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Click Tracks - I think I'm Going Insane

Hello Everyone,
I've been recording a folk artist that sings and plays guitar. Everything is sounding great except for one little thing, the tune seems to fall out of beat every now and then making it impossible to overlay any other instruments. In comes the click track and many problems. Her music has some pretty sporadic tempo changes. Her style is very similar to Ani Difranco in both lyric and music. I've had thoughts of a custom click track but it almost seems like it would be too chaotic to follow.
Any ideas or pointers? Is it me? How do real engineers make click tracks? Is it the artists style thats untameable by the click track? These clicks are driving me insane.
Any help would be appreciated.


Pro Audio Guest Fri, 08/08/2008 - 05:53
Just have to say first that I was trawling online forums without ever registering, hoping to find a fix for my sound problems when I came across this thread and found myself reading Thomas W. Bethel's last reply and felt compelled to register just because I was pissing myself laughing so much at his second example (the 'musician')! Brilliance.

In reply to the forum post, she goes between sounding grungy (My Head), which would benefit with a mildly distorted guitar, a drummer and perhaps some subtle bass work, to sounding almost identical to Phoebe out of Friends on Nitrogen song. Literally. While drums may not be the answer to every track, they certainly would complement and enliven the more uptempo pieces and i'm sure that she should have no problem playing her own songs along to a decent drummer.

That discounted, perhaps the most natural thing to do is to get someone with a good sense of rhythm and a sense of her songs to play bongos, either to her headphones or in the same room (audible to her but hopefully not to her mic) which would give a more free-flowing rhythm and be less intrusive to her than a nasty, rigid click-track.

Or you could just try screaming at her till she gets results. Might work, that's all I'm saying...

Pro Audio Guest Fri, 08/08/2008 - 05:55
Thomas W. Bethel wrote:

Second example. A "musician" who was at best a "primitive" and at worst a lousy musician. He had recorded himself on a four track cassette recorder. His instruments were a toy piano, pots and pans, and a flexisteel percussion device. He also sang. The music was more spoken than played, he used the wrong bias setting on the cassette deck and it was all distorted and his playing a singing were terrible. He wanted my to master it and make it all sound GREAT. He brought along a couple of CDs that he wanted me to listen to before I did the mastering. One was Ray Charles and the other was Sting. He was so excited about "getting my music out of my heart and head and on to a CD" that he was not hearing what real garbage he had created. I listened to the material made some suggestions and told him to go home and really listen to what he had done. He called me up and said he had heard some problems but that they were corrected and he wanted to come back and master the material. He came back and to my ears he had not really done anything to the material but he thought he had done some "wonderful things" to the music. I did not want to take his money for trying to do what I though was impossible. I begged off doing the mastering but he wanted me to try so I did. It was not a fun experience but I did a professional job on the material and he seemed pleased. About a week later he called me up to tell me that he had a recording contract and was going to be making "lots of money" all thanks to me. I have never seen his name in print nor have I ever gotten a copy of the CD (he designed his own cover and CD graphics) but stranger things have happened.

Pro Audio Guest Fri, 08/08/2008 - 10:23
Some musicians I work with can't play to a click. It's not because their musician ship sucks, it's just they lead, and can't follow. What I do is record without a click, then add a tempo map. It is easy with Pro Tools.

If you have a PT keyboard it's the ' and l keys. They are labeled ||If not, turn on tab to transient and use the Tab key.

Change everything to sample based instead of tick based.

Move the cursor to the first clear beat with the tab key or ->| key Press Ctrl-I and type 1 for the first bar, first beat.

Go to the next down beat press Ctrl-I and type 2. Now most of the bars should be in place. Find the first place where it deviates significantly and use the Tab key to move exactly to the down beat and type Ctrl-I and enter the correct bar number.

This normally takes me about 15 minuets. After all the bars are in place change everything back to tick based.

To record other parts, straighten out the out of time playing by View->Transport->Midi options. Then Window->Transport and click Conductor mode.

Record other parts. When you are done, make sure everything is in tick mode, and turn off the conductor mode.

