakers, thus how a show looks and sounds.

Or weather can completely derail plans to play live, as happens regularly for those handpicked for presidential inaugurations. As a precautionary measure, performances are typically pre-recorded days in advance, although it is only the day before the event, at the technical run-through, that the decision is made whether to go live or use playback. In 2009, sub-freezing temperatures meant the string instruments of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman and their accompanying pianist would not stay in tune, so they “performed” on muted instruments. (Rumor has it the innards of the piano were removed, while Ma used a water-saturated bow, which makes no sound, so the musicians could convincingly “play” yet not be heard.) While the participating clarinetist’s instrument would not have been affected in the same way, “You can’t have a quartet with only one instrument playing live,” the 2009 Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies communications director Carole Florman said.

“We even recorded the U.S. Marine Band, but as it turned out, the weather was workable for the brass, so they did play live,” Florman recalled. For President Obama’s second term, Beyonce availed herself of the full playback and came in for some public criticism following the 2013 inaugural. In 2009, Aretha Franklin refused to record, and Florman feels the live performance suffered as a result. “That is why the inaugural planners always take that step, of doing the pre-record. In 1985, President Regan’s second-term inauguration ceremony was actually canceled because the cold was deemed a risk to public health,” Forman said.

With temperatures between 27 and 35 degrees, weather may have been a factor during Carey’s alleged ear-monitor meltdown on New Year's Eve, although speaking off the record, one industry professional said he wasn’t buying the excuse, calling it “highly unlikely.” A more plausible reason for the technical glitch that resulted in lead vocal dropout was that the playback for a full lip-sync either wasn’t there or wouldn’t play.

“Usually the live crowd is pretty forgiving and the people watching on television less so,” Litvag said, referencing what has become a national pastime: searching YouTube for artist blunders captured for all eternity. “Sure, everybody wants a perfect show, but in my opinion, we need to give the artists a break, give the producers a break. In an outdoor situation, weather can be a huge factor. This isn’t a perfect world.”

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