May Issue - Stage Directions Magazine

May Issue - Stage Directions Magazine

By Jerry Cobb

Covering Your Tracks

Backing tracks should ideally complement,

not overwhelm, what the audience

perceives onstage. A handful of

singers producing a thunderous chorus can

come off as overreaching. A massive wall of

orchestral bombast emanating from a jazz

band might elicit unwelcome chortling.

Conversely, a dinner theatre with no visible

musicians might be able to pull this off

without a hitch. And overblown orchestration

may be used intentionally to humorous

effect. It’s all in what you’re trying to

project from your stage. And, of course,

what you can get away with.

Sound Judgment

While shoving a microphone in front of

a cassette deck and playing tapes through

the school P.A. may be okay for a kindergarten

show (actually, it’s not even okay there),

your facility needs to have a decent sound

system — and someone to run it — in

order to pull off a musical. This becomes

especially important when considering

adding musically dense tracks to a P.A.

that’s already struggling. P.A. Audio professionals

call this “headroom,” which you’re

going to need. If your company is portable,

you’ll need to bring along as good a P.A. as

you can afford and/or carry, or hire a pro

sound company locally. When it comes

to sound reproduction, the adage “garbage

in, garbage out” is especially apropos.

Keeping it simple is fine; using audio junk

is not. Musicals should be a treat for the

ears and not a headache-inducing distortion

fest. Make sure your audio gear is up

to the task.

With the addition of prerecorded tracks

to the mix, the musical director’s job gets

more complicated. Performers need to

rehearse more intensely with the tracks and

memorize purely musical cues, because

once the track starts, it will play through

with no mercy. This is equally true for any

live musicians, as they must now synchronize

to a harsh taskmaster. And everyone

must be able to clearly hear the tracks at

all times, making placement of monitor

speakers crucial both on the stage and in

the pit. These monitors will play a different

mix from the one the audience hears,

which should be a subtler blend of live and

canned music than that which the performers

need to hear.

All this necessitates thoughtful sound

design and competent sound persons running

the show.

Types of Tracks

Backing tracks come in a variety of flavors,

each with its own pros and cons. If

your theatre is already equipped with a

particular playback device and no budget

to buy anything different, guess what you’ll

be using? But if your company is new to the

tracking game, you have choices:


Perhaps the simplest plug-and-play

solution are prerecorded CDs. Many online

sources offer complete plays recorded in

the original show key and tempo. These

albums are re-recordings of the original.

Each song appears on the album twice:

once with music and vocals, and once with

accompaniment tracks alone. This allows

the performer to learn a song by singing

along with the vocals and music, then to

practice their technique accompanied only

by the background tracks.

Pros: Good audio quality, familiar format.

Cons: Can skip or develop “dropouts”

over time, can be a bit futzy to stop and

start, especially on less expensive gear.

Minidisc (MD)

While not as sonically detailed to some

ears as a CD or DVD, MDs are nearly bulletproof

when it comes to ease of playback

and skip-free dependability. CDs may be

transferred to MD format using an MD

recorder or having it done for a fee by many

of the retailers who offer showtune CDs.

Pros: Reliable playback, easy to stop and

start, creates playlists.

Cons: Slightly less audio fidelity than CD,

fewer pre-recorded titles available for purchase.

Equipment not as readily available

(or repairable) as more popular formats.


Yes, of course you can transfer other formats

to play on an iPod or an MP3 player.

A karaoke collage of backing tracks from Broadway Best

It’s not the most professional way to go,

but it is doable.

Pros: Massive song storage, ease of

access, ability to create song lists. Instant

downloads available.

Cons: Less audio fidelity than CD, small

connectors can be troublesome in a darkened

theatre. Never trust batteries in a live



Think of a MIDI sequence as an old-fashioned

player piano roll; it’s a series of zeros

and ones telling your sound card which

virtual instrument to play, how loud and

what notes. Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) are

widely available and varied in quality. On

many songs the instrumentation will sound

fake, and none will contain backup vocals.

MIDI files can be played back by some

synthesizers, dedicated hardware players

or directly from a computer.

Pros: An expert musician can tweak

existing MIDI files to sound good. Song

keys and tempos can be changed, and specific

instruments may be muted or made


Cons: Instrument sounds are only as

good as your sound card. MIDI files found

on the Internet range from horrible to just

okay, depending on genre and the skill of

the original sequence artist. SMFs rarely

sound as good as other formats without a

lot of talented tinkering.

A Legal Note

Just because you purchase music doesn’t

mean you have the legal right to perform it

publicly. Remember to check on licensing

before pressing play for an audience.

Jerry Cobb is the sole proprietor of

Videografix/LA, a video boutique specializing

in music video, corporate and

entertainment reels, and professional

voiceovers. • May 2007 33 • Aprilr 2007 33

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