What is a Click Track? The Click Track Masterclass for Musicians

What is a click track?In music production, a click track is an audio file that produces a repetitive series of sounds that helps the musician, producer, or beatmaker to record his instrumental parts in correct timing. Let’s look a little more closely at what a click track can do for you, and why you should be using it.


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Sometimes a click track can be as simple a “tick-tock” sound, or it can be as complex as a rhythmic beat including subdivisions and grooves of a beat using percussive sounds. The primary purpose of a click track, or metronome, is to help you with keeping in time.

In most music production projects, we are usually recording multiple instruments at a time, or in sequence (the latter called multitrack recording). Either they are live instruments, like a studio drummer, keyboardist, bass player, and guitarist, or you are the one playing the parts yourself via a MIDI controller. Either way, the end result is that you will have a group of instruments playing together.

(The alternative of course is that you write the notes in yourself.)

When different instruments are playing together, they need to be “in pocket,” in other words, they need to play to the same beat, rhythm, and tempo. What do I mean by that?

The Beat

musical beatBeat can mean a lot of things when we’re talking about music. It could mean rhythm, it could mean that thing you tap to with your foot, or it can even mean tempo. None of those things are incorrect. But for the purpose of this article, when we talk about beat, what I am really referring to is the “beat stress.”

When instruments are playing to the same stress of a beat, it means that each instrument follows and accentuates the dominant beat or beats of the song.

For instance, in most western pop music, the dominant beat (or the beat that’s stressed) of a song is on the “one” of “ONE-two-three-four,” also called the “downbeat.” But in some other genres, like reggae for instance, the dominant beat can be the “two/four” of “one-TWO-three-FOUR” also called the “backbeat.”

An example of a popular pop song with emphasis on the first beat downbeat

An example of popular reggae song with emphasis on the second beat backbeat

Now, can you imagine if each instrument in your project played to different beat stresses? Perhaps the result would be interesting, to say the least. But it wouldn’t be congruent to the style or genre of music you were trying to produce.

Read: Best Headphones for Music Production

The Rhythm

rhythmIn music, rhythm refers to the way a unit of time is divided into beats, particular the way that beat makes you want to nod your head or tap your foot.

I like to think of it like sculpting. You have a rough slap of unit of time called 4/4 time (four quarter note beats per measure). This means that each time you count out “one-two-three-four,” the period from “one” to “four” is your rough slab of time, which will repeat over and over again until the end of the song. You can shape this time into anything you want, but besides dividing this rough slab of time four equal units or “beats,” with one or two given more stress than the other, you can further carve out ridges and beats based upon how you want the music to sound.

The best example when I talk about “rhythm” is a drum beat, or even the way your foot taps to a beat. Sometimes you are not just going “tap-tap-tap-tap,” but something like “tap. tap-iti-tap__” That is a rhythm. And you can go as far as to “groove” that rhythm so that there isn’t such a uniform division between beats.

Now, can you imagine if each instrument is playing to different rhythms? You’d have a very disorderly production indeed.

Read: Best Studio Microphones

The Tempo

tempoFinally, we have tempo. Which really means the speed of our music. Earlier I referred to “BPM,” which means “beats per minute.” At the very basic, it is literally just that, it’s the amount of beats there are that’s playing uniformly per minute. So, 120 BPM means 120 beats are playing per minute of your song. That tempo or “beat” would then be subdivided into more beats, or each beat is given a certain kind of stress, or a combination of the above, depending on the style of music you’re recording or producing.

Not every style of music will have a strict and consistent tempo, however. Sometimes music speeds up, sometimes it slows down. So in your DAW, it’s a good idea to add what is called “tempo map” which allows your music to slow down and speed up during sections. This is not essential for many genres of music, though, especially pop and EDM, but when you get into other alternative styles, orchestra music, film music, etc., a click track playing to a tempo map will be extremely useful. Each DAW does this in various ways, so find the way it works for your DAW.

