Mastering Meter: Click Tips From The Pros

Try this: Sit back, close your eyes, and hone in on that thumping wad of muscle inside your chest, the one that’s been faithfully squeezing out those beautifully imperfect quarter-notes all these years. Say hello to the world’s first metronome. Beautiful, isn’t it? Now try walking into a studio you and your bandmates are paying a few hundred bucks a day for and telling them you got all the click track you need right here (pound your chest dramatically). After they stop laughing at you and/or threatening you with bodily harm, maybe you’ll wise up and realize this ain’t 1970 — in the high-speed, precision-obsessed world of modern recording, the ability to play comfortably to a click is a prerequisite for any working drummer. And it takes practice — lots of it.

Luckily, there’s no better way to keep your internal ticker in tip-top shape than with a regular winding round the old click track. And if you think those sterile plastic boxes with names like Dr. Beat and Rhythm Watch are all math and no music, well, you’re right. That’s why people still hire real live drummers, after all. Just remember that the line between being “musical” and being “unemployed” is drawn by your ability to sync up your internal clock with the one being fed through everybody else’s monitor. But hey, don’t take our word for it. We gathered three seasoned professionals together for this article — Jason Bittner of Shadows Fall, Shannon Larkin of Godsmack, and Ray Luzier of Korn — and asked them to spill their most intimate click secrets, share stories of their personal journeys to click mastery, and impart some sage bits of advice to anyone who wants to take this whole drumming thing seriously. You know who you are.

Part 1: Finding Time

“My click’s name was Phil Rudd,” says Shannon Larkin, describing how his introduction to musical meter came not from a metronome at all, but from the human time machine that made AC/DC forever synonymous with a rock-solid, 4/4 backbeat. “I talked to an engineer who did the Back In Black album who swears to me that Phil Rudd did not use a click,” Larkin says. “I wasn’t there, and it’s even hard to believe, because if there’s a perfect record, that’s a perfect record.”

But that was then — the glory days of flying without a net. “These days,” says Larkin, “studio producers demand the consistency of the click because when drums are tracked first, everything else has to layer properly.” Larkin learned this fact the hard way the first time he stepped into a major studio, to record Climbing The Walls with Wrathchild America. The year was 1989. “The producer broke out the click track on me,” he remembers. “I’d heard of one, but I’d never used one before. As I’m playing with it, I could feel my face getting red back there. And that’s not good to be making a record and that red light comes on and your face is matching that red light.”

But getting thrown into the deep end has a way of teaching you how to swim in a hurry. “The embarrassment of trying to keep my pocket to this machine in a major studio for the first time made me really go home and work with a click track and try to perfect it,” he says.

And as Larkin hunkered down in a practice room somewhere in Hagerstown, Maryland to face off against the tyranny of the click, Ray Luzier was about to get a rude awakening of his own 3,000 miles away in Hollywood, California, where he had recently arrived, fresh-faced and cocky, at the renowned Percussion Institute Of Technology (PIT) to begin his musical education.

“I was pretty naïve back then,” Luzier says. “When I moved from Pittsburg I thought ’Wow, I got my stuff together.’ I only cared about how fast I could play double bass at that time. I didn’t realize I wouldn’t get a gig if my timing wasn’t happening. My teachers, Joe Porcaro and Ralph Humphrey, were really pushing me to use the click.”

It didn’t take long for Luzier to have a come-to-Jesus moment of his own in the studio. His first band, 9.0, having just signed with Shrapnel Records, was working up a debut album when the singer told Luzier he’d have to play every song to a click. “It freaked me out,” he says. “I remember locking myself in my rehearsal space for about four to six hours a day just playing all the songs to a click for about four months because I got so paranoid of being replaced. I’m thinking, ’Oh no, Kenny Aronoff’s going to do my first record,’” he laughs.

Ironically, years later, a more seasoned Luzier would be the one subbing as a “ghost drummer” on an album for some poor sap he won’t name, whose competency as a live performer just didn’t translate to the studio. “There’s nothing worse than the drummer who’s in the band sitting in the control room watching you do his tracks,” Luzier says. “That is probably the most horrific thing ever for a drummer.”

