The Ethics of Pre-recorded Tracks in Worship

by | Audio, Audio Connections, Production

There was a time when being exposed for using backing tracks in a live performance was a career ending event. In 1989 Milli Vanilli’s hard-drive “skip heard around the world” became the source of industry and public ridicule. We didn’t use the term “cancel” in the modern sense, but right or wrong, they were canceled. In 2004 Ashlee Simpson’s disastrous appearance on “Saturday Night Live” led to similar results. 

When I was touring in the early 90s, some very well known Christian artists were already using pre-recorded tracks. Wide use of IEMs (In-Ear-Monitors) were still a few years out at this point, so the click had to be routed into stage monitors at a level the band could play along with. If you were backstage, you could clearly hear the chirp from wedges and side fills. In some cases if you were in the audience close to the front of the stage, you could also hear it. It didn’t take long for rumors to start spreading that some artists were using backing tracks. By today’s standards the track use was minimal. But the perception at the time was if you were exposed as using any tracks the assumption was that everything was pre-recorded, therefore your audience was being cheated. The career-saving grace was there was no social media to fuel the gossip.

In today’s touring market, there is no discernible difference in the use of tracks between secular and Christian artists. Across the touring industry, widespread use of tracks is the standard, and I suspect audiences either don’t know, don’t mind, or don’t care. But, I think as leaders in technical worship ministry we should care very much.

Unlike many topics we discuss here, the technology for using tracks is scalable. In larger churches with substantial budgets you will find systems that rival national touring acts. But even the smallest churches with modest budgets can implement tracks into their weekly worship services. I think churches of all sizes have developed some bad habits of over-saturating their worship service with excessive use of tracks. 

I hate to use the term “situational ethics”, but I believe there are varying degrees of track usage that remain on the ethical side of the line. And of course there is what I consider blatant overuse. 

What’s your philosophy?

Like most cultural decisions within a church, a well-established ministry goal will provide direction and intentionality when setting these types of guidelines. If you haven’t spent time aligning your technical ministry with your church’s overall mission, I would encourage you to read a previous feature, Does your church have a mix philosophy?  

Your ministry may have a cut and dried stance on the issue: 

Tracks are inauthentic and we won’t use them at all ….or, 

Tracks are an integral part of our worship and we’ll use them to the fullest capacity. 

I admire clarity of vision. But like many churches, I fall somewhere between these two extremes. Throughout this feature, I’ll share my personal philosophy on the subject that aligns with the ministry I work with on a regular basis. 

I’ve spent time in some very large churches speaking with FOH and Broadcast engineers. Often the main objective is to deliver a near-perfect performance and liberal use of tracks assures those results. This takes pressure off the onstage worship team and puts it on the engineers. However, to be fair, I’ve also been in medium and small churches that are undoubtedly overusing their tracks. So this is not just an indictment of mega-churches. 

Perfect vs. real

Like most church leaders, I agree that we need to strive for excellence in everything we do, but not at the expense of authenticity. So where is the line between striving for authentic excellence and blind pursuit of perfection? That depends on who you believe you are accountable to. We’ve all heard the phrase, “worshipping for an audience of one.” We all want to honor God. We also want to lead others in worship and attract the lost, using every tool at our disposal. 

On more than one occasion I’ve heard worship musicians say, “Why am I even here, when all I hear from the stream are the tracks?”. As a broadcast mixer I get it. It’s easy to rely on the professionally recorded guitar tracks over what may be a less than perfect tone and performance from a guitarist on stage. Full transparency here, I’ve fallen prey to this lazy habit in the past. But in doing so am I honoring my brother or sister in-Christ who spent hours working on their parts and sounds preparing to lead others in worship on Sunday? Using tracks as a substitute for any of your worship musicians does not honor them. If some of your musicians struggle to meet the leadership’s minimum standards, replacing them with tracks is not the solution. Your team needs a process to help your musicians develop and improve. This takes time, commitment and open communication. I understand in some situations your local musicianship may not be equal to the complexity of the music you’re trying to perform. If you rely on tracks in situations like this your musicians may become discouraged, disengaged and will have no need or motivation to improve. I would suggest working on alternate arrangements or song selections that complement the current level of your musicianship, while slowly introducing more challenging material. If you truly want to honor your worship team, when it comes to instrumental solos and melody lines, tracks should be your last resort, not your first. 

Regarding vocal tracks, the same philosophy holds true. I prefer not to use them. I can’t think of anything more egregious than using pre-recorded vocals in place of actual worshippers on stage. If your singers are not ready, please don’t insult them by putting them onstage and using vocal tracks. This goes beyond dishonor to deceitfulness. Developing talent takes time and effort. I would encourage you to invest in the process of working with your vocalists rather than using someone else’s pre-recorded voice. 

Beyond the stage, I believe we have an obligation to authentically honor the congregation. A healthy church should strive to impact their community and reflect their unique local flavor, or “salt and light”, to the world through their online presence. I believe our stream should be a reasonable representation of what is happening in the auditorium. If we rely more on our people and less on tracks, our presentation will be uniquely ours as opposed a cookie-cutter reproduction of typical church content. 

I know a church in the Carolinas that is relatively small but has a very unique personality. They’ve worked hard to develop their own style of worship, curating that style to compliment the unique gifts of their team. In this sense they are honoring their local congregation by authentically representing them on the worship platform. 

There’s another local church that relies heavily on tracks and admittedly their online stream sounds huge. But their lighting and video are not as technically advanced as their audio. So there is a disconnect between the audio and video quality. Overuse of tracks online in this case emphasizes the disparity between what we see and what we hear, to the point that everything sounds somewhat artificial. 

When the country began to recover from the pandemic lockdowns, it wasn’t uncommon for people who were scheduled for Sunday to test positive and have to stay home. In those months having tracks to fill in the gaps was a great help. Even so, the churches I worked with would restructure the day so as not to draw attention to “invisible” musicians, whose parts were being covered by tracks. In this case having a great track set-up definitely saved the day. I’m also aware that some small churches are very limited in their local talent pool. We should all be willing to give some grace in these circumstances. But I would still encourage working to find creative alternatives as opposed to over reliance on tracks. 

As you can see, I lean towards the side of moderation, with the goal of using only what is necessary to serve the team and the specific song. Ultimately you have to decide how to use tracks in your particular environment. As with most of my content, my goal is not to tell you what to do. It is to have you consider why you’re doing it. 

I would encourage churches of all sizes to take an honest look at their track usage. Ask your musicians their opinions. Are you honoring their contributions?  Watch your service in the auditorium and online and ask yourself if what you’re hearing equates with what you’re seeing. Experiment by doing some songs with no tracks at all. Challenge your audio engineers to re-think the mix with a more organic approach. You may discover your team has more creativity and energy than you thought. Remove the safety net of excessive tracks, encourage God’s people to use their gifts and see what happens!

In the next issue, I’ll discuss best practices on how to curate your tracks from a technical perspective to help set your team up for success. I would love to hear how your ministry is using tracks, and help answer any questions you have. 

Until then, don’t forget to listen!

Ron (rcochran@worshipfacility.com)

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