Read: Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAW)

Back to Click Tracks…

A simple click track is like a simple metronome, which will just provide audio cues for each beat — unstressed and unadulterated, just a dry beat at a certain tempo. However, that sometimes is not enough.

Like I mentioned above, there are types of music that require different kinds of beat stresses and rhythmic grooves to aid the musician. And sometimes a drummer or other instrumentalists need assistance to keep that groove going  along consistently, or at least, help you create your basic drum loop. So when you’re producing your next track, make sure that in addition to setting your BPM, you also set your time signature and quantization. Setting your quantization will provide you the sort of groove or swing that you’d want your click track to give you.

How & When to Use a Click Track?

Live session musicians

Click tracks are known to be primarily used by studio drummers wearing studio headphones. They would follow the click track, and lay the beat for everyone else to follow. All other musicians can listen to the click track as well, but in a multiple musician scenario, it’s usually the drummer that hears the click track. There’s an obvious reason for this. The drummer is the one everyone listens to in order to keep in time — he or she is the one that drives the music — so who helps to keep the drummer in time? A click track would.

Computer music production

However, if you’re producing your own music electronically, you can use the click track to lay your first tracks. In the post where I spoke about how to make your own beats and compositions, I said that there are two “schools” of thought when it came to beat making: The ‘beat first’ approach, and the ‘music first’ approach.

I’ve found that in the beat first approach, it’s good to have your click track playing while you lay your drum beat. After that, you can simply switch off your click track and compose the rest of the music thereon.

In the music first approach, when you’re just adding your chords, harmonies, and melodic ideas, it’s a good idea to keep the click track running the entire time until after you add the beats. Why? Melodic and harmonic instruments can, depending on the music, tend to be allowed some amount of rhythmic leeway, stylistically speaking. Of course, I’d quantize the musical parts by a small percentage to keep things properly in pocket, but unless itself something like a rhythm guitar, melody and harmony instruments, like pads and synths textures, tend to be poor beat guides.

Vocalists

What about vocals? Well, I’ve found that vocalists have a very hard time singing to a click track. In fact, vocalists are rhythmically inconsistent in general, so you cannot rely on vocals to create a consistent drum groove or beat either. That is why we often first create a pilot recording — a basic beat — for the vocalist to sing their part over. It’s best to create your pilot track using the drum and bass in your arrangement, and then use that basic musical groove as your beat assistant for recording your vocals.

Read: Best Tuners for Guitar and Instruments

Using a Click Track in a Live Performance

Does this sound ridiculous to you? Sure, a group of musicians playing together would certainly fit into “pocket” organically, especially if they are at least good enough to be performing on stage in the first place.

However, there are a couple very good reasons to use a click track during a live performance that perhaps you never thought about.

Performing with a DAW

Firstly, sometimes, even when you’re playing with a live band, there may be the necessity to use computer produced musical tracks with your tracks. I have been in this position before with hip hop jazz crossover band. As a hip hop track, much of the musical parts, consistent to the style of music, cannot be played by just five members. So using the DAW as a live performance instrument, we trigger the track, and rout the click track to the headphones of the drummer so that he knew how to cue us, where we’d change speed, and so on. That way we’re playing in sync with other the instrumental tracks produced in the producer’s DAW.

Read: Best Laptops for Music

Synchronized media

Another very good reason to use a click track during a live performance is for much larger stage production. If your performance requires that you play along with the lighting, special effects, or a background video, you want to be in time with those visual media. This is for obvious reasons, your giving your music and performance its greatest effect for your audience when then entire show, lights, videos, etc. are all playing in sync with each other. Your band would then use a click as reference to ensure that they are in time with the visual media that their audience is viewing.

Theatre productions

Click tracks are also used for theatrical productions. Especially in musical theatre production where a backing tracks or a band accompanies the singing, dancing, and acting. Having a click track helps to cue in the actors and singers on stage to play their part in the correct times.

