There are two kinds of drummers: Those who can give a great performance while listening to a click track, and those who can’t. Before you plan on using the advice given here, make sure you have a drummer of the first category lined up for the job. And while we’re at it—these techniques of using a click also apply to other instrumentation, so this is not all about drums. Accurate timing is a necessity when recording virtually any type of music, not just for the performance and timing issues amongst performers but also for the post processing stages that inevitably follow. In today’s world of all-digital audio workflow using DAWs, accurate timing references become even more critical. With the amount of extensive editing being done, it becomes much more difficult to work with recorded information if the timing is fluctuating. No instrument in a typical pop recording is more critical than the drum kit, the timing “glue” that holds the performance together. If the drums aren’t in the groove, then the other parts surely will suffer. That’s why I find that using a click track reference is beneficial when at all possible. Granted, a click track isn’t for everyone, or for every style of music.
Jazz is a good example; its spontaneity requires the ability to make on-the-fly changes. A stiff click track can destroy the feel of the performance. For a pop recording, the click track becomes a benefit when editing, both at the tracking stage and the mixing stage. It can also be useful in the creation and placement of ancillary parts such as loops. But you’ll need a drummer who is comfortable playing with a click track. Springing this idea on a drummer in the studio can do more to damage to a session than help. I don’t advocate sending the click track to all the performers. Sometimes it works out best if the drummer gets the click track and then is free to let the groove fluctuate as needed. Depending on the type of material being recorded, a click track can be anything from a simple unaccented quarter note to a looped full-kit infectious groove. On a recent project, the click track became especially useful, as we needed to cut and paste between performances that were tracked live in one room. The click made editing easy, since the tempo did not vary.
The arrangement of this particular tune needed to change after the tracking session. We needed to add extra repeats of a chorus to add time to the song. And we wanted to make use of the chorus sections from different takes. Cutting across a live multitrack recording can give less than desirable results, since drums and cymbals are ringing as you cross the boundary from one section to another. One thing that I like to do is to try to make the transition point as invisible as possible by “keying” the parts together. The technique makes the edit screen look like a jigsaw puzzle when complete. The idea is to make the transition from the original section to the spliced-in section happen over a couple of beats rather that all at once. That way the ear does not notice the edit since the guitar part might make the change in bar eight on beat four, but the kick edit happens on beat one of the new section. Since most DAW software today allows trimming of individual tracks non-destructively, this is relatively easy to accomplish. You can try as many variations as you want until you find the best fit. And instead of just splicing each track’s transition, you always have the option of using a short fade-in or fade-out at the edit point to avoid ticks caused by non-zero-point crossings. In the example, the drum, bass and guitar tracks seen here have been edited across the transition point at different times. (The click track is out of view.) Notice how the individual tracks’ downbeat start points would be affected if the edit was just a simple butt splice. Some parts would get cut off, and this could cause unwanted ticks or pops in the audio because of the abrupt changes. Notice the cursor, indicating the splice point. The guitar part’s sustain would get cut off if the edit was made there. So instead, the chord being played was allowed to sustain fully, and then the edit happens. Another viable splice point would be the chord hit just prior to this one.
The snare part in the new section had a little flam fill that was not needed, so the edit takes place on beat 2 even though the kick starts on beat one. For that reason, the overhead cymbal mics were edited at the same point, so that the listener would not hear different musical parts happening simultaneously. And the bass player’s part ended up more complete and coherent if the edit happened a couple of beats earlier because of the fill he was playing at this point. Since the various takes were all recorded against a steady click it was not a problem to use an eight-bar section from a different take at any point. And, the click track also makes identifying sections easy, since you have a visual reference point. All in all, it’s a simple idea that’s easy to execute, but searching for the best transition points can be time consuming. Ray Legnini writes about pro audio from his home near Philadelphia.