10 Click Track Myths

Brandon Drury —  August 19, 2008

click track mythsThis click track business is always a controversial topic when recording drums. Since I’ve been in the middle of about 10,000,000 click track debates and have been on both sides of the fence on various sessions, I figured I’d shed some light on the topic of click tracks.

Myth #1: All bands should use click tracks
Right out of the gate I want to make it clear that not all bands benefit from click tracks. These are the best of the best musicians that have the ability to groove without need of a click and can explain exactly why they don’t need a click from personal experience. These are the bands that have already recorded to a click track before and have made the decision to let the natural talent (and decades of experience) breath through the music. In my experience these are usually musicians who grew up playing back in the day. As of this writing I know of very very few musicians in their 20s who fall into this group. If you didn’t make a serious run at getting signed in the 80s this probably isn’t you.

Myth #2: A click track guarantees a great performance
Many people look at recording with a click as if it will magically tighten their recording. While most drummers do perform dramatically better with a click track, it’s just as easy for less experienced drummers to speed up, hear the click, slow down, hear the click, and speed up again. In this case, the click track is actually making the performance worse. It’s a huge problem when drummers “compensate” and therefore hurt the performance in an effort to accommodate to the click track.

Every time a drummer unnaturally speeds up or slows down the groove falls off. Mr. Excited now needs a Viagra pill. You’ve lost the game. That simply can’t happen on a recording.

The drummers who crack under the click track are usually drummers that simply don’t practice enough. I don’t think playing in time is enormously effected by talent. With proper dedication just about anyone can learn to actually play in time. (Even white people! Har har) However, it does take dedication and most of all awareness. A drummer can’t play in time is a drummer who can’t drum. Drumming is not about hitting stuff. It’s about keeping time in a way that makes the music more exciting. You may be a double bass demon, but if you can’t play in time you can an automatic F. If you can’t groove, it’s time to get busy right now.

Myth #3: A click is about matching the beeps
Some people are convinced that playing to a click is about making the drummer hit a kick on one beep and a snare on another beep. This is an entirely wrong approach in my opinion. A click has nothing to do with “matching beeps to drums”. A click is there to give a drummer a groove from which he can get his mind and body sync’d up to so that he can play his instrument with maximum intensity without any potentially distracting drifts in tempo.

The idea of the click is to convey a sense of groove which the drummer can do his thing to. It’s not about rules about when this cymbal or that kick drum should be hit. It’s about getting the drummer’s head bobbing a little bit so he can get the listener’s head bobbing a bit. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Drummers will get ahead of the beat and behind the beat. It happens with the best of drummers. I’m of the opinion that is SHOULD happen sometimes. This is a deviation from the modern tendency to snap drums to a grid, but there is plenty of room for human expression even with a constant tempo.

Myth #4: A click track makes a drummer play unnaturally
The click only causes unnatural playing when the drummer speeds up and slows down to accommodate the click. When a drummer is used to playing in time and keeping a solid groove he should have no problem playing very naturally to the click. In many cases the presentation of the click itself is the problem. For example, if you could replace the beep beep beep sound with a conga percussion loop or an arpeggiated synth no good drummer will have a problem locking in with intensity and excitement.

Drummers that can’t play in time (click or not) are asking their listener’s to listen unnaturally. We’ve all been to live shows (usually local bands) where the band is rocking, heads are bobbing, and then all of a sudden heads stop bobbing. People who were dancing, head banging, crowd surfing, etc all of the sudden all look at each other as if confused. Usually the band also looks confused. This shouldn’t happen live and it definitely shouldn’t happen on a recording.

While it is certainly acceptable for musical to naturally speed up and slow down gradually, it’s a totally different thing when the music pulls a herky jerky manuever. The groove is gone.

Myth #5: Click track recordings are stiff
Many bands are afraid their recordings will come out sounding robotic if they record with a click track. Nothing could be further from the truth in my opinion. It’s pretty much a given that if you heard a song on the radio in the past 25 years, 95% of these songs were recorded with a click track. While we could all have a field day picking out the bad songs, there are way too many great songs that have been recorded to a click track that excite the hell out of me to assume that a song will automatically lose something simply because it’s recorded to a click.

