Many artists do it, (perhaps more than you know!), but why?What else do bands do which might be considered "cheating"? Under what circumstances might you be reasonably expected to mime? All this and much more! Lip syncing and miming!
What is lip syncing?
Lip syncing is when a singer mimes their performance along to a pre-recorded vocal track. Sometimes this is a skill in itself and pretty damn impressive- Ru Paul? Other times, it's just Britney Spears with a mic stuck in her hair…-BS footage?
What are backing tracks?
What are backing tracks then? Backing tracks are the same thing but for an entire band - think of old shows like Top Of The Pops. It used to be common on many TV shows in the “Back when times”, because it was easier to point a camera at someone and play a record, rather than having to worry about mic’ing up an entire band. One reason you might use a backing track rather than performing live in this day and age is so a track matches it’s album version - if you’re performing on TV example, people can use apps like Shazzam to find out who you are. Bands can use really short individual sounds, (which we call Samples), to make a live track sound more like it’s original - especially in pop, rap and experimental styles, but becoming more popular with other genres every day. Often it’s the drummer who get’s the job of triggering these FX from something like a Roland SPD Sample Pad. If, like me, you use a lot of ambient FX and found sounds in studio tracks I think that’s fair enough to bring them to a live show in this way - no one’s going to blame you if you can't find space on the stage for half a factory, so you can trigger these the machine noises and it’s all perfectly cool.
One time that you’ll definitely have to use a backing track, regardless of your genre, is when you record a music video. These are basically never live because, again, they have to match the album version of your track. So, you will be miming. When I say mime, you can go ahead and play your guitar, it just might not be plugged in, (and if it is, that noise won’t make it onto the finished product anyway) With that in mind, you may as well make your playing visually interesting and, (heaven forfend), have some fun with it. The exception is if you’re doing a live session, but I’d almost call that a separate thing to a music video - their function is similar to that of a music video, but I tend to think they’re more for the fans you already have.
Here’s a few other things you might not
know some of your favourite bands do:
- Fake amplifiers. A lot of bands do this, but the biggest example I know were Status Quo, who would have a massive array of Marshall stacks on stage when actually the amps you hear would be a tiny single Vox amp hidden behind them.
- Many big bands have additional band members, sometimes off stage and seldom seen. Is it wrong that Green Day use an additional guitarist when it’s generally only the 3 core members who appear on the posters? Maybe, but it happens.
- Dragonforce never used to be able to play live as fast as they did in the studio, because they couldn’t. But that’s how they gained notoriety, by being REALLY fast to an unbelievable degree.
- Pedal switching by guitar techs off-stage is super common as well, as it leaves the guitarist free to run around mid-solo without having to think about tapping their boost pedal.
- Lastly more singers will use teleprompters than you think - Ozzy Osbourne did, Axl Rose did - I’m sure there’s many more contemporary bands, across all genres.
creative ways to retain your
Transpose your songs - if you want to make them easier to sing but maybe your singer is getting on a bit, or you just want to make it easier on their voice because you’re playing song after song after song, just put them in a lower key so they don’t have to stretch so far. Your audience will probably not even notice and you’ll still be giving an authentic performance.
One of my favourite ways to avoid lip-syncing altogether, if you are being made to by music labels, or tv producers or whatever, is just to piss about on stage and make it obvious you’re not happy about it!
Theres loads of footage on YouTube of bands swapping instruments, dancing about and just clearly not performing. Muse have done it, Nirvana did it, The Eels played toy instruments. Bob Gedolf once came on stage and ‘played’ the candelabra during their trumpet solo - at least he was cool enough to make his rebellion entertaining.
Perhaps deliberately undermining a lip-sync policy back in the day was a great way of publicising a band’s “anti-authority” image? When you say “lip sync” what springs to mind? The times it was used effectively and no one noticed, or the times it was embarrassing because it was obvious? Why even run the risk of being found-out when you could hilariously undermine the concept?
Ultimately, when thinking about whether or not to use backing tracks or lip syncing, you’ve got to think about what’s more important to you and the people who might buy your music: your integrity as an artist or the accuracy of the performance? This can change from performance to performance, so don’t feel like you need a blanket policy.
Specific to lip syncing, most big pop bands or solo vocalists will want to have an impressive performance with a shed-load of visuals. If, as an audience member, you want to see a visually impressive show with full-on choreography you might to accept that something’s gotta give. Usually that’ll be the vocal performance, because it’s so easy to do. If you're a fan of pop music, you can make your own mind up whether you're happy with that compromise. If you're a pop performer, again, come to your own conclusions but I’d bear in mind just how many lip sync fail videos there are online. In terms of samples, work out what you think your audience is likely to find acceptable. If you need to re-work samples to make them usable in a live situation, and to avoid being called a phoney, then do that; if it’s easier to just remove them from the song then that’s cool too; or if you think you’ll need to use a sample because your trumpet player can’t make the tour, is your audience going to be annoyed that they can’t see a trumpet when they can definitely hear one? Or, are you going to have to be a bit more creative with your solution? Lastly, it’s always handy to work out what you’re willing to sacrifice in terms of integrity and honesty in order to get ahead in your industry. Ultimately, when playing live you are playing for your fans and you need to think want they want to see or hear, whatever that may be.