Jason Bittner’s experience with click re-education wasn’t nearly as traumatic. When he really started immersing himself in the click at Berklee College Of Music, he was surprised to find it suited him right off the bat. “I don’t know why either,” he says. “Because I was always reading drum magazines since I was a kid and I was always reading stories about the click track and people who could play to it, and reading those articles I always felt stand-offish from it [irony alert]. But once I started working with it I locked in kind of easy.” Goes to show: Results will vary.

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Jason Bittner

Part 2: Clicking In

Once you realize playing to a click is a necessary evil, the question of how gracefully you’re willing to embrace this unforgiving machine into your life is what will determine your success. As Bittner puts it: “There comes a time where you have to make the click your friend and not your enemy. And when you can do that you can really enjoy playing with it. I like just playing along to a click by itself and seeing what I can come up with, seeing what I can groove on. It’s fun.”

Those of you currently struggling through the early stages of metronome anxiety who think “fun” is a little too strong a word, consider Larkin’s more sober assessment: “The click definitely makes it easier to record records,” he says. “Would I prefer to play without it? Sure. It’s just more natural to me. When I’m in there in my garage and playing drums for the pure enjoyment of playing drums I don’t use a click track. But time is money in the studio, and it’s a business, and it’s not like you’re just in there jamming. But does it hinder me in the studio as far as playing what I would want to? No, it doesn’t — not anymore.”

This is coming from a guy who willingly subjects himself to what, from the outside, might look like an unhealthy reliance on the click’s every whim when recording with Godsmack. “Say we set a time to 86 bpm, and that’s where it feels good on average,” Larkin explains. “But then we play the whole song at 86 and realize that the verses just don’t groove, man. And when we play it naturally we tend to slow down a bit in the verse. So then what we do is just map the click, and slow the click down to say, 84 — so two beats slower. And what you do is go 86, then 85, then 84, so it’s a gradual decline of the two beats. And once the beat’s mapped out like that, and you’re a drummer playing it, especially if you’re doing it because it’s naturally speeding up or slowing down in a part with the whole band, then you follow the click track naturally also. It doesn’t sound machine-like, and it also lets you breathe life into the song. A lot of the time with the click, if you keep the song at exactly the same bpm throughout the whole thing — even if it’s perfect — it still sucks life out of it.”

It’s pretty genius when you think about it — a sort of controlled organic approach that satisfies the consistency police while still adhering to Larkin’s philosophy that “perfection lies in the imperfections in the studio.”

Sometimes, however, a song needs so much room to breathe that even this method won’t suffice, and the safety net is completely removed. Larkin gives the example of the song “Make Me Believe” off Godsmack’s Faceless album, where there’s a middle section that slows way down. “We thought it was just ridiculous to try and map the click that much,” he says. “So what we do then is just set the click where the main part of the song felt good and then turn it off when the middle eighth of the song comes up. And then you’ll find your way back to roughly the same tempo when you come back into the original part.”

Bittner ran into a similar situation on Shadows Fall’s last album with a B-side track called “Fade Into Smoke.” After trying to map the song to the click, the band finally gave up and went at it the old-fashioned way. “We felt that when we tried to ritard a piece of music with a click track, it was really killing the vibe,” he says. “We just finally decided in the long run to let the music breathe, and it ended up being the only song on the album we wound up recording without a click track.”

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Part 3: Massaging Time

Time, after all, is elastic. The click is a great reference point, but it’s the drummer’s job to give the beat life. One of the biggest mistakes beginning drummers make is to confuse the rigidity of the click for marching orders. “No one cares if you played to a click or not,” says Luzier. “How does the music feel? How does it sound? I hate the fact that today’s music uses a lot of Pro Tools and they lock everything up and the drums are perfect. That drives me nuts, man. I love the feel of it. If you’re meant to push it a little bit then push it. To me, the final record should be human.”

Bittner puts it this way: “There’s playing to the click and there’s also playing around it as well. Those professionals who have played long enough get in that comfortable zone.”

Larkin expounds on just what that comfortable zone is: “If you can play just a little behind the click you can get the funky pocket happening. If you can play right on it it’s good for a lot of pop and rock and metal. And if you can rush the click a little bit, man, it creates the right amount of tension for certain parts of a song, or for pop-punk or punk rock …” he pauses. “… But if it’s real punk rock you shouldn’t be using the click anyway — c’mon.”

