Drumming Tips: Recording With A Click Track
Press play and read on.
I will begin with a definition and some history. What is a click track? It is essentially a MetroGnome. Sorry, that isn’t entirely accurate. A metronome is a tool that makes audible sounds (or visual cues) at intervals. Musicians use them to practice interval timing, memorize tempos, and play music along to the rhythm. To set the story straight, allow me to mention a brief piece of the history behind the abomination that has been the nightmare of many a musician.
History is fascinating and never fails to reveal entertaining (or bizarre) stories from the past. This is no exception. The mechanical version of the metronome was patented by a kooky inventor named Johann Mälzel who invented the Panharmonicon in 1805. What the hell is that? It is an automatic playing machine that looks like this.
That’s right, before there was a drum machine, there was an entire orchestra machine! It could apparently simulate instruments and sound effects like weapons (guns & cannons) as popularized by composers like Tchaikovsky, Sarti, and Beethoven. It is possibly the precursor to a modern-day sampler workstation, only bigger. Much bigger. Did I mention that Mälzel managed to bend the fingers of Beethoven far enough to convince him to write a little novelty number titled “Wellington’s Victory” for this beast? While critics busted his balls over writing it, Beethoven retorted “What I shit is better than anything you could ever think up!” This wasn’t the only music Beethoven wrote for musical automatons while working with Mälzel. And, just like so many other “bands” throughout time, they had a falling out. Beethoven later described Mälzel as “a rude, churlish man, entirely devoid of education or cultivation.”
Yes, the colorful experiences of being in a band…but I digress.
Here is the problem. Mälzel nicked the idea for the metronome from Dietrich Winkel, who was also the inventor of the Componium, built in 1821. What the hell is that? It is an automatic playing machine that looks like this. Humble beginnings, right?
It makes you wonder where the monkey is supposed to sit.
Now, thanks to Galileo’s research and discovery regarding pendulums as well as other technological advancements, there is now a wide range of metronomes/clicks currently available. For those firmly entrenched in previous centuries and older traditions, you can still purchase an “analog” mechanical metronome as well as portable digital electronic metronomes or the classic option of banging two rocks together. For those who prefer something closer to a 21st century experience, you can find many online metronomes or apps for your “smart” phones, tablets, etc.
Since this post is specifically about RECORDING drums with a click track, I should mention that it is common for the modern DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to have a built-in metronome to generate click tracks. For those that do not already know, the typical reason you record with a click track is to attempt to perform at accurate tempos with solid timing as well as for having a reference for various tempo and meter changes. An example might be that you want to record a vacuous great rock song in common time (4/4) at 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute). Recording along with the click track can provide you with a reference (the click) to help you keep your timing steady.
Where does it all start? PRACTICE.
Did you see the episode of Sesame Street where Bert and Ernie show off their drumming chops?
Bert’s got the beat and Ernie’s got the gurney.
With much practice, perhaps you will get to Carnegie Hall achieve the same level of timing mastery as Marco Minnemann. Here he is in one of my favorite drumming videos breaking down the timing of various audio samples and playing along with them. Notice how he also stylizes the phrasing to really tighten everything up. Yes, it IS impressive.
Did he say “Bite my shiny metal ass?”
If you are new to working with a click track/metronome, you may find it challenging. One of the most common mistakes at the beginning is to wait until you hear the click before actuating your note/sound. By then, it is already too late and you are behind the metronome. If you are practicing quarter notes in 4/4 at 120bpm with a matching click track and you don’t hear the click, you are either playing so loud that you cannot hear the click or you may very well be playing in time with the click. Make sure you practice at a low enough volume at first to get used to the process and can hear when you are in or out of sync with the click. The sound of the metronome should essentially “disappear” (or at least be difficult to hear if it isn’t too loud) when you are spot on.
I will NOT suggest cranking up the click track to keep up with any drum poundage as that will cause hearing damage.
Allow me to digress just a bit on the subject of loudness. The January 2007 issue of Modern Drummer had the following to say about the volume of various drums and cymbals. On second thought, let’s just skip it. I can summarize and just tell you that all of the decibel readings were between 102 – 125 dB. How loud is that?
The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa that was apparently heard some 3,000 miles away was also allegedly measured to be 180dB. Sure, that’s a big difference, but you were wondering why your neighbors hate you. Say, I wonder if anyone has tracked drums in a volcano?
If you will be recording with a click, I highly recommend that you rehearse with a click long before you enter the studio so that you are accustomed to performing with one. If you need to, seek out an instructor. A good teacher can make a huge difference in working through the stumbling blocks of learning.
Practicing with a metronome can help, but knowing how to practice with the metronome is also important.
Something that can help is to subdivide in your head. If you are trying to catch quarter notes at a slow tempo like 50 BPM, it may be helpful to subdivide into 8th or 16th notes inside your head.
