washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Music

In Concert, but Not Live

Backing Tracks Find a Role Onstage

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page A01

Joel Hamilton believes now is the perfect time for you pop-music fans to get a grip on reality. Your favorite singer just may be cheating on you.

Hamilton, a veteran music producer and sound engineer, doesn't think anyone should have been shocked by singer Ashlee Simpson's fakery on "Saturday Night Live" last week.

Ashlee Simpson, shown at the Radio Music Awards Monday, sparked a controversy when she was caught lip-syncing on "Saturday Night Live" Oct. 23. (Joe Cavaretta -- AP)

In fact, he says, instead of blaming her band or acute acid reflux disease for her performance-enhancement needs, Simpson should have simply told the truth.

"Backing tracks have been around as long as there have been tracks," says Hamilton, who works out of Studio G in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has been twiddling the knobs for both indie-rock upstarts and major-label heavyweights for more than 10 years.

Backing tracks -- that is, prerecorded tracks, either with or without vocals, that can help an artist better re-create an album performance -- can be used in different ways. Those venerable acts on "American Bandstand" were lip-syncing: mouthing along to their songs. Pink Floyd has used prerecorded tracks to add sonic rumble to its trippy concert shtick. And Madonna has used "guide vocals" -- prerecorded vocal tracks that a pop star can sing over to add oomph to her performance -- so she can dance, dance, dance and not sound winded.

Hip-hop acts and rappers employ prerecorded tracks all the time at "track dates," live events where someone, usually a DJ, provides everything but the vocal. "I'm not sure why people are more accepting if the guy [playing the tracks] is right out in front," Hamilton says.

He's also not sure what Simpson was up to -- whether it was straight-up lip-syncing or a guide-vocal situation. Besides, he says, there's a much bigger secret to be divulged from the "SNL" slip-up anyway.

Thanks to relatively recent advances in digital processing, using prerecorded tracks is merely one of myriad tricks that musicians from Britney Spears to Aerosmith to U2 rely on to give live performances the same slick sheen as their albums. Much of the digital derring-do that used to be accomplished in recording studios -- vocal tuning, cutting and pasting guitar licks, adding multitrack layering -- can now be done onstage.

"There's a surreal, cartoonesque perfection that people expect today," Hamilton says. "Everything is being manipulated."

Hamilton should know: He and his peers are the ones doing the manipulating. A computer-literate sound engineer has become a must for any musician or band today -- especially a band whose singer has trouble hitting, and holding, certain notes. Pitch correction, real-time processing and harmony generation don't sound very rock-and-roll, but Britney Spears, Cher, even art-rockers Radiohead would sound lousy -- or, depending or your tastes, lousier -- without the computer-based help.

"The analogy would be airbrushing," says Hamilton. "It's the same thing as in Playboy."

Performance-enhancement for pop stars, especially on a high-tech scale, is a relatively new trend. In 1997, Antares Audio Technologies -- a godsend to some, the death of authentic music to others -- developed revolutionary pitch-correction software called Auto-Tune, which allows a sound technician to smooth out a singer's voice, no matter how wobbly or screechy or off-key that voice may be. Just punch the desired key of a song into the computer, and the gizmo will adjust the pitch to the closest note in that key.

Auto-tuning, which is now being used onstage as well, did nothing less than change how pop music is made.

How powerful are Auto-Tune and PitchDoctor and similar software? Let's just say that if those ill-fated charlatans Milli Vanilli -- the '80s duo who became synonymous with lip-syncing and having someone else sing their vocals -- were around today, they might still be mouthing the words during shows, but they'd be mouthing the words to songs they actually performed in the studio.

Yes, pitch correction is a miracle drug. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, musical icons whose careers are based on gargly vocals, have no use for it. But many other stars do.

"Take someone like Whitney Houston, for instance," says Ben Mellott, who operates the Nothing but Noise recording studio in Fairfax. "It's easy for her to drift flat or rise too sharp when she's holding a note. Auto-Tune would help her keep in tune."

Use the pitch device too much, however, and vocals can start to sound odd and mechanical, like a singing cyborg -- or Cher on her 1998 hit "Believe."

"I have trouble identifying Britney Spears's voice as a human voice," Mellott says. "I've never heard someone sing like that sitting in a room. But she's not going for realism -- she's going for show."

Roots-rocker Allison Moorer, on the other hand, apparently has different thoughts about auto-tuning. On copies of her 2002 album, "Miss Fortune," a sticker was attached: "Absolutely no vocal tuning or pitch correction was used in the making of this record."

"There's an internal debate in the industry about using this stuff," says Dave O'Donnell, a Grammy-nominated engineer who worked the soundboard for one of the biggest stars of the '80s. (O'Donnell, like all the other engineers interviewed, declined to specify the musicians with whom he's worked.) "But it's been blown out of proportion. It's a sign of the times. If you can fix something, you do. If you listen to old records, not everything's in tune. [These days], people overuse it. They like the perfection, but that just means they're inexperienced."

And the tricks just keep on coming: To further enhance a singer's vocals, sound engineers can use a device called a harmony generator: Just click a mouse and one Britney can suddenly sound like 100 Britneys. To give a band some help, gizmos called trigger pads can be attached to a drum kit and, when struck by the drummer, send signals to a computer. "You can hit the kick drum, for instance, and another sound altogether comes out," says Mellott. "You can play different sounds with each hit."

Guitarists are now equipped with effects pedals that can summon whole orchestras. Even advances in microphone technology can make a singer with a suspect voice sound like Sinatra. (Well, Frank Jr. at least.) "With the right type of mike, you can make a so-so singer sound powerful, and believe me, I've had my share of so-so singers," says Mellott.

The desire for perfection leads us back to Ashlee Simpson. The best way to re-create her studio sound in a live setting might be to run her voice through a processor and have her sing over backing tracks. Simpson "has been made to be something that requires backing tracks to achieve," Hamilton says, adding that the controversy surrounding her "is a weird judgment on something that wasn't supposed to have soul in the first place. That's like complaining about dinner after someone hands you a Snickers bar."

Simpson certainly isn't alone. Because select pop stars rely so heavily on pitch correction in the studio, they've been forced to bring high-tech trickery out on the road with them. And for entertainers whose stage show is even more important than the music, guide vocals are the way to go.

O'Donnell remembers seeing R&B crooner R. Kelly drop his microphone during a live arena performance -- but his vocals just kept on going. "His fans loved it," O'Donnell says. "They didn't care. They want the dancing. They want the show. Plus they knew Kelly really could sing."

"Guide tracks are very common," agrees Mellott. "Let's say Britney Spears is dancing around onstage. You expect her to hit every note when she's jumping around? A CD backup helps her put on a better show. It's what her fans want."

"This is something that has appeared more and more in the last 15, 20 years," Michael Jaworek, concert promoter for the Birchmere in Alexandria, says about all the new onstage technology. "So many artists in the of-the-moment pop realm do it. It seems to be occurring much more frequently."

Jaworek attributes a lot of it to "the cost of doing business." It's cheaper to bring a band in a small black box than a band on a tour bus. "This is why Enya won't tour," he says of the New Age pop star who uses lush orchestration and scores of vocal effects. "She feels she can't [properly] re-create her music live."

In the end, though, a pop singer or a rock band -- whether in the studio or on the stage, whether lip-syncing or using guide vocals -- ultimately has to have at least a smidge of chops.

"There's nothing that re-creates a passionate performance," Hamilton says. "You have to sound like you mean it."

At least for now.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company