The Pros & Cons of Using Click Tracks

An article by Bill Gwynne

Click Tracks: What Are They

A “click track” as it’s called is essentially nothing more than a metronome tick at a particular musical tempo,  just like you may have had to play to when you were a kid taking music lessons. But there is a whole art and science surrounding the creation and use of click tracks in the studio as an aid to music production.

To click or not to click…

The first question to ask yourself before recording a piece of music is “should we record to a click or not”?  If your music is rhythmically oriented or groove based, then almost always that rhythmic feel will be enhanced by being created within the stable tempo environment a click track provides. Some places where you might not want to use a click would be sections of inconsistent tempo, such as the ‘rubato’ verse that acts as a ‘free’ intro to a song that goes into tempo later. Another might be a piece that has constantly changing tempo such as classical piano music or unmetered sections of significant length. In such cases use of a click track is not only a musically bad idea, it’s just plain impossible.

By and large, most forms of music that get recorded these days at least have a major portion of them at an even, regular tempo or pulse, so cutting to a click ensures that you have consistent tempo and groove from beginning to end of a song, and that multiple takes of the same song are all at the same tempo as well. There are soooo many advantages from both a musical and technical standpoint to using a click that if it’s possible, and you’re capable, you should use a click.

It should be pointed out that playing to click tracks is an acquired skill and requires more than just a little bit of practice be comfortable while in that environment. Some people can effectively play to a click without too much effort but feel confined and restricted by the onus of having to play to “that damn machine” all the time. The musical result of this is an overly cautious performance that seems distracted and not really part of the song from a rhythmic perspective. It’s successful technically because it’s with the click, but musically it’s not so hot.

This is where the experience factor comes in. If you adopt the mindset that the click is your "unrelenting taskmaster" you are setting up a mental situation that is not conducive to creativity. Experienced click-trained players use the click as a guide or refresher to their own natural sense of groove, and treat the click as their friend to ‘keep them honest’. I have heard many players describe the approach and sensation of playing ‘into the click’, instead of being driven by it. Of course you have to have a pretty good natural sense of rhythm to achieve this advanced state, but it is absolutely learnable. If you put in some practice time, the stability you achieve will benefit your rhythm in your overall musicianship as well as give you a position of strength and flexibility in the studio.

Warning, Danger!!!

Here is a scenario we have seen play out in the studio repeatedly, and always, without fail, ends in both musical disaster and a large studio bill.

A band comes in and having rehearsed their songs to perfection are ready to record their first ‘real studio’ recording. They are really trying to make it be the best it can be which is totally understandable and admirable since they’re spending real money to have it done by professionals. They have heard or read about the fact that ‘real studio recordings’ are cut to click tracks and since this is a real studio recording "by golly we’re gonna use one too"!

The reality of the situation is that in most cases, the one person in the band who is the most responsible for playing with the click is the drummer; it’s just the way it is. The problem arises when it’s discovered that the drummer has not practiced these songs with a click and every little rhythmic flaw is now exposed for scrutiny.

We here at Hilton Head Audioworks know from decades of experience that every drummer who is not click-trained will rush the tempo when they play drum fills. That means that the bars with fills in them are a bit shorter (faster) than the others and often this new tempo is now maintained into the next segment of the song. Repeat this scenario a few times in one song and you have a major contribution to why songs speed up as they go along, sometimes finishing 15 (or even 30!) beats per minute (bpm) faster than when the tune was originally counted off.

What happens when you get a performer like this playing to a click, is that the fills are rushed, the downbeat is reached early, the drummer notices this hearing the click for beat one well past his bass drum, then adjusts his tempo for beat two to fall back and stay with the click. The problem is that when you play the music back without the click you can really hear that fallback in tempo after beat one to stay with the click for beat two and the rest of the phrase. It sounds like totally destructive element in the rhythmic framework of the song. Now try four or five consecutive blown takes or takes with ‘potholes’ like this in them and you have a recipe for a session that will soon become contentious “C’mon man, get it together there…” and not much fun and certainly not very creative.

The moral of the story: if you haven’t rehearsed extensively with the click as a band don’t expect to be able to do it when you get here.

Pedal To The Metal

There is an interesting aspect to the “songs that speed up” phenomenon. We can all probably name a bunch of songs, classic songs, great performances, of songs that speed up. Sometimes it’s just more exciting to be up a notch (or two or three!) at the end as a driving force in the song, building you to a more exciting climax and energy level than you might be able to attain if it was one tempo all the way through. These songs were not cut to clicks and they became classic hits so why bother with clicks at all if they "destroy" your music?