Obviously If you are recording audio and not MIDI, elastic audio will be used, and you will loose some quality. It can save the recording, and if you are doing low budget stuff, with mediocre musicians it happens.

I'm not at my DAW now, so this is by memory, but it should be pretty close.

OOps. I didn't realize I was digging this thread out of the grave.

Thomas W. Bethel Tue, 11/21/2006 - 03:15
Lots of musicians cannot work with click tracks. They really could but their own rythum is not steady and so a steady click track drives them wild. If you are a classically trained musician you have to learn to play to a metronome (mechanical or electronically produced click maker) so that you stay on beat with other musicians. It is one of the fundementals of music when you are playing in a symphony orchestra. However it is not the same for a lot of popular music or when you are playing by yourself.

I have worked with lot of musicians that say that click tracks are not for them. Their own internal clocks are variable and so their performing tempo is variable.

I have seen fights develop over whether someone has to use a click track or not and it one case recently the musician quit the recording gig completely because he refused to play with a click track.

I would suggest that you do your best to convince your artist to use a click track and if she keeps complaining and is paying for your services that you do it her way.

Some people like the kind of chaotic rythum that comes with not playing the piece the same way twice or they vary the time signature to suite their mood and or the complexity of the music but if you are doing overdubs and other musicians are involved this may not work too well for her or you.

Best of luck!


Pro Audio Guest Tue, 11/21/2006 - 06:15
>>the tune seems to fall out of beat every now and then making it impossible to overlay any other instruments.
Why? Any musician worth its salt should be able to play along an exisiting track WITHOUT a click. A couple of listens to the original tracks prior to overdubbing should be sufficient for ANYONE doing session work to lay down their part. If they can't do it, run like hell...or, since it's your studio, tell them to run out :)

While we are taling about clicks, allow me to inject the following:

Click tracks are NOT for every style of music and definitely NOT for every performer. For example, my favorite music to play is room for a click track there! Can you image, playing a swing with a click underneat...? The only time I use a click is when I practice my intrument.

Not all POP music uses a click either and certainly Folk music should breathe its own breath. I think there are limits to what is considered an espressive flexy-tempo though. It should NOT be obvious (unless it's a RUBATO piece or a FERMATA at the end of a verse or chorus, etc...).

I have worked on tracks for very well known artsts/bands/producers and the VAST majority were done WITHOUT a click. And the tempos were not even to start with (like one song would start at 97.159 BPM and end at 97.476 etc...) The MAIN concern is NOT to have a whole number throughout the song. The MAIN concern is that the MUSIC sounds GOOD!

Last spring I worked on a couple of R&B projects (one already out and another to be released in Jan 07) and the tempos were all over the place, so to speak, but it all flowed perfectly and it was a pleasure to add my parts to it. None of it was obvious at playback as the music flowed as it should but, after loading the tracks onto my DAW (or another studio's rig) I could clearly see how the songs started at one tempo, varied throughout and ended at a different tempo still. It's not a problem though when it's NOT obvious and it actually helps giving the music a real fluid & organic feel, even if all the rhythm tracks were done with drum machines.

A lot of producers go to great lengths to make their programmed drums sound less metronome like. They do this using various techniques and tricks.

If a performer doesn't like a click (and I am producing the session) I usually have a ghost drum beat for them to play over and/or along. That way, they don't feel like it's a mechanical (cold) entity and they are usually cool with it. For folk music you could use a light beat using BRUSHES on a snare and a hi-hat to keep tempo along. This could also help the performer add a litlle more 'humf' to their vocal tracks...

But, it should NOT be necessary.

Maybe you could post an mp3 sample of the music in question?

cusebassman Tue, 11/21/2006 - 07:19
Perhaps you could suggest your acoustic artist play with a very simple percussion behind her *ducks*. I know how much everyone loves percussion players (be it drummer or otherwise), but if you can get her paired with someone who has good timing and knows to keep it simple, it will help in the long run. I started out playing drums and percussion, and have decent rhythm, but when I sit down to record a folk-ee acoustic song I've written, my timing is occasionally off, so here's what I do...

