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How To Put Some Soul Into Your Click Track

Click tracks are like Kryptonite to musicians. There isn’t a lot of enjoyment one gets from recording with them. Click tracks sound like nails being hammered into a coffin. A coffin you’ll find the remnants of your soul whimpering in. Ok, maybe that’s a little harsh, but clicks aren’t fun and can suck the life out of a groove sometimes.

However, click tracks are often vital to a recording session. They’re a necessity, but one that can rob a session of its vibe.

Connoisseur of 8th Notes

One of the shortcomings of a click track is that it’s impartial to wherever the 8th note may be sitting. Which means, it really has no feel. Anyone who has spent a lot of time cutting records can write a dissertation on how much the 8th note may vary between grooves. It’s a subtle, but hugely important detail.

There is a lot of blank space in between two clicks. A lot can happen in that great canyon of space. A lot of interpretation can be made.

In theory, you could lock to a click and still not have nailed the feel. But how, if it’s in time?!?! Playing in time is only part of the job. Negotiating the distance in between the clicks is a far more difficult challenge.

This is one of the things that finessed drummers do. They define the space. I work with a great drummer named Doug Yowell on occasion. His sensitivity to the placement of the 8th note is super refined. I would say he’s a connoisseur of 8th notes. He has a masterful control over the what the youngsters call “quantization’ (or what we old types call “feel). It is the space between the notes.

Lava Lamp

My aim is to create a mood while recording. “Click, Click, Click, Click…” may create a mood, but not one of happiness and comfort. A traditional click is often restrictive to an artist’s performance.

This led me to the idea of creating my own loops to use as a click track. I would clap my hands, tap keys on glasses, sweep a broom on the floor, stomp my feet and use whatever was around as percussion.

The goal is to create not only a groove in time but one with some sort of feel related to the song.

Of course, once you start doing this, it doesn’t give you a lot of flexibility in moving the tempo around. This is why before you even think about recording you should spend some time with a metronome to lock the tempo. Do your homework first!!

Wild Horses

This was the technique I used on the Lonely and the Moose record “And All Of The Space In The Whole Wide World”. We recorded the album in a cabin at a horse ranch in Colorado. Take the song “Lonely” as an example.

The homemade click loop worked so well we decided to keep it on the final recording. On occasion, these loops can become part of the ambience of a song.

Method

To create the homemade click track for the “Lonely”, I did the following: stomp for 4 bars, find the best bar, cut it and loop. I would tap on the countertop for 4 bars and pick the best bar. Then loop it. Next? A broom on the floor to create a scraping sound… and how about some crumbling paper? I kept going until it felt “vibey.”

Drive Thru

If you’re not good at recording found sounds, you can also use loops. On a recent session for a Christmas song (XXX Mas Song”, by Bryan Dunn and Andi Rae Healy), I didn’t want to use a regular click.

For this session, it was easier for me to just drop in a drum groove using EZ Drummer, especially since live drums were not going to be recorded for the first session. I didn’t use a stock midi pattern, though.  I wrote in my own part.

The reason I don’t like a lot of pre-fab midi grooves is they tend to be busy. Since I grew up originally as a drummer, it’s easy for me to program. If that’s not in your skill set and you must use a pre-fab groove (nothing wrong with that), start off with something simple and add slowly.

Click Replacement Therapy

If you don’t have EZ Drummer or BFD, you can program a simple percussion track using a tambourine or shaker. But, don’t just set the click track to play the tambourine on the beats. You want to create something with a feel similar to the song.

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If you have a sampler like Kontakt or EXS, you can take single hits of sounds you’ve sampled and use them later for other clicks at different tempos. You can build a library of found sounds that make wonderful click tracks.

I’ve also used loops from iTabla, which is an app for the iPad. Within the app, there are rhythms for tablas with good samples. Sometimes, it’s perfect for the song’s vibe.

The Math

You should figure out the lowest common denominator of the song and include that in your loop. If it’s an 8th note feel, there should be 8th notes in your homemade click.

If it’s a 16th note feel, there should be 16th notes in your homemade click.

This is especially important if there isn’t a drummer present as an ambassador to the space between notes which we call “feel.”

All Together Now

If you’re playing with a loop or homemade click track, you can include it in everybody’s cans. That’s another weird thing about click tracks. Some engineers will only feed the click to the drummer.

So, you’re following the drummer and the drummer is following the click. Sometimes not everyone is seeing eye to eye and the drummer has to negotiate which direction he leans since he’s the only one hearing both.

What do I mean? Say there is a bridge that has a lot of energy. Naturally, everyone wants to push a little. Perhaps it’s on the verge of rushing but in a natural, emotional kind of way.

Without a click track, it’s easy because everyone is following each other. But when the drummer is chained down, they have the click pulling them one way and the band the other.

Why Ya Gotta Be So Mean To The Drummer?!

By having a cool loop/click track and placing it in everybody’s headphones, everyone will play together. Yes, there is still going to be moments when everyone may push forward or behind the beat feel-wise, but everyone has the same relation to the click. Everybody feels the same push and pull.

Tick-Tock

It may seem like a major time suck, but it’s worth spending the time to set up. It sets the mood for the feel of the song. Feel is everything! You’re better off spending extra time at the beginning of the session rather than risking the musicians getting frustrated later on.

Your goal is to get great performances. Prep time is your best ally to achieve this goal.

Click forth, my good people!

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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