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Record To A Click Track – Why You Should and Why You Shouldn’t

click track

German Version Here.

Probably the most controversial topic among musicians, the decision to record to a click track or not can cause deep rifts in a band and endless discussions.

There are many pros and cons, and each band member will have his or her preference and perspective on the right way to ensure both timing and performance of a recording are up to scratch.

In this post I will try to shine a light on each aspect to consider when toying with the idea of recording to a click track, so that you can weigh up the right option for your next album.

What Is A Click Track?

A click track is a metronome audio signal sent out of a DAW to assist musicians in keeping time when recording in a studio or performing live. It is literally a click that sounds on every beat or sub-beat of a bar, giving the musician a timing orientation at regular intervals. It could be a simple four-beat metronome with the first beat accented or a more complicated 8th or 16th-note click track, depending on the song’s requirements.

Aspects such as time signature and tempo changes can be incorporated into the click track, as well as further clicks or audio cues to signal upcoming sections in the song.

How do you record a click Track?

A click track isn’t recorded, per se, but a built-in track in music recording software. It can also be supplied by a specialised app on your phone or ipad for rehearsal purposes.

Click on these links if you want to know how to create a click track in Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton or Cubase.

4 Reasons Why You Should Record To A Click Track

Your Style Of Music Begs For It

Many modern music genres have developed immensely from the advent the computer-based digital audio production. Far from only electronic music being influenced by the digital age, computers have become the central core for music production of all genres – from rock to pop, indie to folk, dance to world music and beyond.

That loose, laid-back feel of rock and folk music from the 60s and 70s has made way to metronomic metal, computer-generated synth-pop and autotuned radio rock recorded in as many studios as songs on the album.

If you play in a post-hardcore metal band, chances are you have been consuming click track music for a long time and are heavily influenced by the tight production of modern metal music. The genre lives from the metronomic stabs of the drums and guitars and the tracks are often heavily edited in order to line up each hit of each instrument.

Modern alternative rock is often not quite so rigid with timing, yet the influence from neighbouring genres is present as listeners become more and more accustomed to tight production styles.

You Plan To Record Each Instrument Separately

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t so long ago that the majority of recordings were produced live in large studio. This is another major decision with it’s own set of pros and cons, yet we have only had this opportunity since computers became powerful enough for multitrack recording and playback.

When recording each instrument separately, you will need some kind of guide to begin with. Usually, you start recording drums, then bass, followed by keys, guitars and other instruments, depending on the instrumentation. There aren’t many drummers that can nail the structure of a song without any accompanying instruments, so it makes sense to record to a guide track. This guide track must be recorded to click, otherwise things can get really messy.

Another alternative is to record drums to scratch tracks of other instruments, bass and guitar for example, which serve only the purpose of guiding the drummer through the song for his takes.

Modern Music Is Scrutinised For Timing Perfection

Sometimes it’s just the way things are. Music has evolved over the last few decades into an art form in which perfection is the goal on many levels. Perfect pitch, timbre, design, presentation, and most of all – timing.

Gone are the days in which the overall feel or uniqueness of a song outweighed the production quality. Music listeners have arguably been presented with every combination of genre, melody and harmony, so that there are few surprises left that could cover for poor musicianship.
The days of punk and three chord songs played by musicians barely able to stand (let alone play a major scale) are long gone and the attitude of a band won’t cut it any more if the musicianship is lacking.

Recording engineers are expected to correct timing issues to make a band sound as professional as possible. The simplest way to achieve this is by ensuring the band records as close to the tempo grid as possible.

So those were the reasons why you should record to click. Pretty compelling. But are there any down sides to quantising everything to the grid?

4 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Record To A Click Track

Tempo Changes Are Natural And Give A Song Much Needed Dynamics

This might not be a popular one but I believe it is true so hear me out. Music is nothing more than a collection of frequencies – energy captured in a room by a musician pouring their soul into their art.

Each passage of a song has a different level of energy; an intro will often be on a different level to a verse, the chorus will usually lift from the verse; a solo or outtro might take it up another notch again. As humans, we change our energy levels depending on our emotions, and when we get excited we tend to move around quickly, wave our arms or talk faster and louder.

This is exactly what happens in music when we are emotionally triggered by what we are playing. It’s no secret that a band playing live on stage will often play songs faster than on the record. They just get caught up in the energy of the performance and speed up.

Digital Perfection Removes A Certain Human Element

Being human and playing with emotion and energy is nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes it might be beneficial to embrace our natural tendencies and emotional energy.

So why not let the drummer speed up in the bridge leading to the outro? Why not take the tempo back a notch for the second verse where all instruments are stripped back and the vocal takes centre stage?

I used to play in a band and we once spent weeks trying to find a common tempo for our songs we were preparing to record. After a while we realised we could do nothing more than find a good entry point for the start of the song and then let it go organically after that. That was just how we played as musicians and as a band and was the only thing that worked for us.

A Click Track Recording Can Sound Like It Is Dragging

There are pitfalls to recording with such perfection that no one can call you out for a sloppy performance. In our social media society and the scrutiny being placed on all musicians fighting for attention, there is little margin for error.

Yet a lacklustre performance can be worse than an imperfect performance. Nailing the feeling is often so much more important than perfecting the timing or pitch in a musical performance. This is why the quest for quantised recordings can be detrimental to the overall feel of a song.
I often find that with elements such as fingerpicking or arpeggios in guitar seem to drag or stand out, seeming slow or jolting. It often feels like the guitarist is holding him or herself back at regular intervals.

Piano played in triplets is another example of a performance that needs to flow rather than be recorded mechanically and with perfect micro-timing. There is just something missing in performances in which too much focus has been put on perfection, rather than the emotional content of the piece.

If you know you can fix it in the mix, you won’t need to improve your musicianship

We humans are lazy. We love technology and the way it makes our lives easier. From fridges cooling our food to cars saving us from having to walk miles and miles every day. Yet we rely on it heavily and sometimes use it to cut corners where we should be putting in the hard work.

There is an expectancy amongst modern amateur musicians that they can show up to a recording session, pull off a couple of half-baked takes, and then have the engineer edit out all the mistakes, tune the vocals and shift each part to make up for sloppy timing.

Now imagine every musician putting in three dedicated practice sessions a week in the month leading up to a recording session. They sit down, practice their parts with a metronome, every day building on the day before, slowly honing their parts to perfection. Imagine the progress we could make as musicians if we let the complacency make way for a dedication and diligence to master our performances and not rely on someone to “fix it in the mix”?

Now isn’t that a world worth striving for? I know for certain I can improve in that regard.

So now you’ve heard all the pros and cons, what’s it to be? Will you record to click track on your next record?

About The Author

Nick Braren is an audio engineer and musician with over 15 years experience in the studio, on stage, back stage and front of house. He is the owner and operator of Upaya Sound, guitarist and vocalist of Vandemonian, father of 2 and husband of 1. When he’s not in the studio or in the band room he’s either travelling in his van or at the beach – or both.

Mixing Engineer

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