Who Uses A Click Track? Music Machinery Doesn’t Really Tell You!

temporamp.jpgToday over on The Daily Swarm, they have a link to an article where a blogger shows a graph that is supposed to illustrate which bands employ the use of a click and those who abstain. The article unfortunately neglects a few simple details. We are here to clean up this mess!


The article begins with a misinformed assertion:

“Sometime in the last 10 or 20 years,  rock drumming has changed.  Many drummers will now don headphones in the studio (and sometimes even for live performances)  and synchronize their playing to an electronic metronome – the click track.”  

If you think the click track has only been around 10-20 years, that puts us back to 1989. Many credit Talk Talk It’s My Life (1984) as the first popular record to use a click track, though it is hard to say when it initially was used, many songs since 1980 used Drum Machines like the Linn Drum or the Roland TR-808 (technically 1981), as the foundation for the song. Producers would either program the drum parts with these machines or actually use their drum sounds for the drum track with the drummer playing cymbals on top or not. This technique was used by Phil Collins (he was quite fond of his Alesis HR-16), Prince and a handful of other huge producers from the time. Now some speculations go all the way back to the click being used by way of making a tape loop of a metronome sound looped for the production of Napoleon XIV’s strange hit “They’re Coming To Take Me Away”. Jimmy Miller, when producing the Rolling Stones would often lay down a percussion track beforehand to set the feel, while not as rigid as click track this was still an early form of the concept. Rigid performances (many of which I think feel great) have been around for decades, this is nothing new. 
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Next up is Weezer‘s hit “Troublemaker”, which obviously uses no click track, it in fact is one of the sloppiest songs since “Fell In Love With a Girl” to hit rock radio. Now take a Weezer song like “Beverly Hills” or “Hash Pipe” and you will see rigged click tracked songs. To portray Weezer as band who “doesn’t use the click track” is a bit off. They may go on a free-for-all here and there but they use the click when needed (ironically in the video for “Troublemaker” in the intro part you can hear a common click track being played under everything). 
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Now we go to Metallica, with their hit “Enter Sandman” which the article claims has a strong tempo variation. The sample time for the song is 140 seconds so it only gives us less then half the song to analyze. The initial spike is around 20 seconds where the song shifts from Acoustic Guitar to a full band. Now anyone who has ever recorded a song in Pro Tools or even a click run off a tape machine knows that if you generate a tempo map for any song, whether it is gridded (gridded is a term meaning: digitally edited where each drum is precisely moved to the click-ed) to a click or not, it will have small variations since reading the waveforms is not precise. When analyzing a full mix the audio software often gets tripped up a bit as to where the start of the transient is located. Guitar tracks (as used in this intro) do not have the sharp transient peaks of Drums, hence they are harder to pinpoint in a computer. This helps to show this programs first inaccuracy. The next part of “Enter Sandman” is built upon a Tom beat, which has a drastically different waveform then say the Kick and Snare Drum Machine grid of “Hit Me One More Time” which has a very constant loop of Kick and Snares looped. Any live performance that is not overly gridded or sampled as compared to a song looped in a computer will be VERY precise in its “gridding”. The crispness and level of the drums will also make a big difference in how this is read by a computer. Green Day “American Idiot” has a much more crisp and loud Kick and Snare compared to “Enter Sandman”, not to mention a much more consitent arrangement where the drums are always going with very small pauses.

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Screenshot of Green Day (Bottom) vs. Metallica (Top) in waveform view from Pro Tools
While my ear finds “American Idiot” to be a bit more “gridded” then “Enter Sandman”, there is also an important variable in this equation. American Idiot is recorded to Pro Tools where I am sure Drum Editing occoured, where as “Enter Sandman” was recorded before the days of Pro Tools. Very famously Metallica. made a movie A Year And A Half where they show Lars sitting in a room with 2 Studer Tape Machines with 2 assistants cutting tape to edit the drums into time. This method is never going to produce as rigid results as a computer edited by a pro. Therefore, we will see more variation in the “Sandman” waveform. In the Metallica waveform we see a big spike around the 110 second mark yet again where the guitars go solo and the drums drop out, Further proving my point that waveform analysis for different instruments plays a part in this game. Lastly, as a Record Producer and someone who has edited between 500-1,000 songs of drums over the last 8 years, we often automate in tempo jumps in songs, even 1 or 2 BPM jumps from bar to bar, and sometimes slow ramp ups.

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(An example of a Tempo Change being automated to ramp up in Pro Tools)

There are even times doing pre-production where we will record the band rehearsing the song and say “OMG that felt so perfect” we will go into Pro Tools and extract all the tempo changes and then have the drummer play to this in the studio to reproduce the feel of that very performance. The band is still playing to a click track in this instance it just has more “feel”. Producers often  let drummers “rush the choruses” or “use the click as a discipline”. This gives the drummer something to play around to but not necessarily follow exactly like a programmed Brittany Spears track. Producers also like the sounds of rhythms pushing and pulling the beat, a snare fill that rushes or falls back on the beat can do wonders for the energy of a track and many well-produced tracks employ this, whether played to a click or not. If you look at this in the computer it will show a tempo ramp up even though it is being played to a click track. There are many rumors and fears of click tracks being “soul sucking machines”, however many Producers in popular music have perfected the art of when to let a drummer deviate from the click and add some feel to the track. When looking at this in a computer, it will of course produce a variation in waveform, but this does not mean it was not played to a click.

The moral of this story is no software is going to tell you who uses a click track and who doesn’t. It may tell you whether they use edited loops and use a mix with very clear transients, but a click track is another instrument, you can play to it in many different ways. The difference between this instrument and many others it that it usually gets the mute button during the mix.

Jesse Cannon is the editor of Musformation. He produces records at his studio Cannon Found Soundation. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseCannonMusF. For more info please visit his website.