To take it further, a tempo map makes it very easy for a song to breath. I’ve done songs that didn’t feel right at the same bpm for the entire song. I feel that by ramping up the tempo slightly throughout the song I could still maintain groove but dramatically increase intensity as a normal band would probably do anyway. So if a song needs to breath a bit, why not go ahead and put a little extra effort into setting up a tempo map for the click?

Myth #6: Click tracks are there only improve the music
Unfortunately, there are home recording guys who force the click upon bands not because it will improve the music, but because it makes it more convenient to edit, copy and paste (yuck!), or add delays during mixing. In my opinion (ideally speaking) all decisions should be made solely because they improve the music. I would never force a click track onto music where a properly informed band thinks the click would take away from the music, but I would fight like a dog to use a click if I thought the music would improve.

The notion that using a click track makes overdubbing easier should not be undermined. It never fails. There are those bands who refuse to use a click track and do not want to edit their drums who have a break down that ends with a big cymbal crash. A guitar is supposed to play by itself with no way to keep in time and then the entire band blasts back in. This is fine with a live recording where all tracks are keepers. This is not so fine when the band intends to replace the guitars. Some method of time keeping is necessary to keep the guitar playing in time through the break and to let the rest of the band members know when they need to jump back in. I’ve encountered disasters were a band has wasted hours trying to overdub to a single section like this where no effort was made for time keeping in the future.

The issue is complicated because if the cymbal crash is supposed to ring out and the drummer doesn’t want his hi-hat clicks cutting through. It appears that quite a few modern drummers really hate when the hi-hat is in a recording for time keeping purposes even though many of my favorite albums clearly do this. A compromise has to be made and in most cases this compromise is quite a bit of time spent trying to nail the part with no time keeping element.

I’m of the opinion that 99% of all bands should use a click track. If a band is going to be doing ANY overdubbing, we should pull out the click track. If a band is recording live, we can toss that click right out the window. If we are going to keep everything from the live session, there is no need to mess with the click if the band can groove.

Myth #7: Click track recordings sound like dance music
Anyone who assumes that recording a real life human band playing to a click track is going to sound like disco, dance music, or techno is totally out of their mind. The natural human element will always come out even if the drummer plays at a consistent tempo. Even with a constant tempo the drummer can push in fast parts, pull in slower parts, etc. The constant tempo simply means the drummer will have a groove in his head that he can base his performance around.

Some people are afraid of sounding robotic, but let’s get real. How many drummers are capable of sounding like precise machines? I know of zero drummers who sound like drum machines. If there was some kind of stupid contest where drummers competed to sound the most robotic, they wouldn’t come even close. Humans just don’t sound robotic. This is why drum programming is such a pain in the ass and why I just shelled out big bucks on a Pintech E-jam electronic drum kit so I could have a real drummer do my programming for me. So a band that worries about sounding too robotic is a band that falls into Myth #1 land (and those guys can do whatever the hell they want!!!) or is a band that is also scared to death of being struck by lightning before a gig. Get over it!

If you are worried about sounding like a robot by using a click track, you are out of your mind. You are more likely to be struck by lightning AND win the lottery on the same day than you are to sound like a robot on a recording simply because you hear a beep in your headphones. You are completely delusional and clearly show a lack of experience if you really think any human being will sound like a drum machine.

Try editing together three or four different takes from the best drummer you know and you’ll quickly discover just how random and non-robotic the best of local drummers really are.

Note: I want to make it clear that there is a huge difference in my opinion in sounding like a robot or quantized drum machine vs a song that should breath a bit and doesn’t.

Myth #8: A click must be deafening to be audible to the drummer
While it’s no secret that acoustic drums that are hit hard enough to sound good on recordings are going to be ear splitting and a headphone mix must be pretty loud in volume to overcome this, there are many ways to save a drummers hearing.

First off, isolation headphones should be used to dramatically knock down the sound of the drums in the room. This allows us to reduce the volume of the entire headphone mix. Whether you use earbuds from your Icrap mp3 player with the ear muff thingies used for shooting on top or you buy the real deal isolation headphones doesn’t matter. You must knock down the volume of the real kit. Be advised that not all isolation headphones are created equal.

