Working with backing tracks

Mixer Desk

A lot of the school recordings we get involved with, particularly with Primary Schools involve the pupils singing along to backing tracks.   With the increasing popularity of You Tube, along with other online sources, this trend is only set to increase in coming years.

Recording Backing Tracks – the theory

If you study the art of recording, as indeed I did some years ago, the text books provide a number of ways of incorporating digital tracks into your mix.   Generally this is the remit of studios and there is in fact little mention of this being a technique which is possible on location.

Added to this, there is very little teaching on how to record choirs or large groups of people singing.   The assumption is usually that you want to record a solo singer with maybe backing singers and a typical band made up of guitar, drums etc.   But there is talk of recording to a backing track or indeed a pre recorded track from your band.

The theory is entirely logical and very straightforward.   You put your singer in an isolation booth, give him or her a pair of headphones through which you play the pre recorded track.  The singer then sings along with the track and is captured in complete isolation.   At the end of the recording you still have your ‘clean’ backing track and you also have your singer recorded but without the backing track.  These two separate files can then be joined together and you can balance each properly to get the sound you hear on many recordings today.

Even if you are a singer recording with a live band or orchestra, you would still be put in an isolation booth. The mastering process for voice is usually quite different to that of bands.    Out on location however, this practice doesn’t really work!

Recording Backing Tracks for Choirs – the theory

Plenty of choirs record in a studio – Abbey Road is perhaps the biggest and best known.  Here they naturally do things properly although there is a price to be paid – tens of thousands of pounds usually!  Again the principle is one of recording groups in isolation and every member of the choir is issued with a pair of headphones and sings along either to a pre recorded track or to one being recorded by a band/orchestra in an adjacent studio.

Dealing with choirs on location

When it comes to recording on location, all the theories and practices of recording are the same.  The only variable is the location.   All our recording gear is very similar to the kit you would find in a studio.  The only real difference is we carry it around and build everything on site every time we arrive somewhere new.

The biggest challenge therefore is recording with backing tracks.   A few years ago we did look into the idea of buying or hiring in numerous sets of headphones to record a community choir with backing tracks on location.  Their MD had correctly identified this is the way forward.   However, the practicalities of doing this on location are immense.

Without the wiring of a fixed studio the only option would be many bluetooth or similar wireless headphones.  The technology is there but making it stable and reliable out on location is a whole different matter.

The solution

Our solution, certainly for primary school recordings, is ultimately a bit of a compromise.   We have a technique which allows us to separate the singing and the backing track following the theories above.

It doesn’t provide complete isolation but with some clever wiring, careful microphone placement and delicate balance adjustment we can obtain close to the idea solution which avoids the issue of ‘chorusing’.   This is why you have to be so careful when recording 2 different sources simultaneously.

Certainly for School CDs, and indeed a lot of Community Choir CDs this works very well as you can hear from our audio samples.

If we are recording a soloist then we will usually record the backing first and then record the soloist through headphones as outlined above.  With only one voice the issue of chorusing can only be addressed in this way.


To find out more about recording your choir on location either with backing tracks or live instruments then please get in touch:

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