A drummer’s main responsibility is to keep the band in time. Everything else is secondary to that. So how does the drummer stay in time? The question is often asked of using a metronome for live performances. Some think that it’s essential whereas others feel that it sucks the life out of your experience.
I’m a strong advocate for using a click track for live shows of most music genres. It really helps to keep the band tight and focus on improving the dynamic range of your set without being sloppy with the tempo. It’s a skill that each band member needs to learn but I think the benefits are well worth it.
It’s more difficult to keep in time when playing live
Playing live shows is an amazing experience. It can really get your blood and adrenaline flowing. The feeling of playing is just different from performing.
Even if you already have a strong sense of rhythm, live shows can throw this off completely. This is particularly the case during high-energy parts of songs.
Practicing to a click
I think that bands should both practice and perform live with a metronome. You need to get very used to playing and keeping in time. This can be particularly difficult with very intricate rhythms and songs.
Beginners often slow down or speed up parts of their beats or riffs to offset weaknesses in their playing. This can be quickly uncovered when playing to a click. Therefore, any issues should be ironed out well before show time.
Learning to drown out the metronome sound
Once you’ve got enough practice with playing to a click, it can become very subconscious to stick to it. You may start to ‘drown out’ the sound of this repetitive click when doing so, much the same as dance music listeners can focus on melodies and vocals even if the kick and hi-hats are the loudest elements of the mix.
How to set up a click track for live shows?
There are numerous ways to set up a click track for live playing. Is your drummer going to be playing to a metronome or the entire band? The whole band should use a click track if possible, although this can take a bit of effort to set up.
Drummer Only – Metronome device and earphones
If you decide that only the drummer will be using a metronome then they could simply buy a standalone metronome device and hook a set of earphones into them. It’s best to use a set of noise-isolating earphones as a very loud click in your ear could damage your hearing very quickly.
Metronome Apps for your phone – The good and bad
There are plenty of metronome apps for android and ios. There are plenty of free options, so it makes it very accessible as a quick starting point. However, I’ve found these to be very temperamental. If your phone lags or slows down then this can easily disrupt your click.
It’s worth testing out, but keep in mind that your metronome should be rock solid. Spending a few bucks on a good solution may be a lot better than trying to catch up with a broken metronome.
I personally only ever use phone app metronomes as a practice solution for whenever I don’t have a dedicated metronome available.
Through your in-ear monitor mix
If your band already has an in-ear monitor system then you can add a click track to this channel. It can be done on a DAW using a computer (such as Ableton or Bitwig) or a standalone metronome device.
A company called soundbrenner have brought out a wearable vibrating metronome (called the Soundbrenner Pulse). The biggest advantage of this is the tactile nature of staying in time, rather than having a loud clicking sound in your ear. This can help to stay in time without losing the sacrificing the music.
If you use backing tracks, you might not need a separate click track
This will only apply to a small number of music genres, but if your band uses a backing track that has a very strong and pronounced rhythm then that might actually serve as a metronome.
However, this might need a lot of practice before performing.
Recording with a click track
Most recording sessions use click-tracks when recording. It’s pretty rare to find mainstream music that doesn’t have a BPM (beats per minute) associated with it.
When a band has become very proficient at playing with a click track, recording becomes a whole lot easier.
Playing without the click track
There may be cases where you decide to play without a metronome for whatever reason. This may be for informal or fun gigs, or perhaps your click-track system or monitor mix is not working correctly.
You may think that playing to a metronome will make you dependent on one, but I have found that the opposite is true. Once your band has mastered the art of playing to a metronome, you will be shocked at how much better you all are at keeping in time without one.