Click Tracks

A few weeks ago I received some bad news. The drummer on our team was not able to play. And the team leader asked me for some help. From time to time I will play drums. I’m certainly not an advanced player but I can keep time and I can build dynamics. However, with the state of the ear infection as it was a few weeks back, I could not handle being behind a drumkit.

And so I built up the setlist using click tracks and drum samples. It was a lot of work. I used Ableton Live as the DAW for building up the loops. I basically imported a cover version of the song. I then marked the arrangement up with location points for things like the verse, chorus, or bridge. I found some similar drum grooves in my huge drum sample library — that was the longest part of the job, trying to find a suitable drum loop. And then I created the drum arrangement. Adding fills, percussion and creating dynamics filled out the illusion of an accomplished drummer. I also added some other loops and textures to add some punch to the backing tracks.

How did it go? Surprisingly well. The other musicians were not necessarily experienced in terms of being able to play with a click but after a couple of rehearsals, everyone did fine.

It did remind though as to why a click is a fundamental tool to playing well in a live situation. I could think of five reasons:

Play in time

Virtually all of the recorded music I listen to is produced to a click track. There are some exceptions but for the most part music is recorded in time. We get used to listening to music in time. There is a connection with tempo that makes a huge difference to the sound of music. Playing in time just sounds better for most songs.

Play at an appropriate pace

Whenever I have played with drummers that do not use a click I notice a common tendency when we start our set in front of an audience. Songs are played so much faster than rehearsal. If a song calls for 96bpm, it is not unusual for the drummer to speed up 10 or 12 beats per minute. For many of the songs we play, I am using delays. Delays sound best when they are in time with the music. And I tap the tempos into my delay pedals when the drummer counts the song in. I might have a chart up at 96 but the drummer is usually much, much faster. Adrenaline.

Play together

With everyone following a common click, the team will do a much better job playing together. I have played in a number of bands where no one is really listening to each other. The bassist is not in time with the drummer. The keyboard player is not in time with the guitar. The vocals are not in time with the band. With everyone listening to a common reference for time, everyone suddenly begins playing together, at the same tempo. People will use words like “that band was really tight!”

Play the song

When a song gets recorded, the tempo is obviously a big part of the sound. Certain songs lose impact when they are rushed. Or, for that matter, when they are too slow. And sometimes the ability to hit certain shots or musical passages is dependant on playing to the correct tempo. There are some solos that I will cover that can be readily played within a certain range of tempo. Push the song out too fast and the solo is no longer playable — at least not by me.

Play with confidence

Learning to play with a click increases my ability to play with confidence. Why? Playing to a click or to a drummer who keeps terrific time — or even both — means that I can play to a steady and consistent tempo. A steady and consistent tempo builds a groove. A groove builds energy and feel. All of which leads to more confidence in the music. Assuming, of course, that enough time has been spent in practice.

3 replies
  1. Mike P
    Mike P says:

    As a totally non-professional musician, a click track (in either rehearsal, recording, or performance) seems to me like one of those things that can cut both ways, kind of like autotune.

    I enjoyed this article, where the author demonstrates how to detect when a click track has been used in recorded performances, and argues that artists who do so risk sapping emotion and dynamics from their music:

    Of course, if the rhythm is pre-tracked on a drum machine as in your case, there isn’t much choice. 🙂

    • Richard Cleaver
      Richard Cleaver says:

      Er no. A metronome or click track in live performance is NOTHING like autotune 🙂

      That said, the ability to play in tune is also another attribute of good musicianship. I would never, ever knowingly play an instrument out of tune.

      The author of the article you reference is focusing on a specific and potentially sterile technique of recording which is post-production correction of timing issues:

      “This allows for easier digital editing of the recording. Since all of the measures are of equal duration, it is easy to move measures or phrases around without worry that the timing may be off.”

      The reality is that it is difficult to find musicians capable of playing in time and a lot of producers will use a tool like Beat Detective to force fit tempo and to minimize timing errors. For certain styles of music, sequenced parts will be flown in and that requires a high degree of “fit” from a timing perspective. Hence the need to build a song to a “grid”. To me that kind of recording technique is vastly different than helping to build a groove around a consistent tempo. Tempo is musical not mechanical.

      The point of my post was how to use a click to enhance live performance and not as a technique for fixing musical flaws in recorded work.

      Being able to play in time is a basic skill for a musician. The drummer usually fills the role of timekeeper and most drummers know full well the value of being able to keep time.

  2. Stephen Meyer
    Stephen Meyer says:

    For years I never played live with a click. Then I started playing with a click live, and now when I don’t, I miss it terribly. I’d never let the click ruin the musicality of the performance, in fact, there were many times when the click would get abandoned intentionally for the sake of being artistic one way or another. Sometimes music is not at a constant tempo, but generally, good music means good tempo. I agree that this differs greatly from post production manipulation. Not playing to the proper constant tempo is like detuning your instrument throughout the song.

    From the otherside as well, as drummers people complain to us constantly that the tempo isn’t correct, or that there was a change in tempo and that it was the drummer’s fault. When I play with a click I find NO difference in the amount of complaints I hear about the tempo from other musicians. I’ve even been accused of losing a click that only I can hear! But at the end of the day it gives me some comfort knowing that at least this time it wasn’t my fault 🙂


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