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       Tracking with a Click      

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Did you Click?

No brick-builder would build a wall without first marking out the exact line with string for the horizontal and vertical lines of the wall. He does this with the aid of a plumbline and a spirit level. No matter how careful he may be, without this framework, the wall will be crooked and untidy.

If music is to sound peasant to our ears, then someone has to keep the beat and the instruments have to be perfectly in tune. That means tuning prior to every take and recording to a click track. These two things are the plumb line and the sprit level of recording music. Without them, the recording will not sound tight and correct. It will be like a wall that is crooked.

Even orchestras and string quartets have to keep the beat. They do so by having a conductor or a leader who sets the beat. Nearly all the others have to use a click track.

Not all music should be recorded with a click track and there really are songs that need to speed up as they go along, but very often, not using a click leads to all kinds of problems.

The click track is usually the sound of a cowbell or some other clear sound that can be heard easily that just keeps the beat throughout the song. Many amateurs prefer to record without a click track when they are the very ones who would benefit most from it. The click track serves two purposes. Firstly it helps to keep everybody on the beat, but that is not the main purpose. The click track in the DAW age is an editing aid. If the drummer loses the beat when he comes out of a break (they often do!) then it is fairly simple to just cut-and-paste all those drum tracks together so that he is perfect every time. If the bass is a bit sloppy, those bits that overhang from one beat or bar into another can easily be deleted or moved, but only if there is a click track to tell you where the note should start and where it should end.

There are cases where it is difficult or just impossible to use a click, but that does not mean that you have to live without one. I once had to record a young girl who just could not sing along to a click. She was a singer-songwriter who accompanied herself on the guitar and all attempts to get her to do this to the steady beat of a cowbell failed. After the fifth try, I told her to just go for it and I would fix it later. This I did by first tapping on a mic along with her music and then setting up a click track that was as close to her fastest speed as I could make it and then cutting and pasting what she had recorded so that it fitted the new click. After that, she had no difficulties in singing along with the altered recording that now acted as an accurate guide track.

What we had done is to create a guide track that was totally keyed to a click track.  Because of the extreme cutting and pasting, it sounded fairly strange, but it did its job and gave the editor a base line to work from.

In an ideal World, the band will have sent a rough demo in advance with all the information the studio needs like bpm (beats per minute), and timings, so that the studio can set up a MIDI map with click in advance.

More and more musicians walking into studios have not had any proper musical training. Many are completely self taught - and that means all too often that they have no experience of using a metronome.

All trained musicians learn to play scales in time to a metronome. All properly trained drummers learn all their paradiddles in time to a metronome. Not only does this make them far better musicians, but it also gives their recordings the precision that makes for more powerful music. There are, of course, exceptions such as types of music that speeds up and slows down deliberately.

But many musicians claim that they loose spontaneity and feeling when forced to use a click track. They also loose something far more important - the ability to have their music edited properly. The click track tells the editor where all the notes should go if they had been in perfect time. So if you are recording rhythm based music like rock and pop, always use a click track. A cow bell is usually the best, as this will `bite` through the headphone mix and clue the musicians and the drummer in particular, where the beat should be.

But let me leave the last work with James of Doublehelix Studios Indianna -

I like to encourage bands to play to click tracks, but I never force them to. If the drummer is used to playing with a click, then fine, but if they are not, it can really screw them up.

With clicks, you can edit things much more easily, and can copy and paste sections from one part of a song to another if there is an error that needs fixing. For example, the first 2 bars of the chorus is screwed up on the bass for the 2nd chorus... no problem, he nailed it on the first chorus, so copy and paste.

Just to be clear, I would much rather have the bass player do a punch-in to fix it, but if we don't catch if until after he has left, etc. it can be a real life-saver.

There are a couple of things that I do to help out with clicks when I use them.

1) I try to use an element that is already present in the song... like a kick drum, for example. This way, if there is any bleed from the headphones, it is not (as) noticeable. It is also much less offensive than a "BEEP". I usually ask the drummer what he/she prefers and audition several different samples until we find one that is acceptable.

2) I use a headphone system that lets each musician setup their own headphone mix (Hear Back System). This way, the drummer can have it loud in his cans, and the vocalist can have it turned off if they want. This way, everyone can have their own amount of click, or none at all if they want.

This makes everyone happier overall.

As mentioned, there are lots of possible downfalls to using clicks as well, and you really need to make sure that it fits the song/mood/feel. It can really kill the feel of a song.

Remember, one of the most important jobs that we have is to encourage a great performance, not to make *OUR* editing jobs easier!!!

I can tell from your message that you realize this since you have a good list of "cons", it is clear that you understand this, but I wanted to make sure that I included it for completeness.

I would have to say that I end up using a click track less than half the time. Some bands (drummers) can't handle it, and other times it is the feel of the song that gets lost.

I have also programmed a complicated click track in the past where the song changes tempo several times during the course of the song. What a boatload of work, and huge mistake!

It is ALL ABOUT FEEL BABY!!! After all that work (several hours), we ended up tracking the song without it!

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