Click tracks and other types of metronomes are great ways at keeping musicians in time in the studio. Recording to a click track can be essential – especially if you’re tracking instruments independently due to any type of limitation. While drummers tend to be the most effective at recording to a click, everyone from the bass player to the vocalist can benefit from having a metronome assist them in keeping time.
Of course, there are times where the click does more harm than it does good. Some musicians will become so intently focused on sticking with the click that their performance loses its essence. They become overly robotic and lose whatever it is that humanizes their sound. Others have an even harder time keeping a steady pace with a click in their ear – constantly lagging behind and then overcompensating by speeding ahead.
So where do you draw the line on when to use a click and when not to?
When you’re in the studio recording, it’s essential that you try to start with a click each and every time. It’s not just for your musicians – you need to know the tempo and the changes for things like time-based effects and section markers. Without some idea of the right tempo, your grid goes out the window.
If you find yourself working with a band that’s struggling to record to a click, see if the drummer is able to hold his or her own with it. Many drummers start learning to play to a metronome from a young age. They learn their fundamentals to a click track or something similar.
If it’s clear that the drummer can’t find his place with the click, move on to the bassist. Bass drives the rhythm section of a song as much, if not more than a drummer. Chances are that between the two of them, you’ll find a consistent take to work with.
Once you’ve laid that foundational track, the rest of the recording process can be done with the click pushed way off in the background (or removed completely if it’s a nuisance). Musicians that aren’t comfortable recording to a click might be more accepting of a groove played by their bassist or drummer – a sound they’re much more familiar with.
As a last resort, if you can’t seem to get anyone to play to a click consistently, consider tapping out the performance on your own as the drummer or another band member plays on his or her own. If their tempo is consistent, you might be able to record sans-click and map the tempo out later. Tools like Beat Detective in Pro Tools make this process easier than ever.
Editing Without The Click
Just like a musician is capable of losing a groove by playing to a click, an engineer can kill that grove by editing to one. Yes, there are situations where editing to a click is a good idea, especially in modern production. Yes, you can stretch your audio to fit perfectly into place. But should you?
The groove of a song comes from the pocketing around the grid, not necessarily from being spot on every time. A lot of the edit decisions you’ll make will depend on the genre you’re working with and the specifics of the song. While editing to a grid might make perfect sense in electronic or dance music, the same wouldn’t fly with funk or soul.
Consider carefully what a good groove adds to a song before you even think about tightening anything up to a grid. Let’s say you’re working on a metal song with a swing breakdown. The entirety of the song could be grinding away at a high BPM, but as soon as that half-time swing kicks in for the bridge, things should “feel” loose. That’s the groove.
Rather than always going for the grid, engineers should be focused on locking instruments in with each other. Make sure your bass notes align with your kick pattern. Align your layered guitars so that they’re playing in unison. By keeping things like pick attack in line, any bus compression or group processing will also work more effectively thanks to the unity of the performances.
If you’re working with something that deserves to be locked to the grid, by all means do it. Just don’t sacrifice what makes your music sound unique in the search for perfection.
Finding Perfection in Imperfections
There’s no such thing as the perfect mix – only the best result you can get with the time and resources you have. If you’d like to find creative new approaches to your mixes, look no further than the JST VIP section of our site. There, I share some of my favorite guitar tracking & mixing techniques, teach lessons on finding the best tone for a song, and provide a bunch of mix guides to help lead members to better results.