My best recommendation for any theatre endeavoring to use tracks with a live musical production is to grab a NUMARK CDN model 88 or 90 or 95.
It's a rack mounted dual CD player with an automatic sampler built in and a tempo "slider" (center dentente is 100% normal tempo).
All the operator has to do is keep a finger on the tempo key and let the singers do whatever the heck they want.
8 measures of intro music and the actor is late getting onstage? No problem, just like a live orch, you can either 1) repeat from the beginning or (more likely) 2) slow down to a pitifully s-l-o-w tempo until the actor has had time to say the lines. Then you just CLICK up to the center (standard tempo) and the song is back at normal..
Actors want to take a "moment" and stretch that high note at the end of the love song? No problem, slow that sucker down and let them send the goose-bumps into the audience.
Likewise, a diva can't hold out that 16 measure note at the end of Act I? No prob, just kick up the orch speed and save her butt (then let her know about it at intermission).
It is a standard MISunderstanding that tracks are hard to follow. If you've been listening to the same thing for 8 weeks of rehearsal, and it's the SAME during performances, the chances of "getting lost" are negligible.
I've been producing full orch tracks for over 15 years (see www.bway2.com/tracks
) and have NEVER EVER EVER had an actor lose the place after practicing for more than a couple of weeks with the tracks. I wish I could make the same claim for the last 30 years of live pit work!
Many here have gotten it half right.. you need to get good tracks but also, you need to have a SEPARATE SOUND SYSTEM to play them (separate from the speakers that kick the vocals). There are several reasons for this, that have to do with the placement and the physics of sound.
BEST SPEAKER PLACEMENT: Backstage (unblocked by curtains or set) so the speakers play THROUGH the actors TO the audience.
This will allow sound level to boosted to a "live orchestra" level, rather than having to dim the sound to an artificial low level when using the same speakers for vocals AND music.
Physically, if you have a 20' deep stage, the "music" is 20' FURTHER AWAY from the audience, so the singers mouths (and the singer's speakers) are CLOSER. The audience can then spatially "place" the orchestra, rather than doing the "gee isn't that tape nice" reaction. (Theatre IS illusion, nes pas?)
PLACEMENT OF ORCH IN HOUSE SPEAKERS: This will occur naturally as the vocal mics and area mics pick up the sound from the rear speakers. This is a GOOD thing, because the music will be at a MUCH lower level, being 10'-20' further from the vocal mics than the actual voices!
ELIMINATION/REDUCTION OF FEEDBACK: Ah, the oldest bugaboo of using mics in live theatre.
HOW FEEDBACK OCCURS: The sound of the voice is introduced into the microphone, then amplified and played through a speaker. When that sound of the voice being recreated by the speaker "hits" the back wall and bounces back, it gets picked up once again by the microphone and THAT reflection is re-amplified and played again through the speaker. Multiply that several thousand times (actual reflections at the vocal range of audio spectrum ) and when the amplified voice hits a "standing wave" (the frequency in which the theatre soundspace resonates, THAT'S where you get that feedback tone.
TRACKS PROPERLY PLAYED REDUCE/ELIMINATE FEEDBACK: By having the tracks being played from a separate sound system (this is not a big expense or inconvenience, every group has a music guru with a PA, you only need a head and a couple of 3-way speakers to borrow/rent) and BEHIND the singers, the actual tracks are acting as a BLOCKER to the reflected voices.
Now your music speakers are 10'-20' from the wireless/area mics, and the reflection is coming from the speaker length to the back of the theatre and the bounce back. The music is CLOSER than the reflected voice signal and acts as a BLOCK. Try it sometime and see.
As others have said here, COMPETENT LIVE PLAYERS is best, GOOD TRACKS are THIRD best. The SECOND best is a HALF/HALF, live and tracks, so you can have the excitement of the live players and the accuracy and fullness of the tracks with a reduced staff.
After all, if you had the budget and talent to staff a full pit, this discussion of tracks would be moot, no?
All my best,