Recording Drums With A Click Track – Yea or Nay?

by Jon Marc Weiss and Andre Calilhanna on October 19, 2012 · 10 comments

in Fast Forward,Recording & Mastering

Echoes’ Andre Calilhanna talks with producer/engineer/studio owner Jon Marc Weiss to discuss the use of a click track when recording drums – and everything – with a DAW.

recording drums with a click track

Do you always use a click track when recording drums?
Depending on the genre of music, if you’re doing a live performance, or you’re recording the entire band or ensemble simultaneously, sometimes you can get away without a click – especially if you have a really solid drummer. But I would say 80% of the time in a studio recording – especially if we’re just cutting drums and bass – we’re playing to a click.

Even if you are doing a “live” studio recording, you’re still usually sending the click to the drummer. It’s just the way to go. I’ve had big-time studio drummers in, and almost all of them want a click. There are so many reasons to use one when recording a drum track. The most obvious is that your timing is exactly where it needs to be, there’s no shifting of the tempo.

But with DAWs, you’re not always using the complete performance of the drummer on the finished product. Sometimes you’re looping sections – you’re taking a really good section of the verse, and a really good section of the chorus, and you’re cutting and pasting and basically piecing the track together and making it stronger than it could ever be if the drummer were just playing it. Some guys are completely against doing that, and others are just like, “Yeah, man. That’s just how things are done.” You can’t really do that if you’re not using a click. It’s possible, but it won’t be easy.

Really? You’re taking the best parts of the drummer’s performance and re-using them throughout a song?
It’s so common today in home studios and pro studios, and it was happening back in the 90s when I was working in the bigger studios and we were making the drums tracks just slam. Making sure they were consistent throughout the song or finding great energy in the vamp and moving that to the first hook, things like that. Really producing the drum track.

When I first started and we were using 2″ reels, it was all about getting the best take. There was no punching in, unless there was a moment of silence or a break. But it was pretty much up to the drummer to get this great take.

Personally, I consider myself a purist when it comes to recording. I still love the sound of analog and I still think there’s nothing better than using one great take. Nothing beats the real thing. However, there are many situations where cutting and pasting will yield a better finished product. It really depends on the player.

With DAWs being so prevalent, they’re the way most people record these days, and they’ve changed the way people record. And these techniques are not just for recording drums. With any instrument, you just need to get it right once and you can use it in the rest of the track. Back in the days of tape, we did this sometimes. I’d sample a guitar lick and move it around the track – or I was taking segments of the track and bussing it to a 2-track reel-to-reel deck, and then basically flying it in. So it’s been going on in production for eons, it’s just become very easy now.

And I guess it’s why a lot of recorded music today sounds a little less then human.
Yeah, I guess that’s true in some cases. Maybe more than some… It’s really pretty amazing what you can do now. You start getting into quantizing and beat detection, where the computer is basically analyzing the drum track and saying, “OK, I’ve got it.” It knows where the kick drum and snare drum are being hit, among other things. So then if you listen and say, “I wish this were a little faster,” you can pick it up a little without affecting the pitch. But let’s say you wanted it to swing a little harder, or you want the snare to be right on the 2 and 4. This stuff now takes minutes. You can serve up a part in five different ways and select the one that swings the most or the least, or whatever. It’s really that easy to do this stuff now.

From a musician’s standpoint, I bet this can be pretty upsetting. Like, “What are you doing? It’s taken me years to become this good a drummer and you’re not even keeping my track!”
Yes, that can happen. A lot of times, they may not even be totally aware it’s happening. It’s really the producer’s call. They’ll get back days later and hear the playback and be like, “Man, I was on!” But there are other applications. Often, you’re not working on an entire guitar part at once, maybe you’re hammering on a verse for a long time, trying to get it just right, and once you’ve got it once, you can be like, “Great I’ve got it, we’ve got the verse, let’s move on to the chorus.” That’s another thing you can’t do if you’re not working with a click.

Another thing that the DAWs allow you to do if you’re using a click is to adjust the tempo after you’ve recorded the drums. Let’s say you realize after the fact that you want to pull the tempo up – these days, you can record something at 110 bpm and adjust the tempo to 116 bpm and it will sound like it was recorded at 116! It doesn’t work in all scenarios, but I’ve done it on some stuff and it worked well.