Click Track Critiques

There are some people who consider click tracks to do more harm than good to music in general. This is a very broad condemnation, in my opinion, but let’s examine the reasons for this.

For one, music in the natural or real world, when played by performers on stage or otherwise, is never going to have a perfect tempo that is consistent throughout the entire song. It is practically humanly impossible. Even the most well trained drummer will, at times, variate between a couple BPMs. This is natural, and for some people, it gives music it’s “living” quality.

It’s been said by some that, for this reason, the click track has “killed” pop music, since every song since the advent of computer music production has resulted in perfectly squared tempi. Even in an expression map, the producer perfectly maps out tempi that, while giving the music expressive changes in tempo, is a little too “predetermined,” so to speak.

This is kind of similar to the argument against the auto-tune softwares used in music production. Practically every track that is produced now must have both pitch correction as well as quantization to keep things tidy and neat. It’s just one of the realities of music production.

However, there is a very good reason why we are recommended to use a click track when producing music. For one, an error in a produced track sounds unprofessional. Not just that, it lasts forever, and is extremely noticeable because technology has become far more precise. We pardon the discrepancies an old recording because music was created mainly by live musician, on tape reels. The result is that singers don’t sound “out of pitch” because the instruments themselves were also generally a few cents all over the place. And because of the clarity of how we produce music these days, it is far more easy to detect when something sounds out of tune, or is not playing in the correct timing. So we’re constantly on the endless trivance greater and greater precision in our productions. Why? Well, imagine hearing a slightly out of rhythm bassline in your song over and over again on HD satellite radio? It would be jarring.

When recording or producing within the DAW environment, there is also a need for greater “control” of what is happening. We need this control because one of the things that we do in music production is record several takes at various parts of the music. Also called “comping.” Sometimes, we may need to, for instance, replace the second chorus guitar strumming with the one that came in the first chorus. The only way we could do this is if everyone was already playing at the same tempo and rhythm. These are the realities of a music producer, the ability to move things around creatively for a better end result for the fan or client.

When to Not Use a Click Track

There are four occasions I can think of where a click track may be unnecessary.

Solo Recordings

If you are just recording a solo singer on guitar, it might be unnecessary to use a click track. Unless you plan on using that recording in the future for another production, and the singer knows how to remain in tempo, your recording can be done “au naturale,” so to speak.

One Take Live Recording

Another good occasion where you can disregard the click track is if you are recording a band in one take, without any need to comp different takes together during the engineering and production stage. This is not very common, but not needing to patch around different takes in a track means that you don’t need to snap the recording into the DAW grid, so setting even the BPM and time signature is pointless.

Writing in MIDI Notes

The final occasion is if you’re creating your music by actually writing in the notes manually by mouse. For a lot of electronic musicians working on a DAW, this is the only option. Sometimes due to a lack of keyboard skills or a good MIDI controller. Other times for a preference for composing chord progressions manually rather than playing them spontaneously. Either way, since you wouldn’t need to be playing the music but writing it in, a click track in this case is simply unnecessary.

Create Your Own Click Track! (Kind of)

The final case is usually for producers that are little more advanced, or intermediate. Sometimes, you already know what kind of drum beat you want, either out of familiarity with how the notes are patterned in your DAW piano roll, or because you can count them out in your head before you write them in. In this case, you’d just add a snare, kick, and hat, groove it as you like with the aid of quantization, copy the loop for the entire session, and now you have your own click track!


Final Thoughts

That pretty much covers what a click track is, and how it is use. So if you ever wanted to know what is a click track, now you do 🙂

But to revisit, a click track is an audio file that provides sound cues to assist a musician or musicians to play in time. This means they’re in the right rhythm and tempo, playing to the correct beat. It also helps to establish the time of the music you’re playing before you start.

Now over to you, dear reader. Do you use a click track in your productions? What are your opinions on them? Does it kill music in general, or make it better? Leave your comments in the section below!

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