Secondly, you should always ask the drummer if he would prefer a double timed click track when applicable. In Cubase this is as simple as changing a 4/4 time signature to an 8/8 time signature. The double timed nature of the click allows the drummer hear the offbeats and is more conducive to getting the drummer to actually groove as opposed to hitting each kick on one beep and one snare on another beep. (As a guitar player, I dramatically prefer a double timed click track when recording parts with no drums.) Best of all, the beeps that happen to land on kicks and snares don’t have to be so excruciatingly loud that they overpower the kick and snare in the headphone mix.

Lastly, experimenting with different click sounds can go a long way towards helping the click cut through. I generally select the most annoying, ear-piercing sound I can so that I the click will easily cut through a mix and I can actually turn the level down. There are different philosophies on the click sound so go with your gut.

Myth #9: The big boys don’t need a click
There is this implication that the big boys don’t use all kinds of tools we have available at our disposal. Whether it’s click tracks, drum sample layering, crazy editing tricks, or anything in between we never really know what the big boys are using for a given session. To assume that musical talent makes various tools unnecessary suggests to me that a person doesn’t understand the point of the tools.

I know one thing is for sure. The big time engineers, producers, and bands aren’t basing critical decisions on what some other band is doing. The real deal engineers and producers make a decision because of what will sound best or be the most musically effective. Years of experience and a willingness to listen is what makes the difference.

Simply using this or that tactic because someone else did it is a ridiculous reason to force any method, trick, or tactic on a song. You should use a method because it makes the music more effective in your specific situation. Even if you really had a crystal ball and could see what your favorite bands were using in the studio, it still wouldn’t help you in the unique situation you face today.

Myth #10: Click tracks are annoying to drummers
Not every drummer is annoyed by click tracks. Some drummers love them. Drummers that have their groove and timing down can focus on creating the most exciting performance without putting too much thought into their timing. As long as they keep their body bobbing to the click, the performance will take care of itself.

The drummers who are annoyed by click tracks are either so damn good that they feel they don’t need them (again, Myth #1) or they are just avoiding the fact that they aren’t that good of drummer. I’m not that good of guitar player. If there was some easy way to illustrate the fact that I wasn’t that good, I probably wouldn’t want it displayed the world either. I can see why so many drums are anti-click. However, insecurity and incompetence is not a good reason to despise a particular tool. If this is you, it’s time to get busy and put the time into your craft and only then can you form an educated, informed opinion on click tracks!

Conclusion
A click track can be an extremely valuable tool to aid drummers in cranking out the most exciting drum tracks possible. It’s not the end all solution for “perfect” drums, however. It has it’s downsides and this is going to have a negative effect on the bands that are so damn good at grooving that they don’t need it. I’m of the opinion that there are way too bands out there who don’t naturally groove and are going to sound sloppy and downright bad without a click track. These bands dramatically outnumber the bands who feel the click is limiting.

It’s up to you to decide if your musical will benefit from a click track. There is only one way to find out. A drummer who has put in the hours practicing to a click track should go into the studio and try recording a song with and without a click track. When the band puts the instruments down and listens to the two possibilities, they can then decide what sounds best for their music.

It needs to be said that if the drummer hasn’t put the time into practicing with a click track, he’s not a drummer yet (or at least he had better be naturally gifted at grooving). To toss a drummer into a situation where a beep is “telling him how to drum” is not only irresponsible, it’s probably going to result in the drummer falling prey to Myth #2.

For an overwhelming majority of the world’s favorite songs, a click track has been a useful tool. This doesn’t mean the click track is right for you, but it does mean the click track is right for most situations.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

