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How to Tell Whether Cruise Ship Production Shows Have Taped or (Semi-) Live Music

Updated on March 23, 2014

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.

Uh Oh...

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.

Musical Irony

Although the ship where this production show was photographed was called the ORCHESTRA, there's no orchestra to accompany it!
Although the ship where this production show was photographed was called the ORCHESTRA, there's no orchestra to accompany it! | Source

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?

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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.

What Do You Think?

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    • profile image


      9 years ago

      As a guitarist and guest entertainer who is forced to work with a new Cruise Ship band nearly every contract or generally speaking 2 to 4 week stint on one ship or another, I can honestly tell you that the bands or "orchestras" on the ships vary in a lot of different ways. The first word that comes to mind is "Nightmare". Most of the band guys speak mostly only Russian and very little English. Some of them are great sight (notation) readers, and some of them are terrible sight readers. What is left for the guest entertainer forced to deal with these varying situations is to take their chances with using 100% live music, or removing some the margin for error and using semi-live tracks. Keep in mind, that the guest entertainer comes on board and is given usually about an hour to rehearse for their show that night, no kidding. Throw in some poor English speaking skills and you have a potentially bad show/situation on your hands. What's more is, if the band has been on the current contract and/or ship, they are irritable, cranky, grumpy and sometimes outright non-cooperative with the guest entertainer.

      All the band/orchestra cares about is how soon they can go to lunch, or go ashore, or have their next cigarette. Once in a great while, they actually seem to care about what they do, and that is always a welcome occurrence!

      The bottom line is, backing tracks are absolutely needed!

      Some percussionists have terrible time keeping skills...which prompts the question, why are they in the band if they can't keep a straight tempo???

      No matter what style of music you play, the guitar player will crank out their best immitation of George Benson possible. These guys are mostly all eastern european, and they know jazz, and jazz, and other jazz. Anything else is very non-indigenous sounding when they try to play it.

      If the show is good on a cruise ship, its probably because someone took the initiative to create backing tracks to keep the band "in line". So at the end of the band's contract when they are too burned out from playing 14 hours a day, they have some glue to keep them together... the backing track!

    • talfonso profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      Thank you very much for adding to that. I won't add them to the Hub (it won't be as concise), but thanks anyway!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      talfonso has good knowledge on the subject. Just wanted to add a few things from someone who experienced the pit and the stage on cruise ships as a musician:

      1. Semi-live music (the click track, in particular) is necessary also for the reason that there is no any conductor on stage. There will be a number of tempo/meter changes which cannot be done without conducting. In this case the click track "conducts" and brings all musicians synchronized to the next section or part.

      2. Different companies have different strategies towards their production shows.

      Some of them invest more then others. Some of them have their own production companies within (like Royal Caribbean or Princess Cruises). They use professionally made tracks for their production shows. When I say "professionally made" I mean tracks made with live musicians in a professional studios; using high quality (and expensive) samples etc.; while other (I don't want to mention names) make very cheap track, using only keyboard sounds for everything: brass, winds, drums etc.

      The differences are noticeable.

      3. Also, the mixing procedures are different from case to case. Royal Caribbean makes their mixes on separate tracks, so whatever instrument you have on stage will be live-performed in most cases. Only additional instruments (strings, extra-percussion, extra winds) will sound on track, if the arrangement requires that. If someone gets sick (could happen during a 6 -7 months contract) and is not able to play for the show - they would add his particular track to the mix.

      Companies like Costa, MSC don't have orchestras at all. Holland America uses the orchestras mostly for display - what you hear is the stereo mixed track (cheaply made in most cases) which cannot be edited.

      4. It is not that every time you don't see the orchestra will be a track show and vice-versa. I have played shows sitting in the pit the whole time, yet the same strategy remained: "live" musicians played "live". The only thing, we could wear sandals and shorts instead of tuxedo since nobody could see us :)

      At the same time, as I mentioned, on Holland America you could see shows with musicians miming on stage, while hearing poorly made tracks.

      I guess, we can't blame any company for trying to save some money :)


    • talfonso profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      I agree, despite the taped music in their shows! (Hey, it's Disney, so I'd just roll with it! Besides, it's my favorite cruise ship company!)


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