Some drummers swear by it, while others can’t stand it: the click-track. For any musician, a click-track is essentially a metronome that you can hear over a set of headphones or speakers. Play in time with the click or risk the recording or performance sounding loose and shambolic. This method certainly offers a lot of advantages but also comes with a few pitfalls. So, when should you toe the line and use a click track and when should you just let it go?
What is a Click-Track?
So, if a click-track is essentially a metronome, then it can take either a traditional, mechanical or a digital form. Either way, it’s a device that literally ‘clicks’ in time to a specified tempo measured in BPM (beats per minute), and at a specified measure. The term ‘click-track’ is generally used for very particular situations where it’s important that the entire band or musician stick to a tight tempo while recording or playing a show. To make sure that the tightness is maintained, it usually falls on the drummer to stuff some buds into their ears and play along to a relentless click.
Tips for First-Timers
- Listen closely to the tempo before starting to play. Listen so closely that you can ‘feel’ the beat. Playing to a click-track can be insanely frustrating if you’re even just a little bit off.
- In principle, the click is heard on each quarter note, so every beat is a click, which is perfect if you’re already used to playing along with a metronome. If you’re having trouble keeping time, then set the click to play twice as fast so you can hear the eighth notes. This will give you more reference points to help you stay in time.
- Make sure that you can hear the click clearly, but try not to turn the volume up too much since you might damage your sensitive ears.
What Kind of Metronome or Click-Track Should You Use?
There are many, many ways to ‘make’ a click-track, but they’re not all convenient for drummers. What is important is that the metronome has an output so that your headphones, speakers, or a monitor can be hooked up. Some drummers actually prefer to use a metronome without a click – instead, a light blinks at the set tempo. However, this is not always the best way to make sure your playing is tight, since a blinking light lacks the kind of ‘urgency’ that a click can have. There are also drummer-focussed metronomes that vibrate instead of click. Just like with the light metronome, playing in time to these is an art in itself. However, a really useful feature of some of these metronomes is that you can programme in entire setlists. So, if you’re playing an entire set or a large portion of a set with a click, instead of faffing around with BPM settings between songs, you can simply hit a button and skip to the ‘next track’. You can even do away with extra gadgets entirely by simply downloading a metronome app or using the built-in metronome of your recording software.
Practising with a Metronome
You’re always going to be learning a lot by playing along to a metronome when practising at home. Your ‘internal clock’ will get more accurate since you’re honing your skill to play perfectly in time. A lot of drummers tend to speed up or slow down when playing fills, so regularly practising with a metronome will first of all, let you know if you’re suffering from the same problem, and then certainly help tighten it up. If you find practising using a metronome mind-numbingly boring, then play along to some music instead – preferably something that includes ‘real ‘ drums. You’re guaranteed to learn so much by doing this since, if you’re playing along to a real drummer and copying their every move, you’re going to pick up tips and tricks without even realising and at the same time, you’re only tightening up your playing overall. You could even use your favourite music as a sort of click-track while you practise details like rudiments. Why not try playing paradiddle variations for the length of an entire song?
Clicktracks in the Rehearsal Room
Say that your band leader tells you that, as the drummer, you need to be as tight as possible and suggests that you start using a metronome. This is where the problems start because, how are you going to pull it off and still remain the energetic, beating heart of the band? You could download an app and use a pair of ear-buds, which might work perfectly for you, but most of the time, isn’t the best solution. In the rehearsal room, it’s actually best that a metronome is hooked up to your sound system and that the whole band plays along to it. This method has way more advantages than it does disadvantages: First of all, the drummer isn’t left alone with the responsibility for the tempo and groove, but instead is working closely with the bassist, rhythm guitarist, and maybe the synth player. They need to hear the click too, otherwise they’ll slide back and forth while you desperately try to stay on the click. Secondly, you’ll be able to notice the ‘bottlenecks’ in your songs – so you might discover that the chorus actually needs to be a touch faster than the verse because it feels better and makes more sense. Rehearsing together with a click like this is therefore always a good idea and is a learning experience for everyone in the band. And, of course, once every band member is fully schooled in terms of the tempo and any challenges within it, the click can be turned off again and you can focus on just making music again – secure in the knowledge that you’re playing closely with one another.
Using a Click-Track on Stage
Using a click-track on stage can help to make sure that your performance is tight. Especially when your band is using pre-recorded backing tracking or loops where it’s literally essential that you’re in time. But how can you do it? You couldn’t do it like you would in rehearsals since while you, and maybe the bassist, need to hear the click, the audience shouldn’t notice anything. Even if you could do it that way, you would need a perfect monitor mix so that the band can hear it. A great solution is using a set of in-ear headphones. To set this up, you would only need a small, standard mixer that can be set up next to your drum kit. Simply connect up your metronome and your in-ears and you’re done. You can also connect up your mixer to the mixing desk of the venue via one (mono) or two (stereo) XLR cables – just as you would with a monitor speaker, and with one channel you can control the volume of your click, and with the other channel, you can adjust the volume of the monitor mix of the rest of the band as it’s sent sent to you by the sound technician. Of course, you still have to negotiate the mix with the sound tech if you want more bass or vocals, for example, but once you’ve perfected this set-up, you could definitely use it at rehearsals and even at home.
Recording with a Click Track
If you want to record a demo with your band, you’ve got a range of ways to get it done. For example, you could record the entire band at once where everyone is playing at the same time, or you could play your parts one by one. In both cases, it’s really handy to use a click-track, as long as it doesn’t mess too much with the ‘soul’ of your work. Here, it’s not just the drummer who needs to keep their playing tight, but the entire band. The biggest advantage of recording with a click-track is that the audio files in any recording software all fall into a set grid. This makes editing and mixing a much smoother process for either you or your producer and technician. Adding effects is also way easier, as well as correcting small errors. If you can comfortably drum along to a click in the studio, you’ll build a good name for yourself as a drummer and quickly find yourself in high demand since tight studio drummers can be hard to come by! Anyway, it’s actually rare that you won’t be recording along to the click-track of the DAW software used by the studio you’re recording in, so you don’t actually need to bring your own metronome. And, if there are any tempo or measure shifts within a specific song, this can be programmed in with ease so that the click track changes at precisely the right moment. As such, the click in a DAW can also be incredibly useful for practising.
One of the most obvious pitfalls of playing along to a click track is that you’re always in danger of focussing so hard on playing in time that you lose the ‘flow and feel’ of just playing, so there suddenly might be a fill that you don’t dare to play just in case it makes you fall out of time with the click. If you find that you keep struggling to keep on beat when playing along to a click track, this can actually mess with your self-confidence and this will only make things worse. Another possible pitfall is that, you’re following the click beautifully and everyone in the band is as tight as can be – then you reach the bridge – a section where the drums stop and the vocalist, guitarist, bassist or keyboard player lay down some atmospherics. While you can still hear the click, the rest of the band can’t, so the tempo gets lost and everything begins to fall out of time and you can only scramble to try and pull it back. If you want to start using a click, it’s worth thinking each song on the setlist through. Maybe on that particular song, you need to just ditch the click when you reach the bridge and play without it until the end. Some clicks do have a tap-function so you can easily just tap the tempo in time with what you’re actually playing in case of any ‘fluctuations’. In any case, it’s worth being fully prepared so you don’t get any nasty click-based surprises.
Have you got any positive or negative click-themed experiences you want to share? Whether you think playing to a click is a dream or a horror show, feel free to comment below!