How prerecorded backing sounds have become more prevalent in live music

click to enlarge Spokane's Water Monster fleshes out its live sound with prerecorded elements. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Spokane's Water Monster fleshes out its live sound with prerecorded elements.

Live music delivers a more powerful experience than listening to recordings. Seeing and hearing the physical performance of your favorite songs, while sharing a space with your favorite musicians, can be exhilarating.

But the not-so-secret reality of many modern musical performances — especially those with elaborate stage shows synced with visuals — is that at least some percentage of the sound coming from the speakers isn't produced in real time. That is to say, many artists boost their sound with prerecorded elements.

Take, for example, the New York-based rock band X Ambassadors, which scored a hit with the 2015 single "Renegades." As keyboardist Casey Harris recounted during a 2017 interview, he and his bandmates got tired of inconsistent tempos and sacrificing the full sound of their 2015 album, VHS. Though each member generates as much sound as possible — Harris often plays two keyboards simultaneously — they also play to a click track and about 20 percent of the group's sound isn't actually "live," which isn't unusual on the festival circuit.

"It's one of those things where most bands do it but won't admit it," Harris said.

Water Monster, the solo electronic rock project of Spokane musician Max Harnishfeger, also incorporates prearranged elements during live performances. He's accompanied onstage by guitarist Scott Ingersoll, while Harnishfeger sings, plays bass and manipulates a sampler that provides a backing track with percussion and various sonic augmentations.

He'd prefer to have a full band performing each instrumental part — and did add Caleb Ingersoll on drums and Branden Cate on synthesizers for the release of Water Monster's full-length debut, Tensus — but says it's not always possible for his solo project to have so many hands on deck.

"It's a necessary thing for a project like Water Monster, which is a singular vision throughout the composing, writing and recording process," he says. "That's something I'm doing all by myself, so there's no way I could do that live without having some sort of prerecorded or prearranged elements playing along behind me."

Rob Kolar, frontman of the indie rock duo Kolars, said in a 2018 interview with The Inlander that his band's embrace of "additional production elements" during live performances was partly because they couldn't afford to bring more musicians on tour. With Kolar singing and playing guitar and Lauren Brown on percussion, the duo found power in a stripped-down sound. But infusing the second half of their sets with prerecorded bass accompaniment, piano parts and background vocals also lent mystique to their stage shows.

"Some people don't understand what's going on and it's kind of fun; kind of a Wizard of Oz vibe," he said. "They're like, 'Wait, is there someone behind the curtain?' But a lot of audiences don't even notice, which is kind of interesting."

Pop duo Sofi Tukker cares more about creating shared experiences than impressing audiences with their fine motor skills. Speaking shortly after the release of the insidiously catchy 2018 single "Best Friend," which reached No. 1 on Billboard's dance chart, Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern discussed blurring the lines between live and recorded sounds during performances.

click to enlarge Sofi Tukker plays its "book tree." - EKATERINA BELINSKAYA PHOTO
Ekaterina Belinskaya photo
Sofi Tukker plays its "book tree."

They sing and play bass and guitar onstage, but the rest of the sounds are programmed. In fact, they reserve some sections of their set for totally hands-free dance routines. Sofi Tukker's form of performance art is represented by their self-made, 8-foot-tall stage apparatus called the "book tree," which acts as both a percussion instrument and a visual cue that the audience can associate with the triggering of certain sounds.

"At first, we tried to do everything, trying to trigger every beat and play every part," Hawley-Weld said. "But we realized that's not really the point. There's a performance art and interactive element that also really matters to us: It's bringing the music to life, trying to embody the music through movement, and really focusing on connecting with the people who showed up."

Not to mention, the bar has been raised for general sound quality over the past decade or so. Many concertgoers expect to hear spot-on performances of the songs they love, Harnishfeger says: "When people see a touring band that has put a lot of work into the production of their music, with the use of Auto-Tune and lots of the electronic elements that are popular today, people expect to go to the show and have the song sound like the Spotify track they listen to."

There's always the potential for musicians to suck the sense of spontaneity out of their sets by leaning too hard on backing tracks, Harnishfeger acknowledges. But he believes that creating a shared experience with audiences should always be the overriding goal, and he's unwilling to compromise his vocal performances for the sake of doing everything himself in the manner of a one-man band.

"I think if I tried to make it all work in real time, my focus wouldn't be on the audience and I wouldn't be able to make a connection with people," he says. "It might be impressive, but I find that I'd rather watch a show that makes me feel like I'm a part of something." ♦

The Magic Lantern Concert Series: Heat Speak, Rosie CQ @ Magic Lantern Theatre

Sun., Jan. 23, 6 p.m.
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