ABC producers promised that the pop stars they recruited for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show would do their singing live—no lip-syncing allowed. But what about country star Shania Twain, who seemed to hop around the stage without missing a note?
Paul Liszewski, who produced the sound for the show, says Shania’s mic was hot and her vocals were live. (Other audio engineers who watched the broadcast agreed.) Twain’s accompaniment, however, was what’s called a “band in a box,” which means the back-up vocals and instrumentals we heard were prerecorded. So while the diva was belting out show-stoppers like “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” her onstage drummer was thrashing away merely for effect.
Other bands use a different mix of taped and live elements, depending on the nature of the show. At a dance-heavy concert where the lead singer does exhausting choreography, we might hear a tape of the lead vocal track. At an event like the Super Bowl, where sound engineers have five minutes—rather than the usual six or eight hours—to set up, bands are more likely to rely on tape. During No Doubt and Sting’s halftime sets, we were also hearing live vocals and canned instrumentals. Last year, when U2 played, we heard both Bono’s voice and the Edge’s guitar live, though the rhythm section was prerecorded.
For big events, even totally “live” bands have tapes standing by in case of emergency. If, say, Bono’s microphone had suddenly failed last year, an engineer in a broadcast truck equipped with an audio mixer would have quickly brought up the sound on a prerecorded version of Bono’s vocal track. If the person doing the blend did the job right, the audience would never even notice the glitch. (That explains the moment when Shania ran back to the stage after mingling with the crowd and didn’t appear to be singing, even though her vocals came through loud and clear. When Twain took too long getting back to the stage, the mixing engineer likely brought up the prerecorded vocal track, and then took it back down it as Shania started to sing.)
How do performers keep time when they’re faking it? Musicians are almost always listening to a recording of the song on a monitor as they perform. (Most often, that recording is a mix of all the song’s tracks, but drummers sometimes prefer to hear a “click track,” which just goes tick-tick-tick like a metronome.) Traditionally, the monitors were speakers placed on stage. But that meant that the performers couldn’t move around freely and that their microphones might pick up the tape track. These days, many musicians opt for a wireless in-ear monitor, which allows them to strut through a song without losing the beat or tripping on a wire. Each one is custom-molded to the ear canal, looks a little bit like a hearing aid, and can run somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,100.
Explainer thanks Gary Bongiovanni of Pollstar magazine, Albert Leccese of Audio Analysts, and Paul Liszewski of AudioTek Corp.