14 responses to 10 Click Track Myths

  1. I am glad you wrote this. I too face this debate on a reguloar basis, and it may even be the most argumented point in the studio(the second being the use of a bass amp over going direct for bass gtr.) I have worked with some of the greatest studio drummers out and most expect there to be a click. I have worked with one drummer who practiced so much to it you could give him a BPM and he woud play it without a reference(we drilled and tested him on it for fun with a metronome in the studio one day.) Many times when working on a major label/big budget project, you are subject to when various players are available. The string/keys arranger may have to come to lay his program in before the band even gets to come to the studio. All his gear syncs up via midi time code and a tempo map. All these things are set in preproduction in a well planned session. It would be impossible for the drumer to come lay a track to some interspursed, legato string sustains if he was not able to play the for of the song to a track.
    The other point I will make is the future options of profitability from the song if it is played to a click track. Think of all the songs that are out there being remixed by Deejays in clubs or on tv commercials or bing sampled by hip hop producers around the world. Thos remixes and samples are all based around tempo programming. You may say “my demo will never get that far” or “I would never let them use it” but when it comes down to it, if someonecalled you and said they wanted to use one sampled 4 bar grove that you recorded in your basement and they were gonna pay you $25,000.00, you would not say no. There are agencies out there who just colect all the music they can find and try to get it used in commercials and movies. For a producer to speed that sample up or slow it down to program with it, he needs tempo info. There are ways to figure it out, but its easier if he can just get it from you. What if your 13 minute opus gets heard by a radio station and they say they will play it if its under 4 minutes. At that point you start editing out masturbatory solos and extra choruses and the opening movement of the song(this is how tv show themes get worked outtoo!!!) Crossfades and part shuffles and all that blend fairly seemlessly if the tempo is solid. If you vary by 2 beats per minute, a person may not know why it sounds wrong, but only that it does sound wrong.
    Just to let eveyone know, I myself am a drummer and a studio engineer/producer with platiunum plaques. I use the click and insist on it when I play sessions for the most part. If I start to et off te click, I gently work back onto it. If just stopping play is the ultimate no no for a drummer on stage, then instant tempo correction is the ultimate no no for the studio. Learn to play and groove gently back into tempo even though yo0u are hearing something different in your ears, whitout loosing or gaining beats. I play live with a click now and have evenlarned to not listen to it if there is a programming malfunction or th bateries die in the metronome or if the feelof the crowd sends us ina different direction. Just learn to cohabitate with it and you will get more gigs.
    As a side note: I wear molded earplugs under isolation headphones in the studio and live. This really keeps what I am used to hearing constant and my ears don’tring after a gig!!!

  2. This was a very good article. I’m a drummer myself (among all the other things), and I’ve told many other drummers that if they can’t groove to a metronome, they’ve got some problems.

  3. This part was great:

    “The drummers who are annoyed by click tracks are either so damn good that they feel they don’t need them (again, Myth #1) or they are just avoiding the fact that they aren’t that good of drummer. I’m not that good of guitar player. If there was some easy way to illustrate the fact that I wasn’t that good, I probably wouldn’t want it displayed the world either.”

    I agree, all drummers should be ABLE to play to a click track whether they like it or not, and shouldn’t use excuses like the ones mentioned in this article to not strengthen their weaknesses.

  4. I love click. I encourage it completely when guys can play to it. Just because a drummer pushes a crash a millimeter on the the grid or lays something back behind the grid just a tad, doesn’t mean he can’t play. Call me an ass-kisser, but brandon is EXACTLY right with this article. That comes from playing with click for over 20 years. I got my first Boss dr. beat in 1985. It taught me to play….

  5. There’s quite a few new bands that will want to record a first demo but are highly under prepared for time in the studio. Not only that, they are not very good at keeping time…

    For young blossoming bands, it’s as important for them to have a “fun” time and get a boost.. as it is for you to do some fancy production on their track. In which case, don’t even bother with a click track. You’ll only end up spending hours (of their money) working against their natural level of ability.. and they’ll get frustrated, and you’lll have lost a future return client.

    Much better to finish the session with a smile.. deliver something half decent. Then tell them they did great… but if they wanted to improve….. (BIG list of things..)

