A click track is an electronic metronome. By following its steady tempo, all the musicians in a project can keep in sync — so the recorded band sounds tight, and the tempo is consistent.
At least that’s the theory. It doesn’t always work that way!
Many musicians find it very difficult to play to a click track. Their internal sense of tempo is more fluid. Plus, it can be hard to perform well while you’re concentrating on playing to the click-track beat.
I recently engineered a recording session where a click track caused problems. The song started with a singer/guitarist playing to a click track. His timing varied a little before and after the beat. Then, when we overdubbed drums and bass, they were confused by the difference between the guitar track’s timing and that of the click track. It was a mess.
We gave up and started from scratch. I turned off the click track. All the musicians played at once, cueing off each other to keep a steady beat. We recorded the acoustic guitar from its pickup, and we recorded a scratch vocal at the same time using a close-up dynamic mic with a foam pop filter.
The band played much tighter that way. The song gradually sped up a little from start to finish, but that just added excitement as the song progressed.
Later, we recorded over the scratch guitar and vocal tracks with an overdubbed, miked guitar and vocal. If you try to use a scratch vocal track in the mix, the drum leakage into the vocal mic will make the drums sound distant and trashy. So you must replace the scratch track with a new one: the vocalist singing alone.
Some drummers are especially adept at following a click track, but it takes a lot of practice. If others in the band listen to the drummer while playing their parts, the recorded song can have a rock-steady tempo.
Is a click track a good idea for your band? Some musicians find it easier to let the tempo breathe; others like to lock it down. Try it both ways and see.
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Audio Engineering Society member Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, audio journalist and microphone engineer (www.bartlettaudio.com). His latest books are “Recording Music On Location” and “Practical Recording Techniques 6th Edition.”