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A Matter Of Timing

One very obvious way in which music recording has changed since the DAW took over from tape is that a lot of music is now recorded to a click track. For certain genres, the tightness of this approach is essential, and it's not only dance music or 'Cowell-oke' pop that benefits; many heavy rock styles rely on precision timing and tempo accuracy. Equally, though, there are genres of music where the click track doesn't bestow any favours. I read an interview recently in which the engineer/producer said that if musicians couldn't play to a click track, that meant they couldn't play. I think that's a bit harsh, as I don't think many concert pianists would feel their performance improved if they had to try to play to a click. Of course, musicians have to be able to keep time, but traditionally that meant keeping time with a rhythm section that set its own tempo, retaining the ability to make small tempo changes where necessary and to change the feel or groove of the music in different parts of the song. Asking a drummer to play to a click is actually quite unnatural and takes some learning. The regimen of the click often goes against what the drummer naturally 'feels', especially when it comes to breaks and fills, which in the real world often depart from strict timing.

Every player has a different experience, but whenever I've tried to play drums against a click, I've found it very hard work and rapidly reached the conclusion that a simple click rarely makes for an ideal click track. Aside from a loud click in the headphones being akin to sharing a crash helmet with a woodpecker, the clicks often fall on the same beats you're playing, which makes them difficult to hear unless they're dangerously loud. It's far better to set up a rhythmic loop in the DAW to give the drummer something more 'real' to play along to, even if that only means adding shakers or a hi-hat pattern to the click. This guide rhythm can also be massaged to fit the groove of the song, so that the drummer isn't trying to hold a groove against a sterile click. Even the sound chosen for the basic click matters, as it needs to be something that isn't masked by the sound of the instrument being played. For example, a cow bell may cut through the sound of a drum kit better than a simple metronome tick.

Most importantly, though, working to a click should never be imposed on musicians just for the sake of making editing easier. The music has to come first, and if it needs to be played to a click, that's fine, but if it doesn't, I think it's wrong to bully the players into doing so just for your own convenience. There may be engineers who think that musicians who can't play to a click can't play, but maybe we should turn that around and say that engineers who can't edit something that wasn't played to a click can't edit!

Paul White Editor In Chief