Each time you start a new recording session…
That same question pops up, over and over again…
Should we use a click? Or not?
Yet no matter how many times you hear it…
It never gets easier to answer, does it?
Because even though they’re supposed to make our jobs easier…
More often than not, those annoying beeps in your headphones seem to cause more problems than they solve.
And that’s why so many musicians avoid click tracks, despite knowing (at least in theory) the advantages they offer when used appropriately.
The tricky part is…knowing when they ARE appropriate, and when they’re NOT.
So in today’s post, that’s exactly what we’ll cover.
Let’s begin. First up…
Why Click Tracks are AWESOME
In today’s world of sampling, looping, beat-matching, etc…
Exact tempos are more important than ever.
When drum loops lock to session tempos, and editing tools lock to bars and beats…
Click tracks aren’t just an option, they’re a necessity.
Yet “electronic musicians” aren’t the ones complaining about them, are they?
Typically, it’s the guitarists, bassists, and keyboardists, who are the real complainers.
The question is…WHY?
The Common Criticism
It’s often said that click tracks destroy the “human feel” songs…
By restricting a musician’s ability to “interpret” the tempo.
Now while this CAN happen…
The statement really only applies to the person setting the tempo (the drummer).
And rarely do you hear drummers complain about clicks, because they’re the ones most comfortable using them.
More often, it’s the guitarist or someone else who has the problem.
And here’s why I think this is true:
How iPods Killed the Metronome
Decades ago, musicians commonly used metronomes as a training aid to develop their sense of time.
Back then, it was all they had.
But today, ever since iPods put a thousand songs in everybody’s pocket…
You rarely ever see anyone (who isn’t a drummer) practice with a metronome or click.
Because why would you if you can follow an actual song instead?
The problem is…iPods never actually made metronomes obsolete, did they?
Because we still use them all the time. Only now…more guys suck at it.
However…since there’s no point in whining about what we can’t change…
Here’s what we can do instead:
How to Help Guys Who Are Struggling
The first common complaint guys have with clicks is that they always sound either too loud, or too soft… but never just right.
And as we all know from mixing, this usually happens when two sounds are competing for the same band of frequencies.
So rather than endlessly fiddling with the volume…experiment with the sound banks until you find something that doesn’t compete with the instrument being recorded.
The second common complaint guys have with clicks is that they get lost once they lose track of the “1”.
To solve this problem, some folks try to accent the “1” so it stands out better. But all this really does is make the remaining pulses sound too soft in comparison.
Instead, the better solution is to give the “1” a different sound entirely. For example, you could use a jam block on the remaining pulses, but change the “1” to a cowbell.
While these tips may help somewhat, a big portion of guys still won’t get the hang of it, no matter what.
So for them…here’s what you need instead:
Virtual Instrument Drums
The one thing that all musicians can intuitively follow is a basic drum beat.
So when the click track just isn’t working…
The next thing I recommend trying is virtual instrument drums.
Even for people who have no problem following a click…
A realistic drum beat is still better, simply because…
Instead of following:
Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep…
You get to follow:
Boom, Smack, Boom Boom, Smack.
And who wouldn’t want that?
The only downside is…they cost money, while click plugins are usually free.
But if you find that in your case, the benefits outweigh the costs…
Here are 3 good options I recommend:
- Toontrack EZ Drummer 2 – (price/reviews)
- Toontrack Superior Drummer 2 – (price/reviews)
- Steven Slate Drums – (price)
How to Handle Tempo Shifts
These days, with our heavy-reliance on click tracks for music composition…
The majority of songs you find are written in constant tempos.
However…there are still a small percentage written in varying tempos…
Which present a number of challenges when using a click.
With such songs, you have 3 options. You could:
- Change the song to give it a constant tempo.
- Trust the drummer to set his own tempo.
- Create a tempo map, so you can change tempos, but still use a click.
The first option is easiest, but also lame if it kills the essence of the song.
The second option is ideal if it works, but also risky because if it doesn’t work, the whole session is doomed from the start.
The third option is safer, but can also be extremely time-consuming, and will still never sound as natural as the timing of a good drummer.
So clearly, none of the options are perfect. But through experience, you learn which one work best in which situations.
The “Other” Drummer?
As we’ve established, no click track can ever truly replace the natural timing of a skilled musician…correct?
And in almost all cases, that musician is the drummer.
But who else do you often see with that same ability?
Well in my experience, the one ‘other type’ that frequently does better WITHOUT a click is…musicians who perform by themselves.
And the classic example of this type is the singer/songwriter who plays acoustic guitar.
- Just like drummers, these guys are responsible for controlling their own tempos.
- But unlike drummers, they’re NOT responsible for keeping consistent tempos, because no one follows them.
As a result…
- They’re terrible and keeping steady time, but…
- They’re great at playing in “free time“, which no click can ever replicate.
That is why, by giving one of these guys a click track…
You’re ignoring one of their greatest talents. So don’t do it.
As we all knew from the beginning of this article…
- There are some situations when click tracks are a MUST…
- There are other situations when they’re STUPID…
And then there’s the remaining 95% of cases where there’s both PROS and CONS…
And it’s up to you to assess the situation and act accordingly.
Hopefully though…by having read this article, you’ll be better-equipped to make a decision, the next time you open up a new session and ask yourself that same question…
Should we use a click…or not?