Luzier admits this concept of playing around the click was a revelation for him. And during the eight years he played with David Lee Roth, he had plenty of time to get used to the concept. “He wanted me to push the choruses all the time and lay back the verses, so if you solo up the click to my drums there’s definitely some flaming going on,” he laughs. “But in a good way I hope, just to give it that feel or that impression that you’re pushing a little bit, you’re on the edge, you’re playing a little bit more excited, but then the verses you’re laying back. That’s challenging though. If you’re a beginner drummer it takes years to really understand that.”

Shortly after graduating from PIT, Luzier returned as an instructor, and promptly decided to share this little-understood technique with his students. He began teaching a class that specifically emphasized pushing and pulling the click. “I’d get all the students get up one at a time and play. They’re like, ’I can’t play unless I’m burying this.’”

But Luzier urged them to stick with it, knowing full well what awaited them in the big bad world of studio recording. Take what happened during the recording of Army Of Anyone’s 2006 self-titled debut album, when Luzier and Co. had the chance to work with legendary producer Bob Ezrin (of Pink Floyd’s The Wall fame). “Man, he was asking me to do all kinds of crazy stuff,” Luzier says. “Like, ’Push this pre-chorus, but I want you to lay the snare back in the pre-chorus and then I want you to play right on the click in the chorus.’ So now I had to separate my limbs, and that was a real big challenge. I’ve done 75 records and that was probably the biggest challenge of my life.”

Part 4: Show Time

Okay, we’ve heard what happens in the studio. What about the main event? Surely these professionals leave the click at home when it’s time to take the stage, right? Well, if your band is anything like Flyleaf, who opened up for Korn during their recent Bi#%h! We Have A Problem tour in Europe, then your whole band is going to be listening to the click through their in-ear monitors — even the singer. This, of course, is an exception.

A much more common, less-intrusive method is to do what Luzier and Bittner do, which is to use the metronome as a visual reference to keep the show on track. “I have a little [Boss] Dr. Beat up there with me on this tour,” Luzier says. “It just has a little LED lit. I’m not playing to it, but all the songs are programmed out and I’ll just look down at it as a reference and just see, ’Are we in the ballpark or what?’ These crowds are just out of their minds, so your tendency is to push everything, so I really like that reference to, you know, hold the reins a little bit.”

Bittner feels the same way: “What we found was happening live was, you get that adrenaline going and a lot of the times [laughs], Jason’s going in there and playing five or ten bpms faster than the songs. And when the song’s already 190 or whatever, sometimes the guitar player’s like, ’Can we play this at the normal tempo? It’s hard enough as it is.’ And we were also finding that to cut yourself short when you have a short set is really not a good thing to do.”

For two or three years now, Bittner has relied on his Tama Rhythm Watch, letting the little red light guide help him count the songs off. “If I feel it needs to breathe a little bit I might count it a little faster than what the watch is dictating to me,” he says. “But nine times out of ten we usually go with the standard settings.”

In songs with frequent tempo changes, same as in the studio, he’ll simply kill the click after the intro. “But if the song’s the same tempo throughout I’ll leave it on just because I like looking over every once in a while and making sure that either I’m in with the click or, ’Wow, I’ve sped up or I’ve slowed down.’ But 90 percent of the time I’ll look over and I’m on with it, which also makes me feel good. I’ll look over and check the light, and see how my band’s playing, and look over at my tech and smile like, ’Well, still got it.’”

Larkin prefers the actual sound of the click through his in-ears (although tone is everything for him. “I hate the bullet in the brain,” he says, referring to the high-pitched clink sound of many metronomes. “I like the cowbell. I’m all Will Farrell on that one.”) For Larkin, the click is key for syncing up to samples or programs within the show that would be chaotic otherwise. There’s one part in the song “Straight Out Of Line” (off Faceless) that features a dramatic simulation of war, culminating in the arrival of a helicopter on the screen. “I had to start the song the same time every night when this helicopter came up,” Larkin explains. “There’s a part where there’s a break in the song and it looks like the helicopter is firing and pyro goes off on the stage, so it had to be perfect. It couldn’t even be around perfect.”

