Friday, May 15, 2009

Click Clique--for whose benefit is the Click Track?

I'm hoping the following essay doesn't put me in a naive, ignorant light, for if there's anything in this world to which I've devoted my time with interest and curiosity, it's music and all things having to do with it.

What follows could be better organized, but that may have to wait.

As a drummer who has appeared on about 15-20 records in as many years, I think I finally feel confident in saying that I really dislike the fact that drummers pretty much have to play to a click track if their band aspires to any amount of mass popularity.
When did this happen? Who is to blame?
First off, to those who don't know:
What's a click track?
It is a pre-set rhythm/pulse that a drummer hears in his headphones while recording his part, so that he or she doesn't commit the sin of speeding up or slowing down. It's a rhythm
harness. Or more like a straitjacket. And yes, some drummers do absolutely need this, but I dare say if they're really speeding up or slowing down that noticeably, perhaps it's time for a new drummer. Or time for everyone to stop insisting everything needs to be so god damn inhumanely perfect. For a band to come across as "purveyors of real rock and roll", down to vintage gear and spotty skin, but to STILL record to a machine keeping time for them? Wrong wrong wrong...a lie. There's nothing wrong with using one, but it's like if they came out with "organic Pepsi". Fuck, I got WAY ahead of myself...

Ok, let's ask the question again and give a few possible answers.
For whose benefit is the click track?

--the overtired producer/engineer who would rather have a broken stick shoved in to his eye than hear another lousy rhythm section?
--the band with no money who doesn't have time for said rhythm section to get a good take so instead they spoon feed the pocket to them?
--the band with no time because they have exactly 5 days to record a single before heading off to Japan and New Zealand?
--commercial radio?
--extended dance remixes?
-- dance clubbers because after 9 drinks, you need the beat to be like clockwork or you might fall?

True, none of my bands have actually achieved an enormous amount of fame (and so here's when the pro-click track faction points and says "SEE?"), and in the darkest nights I wonder if it's because I've never (ok, I have twice) had anyone insist that I play to one. In fact, I've even suggested a click on a couple of occasions and have been told "why?...".

This is not the part where I toot my own snare and say "oh, I'm so amazingly steady", because I know damn well I'm not. I hear every little waver in my timekeeping whenever forced to listen back to a take. I hate it. But I'm not going to get cosmetic surgery. I didn't get into music so I can sound like everyone else.
In fact, I liken my drumming to a wrinkled shirt or a messy head of hair (hey! I presently am sporting both!). If I was meeting the Queen or trying to pass muster with a drill sergeant, I'd be shown the door. And unfortunately, sadly, if I was auditioning for Fall Out Boy, I'd be shown the door too. If you want to rock for a living,you must follow a lot of damn rules, and drumming to a click is symbolic of it all.

I've recorded drums to a click exactly twice in my music career and they were both within the last two years. And both were only because the music had been recorded ahead of time. The first time was harrowing and caused all sorts of self doubt, which was aided/hindered by treats being shoved in my face by the recording team whenever I got a good take. Or a bad take. The second time was much easier, but I'm sure would've been fine either way.

I of course do know the advantages of a click. If the drummer screws up an otherwise great take, you can do a punch in. If you want to add synthesized percussion or other effects, it's a snap to just match up the beats and measures. I too heart Garageband. I love taking their pre-recorded beats and blending them and putting 4 measures of "Motown #12" panned hard left on the final chorus and half of a measure of "modern rock #4" at the end of every verse. It's a boatload of fun and I could do that stuff all day. All day. Really. I wish I could.

But I'm just talking about Rock Band A going into the studio to record their straight ahead guitar pop song, and having the drummer be chained to a click track in his headphones. Gah!

Like I said before, what was the paradigm shift that dictated that it must be done? Was it disco? Was it the "no more raggedness in pop" 80's/the harsh reaction to the sloppy 70's?

I am a bit conventional minded when it comes to some things. In one band I'm in, I early on had to swallow something that seemed to go against my very core.

The scene: rehearsal.

