(published in BC Musician Magazine – Nov 2011)
Almost 200 years ago, Ludwig van Beethoven became the first notable composer to indicate metronome markings in his music. Since then metronomes have been a source of conflict in the music community – despised by composer greats like Wagner and Brahms and embraced by dance clubs and pop radio.
Today it is rare for a popular music song to be recorded without a metronome, aka ‘click track’, keeping rigid time. The advantages are ease of editing and a steady rhythm that stays consistent throughout the song, but sometimes playing to a metronome can be a real drag, pun intended. Some musicians complain that playing with a metronome makes it hard to perform – too much of their attention is focused following the click track and not enough on creating a great part with natural vibe and energy.
So, how do you make a metronome not so… metronomic? Here’s some tricks I’ve used to ease click track pain:
Make Percussion Clicks
Instead of the classic cowbell or clave click on 1/4 notes, try a tambourine, shaker or even congas in an 8th or 16th note pattern. Be careful not to use sound that’s too similar to the instrument you are recording – playing hi-hats along to a hi-hat click track can be very confusing for a drummer.
Use Loops Instead of Clicks
Creating a groove loop can make a click track exciting and inspiring. Using found sounds or samples, build a loop that fits the vibe of the song. It doesn’t have to be quantized (exactly on the beat) but it does need to loop naturally within the tempo of the song. Experiment with building different loops for each section of the song; simpler for the verse, more rhythmic and energetic in the chorus and bridge. This can be a great way to help musicians build energy throughout the song. Once in a while the loop works so well that it’s left in the final mix!
Shift The Tempo
Sometimes a song feels great at one tempo in the verse but other sections drag. Even slight increase in tempo during the chorus, bridge or outro of a song can give the feeling of a natural live performance while maintaining the editability and consistency of playing to a click. Use this technique gently and sparingly though, make sure that the shifts feel natural.
Turn It Down
Resist the temptation to crank the click track so loud that it vibrates your skull. Not only does this make it extremely difficult to have any natural dynamics in your playing but it greatly increases the chances of getting nasty ‘click track bleed’ from your headphones, ruining your take. Once you are comfortable with the click track you should be able to keep it in the background as a reference, not a jackhammer! If the song has problem sections get the engineer to turn up the click only in those spots.
Practice With A Metronome
An obvious way to feel more comfortable playing with a click track is to practice with a click track. Too often I am faced with recording a band that has never even tried to practice their songs to a click track. Of course it’s going to be uncomfortable! If you are creating music in the popular realm (that includes Rock, Country, Folk, Pop etc.) you have to be able to play with a click track.
If All Else Fails, Scrap It!
After all this I must say that some classic songs wouldn’t be half as good if they had been played to a metronome. Imagine ‘Stairway to Heaven’ without the adrenaline rush created by the constant tempo increase. Professional musicians can sound great whether they are playing with or without a metronome. Let the song dictate your choice but keep in mind the majority of modern music was created with that little tick/tock/tick/tock in the background. The click track is a silent player on millions of recordings, if only it could collect royalties!