Click Tracks, Help or Hindrance?

Much of the recording work we do involves the use of a ‘Click Track’. A click track is an audible metronome which is fed into a set of headphones and enables session musicians to play with complete rhythmical accuracy.Generally a click track will be played in addition to the other instruments which are already recorded, so the session musicians can hear both the click and other parts of the music, since a combination of both gives the best of both worlds.

A lot of singers, songwriters and producers tend to record and build a track around a specific metronome marking so that all of the instruments tally and play perfectly in sync together. A click track also enables instruments to be recorded separately, so drums could be recorded on a different day, in a different studio or even a different country to the guitars, vocals, strings and other instruments on a track. It is also a valuable tool for engineers and producers to be able to communicate with musicians and quickly identify any mistakes or areas which need to be re-recorded. By knowing how many beats are in a bar and setting the click to that time signature, an engineer can liaise with musicians freely using bar numbers, even if they don’t read musical notation.

Sometimes tracks are not recorded to a click and this can give the music a real sense of freedom. If musicians are overlayering other instruments which are already recorded in a track, this requires a strong attention to detail and a good knowledge of the piece to ensure split second accuracy. If a session musician receives a track which has rhythmical inaccuracy inherent in what has already been recorded, it may be necessary to record without a click track or the end result might have strings which are absolutely perfectly in time but don’t sync up with the vocals and guitar (which aren’t). This is also true with music which changes tempo regularly or has pauses and changes of time signature.

Often a click track can be used to save time in a studio. A string orchestra or quartet may record a piece which requires no further overlayering and due to lack of studio time may decide to use a click to ensure rhythmical accuracy. The alternative of allowing more rhythmical freedom without the click could result in the music speeding up or slowing down fractionally or not being ‘tight’ enough. There is a danger here that the click may kill any sense of the ebb and flow of a piece of music and straightjacket musical freedom. So on the one hand it can create greater accuracy but this can sometimes be at the expense of feel and expression.