  6. in reply to the comments about telling the band they are great when they arent, I agree that it doesn’t do them any good. Band who come in need to learn the process to progress. I don’t strongarm anyone into doing things my way unless I am the producer and my name HAS to be on it. I have never lost a client because I told them what needs to be improved on to make thier recordings better. Most first time bands have an inflated idea of “studio magic” and “fix it in the mix.” When there are problems from not being able to play to a click and they ask why thing turned out the way they did, and tell me thier friend fixed it in his basement studio when they recorded, I must always rebutt with “I can fix it but that takes time, and time takes money and you have alredy told me that this is all you have to spend.” I alsays give deals and push the time for people who are paying cash and don’t have a deal. I cannot however be taken advantage of and give away 2 days of editting time for free. Correcting tempo can be done via time compression and expansion, beat correction, and copying and pasting of parst, but it takes amny many hours to do it. its easier to get the band to play it better in the first place. A band looksfor direction when they come into the studio for the first time(if they have no producer) and if you don’t hold thier hand, the demo never gets finished.

  7. You’ll only end up spending hours (of their money) working against their natural level of ability.. and they’ll get frustrated, and you’lll have lost a future return client.

    You don’t lose clients because of click tracks. You lose clients when you fail to deliver the quality of recording they expect.

    Without a doubt, my personality has had a stronger effect on return clients than my actual recording ability (especially in the beginning of my recording quest).

    I don’t believe in telling people what they want to hear. This is dishonest and it limits the progress of the band. When a band is young and inexperienced we make the best recording we can. If I want the click, but the click is causing problems, we ditch the click. HOWEVER, I make it abundantly clear that it is my opinion that the band needs to work on this, this, and this to make our next recording better.

    I don’t insult the bands and I certainly don’t force anything upon them. However, I am always honest and up front with ways in which they can improve. It’s VERY exciting when they do come back in 6 – 18 months and they have improved. I’ve seen it numerous times and it’s one of the better feelings in the world.

    If I took the politician approach and told them they are awesome when I was clearly not telling the truth, I think people would lose all respect for me.

    Brandon

  8. Alexander Dorian August 20, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    I usually ditch the click with young bands too, maybe we use for that elusive part that Brandon mentioned where there is a transition with a punch in. It is really not that hard to program it in later or just go in and record a cowbell (more cowbell!) part via the vocalist mic on the fly.

    Usually most young bands don’t have that good of a sense of playing to click as their drummers are usually inexperienced and have never done it. On the other hand – they are also not that good at keeping rhythm. It is still easier to edit several takes together for the best performance rather than quantize to a grid.

    On the other hand – we just did a song for my band that was on a click, then we got a drummer to track remotely and send us the performance. He was a pro so he was able to play around the click. Granted – we had to do a few edits and retrack a few guitar parts to fit the drums better in feel but if there was no click this would’ve been a mess to do in the first place. Now – we have a song done via correspondence drumming and it sound pretty good!

  9. The click track is IMO always needed to lay the foundation for a track other people will be adding to, especially if the drum part has long rests in it.

    I often make the click track a combination of tones, like cowbell on the down beat and clave on the up-beat. Sometimes I even add click track notes in between the 8th notes for better cueing. With a straight quarter not click, if a loud drummer hears the click, he or she is already off from it because his/her drum hits would be louder than the click unless it’s turned up loud enough to damage his/her hearing. You need something between the beats so he/she can lock in without having to listen to a cowbell banging in his/her phones louder than the drum he/she is slamming.

  10. This was one of the best pieces I’ve seen generated on this site…

    Thank you!

    What is important is to recognize that tools, and there are many, are often situational.

    I used to believe that every good recording used a click, until I did a demo in a studio where the engineer convinced me that the click could be stultifying. And for the purposes of the recording we did, he was correct. Fortunately i was in a band that was prepared and talented enough to go without, and the recording had a nice spark, as we did all the rhythm tracks as a band.

    I have actually used this method myself as a preferred way to generate lively tracks. To get a “band” sound, you have to record the band playing. Overdubs can still be done, but they can be challenging and they can stick out as a dub, but it all depends what one wants in a recording.

    My next project, I believe we are going back to the click track, as I believe I will be living in a heavily overdubbed project. Essentially, I’m following your recommendation. I want my next recording to be executed better, so while I’m going to still record the rhythm tracks as a session, I’m going to have the click available for the overdubs. I’m just going to have to take the time for the band to get used to the click in a recording session. Since we are going to do it ourselves on computer, we’ll just keep at it until its right.

    Thank you for this information and perspective. It does simply confirm, that there are no absolutes in music or recording it.

