This 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!
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.