In the modern era of music recording it is generally accepted practice to use a click track as the basis upon which to construct your impending masterpiece. Ah, the humble click track; that annoying blippy-bloop that has become so much a staple of the music production process. Fun Fact: the first time I ever used a recording studio was when I was 17 — I booked a weekend to record 5 of my songs, playing all instruments myself — and the generic non-accented rimshot sound that the engineer dialled in to successfully penetrate my walloping snare drum is, to this day, my default click that I impose upon all my sessions when a click is deemed necessary. “Rimshot 2” it’s called. You can find it here.
But the question is, “is a click track really necessary?” The short answer is “No”.
The longer answer is “Sometimes”.
Let’s look at the short answer first. If a gigging band comes to my studio for a recording session, my impulse is not to foist a click track upon them as a starting point. It is always my intention to try and create as much of a natural environment for that band as possible, on the understanding that a band is fundamentally an ensemble unit, greater than the sum of its parts, and therefore as a whole has a unique character that is related to the dynamic interplay between its members. The tendency is to speed up during exciting bits, to slow down into the dreamy bits, and for members to cast glancing smiles at each other following the execution of the really cool bits — the click track sees all of these organic nuances as “errors” to be “corrected”; the tempo police castigating the band for enjoying themselves too much. I say, fuck that! That drum fill really was exciting! Don’t punish the chorus for it! All of my favourite albums from decades past were recorded without click tracks, and I don’t remember ever noticing or caring about any speeding up or slowing down. Here’s a view of a mapped tempo grid from the Sonic Youth song “Sugar Kane”, a 6-minute art rock masterpiece from 1992:
See the disparity in tempo? In all the years of listening to that song I had never imagined I could have improved it by having them play to a click!
A click track is an overreaction to an imagined problem, and it’s quite possible that it will do more harm than good, making certain drum fills suddenly seem peculiarly slow, and choruses more plodding than usual. Sure we can spend a boring afternoon creating a tempo map that approximates anticipated speed changes, but not only can that feel horribly contrived, eschewing any notion of spontaneity in favour of tedious mouse clicking, it can also throw unnecessary curveballs in the direction of the rhythm section, who, accustomed to marching to their own beat, are now taking orders from an uncompromising metronome. A recent session was held up for precisely that reason; the band had created a tempo map from their bedroom that seemed to correlate to their expectations for the songs, but put into practice the drummer’s performance was horribly impeded by the clunky, unnatural feel now being demanded of him. I want everything about the recording process to be as comfortable and familiar to the band as possible, and if that means slightly inconveniencing myself to facilitate all members playing together at the same time, then that’s on me, not the band. If necessary I can easily map the tempo grid of my DAW to correspond to the natural ebb and flow of their performance while they are off smoking and devouring Greggs sausage rolls. It’s better to make the DAW work for the band, rather than make the band work for the DAW.
However, not all sessions are created equal, and I will of course concede that there are plenty of occasions where a click track is in fact very useful. I use one myself, infact! The aforementioned “Rimshot 2”. And that’s because I occupy a band comprised of 1 member, sequentially overdubbing different instruments myself, and so beginning with a simple click is a very useful starting point. This is also the case for many people who are self-producing their projects, or sharing digital sessions between different musicians over distance. All of that is absolutely legitimate, and if a project is brought to me in that fashion I have no qualms whatsoever about maintaining that process. Nor would I hesitate to suggest the steadying influence of a click track within the context of a band recording if there is an obvious need to do so; perhaps there is an unchangeable electronic component or a sample that has to be rigidly locked in with, or maybe, just maybe, the speed change in the song is so noticeably distracting that following a click track really is the easiest solution. But such an imposition is generally more indicative of an under-prepared band than a de facto technical necessity, and if you’ve read “How To Prepare For Your Session” then there’s no reason for you to fall into this category. I can think of a few occasions where this has been the case, and I suggested that the band subsequently work on this during their rehearsals.
It may be useful for bands to familiarise themselves with the general tempo of their songs as part of their pre-production process. It doesn’t hurt to know that Song X is generally 135bpm, maybe even tap out that tempo before starting the song, just to get it locked in the collective consciousness. But it’s generally worth allowing your unified chemistry to take it from there. Music is intrinsically about human interaction, and as we move into an increasingly automated, CGI, copy/paste future, seeking to replace more and more of our common humanity with bleak, mechanised sterility is, I would argue, unlikely to lead us down a path of greater creative fulfilment.