  11. Being as I’m a drummer who has been playing with clicks for about 6 or 7 years (which is most of my time as a drummer) I figure maybe my personal opinions on click tracks may be of some value and might help people who have trouble playing with them.

    First, click tracks can be absolutely annoying. The key is to find a sound that has a very clean attack but doesn’t sound annoying. A hi-hat sound might be a good one. I use Digital Performer, which comes with something like… 10 click tones. I find that the UREI click is painful and probably the quickest way to develop tinnitus. The studio at my school has a real UREI click machine and its even worse. In DP I use one of the cowbell sounds. Its not my favorite but its a compromise between hearing loss and being able to hear the click easily. My favorite click sound that I’ve used to date is on the Boss DB90 metronome. I was going to sample it into DP but then I killed it.

    Second, For someone starting out using a click track, its probably easier to have the click track much louder than everything else in the headphones or just obviously loud if nothing else is in the phones. Its much harder to get off the beat of the click track when its the main thing you can hear. It grabs your focus much more(might be bad if you have A.D.D. haha.) I find that now, I can play with the click track barely heard because I’m so used to it being there that I can keep it more in my subconscious and still stay with it.

    Lastly, Click tracks do not have to stiffen up the groove. This all depends on the drummer. I find that now I can play on top of and behind the click track and still stay with it. In this way the click is liberating to me as a drummer because I can lay back on a beat without fear of dragging the song. Also, if the rest of the band feels like a certain part of a song is slower than it should be because we’re using a click, I can play more in front of the beat and please the band a little bit without fear of it turning into rushing. Obviously I haven’t always been able to do this, but it came over time. The bottom line is that every drummer, if they want to have a job with playing the drums, needs to not only be comfortable with the click track but be very good at playing with one, because its just how 99% of songs are recorded these days.

    One last piece of information. Don’t let the click track become a crutch. I have found that when not using a click I speed up like Jeff Gordon on stuff when I go on tempo autopilot, which I do when I’m playing with a click. Just remember when you aren’t playing with a click that you once again have to pay attention to not speeding up/slowing down.

  12. I think that a lot of the stuff brought up in this section have been pretty spot on. I’m yet another drummer commenting on this section. I prefer to work with a click, so I don’t have to worry about things speeding up or slowing down. I’m a decent drummer, and I get calls to do studio work fairly regularly. I think that when you are playing in a situation where the band is recording live it can become a problem if the band, or even one member doesn’t have a good sense of time. When I’m playing live, I’m always listening to hear what’s going on around me, and adjusting to what I perceive as adjustments that have to be made in the time.

    I’ve played in a lot of live sequenced situations, but in those cases there is a lot more information than just a cowbell, or some beeping going on. I’ve found that it’s the space in between the notes that cause people the most problems.

    A good compromise in a lot of cases with less experienced players is to use a little drum machine or the software to create a loop that can guide them through the track. it becomes more a part of the song than just an annoying pulse in your ear.

    I’ve seen stuff on records change tempo, and it works. those are some really good performances, and some not so good ones. Tracy Chapman’s Give me one reason, has a increase in the tempo by a couple of beats per minute after the second chorus, which gives the song a nice lift and a bit more urgency.

    I think that it’s something that everyone should be able to do, but not something that always has to happen.

  13. A click track is great if you are overdubbing. It is unnatural and unnecessary for live recordings.

  14. Butch McGhee Jr. August 24, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I am a drummer of close to 30 years and have played with a few top R&B and Blues Bands of the 70′s and 80′s. I was actually fired because of my timing. I would not want that to happen to anyone if I can help it. The Lead singer who at the time was a very very famous Blues singer and liked me and my playing a lot until I kept speeding up his slow songs. He kept telling I needed to work with a metronome or he would have to let me go. Not to use this as an excuse but I was very young,big headed and straight out of high school, where all I played was fusion and Jazz. I could not understand the concept of playing behind the beat. In playing blues of that age you must relax and play behind the beat. I was sent back home where I was embarrassed.What I did was woodshed with a drum machine and just practiced with that now I own my own drum school and I teach my students with and without the click or drum machine. Yes it helps but don’t get to dependent on it, after you have gotten your timing down learn to play naturally and relaxed.