I can't play to a click track, it takes my mind off of the playing too much to get anything down that doesn't sound cold and uninteresting. I can pull it off, but it doesn't sound very natural. However, if I record a simply rhythm part to a click track that follows the same general feel of the acoustic guitar part, I can then play along to the rhythm part sans metronome click, and it comes out great. I then pull the percussion part's track out of the mix and there ya go, bed tracks with "perfect" timing.

Now, for variable speed songs, you would probably need to bring in a separate player who can play live with the acoustic performer, so that the rhythm player can watch the timing, and still make tempo changes as needed. At that point the percussionist probably couldn't play with a metronome since tempo would be changing on the fly, but a percussionist has the greater ability to watch tempo since they don't have to worry about as many factors in performance as the person laying the bed track (simply because they aren't there for a great performance, they are playing something like a shaker to keep time).

On the other hand, if you don't want to have to dig upa percussion player, you can sit down with the artist at a computer and, using some sort of midi sequencer or other program for creating a rhythm track, go through the entire song, measure by measure, and decide what bit of percussion will keep time, and how fast it will be. This is far more complicated because the artist then has to sit down and perform exactly the same piece each take, with the same transissions, same number of measures or phrases inbetween verses, choruses, etc... but it is possible.

Pro Audio Guest Tue, 11/21/2006 - 07:20
>>click track might not be for this artist but it would just be so nice if we could.
You link didn't work :(

Try the drum beat option. It usually works. You basically have a drummer play along with her on a few takes of the WHOLE songs. This will give you and her an option to choose from a few different feel/tempo tracks for the song AS SHE PLAYED. Then, you would re-do her parts as needed.

Pro Audio Guest Tue, 11/21/2006 - 13:12
I listened to the tracks - I see what you mean now! :lol:

the way I would do it (and the ONLY way I'd do it) would be to:

1) Have someone else play the guitar(s) :)

2) Arrange the songs and instrumentation appropriately, for each song.

3) have her sing over the instrumental tracks.

5) edit the vocals and be done.

Any other way would be a waste IMO. Her guitar playing, if that's her playing, is not up to snuff for recording. It gets in the way...

Pro Audio Guest Thu, 12/14/2006 - 15:24
Hi, I agree with RemyRAD. There's nothing wrong with the rythm if you keep in mind that it was recorded by one person with no clicktrack.
The accents are very nice actually and to my opinion it gives the song more space.

Here's the solution: when such a thing happens count one beat extra after the 4th beat (so make the "strange thing" beat nr. 5) and at the end of the song count two extra beats (5 and 6) and keep counting! You will return at beat number one again.

So if the beat goes: 1234/1234/1234/1234 etc.
Do this at this break: 1234/1234/12345/1234 (keep counting 1234)
And at the end do 1234/1234/123456/1234 etc. but slow the tempo down a little.

If you want a more steady rhythm overall (which is not necessary I think) just program a nice percussion part (or get a percussionist) with a shaker for her to place on the headphones in the background (watch any bleedthrough on mic) and all should be well.

BrianaW Sat, 08/09/2008 - 23:28
She sounds on to me... just changes. It's got a theatrical timing scheme to it, but it really does sound like she could be dead on if she wanted to. Let her do her thing and have the other instruments play along with her. If you have good players it wouldn't be hard at all... especially with punch-ins. :) Just another opinion.

Pro Audio Guest Tue, 11/21/2006 - 15:30
Any other way would be a waste IMO. Her guitar playing, if that's her playing, is not up to snuff for recording. It gets in the way...

It's a thought that I've been having as well but is it the engineers place to tell a musician that they can't do it?
I forgot to mention that this project is being done free of charge on my part in the Universities Pro Tools studio in which I have unlimited access. Time is not of essence.
I really would like to take a crack at custom click tracks but maybe she's not the artist to try it on.
Keep the tips coming, this is great stuff.

VonRocK Tue, 11/21/2006 - 16:21
She needs to take a metronome home, and practice with it. Practice, practice practice.