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Shannon Larkin

Part 5: The Take Away

Larkin’s parting advice for those just beginning to tighten up their internal clocks is to do what worked for him all those years ago. “I think that any kid starting out should just buy Highway To Hell or Back In Black and just play along to that record for two weeks,” he says. “And then get yourself a click track. I guarantee you you’ll play a lot easier along with the click, because those records beat meter into your head. And it’s much better to sit there and play to these great, killer songs than it is to sit there and play to a click for an hour.”

For Luzier, just as his years of playing and teaching have instilled in him a healthy respect for the click track, so have they instilled an even greater appreciation for its role in building a stronger internal clock, and therefore a stronger musician. Go ahead and practice to a click, he says, but only about 60 or 70 percent of the time. “Because if you get called for a studio situation and they want you to play without, all of a sudden you’re naked and you’re like, ’Uh oh, now what?’

“When I was a teacher at PIT I’d notice a lot of the students would come in playing really street, I call it — just complete garage band; just playing with the heart. And there’s a dirty, sludgy kind of groove that they have that I love when they get there. And when they leave sometimes they leave like robots. They have to have a piece of paper in front of their faces and they have to play to a click. And I yell at them. I tell them, ’You can’t rely on that.’”

Bittner, having embraced the click from the start, naturally takes a more pro-click approach when doling out advice. “Anybody who puts the time and practice in can do what I’m doing,” he says. “And the way I feel that they would gain that the quickest way would be practicing on a metronome, because not only does it lock you in as a solid player, it’s a perfect tool to gauge your progress.

“One of the things I always teach my students [he’s been teaching since 1989] when they first sit down to play with a metronome, is when you’re playing along and you don’t hear the click anymore, prominently, that means you’re locked in on it. Because when I first started playing to the click all I was focusing on was tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. I wasn’t really focusing on what I was actually trying to play. But once you get to that point where the actual audio sound of the click is now in your subconscious, and you’re concentrating on that piece of music — once you get to concentrating on what you’re actually doing instead of what you’re listening to, then you know you’ve crossed that barrier and become one with the click.”

For A Good Time

Want to improve your sense of tempo? Here are nine boxes that go way beyond the mere metronome to help you become solid as a rock.

BEAT BUG 3. The Beat Bug 3 measures the time between any two beats and divides it by a minute so you just get gradual progress reports as you play. The high-speed microprocessor monitors 10—255 bpm with no skipped numbers. Increased sensitivity contributes to relaxed playing style. Includes energy saving feature, requiring a mere tap to wake it up. $70 including shipping. 843-828-4223, beatbug.net.

BEATLAB. The Korg M Series’ Beatlab Digital Metronome offers a whopping 39 rudiments or lets you use the slider keys to make your own. Its flashing LEDs help you feel the beat, the red one indicating the strong beat while the green signals the weak beat. High volume selections let you cut through ambient noise, even with headphones. Up to nine programmable rhythms. 631-390-6500, korg.com.

BEATNIK RHYTHMIC ANALYZER. For on-the-spot evaluations, the Beatnik measures phrasing, tracking, accuracy, dynamics, groove, and displays four data views. As soon as you stop playing, the LED display shifts from real-time to “beat history” mode. The Beatnik places each note in 128-time sub-window (expert being within one 512th note). Resilient pad comes in a pleasing blue. $189. 800-340-8890, tuners.com.

DR. BEAT. The DB 90, the flagship metronome from Boss’ Dr. Beat line, offers a Rhythm Coach function with an onboard mike, reference-tone function for “by ear” tuning, instrument and MIDI input, eye-catching dial for instant parameter editing, and dozens of built-in drum patterns that put the “fun” back into the click. Don’t forget the four separate metronome sounds and footswitch control. $159. 323-890-3700, bossus.com.

DRUMOMETER II. Unlike conventional metronomes, the Drumometer tells you how accurately you play a specific pattern, not merely telling you what your bpm is. The device works by plugging into the included Drum-O-Pad, attaching the Drum-O-Trigger to a tunable practice pad or muffled drum, or hooking it up to electronic drums. $159.99. 888-891-7352, drumometer.com.

RHYTHM WATCH. The RW105, the new generation of Tama’s renowned Rhythm Watch, now includes a backlit display, 30 different memory settings, and up to nine different beat divisions ranging from 35—250 bpm. Brand-defining features such as separate volumes for different notes, thumbable dial for quick tempo changes, and enough volume to play with real drums are still here. The L-rod mounting system is a plus. 800-669-4226, tama.com.