In search of the click track

 2009 03 Beatles  2009 03 Greenday
At Music Machinery, Paul Lamere posts about his search for drummers who use a click track, an electronic metronome that helps the musician avoid tempo deviations. Paul wanted to see if he could use software to identify which drummers use click tracks on recordings. The graph above on the left plots the natural tempo deviations for The Beatles' Dizzy Miss Lizzie. For comparison, the graph on the right shows the "unnatural" lack of tempo deviation on Green Day's "American Idiot." Now, this analysis surely isn't an exact science and there's an interesting discussion about the project following Paul's blog post. "In Search of the Click Track" (Thanks, Gil Kaufman!)

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  1. There is something fishy with this. Even if the green day drummer used a click track as a guide, there would be significant human deviation visible. There is no way a human drummer can be as precisely tight as a drum machine or metronome.

  2. This might not identify drummers who use click tracks. There might be quite a few false positives generated by studio drum editors. Most major studios employ a young intern who is tasked with the wonderfully tedious job of taking all the drum tracks in a ProTools session and tempo aligning every single drum hit.

  3. As I said, his analysis is far from perfect (as he admits.) There is some very interesting debate happening on his blog.

  4. #2 nailed it. Very common post-production work, in addition to pitch-shifting wayward singers, is time-shifting drum tracks towards perfection. My neighbor makes a good living doing exactly this kind of work, and has been praised for allowing some imperfections to come through uncorrected, creating a more ‘natural’ sound. But, as he says, “If you’re fifteen, you’ve probably never heard a shitty drum performance.”

  5. Ha! This perfectly illustrates the headache I had for years, when sampling any kind of long passages from old sources. Things like Beat-Mapping to a wayward tempo have taken a lot of the headache out, but conforming a loose track to a tight drum can still be pretty grievous.

    You would be surprised to find just out how tight some old funk/soundtrack drummers were though. Its astonishing really, compared to the lengths studios go to, these days, to achieve the same effect..

  6. @#1, #2, #5

    Nowadays it’s done liek this:

    1. Record the drummer.
    2. Enable Protools elastic audio on the recorded track.
    3. Quantatize to the track tempo (usually on 16th notes).

    Done. It’s super simple and takes about 3 minutes to do once you have the drums recorded.

  7. Thirty years from now bands will be trying to re-create that *vintage* doctored, pro-tools drum sound….hehe.

  8. To my ear, locking everything to a consistent tempo throughout a whole song sounds pretty dead. I much prefer some natural tempo change as the song progresses. This is what often gives a live performance what we perceive as “energy”–an organic acceleration of the tempo as the song heats up.

  9. No, nowadays it’s done like this:

    1. Fire the drummer (and guitar player if you can)
    2. ???
    3. Profit

  10. I’ve worked with some pretty amazing session drummers. When you’re doing studio demo sessions, things have to go really quickly. Usually 10-15 songs in 6 hours or so. So there’s no time for beat mapping, and because these songs are demos, they usually want them locked to a click in case they want to edit the overall structure.

    Anyway, my point is, I’ve worked with drummers who keep time so well, they would often mute the click during quieter sections of the song, and keep tempo perfectly for several bars, coming back in on tempo (This is done to prevent bleed from the headphones).

    These same guys, along with most producers I’ve worked with would tell you they prefer to track without a click, though. I’ve also worked with drummers who absolutely could not follow a click.

  11. Using a click track to record: BAD!
    Using a click track live: MUCH MUCH WORSE!

    Some people use a click track during live performances. I saw a freinds “favorite band” do this (if I could remember their name I’d name them) and when the drummer left/lost the click the percussionist gave him a dirty look. The only time they actualy rocked was when they ditched the click for the encore.

  12. HUH?? How can somebody who is interested in music and plots graphs like this NOT know about quantizing with Protools?

    Here’s a cluestick for ya: analyse most recording by mainstream (read: highly produced) bands after about 1995 and you’ll see that plot nice and flat.

  13. The thing is, if you are integrating certain types of media, like midi or timed video, into your live show, there are very few other options.

  14. I’ve been in many scoring sessions when a click track was used without any drummer among the musicians. It’s just a way of making sure certain passages hit certain filmic points. Or maybe this post is only about rock drummers. In that case, nevermind.

  15. Your canned midi sequencer track *could* be synced by your drummer during a live performance, but a repeating midi sequence usually sounds terrible if the tempo changes obviously from measure to measure. I’ve never worked with timed video in a live show, but I imagine trying to time compress or expand video on the fly to match your band would be much much harder than just getting your band to match the video.

    You’re right of course, click tracks and steady tempos make music production much, much easier, both live and in the studio. I just also feel it makes the music a little less interesting.

  16. We’ve used a click occasionally when playing live, simply because we were restricted to doing so because we wanted a live drummer but also wanted to play along to a minidisc with all the samples etc on it.

    Trying to find a Drummer who’s willing to do this is the most difficult part. Most of them tell you to “f*ck off” if you even mention click tracks. They’re a tetchy lot, Drummers…

  17. Unless you use only LIVE recordings I think it is more an indication of which songs had the Producer or Engineer edit the drums in Pro Tools. And even then with the live recordings, as pointed out above, there is still some human deviation.

    In most studio tracks, especially Green Day, the drum tracks will be chopped up in Pro Tools and quantized so they are perfectly in time.

  18. An interesting analysis, but it is futile to compare different compositions and performances to each other.

  19. Click tracks are awesome. Drummers who bitch about them are often just not good enough to use them. It takes a high level of skill to lock to a click. A confident drummer can put his ego aside and not feel threatened by drum machines, click tracks, sample replacement, quantization etc. Obviously in some cases, where tempo changes and drift are desired, a click doesn’t make sense (prog rock?). But most of the time it makes a song tighter and less sloppy. Before quantization and clicks, a producer would often loop the better drum takes to make things more consistent. They did this with Dave Grohl on Nevermind. A good producer knows when to use click, when not to and when to add some swing to the tempo map.

  20. Worked live with video/ lights (i program them) and I’ll tell you this: click track is very common. The bigger the show the more likely there will be click. Even Pyro effects are set to it, to ensure maximum effect (though pyro usually has someone on a deadman making sure that nobody is gonna get fried).

    It takes away a lot of spontaneity but a alrge amount of the audience really wants things to sound exactly like the recording they’re used to (reason #2 Britney lip- synchs) and have been known to get kinda annoyed if it doesn’t (many comments about Madonna’s last tour- “I just wanted to hear it like it was on the album”)

    Odd I know but there you have it. If it’s a non- festival show in a stadium- sized venue- it’s probably on click track.

  21. Click tracks are very commonplace for recordings now. It makes editing the music so much easier. Good luck trying to get an intoxicated band to keep any sort of rhythm in the studio.

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