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Let’s first look at why you’d want to use a click track when recording. The reason you put up with that sound in your cans is to keep the tempo rock solid and to help keep you and your bandmates locked into a steady flow. It can also help keep sessions moving along, so that lagging tempos don’t call for additional takes of a song. While this is not as important when recording at home, paying hourly rates in a room can push the budget up. Good for the studio owner, bad for you.
When using DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), clicks can dramatically help with the editing process of a song, long after the band is gone. Also, if you work with other musicians via the Internet or FTP (File Transfer Protocol), especially when using the same platform (Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, etc.), it can help the overdub process move more smoothly. When you get your files back from other players, the overdubs are more likely to line directly up and be ready for mixing.
Tricks for Players
Some musicians work better with click tracks than others. This is usually evident in the first few minutes of a session, so try to ask your players ahead of time if they are click-friendly. If they’re not, a great way to get around this is to have them play to a loop. Simply find a good loop of almost anything that grooves, making sure it’s the same exact tempo as the click. Programs like Pro Tools can be put into Grid mode, and the loop can be cut and pasted through to the end of the song with a minimum of fuss. This has helped me get through many sessions with click-adverse players. The only possible negative is that they may alter their part to fit the style of the loop, so be smart with what you pick.
For musicians who don’t mind tracking with clicks, find out what type of click they like to hear, how loud they like it, and if they want an accent on a certain beat. All these elements are adjustable, whether you’re using a built-in software click, drum machine, or even the new generation of click apps available on the iPhone. Remember that any sound that’s too bright has a better chance of bleeding into your track via a player’s headphones, so consider using a dull sidestick, clave, or even kick drum for your click track. Sometimes I’ll even place an EQ after the click and filter out the top end to make it darker.
Bleeding of a click can be a problem. If the click sounds too bright or too loud, it will get into a track through a nearby open mic. This is less likely to occur when recording loud drums than when tracking guitar or vocals, which are more dynamic and open. One way to minimize this is to use closed headphones, which have sealed ear cups to help isolate the sound and keep it from leaking into the microphones. Models like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50, Sennheiser HD 202, Beyerdynamic DT 235 or AKG K27i work great for this purpose.
Also, try to play the click at a reasonable volume with the music, as sometimes you don’t even realize it’s blasting until you listen to the playback and hear it on the track. Every musician likes their click at a different level. Even if they like it loud, I tend to turn it down after the first few measures. Feeling a loud click helps them get into the groove, but once they’re solid, they don’t need it as much. Most of the time I don’t even tell them I’m turning it down. As long as they stay in the pocket, they don’t need to know.
Last but not least, when getting toward the end of a song, either turn the click way down or completely off. Many guitar takes have to be redone or punched in because that annoying click is bleeding through the last fading chord. With my Pro Tools or Logic rigs, I simply have the automation turn it off at the last hit.
Tracking with a click has its benefits, but should be done carefully. Keep the headphones closed, the sound source dull, and the click volume as low as possible. If that doesn’t work, turn the click off and just go for it.
Rich is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and HBO.