Singer: Brian, you should slow down a tiny bit in that instrumental part.
Me: wait, you mean like you do in your demo?
Singer: exactly.
Me: I thought that was just you fucking up or being drunk when you recorded.
Singer: No, that's how it has to go
Me: So just like slow down a tiny bit...??
Singer: But then eventually get back to the original tempo
Me: (ego talking, feathers ruffled) people are going to think I'm just a bad, sloppy drummer who can't hold steady time. Why don't I make it more pronounced so everyone knows "ok here comes the part where they slow down"? I mean sloppiness is nice, but I never wanted to be known as sloppy...
Singer: Don't think of it as sloppy. Classical music does it all the time. It's a common feature.
Me: sigh....ok then.

People who know me probably know exactly what band I'm talking about, and the oh-so-subtle slow-downs and speed-ups are now totally second nature in said band. It's a point of pride, in fact. I just had to learn how awesome and unique it could be.

Why doesn't everyone point to The Beatles' "You Won't See Me" and say "they suck so much! Ringo totally slows down as the song goes on!".
They don't. it's a fucking great song. and not until I point it out do people say "Christ, you're right. How stoned was Ringo?"
Or the Rolling Stones "I'm Free", "Time is On My Side" or "Heart of Stone", where the damn tambourine is in a different time zone all together. Or the Buzzcocks first 3 albums and all those singles. Amazing energy, but lots and lots of sloppy fills and wavering tempos. Or those drunken louts The Faces?
Do people like this today because it's quaint? Because "oh, they just did things differently then". ??

I know I'm far from the only purist out there. And in fact, I'm not even a fan of totally sloppy drumming. It's why some indie rock doesn't do it for me.
Actually, no....scratch that. It's bad sounding drums that I hate. Like a floppy sock or a wedgie-inducing pair of undies. I just wanna fix it.

To hear Paul McCartney say the click track is absolutely essential in this day and age is a little heartbreaking. I know Paul's a perfectionist, but...

Ok, two more things: music and rhythm are signs of life on Earth.
Is your pulse or breath exactly the same all day? No. Something relaxing slows it down, something exciting speeds it up. Often, you have no control. You may be in a relaxing bath, but for some reason, the smoke alarm downstairs goes off.
And, rhythm is often sexual. Do we have sex to a click track? God, I hope not.

And lastly, yes, dance music is all about BPMs. But next time you're watching people dance, take a look....many of them aren't even dancing to the damn beat. They have their moves down, but crikey...nothing in those moves suggest that they could clap in beat to the song if they tried. It makes one wonder why all the fuss over BPMs?

Sigh...I know I'll get lots of flack from people I love and respect, but it's genuinely a thing I ponder with an air of suspicion. As a drummer, and a former marching band member, I feel like over reliance of click tracks is tantamount to a drill instructor barking out orders from every corner of a city block.

If the leader of the drumming secret society appeared now and said "Brian, you could have been one of us..." and said that if I had recorded every album I've been on to a click track things would be a whole lot different and I wouldn't be sitting here griping on a lap top, would I wish that I'd done things differently?
I dunno..I kind of like having a soul.


Henning said...

I don't think you are alone in this at all, Marchese. Did this outburst stem from something that Sir Paul said? If you look up something like "refuses to record to a click track" you'll find a bunch of drummers who feel like you do and a bunch of producers who are complaining about those drummers.

I don't think I've ever been involved in a band recording process where a click track was used, have I? I use them sometimes when I do my own solo recording but that is because I am not a drummer and my sense of time is not always as good as I'd like it to be.

The only time I can think of when I'd want to use one for a band would be if I wanted to the music to be robotically accurate as an EFFECT.

But, you know, everybody hears music differently and I imagine there are some drummers out there who really like playing to a click. I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean they don't have a soul.

I also don't think that every top of the charts song these days is necessarily click track based. It goes right along the lines with vocal autotune, though, and the public is unknowingly being trained to hear the things that are mathematically strict as being "correct".

The problem is that when some record label is going to invest millions on an act, they don't want to take any chances. And it's those acts, because of the money behind them, that mold the sounds of the day. But, I, still believe that those things that are produced with human error, if given the proper exposure, can be just as or even more sellable.

