HEAR ME OUT
Today there is a large number of videos on YouTube suggesting that recordings from classic bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Van Halen would be completely ruined if they had used a click track in the studio. To prove their point, they demonstrate how applying a click track to a classic song and editing the hell out of it to match the click sounds terrible. And they’re right! It sounds lifeless and missing all the feel and groove of the song the players imparted into their performances in the studio. So many notes have been drastically moved from their original timing that it sounds awkward and unconfident and robotic. Of course it sounds bad, it sounds inhuman. But that’s not how click tracks were ever intended to be used. Those same songs which they edited super tight to the click track would sound completely different had they had been tracked to a click in the first place. And let me be the first to say that heavy editing should never be performed when possible to avoid. The click is not supposed to strip every ounce of feel and groove from a performance, it’s meant to be an aid. Most seasoned bands have the ability to follow a click while also imparting a ton of feel and groove into the song. With the right amount of practice and the right budget, performances shouldn’t even have to be edited. Musicians should be given enough time to try their takes in the studio as many times as it takes to be both on time to the click as well as impart as much feel and groove as desired. I know from experience because I am well versed at playing to a click track as well as imparting so much groove and feel into a beat that it almost feels off time. The key word there is almost. That's what we call pocket. It's an acceptable amount of variance from the click track that allows us to impart our feel to the groove while also maintaining tempo to a satisfactory degree and not sound like a robot.
A CLICK TRACK ISN'T A VIBE KILLER
Those that say recording to a click completely ruins the vibe and flow of the music doesn’t realize these 2 things: 1. Even without a click track, musicians are trying to keep steady time while also intentionally making adjustments to the tempo to emphasize parts by speeding up or slowing down. At no time were they intentionally performing any section of the song while randomly slowing down and speeding up for no reason whatsoever. Every single tempo change is carefully planned out to aid the song, the feel, and the emotion of the song as necessary. Even if a band doesn't intentionally say it out loud or sit down and tap out a tempo to discover what tempo the performance feels right at, it doesn't mean they're not playing to a pretty steady tempo throughout the majority of their performance. There usually isn't big swings in tempo anyway, it's usually to be avoided because it tends to disorient the listener. Unless that's the point of the music of course. 2. Any engineer worth their salt today can program a click track to match a live performance that incorporates all those minor time changes to accommodate the flow and feel of the song. There's no reason to simply set the tempo at one speed and leave it for the whole song unless you're performing EDM or any other type of material where rigid tempo is desired. All they need is a rough recording and it's a fairly simple process to make a click track to match even if it is a little time-consuming. Once you’ve established a click that meets the needs of the vibe, and track all your parts as close to the click as possible while maintaining groove and feel, any edits you may have to do will be so minor that it will be imperceptible even to the musicians themselves and shouldn't negatively impact the groove or feel of the song in any way. That's how this tool is supposed to be used to aid the musicians in their performances, not ruin them.
But why go to all of this trouble to track everything to a click? Because in today's world of digital audio recording, the click track is a great tool used for many things. And not just by studio engineers but by orchestras, soundtrack composers, lighting programmers, live sound engineers, as well as live musicians. The biggest push for using click tracks comes as a solution to downloading and streaming music. The more that music is devalued through these actions, the more creative engineers have to get to meet today's shrinking album budgets. It's not the engineers, musicians, or record labels fault - it's technologies. The listener wants cheaper songs therefore we have to produce albums cheaper. There is no better reason why although there are many. Here's a few examples of why click tracks are the way to go in today's world:
Faster Recording/Saves Money
If you're budget doesn't allow an extra week in the studio for your drummer to get a performance right that they should have been able to play in their sleep, recording to a click allows you to get a recording that's close enough to the click track and pay your editing engineer to tighten up the performance. This isn't to say that you can keep a take that isn't at least close to what it should be. Heavy editing should be avoided at all costs because it sounds jarring and ruins every last bit of feel and groove that a song needs. Sure it's not ideal but sometimes you don't have a choice. For that reason, a click track can be a life-saver.
