How to Prepare for Studio Recording with a Click-Track
In the modern music era, entering the studio for a demo or full album recording can be intimidating. The current state of popular top 40, hip-hop, and rock 'n roll music may best be described as slick, polished, and harrowing to reproduce in anything but the most expensive studios. By extension, the sound of modern drumming is predominantly mechanical and measured. If you want to produce a recording with a professional sound, then you should consider whether, and how, to utilize a metronome, or "click-track."
If you have never used a metronome before, the first step will be to choose a model that you are comfortable using. You will want to check that the sound of the click is audible while you play; but a harsh, grating tone will make your studio session an exercise in teeth-grinding. You will typically want your metronome or drum machine to sound like a cowbell: a precise, upper-midrange "ping" will cut through clearly in most playing situations.
What to Expect
Expect the click-track to annoy you. Expect to have difficulties executing certain fills, song sections, or transitions that you previously assumed were "in time." Allow yourself time to adjust to the sound and feel of playing with a metronome, and if necessary to rewrite the parts you are playing. Whether your studio date is coming up in one week or in several months, you will benefit from designating a practice schedule and sticking to it. No matter what schedule you agree to, however, you need to allow time to set tempos, practice at the documented tempos, and slowly adjust the tempos upward until you reach the final "pocket."
Setting the Tempo
As a guideline for setting the beats per minute (BPM), it is helpful to imagine the tempo of a song's climax, or peak of intensity, then choose the minimum BPM that allows this section to feel musical, to sound as intended when it was written. Why should you begin with a lower BPM setting? A lesser tempo will make mistakes more obvious, and allow you to fix problems in your playing before you begin shelling out an hourly rate for studio time. Also, contrary to popular belief, practice does not always make you perfect. A better way to phrase this would be, "perfect practice makes perfect." By training yourself to execute patterns properly at a slow pace, you will prepare your muscle memory to recreate the patterns with the same accuracy at tempos *at or greater than* your practice tempo. Muscle memory does not work the other way around.
Writing it Down
The ear can change throughout the day, due to stress, adrenalin, or simple listening fatigue. You may wake up to find that your first instinct for a tempo now seems rushed, or sluggish. It will be useful to write down the exact initial tempos you have chosen, and to adjust them throughout several rehearsals until you arrive at the "golden pocket," the tempo at which the majority of a given song fits perfectly in the groove. Remember that for the best results, you will be gently nudging your tempos upward from their lowest point.
Turning it Off
If you are comfortable turning off the click, you may consider cutting it for the ending of a song. Often the peak intensity of a song occurs in the last few seconds of music, and performing this part without the restrictions of a metronome can add a subtle spark of energy and spontaneity to the track. Or perhaps the music includes an ending that calls for a more relaxed feel, a ritardando, or a complete shift in tempo. Practice turning off the click track for this part, or have someone else control the metronome for you.
If you need to perform a tempo shift during the introduction to your song, it will be trickier, but this, too, can be done with a little practice. Keep in mind that your mixer/engineer will want a reference point for the beginning of the track - so it will be best to start the click normally, count off at that tempo, then perform your part "out-of-time" with the metronome until you can consistently make the transition into the rest of the song.
When in Doubt, Simplify
If you are novice musician, now is the time to add a professional polish to your playing... by doing less! If you have a "signature" part that colors the song in a significant way, then by all means, practice slowly until you can perfectly execute your idea. But you should also be using rehearsal to listen to how all the musical and vocal parts interact. If you find yourself playing a busy part on top of a key vocal line, ask yourself whether this really propels the music, or whether, simply out of habit, you are cramming a lot of notes into the fourth bar of the phrase. There is nothing inherently "wrong" with fills or riffs, but limiting them to a few signature parts and patterns will almost always guarantee a more solid performance and a clear, unfettered presentation of your song.
Does the Song Remain the Song?
While a metronome provides numerous advantages in recording, mixing, and post-production, it is not a perfect tool. It is still an artificial template into which you must fit the dynamics and nuances of your song. Music has a natural push and pull to it, and you may find that your song does not sound right at any fixed tempo. Does this mean that there was some error in the songwriting? Does the lack of a perfectly even tempo indicate some monumental failure of musicianship? Not necessarily. In fact, try matching a metronome to some popular recordings, and you'll find that Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," for example, features a chorus that is several BPMs faster than the verse. It is perfectly natural to "push" the band into a chorus, and pull back a bit during a verse, bridge, or breakdown. The question to ask is whether a click-track destroys the feel of your song, or whether it sounds essentially the same, but with more rhythmic consistency. If the song in question has completely lost its character with the click-track, even with multiple rehearsals and adjustments, you are left with about two options: either program a drum machine to play a precise number of bars of click at varying tempos (this could become complicated and time-consuming), or put away the metronome and concentrate on performing your best in "human time."
Most studios will provide you with one or two headphone mixes for all the musicians. You will probably not have the option to turn off the click-track for particular members of the group. If this is a concern, call the studio in advance. But for the sanity of your engineer, it is best to get the entire band used to performing with an audible click. Once you have adjusted the song tempos to your target BPM, plug the metronome into your PA, make sure everyone has ear protection, and practice away!
Practice with the click at the lower end of the volume that you require to play along. When you begin tracking in studio, start the click at a low volume and nudge it slightly upward if necessary. This will prevent noise from bleeding through the headphones and ruining the softer parts of your tracks (beginnings and fade-outs are often the victims of unwanted click noise).
Keep it Musical
Remember that the click-track is only your guide. The metronome is not making any music: you are. If you have put in the work in rehearsal, the click-track will not dominate or overshadow your studio session. You will have the assurance that your best performance will not have an unintended sway in tempo. By the same token, a click track will not fix a bad song, mask sloppy playing, or energize an uninspired performance. If used correctly and diligently, and if you remember to keep it musical, a click track can be a valuable tool to polish your playing and to finish your recording with a professional edge.