As long as The Flaming Lips and Moldy Peaches are out there making a living off of their music there is hope for the natural performers.

Pbs: Speaking of AUTO-tune, maybe from now on we should record everything to a Click and Clack Track. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Anonymous said...

Generally bands go into studios to sound good. Not sounding like a crappy drummer is an example of sounding good. If you want to be 'organic', go right ahead but for those who need the safety net, the click is a godsend. Screwed up the fill? No worries, time correction software can fix it right up since we have the click track as a guide. If you want the song to speed up at the end, go for it. But if you didn't mean to, well, hey...why not use a metronome!? What a crazy idea.

Henning said...

I'm neither strictly for or against the use of click tracks. I like music that uses them and I like music that doesn't. It's just a tool.

However, Anonymous, I think it all depends on how you define "sounding good". A drummer that eases in and out of strict tempo to keep the flow of the lyrics and melodies organic, does not = "crappy drummer". Such a thing, however, is very difficult with a click track.

Time "correction" implies that time must be rigid. I'd hate to "correct" the time of some of the music that I listen to. Same as I would hate to pitch correct, say, some of my favorite Jonathan Richman albums.

That said, I also dig a lot of music that IS rigidly mathematically rhythmically in "perfect" tempo.

I agree that it's a tool one can use or not use. No big deal either way.

Anonymous said...

"I think it all depends on how you define "sounding good". A drummer that eases in and out of strict tempo to keep the flow of the lyrics and melodies organic, does not = "crappy drummer". Such a thing, however, is very difficult with a click track."

Well, then said drummer doesn't need to use one if he needs to scoot in and out of tempos. I'm speaking of more abrasive music like punk, metal, rock where slowing down or gradually speeding up a song just sounds rank amateur.

There is really no need to badmouth the click. It's ultimately the band, not the engineer's decision to use one. As someone in the forum said, 'Sometimes I want to play in a field, sometimes I want to play Tetris." That sums it up for me!

Anonymous said...

Two things come to mind for me on this subject. The first- I will simply tell a story and leave out any conclusion. Back in 11th grade, when I played in my high school's jazz band, we were pretty good; we even took 1st place in the Big Apple Music Festival for high school bands in NYC and were rated 12th in the nation (by who or what I don't recall). Part of that success was probably due to the fact that we weren't just an afterschool club but we rehearsed everyday as a class. Anyway, the drummer in our group that year was Jason Arnold, whose father is Bill Arnold, the dude that plays drums with the Young at Heart chorus. So Jason grew up playing drums, jazz specifically. During one rehearsal towards the end of the year, in practicing for that festival, I recall our director setting a tempo on a metronome and then Jason counting us in. While we played through the song, the director hid the metronome under the piano but as the ending of the song faded several minutes later, each of us could hear the metronome was still going at the same exact tempo.

The other thing? One of my favorite SFTD gigs in the last few years was the last one we played at that WRSI kid's day festival. A big part of it for me personally was neglecting backup vocals altogether (I had lost my singing voice again temporarily), which freed me up to focus on my guitar playing exclusively and I had a blast playing all of these funky (I mean funky in several meanings of the word, not just the style known as "funk"- I probably mean that the least) rhythms off of Brian's very expressive playing. I couldn't say one way or the other whether we ever sped up or slowed down or stayed on tempo but man was it fun playing with you that day, Brian. It was fun, it sounded great, people were moving their bodies.

Norm said...

Actually very skilled drummers can play with a click and pull the beat way back and vice versa, and often, but not always these same guys are even better without a click. I do find that playing to a click can absolutely cause safe performances however - not very rock and roll. Some drummers who have difficulties playing with a click track are the ones who viscerally reject the straight jacket, who need to be afford the space to lay back and/or take risks. I do feel there has been a certain blowback to the shit-ton of uninspired indie rock/lo-fi that was dumped on us in the early 90s which has led us to the clean room. But man, I agree 100% that music has become so clinical I find it very difficult to enjoy new music. The art to good recording is knowing when it's "right" - where obsession isn't a curse and the first take really IS magical and not just shit.