The answer to this question is you can have your cake and eat it too because click tracks are not just metronomes that tick at only one chosen tempo, they are programmable on a beat to beat basis. So if your song sounds more exciting speeding up a little bit at the end or as it progresses, you can make it happen in controlled way, getting the benefit of tempo control and it’s groovalicious benefits but not being a slave to one single bpm tempo for the entire piece.

The Perfect Tempo

Studio drummer extraordinaire Steve Gadd has said in interviews that he believes every piece of music has a “perfect tempo” that achieves the perfect blend of groove and establishes the optimum framework for the delivery of the lyric.

If you are going to use a click in the studio, make sure you really know what the best tempo for each song is. Record yourself at practice doing the song to a click at a variety of tempos both a little faster or slower than what you think is your established “best” tempo; you may be surprised that it grooves a little better or differently at a nearby tempo. Once you have discovered this tempo, write it down!

Not every song has it’s perfect tempo all at one tempo. I remember once I was working with the group Last Man To Fly, and one of their songs was so well rehearsed that the click had to be at 124bpm (beats per minute) for the verses, but the choruses were at 138! That’s just where the music felt the most natural. And the real proof was that when you heard the song, you didn’t notice that the sections were at different speeds at all, because each of those tempos was the perfect one for that music.

How Many Ticks?

Another issue about playing with a click is that as the tempo get slower, obviously the clicks get farther apart. At some point the clicks are so far apart, they lose their effectiveness for you to be able to predict accurately when the next click will be arriving.

The solution to this phenomenon is to double up the click to play 8 clicks per bar of 4/4 (8th notes) instead of the usual 4. Most click-savvy people feel that the point where you should consider an 8th note click is around 100bpm. 200 clicks per minute is not all that hard to listen to and stay with.

Another issue about 8th note clicks is that drummers play kick and snare quite frequently on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 and the impact of these powerful sounds often mask the sound of the click in the headphones, especially if you happen to be sitting behind a loud drum set. There is a certain sense of panic that sets in when you can’t hear the click for 3 or 4 beats in a row. The solution to this is to listen to the in-between clicks, which are a lot easier to hear, and keep you in the groove.

Keep in mind that in the styles of music that have swing in them, the offbeat 8th note does not happen square in the middle of the beat, it happens later than the midway point. How far past the midway point is dependent on the tempo; the slower the music the later a swung 8th note is.

Playing With Beats Not Ticks

One of the ways to get around the issue of swing click tracks, is to not use clicks at all but some easy to hear (not part of the drum kit) percussion instrument grooves made up of sounds like shakers, sidesticks, cowbells and the like. You can use the MIDI programming capabilities of your software to construct one of these percussion section clicks.

I remember a session with a blues group, trying to cut a really grindy, slow 12/8 blues. Steadiness of tempo was essential to achieving that hypnotic slow-blues groove, but the drummer was not a click trained player. After trying to record the song several times without a click and having speedup problems, the bandleader insisted on trying a click. The tempo was steady,  but the drummer would frequently get confused in the mass of ticks coming at him (a 12/8 groove at 60bpm would have 180 ticks per minute since there are 3 clicks per dotted-quarter note in 12/8 time). He would lose his place in the bar and not have confidence where the top of the measure would be. This lead to a few blown takes there.

So I suggested we try a percussion groove consisting of an accented shaker pattern on the 8th notes, and sidestick on 2 & 4, with a cowbell on beats 1 & 3. The 'click' now had real swing and musical feel, and the drummer could keep his place at all times and we had a successful take the first try, and a keeper by take two or three! Ahhh… better music through technology...

Click Sound

Choosing the right click sound can help avoid problems later as well. The main problem with clicks in the headphones is that it can bleed into nearby microphones and get recorded onto your tracks! Vocal tracks and any softer instruments you record with microphones nearby like strings or acoustic guitar can fall prey to significant click bleed.

The key to keeping the click from bleeding is to choose a sound that is powerful has a sharp impact in the upper midrange to cut through bright instruments like guitars and cymbals, is unpitched (most important) and short in duration. Quite frequently people say they like a wood clave sound to play to but the pitched, ‘bink’ of that sound is a sure-fire bleeder and should never be used.

Click Down

You should always record your click track on an actual audio track in your production. Just because your software does a good job of getting click into the headphones won't do you any good whatsoever if you have to share the project files with somebody else and they're running ProTools and you're on Logic. You'd be surprised at the discrepancies in tempo generation (both in start point and running speed) from program to program and when it happens it's a real nightmare. Fortunately the fix is easy; you just have to remember to do it!

Click Out

I hope this article has shed some light on how best to use the click to your advantage while avoiding the pitfalls.