You can play the metronome game where you listen to quarter notes at a chosen tempo, lock in your timing, then temporarily mute the metronome as you continue. Turn the metronome back on after a bar or two and see how close you are. This is easier to set up in a DAW where you can automate your click track. With this exercise, you are building the clock inside your head (so to speak). Speaking of exercise, here is a fun little test. It’s not perfect, but it’s a fun challenge.
Click image to open interactive version (via Concert Hotels).
Consider recording your metronome practice and take note of any consistent problems. For example, do you generally speed up, slow down, rush leads/fills at the end of a phrase? Do you find that you anticipate the next beat to the point of jumping the gun? Or, perhaps you get lost “in the zone” and fall out of time?
Finding out what your weaknesses are will help you to pinpoint them so you can improve.
I should also mention that there are other reasons to record to a click track as well.
- You may be tracking drums that will be mailed/emailed/shipped/flown in to someone else. By tracking your drums at specific tempos, the person who will be working with your tracks can easily punch in the tempo(s). This can be helpful in the case of working with MIDI sequencing, arpeggiators, and any other scenario that may rely upon more precise timing intervals.
- If your work is going to be incorporated into remixes, mash-ups, or similar applications, having music tracked at specific tempos can be beneficial.
- You may need a click to keep track of complicated compositions.
Here is a list of tips that may help once you are in the studio and ready to record with the click.
- Consider the monitoring source that you will be using. Typically this will be headphones. There are circumaural, supraaural, earbud, and in-ear styles of headphones (aka “cans”). You can read more about them here, but here is a quick list. IEM (In-Ear Monitors): If you choose this option, you might want to read the following article on some pros and cons of IEMs for some insight. They can be expensive, you have good isolation, and they can be custom-fitted. Ear Buds: They can get the job done, but as with any headphones, pay attention to the volume level. Open/Closed/Semi-Open: This is a more common option in my experience. You may want to use something at least partially open so that you can hear a blend of the mix and your drums. It will all come down to your personal preference.
- Consider the headphone mix. In general, you should have the option to adjust levels of the various instruments in your session. Depending upon the song and particular section of that song, you may need to focus on a particular instrument or instruments. You can adjust the levels or you can also solo them or mute other tracks. Unless you really need to hear a particular instrument, it’s better to bring it down or mute it in your mix. Too much clutter can make it harder to focus which will allow you to achieve a tighter performance.
- Some people like to place the click in one ear with the mix in the other. That may help you, but also comes down to personal preferences.
- There are different schools of thought regarding the use of click tracks during recording. Some musicians argue that a click track can distract the performer from the music itself and compromise the take. If you concentrate so hard on the click track, you may very well compromise your performance. Once again, it comes down to practice. If you practice with the click long enough, you will eventually be able to acknowledge it without letting it pull you out of delivering a natural performance.
- Speaking of natural performances, if you want to remain fairly close to a set tempo, but you don’t want too much influence from a click, change your click settings from 16th or 8th notes down to quarter, half, or hole note markers. This also takes practice, but as your inner clock improves, you can make it work. It may allow you more “breathing room” while still keeping you in the ball park of the set tempo.
- As far as the click itself goes, you should have options on which sounds to use. Some common sounds are the clave, drum stick, cowbell, and a simple ticking sound. This, as with many other things, will come down to personal preference. You may want to tailor your click to a particular song so that it is either more, or less obtrusive. If you want something subtle so that it isn’t quite as invasive to the mix, yet still there, you may want a simple ticking sound. Conversely, you may want something hard or very intrusive like a cowbell or clave. Don’t be afraid to slap an EQ on your click track to get rid of any particular frequencies that you don’t need or that are hurting your ears.
- Some clicks allow count-ins, different tones for different beats of the measure, visual guides, and so on. With some practice, you will eventually find what works best for you. This can help you achieve the performance you are aiming for.
- If you are the first to track, which isn’t that uncommon for a drummer to do, you may want to record a scratch track with the click, then turn off the click and re-track along with your scratch track performance to get a more natural take. This may require you to push the scratch track into one ear or carve the EQ a bit, or reduce the volume.
- Invest in some great headphones that you can bring along with you to use in the studio. They may have something better, but in case they don’t, you will have something you are familiar with and know works for you.
- Pay attention to the volume and take a break once in awhile to give your ears a chance to recover. Nobody wants hearing loss or tinnitus. Not convinced? The ringing in my right ear never stops. Ever. When it is really quiet around me, the ringing seems even louder. Much louder. You really don’t want that.
You may find that a click isn’t always necessary or appropriate, but when you do find yourself in need, I hope that this information is helpful in some way and that your recordings benefit as well.
Keep drumming, take care of your health, and enjoy the music!