Get her a nice mechanical one.

Record one song. Tell her to take the metronome home and practice everyday for two weeks with it. Bring her back and record the same song. Show her the difference.

If you are doing this for free for her, then she should be able to take some free advice.

Pro Audio Guest Tue, 11/21/2006 - 16:30
>>is it the engineers place to tell a musician that they can't do it?
SInce there is NO producer and you're doing it for free you can tell her what you feel would make the recording come out best. If she can't take direction she is in the WRONG field, for sure.

It's a school project: you guys could get other musicians involved. They would appreciate the studio experience and add their flavors to the songs. The singer will learn how to work with others in a studio environment (a MUST for ALL singers) and you could get to use your eng./prod. chops.

Incidentally, the songs could easily be produced with a heftier feel other than folk (like Alt/Rock/etc...).

You guys are lucky to have a studio available for free so, don't be afraid to experiment. That's what school is for! If she doesn't want you to 'mess' with her songs find another person to work with. The time in school will be the ONLY time when you can do this. Once you get out in the real world, things change DRASTICALLY as you won't get paid to experiment, you'll get paid to DELIVER. Quite a different ballgame!

So, use this time in school wisely :)

Pro Audio Guest Fri, 12/22/2006 - 07:46
I had this problem last not too long agao and there is one way and only one way (as far as I know) out of it.

1. Record her as she is without any click.

2. Clap along with her afterwards on a separate track so that you have a varying click to work with. I bang on an SM57 and take that.

3. Find that part of the song that is at the best tempo and set up a MIDI map at that tempo.

4. Cut and paste the crap out of the thing so that your new 'click' matches the new MIDI map. This will of course sound fairly nasty as there will be all kinds of cut, paste and stretch issues with the sound, but it is just as a ghost track.

5. Now get her to firstly sing along with that and then play along with that on her guitar.

Yes, my problem singer-songwriter was a girl with a guitar as well and we spent an entire day footling about with different clicks and click sounds, untill I just told her to get on with it. She was a bit hesitant at first, but strangely, she was able to sing and play in perfect time once she could hear herself on the ghost track.

In the good-old, bad-old days, we used to replace steps 1 to 4 with a professional musician playing the songs to a click and of course that is still a possibility.

Pro Audio Guest Fri, 12/08/2006 - 20:59
Click tracks

Ahhhhhhh, the dreaded click problem. I am a drummer. When I started my recording career, a producer introduced me to using a click track. This of course was after the first time I was in the studio recording a demo. A year later, I recorded an album with the same band and producer. I fell in love with the click track cause it took to load off me as far as performing. Actually, live we used tracks from the studio as backing vocals. They were timed with a click track. Talk about pressure. If we were off, then you can guess what happened. Fortunatley, this never happened, but given the difficult monitor mixes etc.... It could have happened a million times. OK enough of that! As a producer etc... you are indeed in a hard situation, but there is a way to take the load off of you and put it on her so she can make better decisions. You mentioned that followup overdubs are going to be crazy. Well, I would go with that. explain to her that it is going to be extremely unfair for her to expect other musicians to overdub tracks and get them right! If indeed there are other musicians. Alternatively, if there are others, maybe a live recording will work better. Some musicians believe it or not have better meter when playing in a group situation. They can feel what other are doing and lock in subconsciously. You can also play with each persons monitor mix to help. Cut back her monitor mix so she has to push to hear herself. This usually works with people who do have velocity issues, but it has worked somewhat with metering problems.
For whatever its worth.

RemyRAD Fri, 12/08/2006 - 21:58
I really didn't have any problem following her tempo. She's done a syncopated thing here and there but she stays on tempo, if you count it through. Music doesn't always need a click track.

For the many commercial jingles I produced 25 years ago, we had a good solid percussionist and so we didn't use a click track, except as an initial reference when judging the actual length but I had to be able to edit a 60 second music bed many different ways, into rearranged 60's, 30's, 20's, 10's, without any problems with Tempo.

Don't try to count beyond 2 and it will work.
Ms. Remy Ann David