Click tracks are the modern version of the old metronome. They play the beat of your choice (measured in BPM, beats per minute), so you can follow it when performing, either on stage or in a studio.
A click track is particularly helpful during training sessions and rehearsals when musicians must learn how to keep in time as precisely as possible.
In the movie and advertisement industry, click tracks are also essential, as they help synchronize the sound and the images with precision.
If you’re reading this post, the chances are you are a musician needing to use a click track when performing. You might have a few doubts about its necessity and even about its functioning.
You are not alone: there are contrasting ideas about click tracks within the industry, so it’s no surprise you need some clarifications.
First of all, let’s have a look at how to set up click tracks for your performance. We will also investigate the pros and cons related to its use, so you can decide what is best for you and your band.
How to Set Up a Click Track on Stage
Click tracks on stage are particularly useful for drummers, who are responsible for keeping the time.
Very often, during a performance, drummers listen to a click track through a set of headphones. The other musicians follow.
This solution is a good compromise to have a perfectly timed performance that, however, still feels natural and not too square.
How can you set up a click track on stage?
Here are a few easy ways.
Use a Phone App
Starting with the most straightforward option, you can download a metronome app for your phone and listen to it through earphones. You will need to set the BPM for each track manually.
Use a Dedicated Metronome
We previously wrote an article about metronomes for drummers. Some of these are quite cheap. You can hook a pair of earphones to them, or run them through the mixing desk to your monitor mix.
Using a Laptop or DAW Software
Lastly, you can set your laptop to output a click track. This is particularly easy if you’re already using music performance software, such as Ableton Live, which is a fantastic DAW. You can then set the software to change the BPM of your click-track, depending on what part of the set you are currently in.
Using a Click-Track with In-Ear Monitors
One of the best approaches to using a click-track with IEMs is to use an in-ear monitor pack.
Ideally, you should have two inputs on the IEM pack. The main monitor audio from the sound desk should go to one input, and the click output to the other one.
Set the IEM pack to Mono. Adjusting the balance of L/R on the IEM pack will allow you to balance the signal.
If multiple people in the band are using a click track, you can still run it through a mixing desk, and get the sound engineer to output the click to the monitor line. This way, all the musicians in the band will listen to the click.
Should Your Band Use a Click Track?
If you’re playing in a genre that uses backing tracks or samples, then it’s advantageous to use a click-track. It can sound very unprofessional if you go off time while playing to a backing track!
Some genres, such as some very fast styles of Metal, require a maniacal precision. In this case, a click track might be useful for any member of the band.
Some other genres, on the other hand, require performers to improvise and swing. Jazz players might follow a metronome just for studying purposes, definitely not for performing.
How to Use a Click Track in the Recording Studio
Any modern DAW comes with the option of setting a click track to accompany your performance. Click tracks are often used today, as the most common recording method now is multi-track.
A long time ago, bands used to sit together in the same room and play live. Today, artists tend to record each track separately, for the engineer to mix them later.
With the method used in the past, it was common to direct the click track only to the drummer’s ears. He or she would then keep the beat for the whole band to follow.
In modern recordings, however, musicians usually work at their tracks individually, so it is necessary to record every instrument in sync with a click track. This way, the engineer will later be able to put the tracks together (comping) without timing issues.
Click tracks are very popular in home studios too.
Musicians, in this case, might record the first track with a click, as a guiding line, to later add instruments and vocals on top.
Recording with a click track helps musicians and engineers with the editing and the mix. That’s why it is always advisable to use a click track during the recording process unless you have a very good reason not to.
Click tracks are essential if you want to create loops or copy and paste specific sections. The only way to make sure the parts will match rhythmically is by playing them following a click.
Lastly, effects such as reverb and delay are time-based, working in sync with the tempo of a track. Recording with a click track, therefore, makes these effects more precise and less muddy.
Click Tracks – Drawbacks
Not every musician is comfortable using a click track. It’s one of the main reasons that musicians don’t like to play with them. Although this does not apply to everyone, but many artists that complain about click-tracks are those that are not very skilled at playing with them.
That said, it is undoubtedly a distracting element, especially when you are immersed in your performance, and you feel like following your instinct on rhythm and expression.
The main problem, according to detractors, is the lack of expression you could otherwise have if musicians were free to phrase and add accelerando or ritardando solutions to their song. The result, instead, is rather square and motionless.
This is undoubtedly true, but we should always consider the style and genre of music we are examining.
On a classical piano piece, the musician can be given a bit of slack to alter the tempo as part of the overall ‘vibe’ and swing of the piece. If the musician were to play every single note with rhythmical precision, we would probably find the result rather dull.
However, when it comes to the majority of popular music genres, it is far better to have a perfectly square rhythm.
In conclusion, click tracks are indeed very useful to develop a musician’s skills and to have a precise on-stage or in-studio performance. They hold an essential place in many popular genres for live performances.
In general, you should consider playing with a metronome unless you have a good reason not to, such as if you are playing in a style of music that allows or encourages changes in tempo.