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Click Tracks: Are They Useful or Just a Crutch?

Click tracks and drummers go hand in hand. They can be a helpful tool in the studio or a crutch depending on the situation. But what exactly is a click track?

A click track is simply a metronome built into music production software. The term is used most often in the recording studio, but these days many drummers are using click tracks live to play along with backing tracks.

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If you’re unfamiliar with a metronome (I hope you are not, fellow drummer), allow me to explain.

A metronome is a device used by musicians, generally during practice. The device plays repeated clicking sounds at an adjustable tempo. Some metronomes can play different pitches to mark the start of a measure, allowing different time signatures for practicing.

What does a click track sound like?

Depending on the recording software or metronome used, a click can be anything from a beep to a cowbell. The most common sound is a high-pitched tick that keeps the performer in time with the music playing.

A click track from Ableton Live at 120 beats per minute.

The marking of rhythm allows for a musician practicing to latch onto the tempo and make it much easier to count the music.

Using a metronome as a drummer helps your timekeeping and should prevent “fast drummer syndrome” when playing without a click.

The origins of the metronome

A standard mechanical metronome

While some say Abbas Ibn Firnas attempted creating the first metronome around 810, I haven’t found any evidence to prove the claim. The book, The Esoteric Codex: The Alchemists, claims that Firnas invented “some sort of metronome.”

Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel invented the first mechanical chronometer in 1814. He made the discovery when playing with pendulums. Because both sides of the pivot were weighted, it could count steady time.

Wikel did not patent his idea, and just one year later, Johnn Nepomuk Maelzel improved upon his design. He added a scale and patented the invention. One of the first users was the one and only Ludwig van Beethoven.

Recording studio applications

Click tracks are used in modern recordings almost exclusively. The drummer (or musician) performing will have a set of drumming isolation headphones or in-ear monitors that will have a mix of the kit, the instruments on the song, and the click track.

The software metronome will play through the entire duration of the song while the drummer records his or her part.

In general, you cannot hear a click track on a final recording of a song, but there are cases where click bleed can be an issue.

I’ve always loved the default click track in Cubase, but it is a bit loud and can easily bleed into the recordings. The Pro Tools click is better for bleed issues, but I cannot stand using it. It’s painful when loud and hard to hear through a mix.

Click tracks and quantization

Most of the music these days is quantized, a practice that lines recorded audio and MIDI up to a grid.

Basic quantization of drum tracks to the grid.

It takes the feeling out of music, but it is the standard, unfortunately. Quantizing audio requires that a musician use a click to stay consistent through a song.

In all my recording studio experience, I’ve always played along to a click, regardless of whether or not the audio would be quantized.

Variable click tracks

Software recording allows for a considerable advantage when working on technical music. A traditional metronome can only play one given time signature, but a variable click track in software like Cubase can vary depending on the programming.

For example, a section of music may be in 4/4 and then abruptly switch to 7/8. Using a variable click track can aid the performer when playing through more challenging sections.

Smaller studios and click tracks

Playing along to a click track enables the recording engineer to record each band member separately, which is the case in many home recording studios that cannot allot multi-instrument setups.

Playing with clicks also gives the engineer the ability to make edits and re-cut parts if need be. For example, if a vocal part needs to be re-sung, the whole band doesn’t need to replay through the entire song. The engineer can punch in the section because all tracks are isolated.

Studio time is costly, so think of this as doing yourself a favor when recording in a pro studio.

For bands that have the luxury of an engineer that can and will record them together in a room (provided the talent is there), a click track is not necessary.

Groups who are recording-savvy can use click tracks to record pre-production before going to record professionally. We would always bring pre-production to the studio, not just to save time and money, but also to help the engineer get a vibe of the sound before hitting record.

Using click tracks live

While many bands of the past didn’t use click tracks live, this is not the case today. In my experience, almost every drummer I have toured with uses a click track live? Why?

Playback systems

In recent years, bands have been playing along to pre-recorded tracks in live performances. Yes, it’s a bit lame, but it is the standard today.

Backing tracks

Backing tracks give bands the ability to bring “the extra stuff from the studio” to the stage. Things like additional keyboard parts, backing vocals, and sometimes even doubled chorus vocals, are all utilized by modern bands with backing tracks. It’s all just a show.

Bands who use backing tracks will use in-ear monitors to hear the click, cues, and music.

As a drummer, using a click with backing tracks is relatively easy. Upon the start of a song, you’ll listen to a count in cue before the music starts.

If your entire band isn’t on in-ear monitors, it will be your job to give signals and play time during sections without drums to keep the group on the track.

Despite the performers on stage hearing a click track, the audience will not.

Also, just because a group is using in-ear monitors, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are using backing tracks. IEMs are far better than traditional wedge monitors, as they help protect hearing and make it easier to hear the entire band.

Production and lighting

Backing tracks are not the only thing reserved exclusively for click tracks. Synchronized lighting and video is also a big part of the production today.

The same computer that runs the backing tracks can also run a light show based on the same concept. Using hardware like DMXIS allows for groups to pre-program a light show that links with the backing tracks.

If you’re setting up a playback system for the first time, try not to get overwhelmed. There is much to learn, so if you’re new, I suggest reading my article on setting up backing tracks for your band.

Conclusion

There is nothing wrong with using a click track. Drummers and musicians alike can benefit significantly during practice while working on counting and timekeeping.

I can’t imagine not using a metronome or click when practicing intricate pieces of music!

Many musicians are still purists about using click tracks in recording settings, which I respect, but I also recognize the latter. Being a producer myself, I love the freedom of being able to manipulate each instrument without worrying about bleed from other players.

Is there a stigma with using click tracks? I think there used to have been, but it has gotten better. Conflating lip-syncing with using backing tracks (rightly so) has always been an issue, but I think people are more enduring these days.

If you aren’t practicing drums with a click, I suggest you start. There will come a time when you will need to play along to one. It will show if you’ve never used one before.

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