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The term backline is used in popular music and sound reinforcement system contexts to refer to electronic audio amplification equipment and speaker enclosures that are placed behind the band or the rhythm section on stage, including amplifiers and speaker cabinets for guitars, bass guitars and keyboards.
In rock music's early days in the early 1960s, PA systems were not very loud or powerful. As a result, 1960s rock bands typically used the PA system just for the vocals, even if they were playing at a large venue. As a result, the rhythm section musicians playing electric guitar, electric bass and keyboards were expected to produce enough volume to fill the venue using their own instrument amplifiers. To achieve venue-filling sound with their instruments, bands from the 1960s typically used large, powerful guitar "stacks" and big speaker enclosures. A standard cabinet used by guitarists and bassists during this era was the heavy 8x10" cabinet, which contained eight ten inch speakers.
During the 1960s, the PA speakers and the band's amplification were all set in a line, which conceptually grouped PA and instrument amplification together. This changed over the 1970s and 1980s, as PA systems became powerful enough to amplify all of the band's instruments and the vocals. During this era, the backline gear was set behind the PA speakers to create the modern audio stage set-up. Modern monitoring techniques, in which monitor speakers pointing at the performers are placed on the stage, as well as the concepts of frontline and backline, developed during this era.
Backline equipment can be rented for concert tours. Many travelling musicians prefer not to transport their own gear across borders and continents for fear of damage or customs hassles. In some countries, all electronic and electric gear needs documentation and certification by an electrical expert before it can be brought into the country. Another issue is that some bands may travel to a country or continent which uses a different type of AC mains power and differently-shaped electric plugs.
Festivals and venues provide backline gear because it speeds up the process of changing bands on a stage, because the gear not have to be moved on and off the stage and then soundchecked again. Having professional backline gear means that the sound engineers do not have to deal with modest-quality amps, which may have ground loops, hum or noise, or produce unintended clipping when the amp is pushed to its maximum volume.
The type of backline equipment varies according to the style of music played in a venue or performance space. A heavy metal music club will typically have a large, powerful Marshall guitar stack. In contrast, a blues or country music bar will typically have a Fender Bassman or other traditional "tweed" guitar amplifier. A jazz club usually has a grand piano for jazz pianists. For bass players, a small jazz club may have a mid-sized, moderately powered "combo" amp, which includes the power amplifier and one or more speakers in a wooden cabinet; a rock nightclub may have a large "bass stack", which pairs a power amplifier with one or two big speaker cabinets. The backline equipment may also include accessories, such as a drum throne, keyboard bench, stool for an upright bass player and a keyboard stand for the keyboard player.
Top bands may have very specific backline requirements, including a list of amplifiers and instruments, but also the brand names and model numbers. An emerging group on its first small club tour will not usually have the negotiating leverage to request specific brands and models of backline gear. As such, an emerging band's backline "technical specifications" request as part of its contract may only ask venue managers for general types of equipment (e.g., a combo bass amplifier with at least 200 watts, two mid-sized guitar combo amps with at least 50 watts, and a keyboard amp with at least 100 watts of power). A top touring band's contract rider may specify, for example, an Ampeg SVT Pro bass amplifier and an 8x10" Ampeg cabinet for the bassist and a Fender Bandmaster amp head and a Fender 4x10" speaker cabinet for the electric guitarist. The term refers to the equipment available to or needed by musicians.
Backline guitar technicians, audio technicians and stage crew set up and put away the backline equipment. Backline gear that is used heavily will need regular maintenance to ensure that it provides reliable performance.
In places where the backline is left in place indefinitely (e.g., in a nightclub's mainstage or a TV variety show studio), the gear may simply be powered down when not in use, and a cloth may be placed over top of the equipment so it does not get dusty. In music festivals with outdoor temporary stages, the backline equipment may have to be transported to a locked, climate-controlled storage area at the end of each day, to protect it from theft, vandalism, or inclement weather. Backline techs who travel with touring acts may also be called roadies, although the road crew's role typically is limited to transporting and positioning the instruments and gear. Maintenance and repair of instruments and gear is a specialized task handled by guitar, keyboard and drum technicians.