Visual Reference For Editing
In the world of digital recording using a computer, engineers can visually see the click track on their screens being represented by something we call "the grid". The grid is exactly what it sounds like, a grid. It's a set of lines on our screens that shows you where the bar, the beat, and even the subdivisions of each beat are located using a series of vertical lines. I actually prefer to close my eyes and edit by ear but sometimes I need that extra help so I open my eyes, zoom in, and inspect what's going on to see if my ears are deceiving me. Without the grid, there may be problems that need unique editing solutions that my ears alone simply can't seem to identify and suggest a solution.
Here's another life-saver. Let's say you're running short on time or your vocalist is running short on ability, the answer is to nail just one perfect performance that makes your neck hair stand up and copy and paste that take to the repeated sections of the song. That goes for every instrument as well. If the lead guitar player nailed that pre chorus lead, the only way to copy it to the next pre chorus is to use a click track. Without a fixed tempo, that perfect lead take could never be used again in the song. Same goes for drums and bass.
This reason is actually just another time/cost saving tool in disguise. In the old days, we had to guess at the speed of a guitar or vocal delay. In today's world, when using a click track, we can set the tempo of our delay to a 1/4 note and it's exactly a perfect 1/4 note without fault. Or any other subdivision we choose. How's that for time and cost savings?
Editing Tools Don't Function Without It
Other than editing with you eyes and ears, which can be time-consuming and costly, our only other option is to use the tools built into our software to edit and those tools require a click track to function. And I don't just mean they need it to function well I mean they need it. Period. So many of our tools designed today only work if there's a click track in place. The computer is just a machine, it needs a reference in comparison to our human performances and the click track provides that.
Live Backing Tracks
If you're trying to sync a live performance with backing tracks, you don't really have a choice. It's not possible to send a pre-recorded backing track out to the mains for your band to line their performance up with if both the backing tracks and the band are both listening to the same click track. Technically if your click track were just a previously recorded song that wasn't recorded to a click and it were synched with the backing tracks this could be possible without a click. But it's highly discouraged. The last thing you want your entire band following along too while performing is a song who's tempo ebbs and flows. It's hard enough to perform live without trying to hit a moving target.
Programming Light Shows
If you're trying to program a light show to match a live performance you don't have much choice. Same as above. Although technically possible it's highly advised against. Besides, can you imagine programming an entire light show based off a performance that isn't consistent. It was already a challenging task to begin with and now it's almost impossible.
For the last 100 years conducting an orchestra to match a movie score has been accomplished with the aid of visual click tracks and then audio click tracks. Even if the individual musicians weren't viewing/listening to the click track, the conductor was. Again, it's hard to hit a moving target so any tool available for use should be part of your arsenal.
AN ALTERNATIVE POINT OF VIEW
Can a great record be made without a click track? Of course! Some of my favorite punk, hardcore, and prog albums from the last 30 years have been tracked without the aid of a click. There's nothing out there that says that you must use a click track no matter what. So long as your level of preparedness, the size of your budget, and the long-term needs of the material don't require you to use a click then feel free to do whatever you think serves the material.
WANT TO BE FIRST OR LAST?
Want to take a guess at who would rule the music landscape while using a click track as an aid? All those favorites of yours like Zeppelin and Floyd. Why? Because their sense of timing is considered to be among the greats already and any tool that can possibly aid that ability would only elevate their performances, not diminish them. When a seasoned professional has another tool in their arsenal that can propel them even further ahead of the class, they'll use it in a way that seems imperceptible and thus allow the listener to focus on their performance and not the perceived rigidity of the click track. Even if you have the best internal timing, a click track is just another tool that speeds up the process, keeps everyone on the same page, and enhances the final outcome. So long as you can, why wouldn't you? I recommend every single musician no matter what age they are start rehearsing to a click track immediately.