I’ll admit, as a drummer, I was skeptical about using a click on my last recording. It took some rehearsing before the studio date before I was comfortable, and even really pleased about using the click.
I’ve had drummers throw the cans down on their set and leave the studio because they were so frustrated playing to a click. They just hadn’t had enough time to practice with it and get used to it, and then here you are in a studio environment using some foreign technique that you’ve never used – it can be incredibly frustrating.

But once you have the click thing down, you not only get used to it, you can push and pull a little bit and play around it. You can decide, “I need to play a little ahead of the click in this section, and I want to be just behind the click here…”

I found it interesting, after having rehearsed without the click for so long, to start using it and realizing just where and when I’d start to push the tempo forward or slow things down. So then afterward, I was much more aware if where those spots were and I think I was way better at holding the tempo steady even without the click.
If you start practicing early on as a drummer with a click, that’s the way to go. Then as you develop, you’ll likely have much more control over tempo and it’ll sound like you’re playing to click even when you aren’t. And you can still play with a ton of swing. It won’t be stiff, the tempo will just be steady.

Drummer image via Shutterstock.com.

Jon Marc Weiss is the Senior IT Systems Engineer for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. He owns and operates Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.

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Gene Berrier October 31, 2012 at 2:16 pm

As a drummer, now keyboardist, I concentrate heavily on the drum tracks that I create for my songs. I do a lot of solo work and create my own tracks. I try to envision sitting behind a kit (sometimes I really am using my Pintech set) rather than just a keyboard. I have gotten so used to using a click track that it’s now second-nature. If I get the drums and bass as close to perfect as possible, all the other parts go quickly and smoothly. Great article – thanks!

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Michael Rutherford October 31, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I agree totally. I’ve been recording in my home studio for about 4 yrs. now, and wouldn’t have it any other way. The click is the way to go. I’ve had drummer friends ask me if I would send them a song they’ve heard, and liked, that I have written and recorded, without the drums on it, because they feel that they could make it sound “not so mechanical”, and I always tell them that it’s not mechanical sounding, it’s just “on”. Because they know I’m using a mechanical drummer they can make it better by making it more human. To me, and I like to play in time, it just makes it out of time, losing in the slower parts/songs, or gaining in the faster parts/songs, that’s not what I want. I want it on time, because, as a guitarist/bassist/vocalist, I play on time, and that is where the groove is, on time.

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DIDDLY October 31, 2012 at 3:11 pm

You have to use click tracks! That shouldn’t even be a question! As far as quality. DAW’s are the only logical options. What are we in the dark ages!? Classics are the first NOT the best, obviously!

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Roger Romeo October 31, 2012 at 3:35 pm

I think you’re missing a big point of drummers playing to a click. In ProTools and other recording software your set the recording to “Bars and Beats”. That way everything conforms to a specific tempo and you can do the edits you were speaking of. If the tempo fluctuates, good edits are very hard if not impossible. Also, the second big reason is cueing to video.

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Sugar October 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm

I can’t believe recording without a click would even seriously be considered anymore. In fact, a click is often needed live as well for many drummers. This is especially true if you are using samples.

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drumfundamentals October 31, 2012 at 6:47 pm

There’s also the option of recording without a click if the band are solid players and the feel is good – then creating a tempo map afterwards (using Identify Beat), so that the bars and beats of the Pro Tools session line up with the performance. That way the band can concentrate on playing – and you can manipulate everything afterwards. So what if the tempo fluctuates by a BPM or two between quarter notes? Things can then be massaged if needed using Elastic Time.

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MrToadMaster October 31, 2012 at 9:22 pm

If you’re in the folk genre — if you want it to sound completely real, forget about the click track. I’m talking about songs that don’t have a full drum set, that have tempos that rise and fall in keeping with the flow of the song. In those cases, when you don’t want to be held prisoner by a robotic beat, just let the music happen.

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clockwork November 28, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Been recording since 1986, and never used a click. Tried one way back in the day, just once…decided NO!
Maybe I’ve been blessed with an exceptional drummer, but I’ve never had any problem multitracking over my drummer’s parts. He provides a REAL click track (sticks clicking together) during passages where he’s not playing his kit on the recordings.

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