How to Tell Whether Cruise Ship Production Shows Have Taped or (Semi-) Live Music
What comes to mind when someone mentions watching a show (I mean a stage show, with all the singing and dancing) on a cruise? Are they the special effects (lasers, fog, and colorful lights) that make it either cheesy or brilliant. Are they the lead singers with strong chest voices that make someone go, "Wow - I want an encore from you guys?" Are they the dancers with stunning split leaps, eye-level battements, and other jazz dance moves that leave him or her begging for more? On top of all that, is it the music that makes him or her feel that he or she is really on Broadway, the West End, or Branson - all included with the cruise vacation fare?
A majority of those who sailed on at least one cruise vessel (I mean the ones with large theaters that mimic performing arts centers) share their experiences every day. One of them is the array of stage shows they put on 2-3 of, say, 7 nights. It's not just the brilliant pyrotechnics, singers and dancers, and acrobatics. It's also the music that accompanies them.
Speaking of music, how do people determine what types make or break cruise ship production shows?
What Constitutes Semi-Live Music
As someone who sailed on at least five cruises, I once thought that cruise ships that use those x-piece orchestras (like those of Carnival Cruise Line) all use live music for their shows. Thanks to further reading, I found out that I was wrong - not all shows include it. I'm not saying that they use completely canned music (discussed later), but they use it to enhance their groups.
Thus using 7-plus-piece bands with backing tracks in shows raises the fairly answerable questions. Does a rhythm section of a keyboard, drum set, bass and guitar deliver the same force as a string and percussion section of a larger orchestra? Does a horn section harboring two reed players (alto and tenor saxophones, flutes, and B-flat clarinets), two trumpets, and a trombone have the same magnitude of a large wind section? Unfortunately, the answers to all of them are no.
To solve the problem, those cruise ship orchestras use backing tracks for additional instruments (violins, oboes, etc.) that don't really fit in their rather small orchestra pits. Also, they employ "click-tracks" - in-ear metronomes that keep them in line.
Note: in a handful of cruise ships, particularly those on Carnival's fleets, orchestras may throw in a baritone saxophone!
The Pros of Semi-Live Music
Well, semi-live music has its benefits. The singers and dancers feel the music more, and the orchestra powered by tape seems to interact with them efficiently. It also interacts with the audience effectively because they can feel the horn sections and drums as they serve their dancing and singing performers. They are readily visible - although some sets help them blend in with the shows, they can be seen with the glimmer of trombones, trumpets, and saxophones.
Also, having semi-live music is cost-effective and roomy. Some cruise lines only seat 7-14 musicians for a show. The cost of having a some 8-musician band is considerably lower than having even a 20-piece chamber orchestra-like group. I don't recommend that you fret about the taped part too much - it's only there to enhance the musicians.
Here's another flaw: if cruise ship orchestras play in pits during their production shows, chances are that performers may fall through them! Ouch!
The Cons of Semi-Live Music
Using a backing track along with a measly 12-piece show band is like a safety net for the musicians for inaccuracies. Well, that statement is more or less wrong. What if there's a brawl between two sidemen playing trumpet during their cues? That would throw them off for sure. (The same holds true with very few cruise lines using exclusively live music, but with a greater margin of error. But that's another story.)
Also, hiring musicians can be very expensive. Cruises have to pay them salaries, and they are often low-paying. To get them higher, they have to increase the prices that passengers pay for their cruise vacations.
The Pros of Taped Music
There are some other cruise lines that use exclusively taped music (or canned music or muzak) for their shows. This is a bigger cost-cutting measure - they eliminate that band of musicians as well as the salaries they have to pay them. Also, having all backing tracks visually make the show clearer, with no intrusive orchestra distracting the audience members' eyes. On top of that, using prerecorded music is more or less flexible and operable by just one or even two people. There's no flipping music sheets involved, slowing the process of accompanying Vegas-style revues.
One example of cruise ship companies that use orchestra-less accompaniment in their shows is Disney. As far as I observed, it have been using it since its inception in 1998. Another example is Celebrity - although it has an orchestra, they keep it separate from their stage shows.
The Cons of Taped Music
Despite saving money for cruise lines, taped music has some flaws. First of all, it interacts less with the performers than even a sextet of musicians alongside it. Thus, they feel the music much less and even dance or sing sloppily and out of tempo.
While a few proponents feel that it's also beneficial to some autistic audience members, it can be equally as loud as a live band. Therefore, one with the disorder must bring a set of earphones, whether the music in a cruise ship show is live or not.
Also, the sound is one-dimensional (or two, if it's quality) - audiences and performers think that they are just listening to a mere audio file than a real band. Besides putting musicians out of work and/or barring them completely, it also angers the passengers. A vast majority of them expect the best, even on shows. With music on an audio file and nothing else musically, they often feel that it's so low-brow and deterring from the production.
Which Type of Music Do You Prefer in Cruise Ship Production Shows?
So how can you tell whether the music is half-live with the brass and saxes or just prerecorded in cruise ship production shows? If you can see a pit with the horns or somewhere they can be visible by even a trombone's slide, then it's semi-live. But if you can't see any of them, then it's prerecorded. Isn't that obvious?
So does quality on the music matter? Yes, even show band-less Broadway-style shows use the finest audio tracks to enable dancers to do stunning jazz dance routines and singers to belt out. But as long as they are in their highest quality possible, both types don't matter. Only the ways that those on stage performs do.
Anyway, I lean toward semi-live music. A measly band with karaoke track is better than none.
Here's Another Cruise Line Entertainment Hub!
- Entertainment trends on new cruise ships.
Living Out Loud presents a Hub on the evolving forms of the cruise Ship production shows!
Links on the Live Versus Canned Music Issue
- LOST Magazine - John Philip Sousa vs. "Canned Music"
Even an esteemed bandmaster who wrote the national march of the US hated taped music.