Kick The Click

Adventures in rhythm

How did we get here?

Every nook and cranny; every twist and turn of our recordings these days are nipped and tucked like a Rodeo Drive trophy wife. The beats we use - whether funk, bossa nova or reggae - are corralled and rigidly locked to a consistent tempo. Vocal takes are given a similar treatment, tuned and smoothed over to eliminate discrepancies.

Perhaps the culprit is the emergence of sequencers and synthesizers in the late 70s and early 80s, but ultimately the reason is likely expediency and convenience. These days it’s not necessary to record an entire take, because the grid allows us to cut and paste at will. Those who work in music supervision and the like; studio gigs which require a high volume of output, rely heavily on this standard because the alternative would make such a level of productivity impossible.

Some have theorized that technology has risen to meet the ideal of the human ear; that is to say our natural preference is for a song that maintains the same tempo throughout and features vocals and instrumentation which are perfectly in tune. However, technology itself has come to tell us otherwise, with plugins mimicking human feel by moving automated beats a notch here and there. Perfection, it turns out, sounds odd to us, because as human beings we inherently expect the ebbs and flows that typify the human condition.

As a 20-year industry veteran who’s seen my share of studios, I’ve become adept at working with clicks and matching phrasing as an exact science. The tighter I could make my recorded performances, the more seasoned and professional my work would be perceived. While I achieved a level of satisfaction mastering this method of recording, priding myself on vocal takes requiring no tuning and doubles requiring no shifting, the end result left me somewhat cold. I wanted the feeling I got when I listened to my favourite classics from bands like The Stones and The Kinks, where the drums would speed up and slow down and the tambourines were often out of time.

With that in mind, I’ve begun recording with no metronome and it’s been a humbling journey. For one thing, There’s no possibility of moving things around the session; backing vocals need to be sung anew with each chorus, and percussion can’t be sampled and pasted elsewhere in the track. My chops as a vocalist have been tested, as I’ve come to realize how much the tightness of my performances has relied on recording to a particular BPM count (beats per minute). Consequently, matching vocal phrasing has become an intuitive process, as I now need to “feel out” when the take I’m trying to match is finishing a line, hitting a consonant, or changing tone or pitch.

I’ve also been struck with the natural tendency songs can have towards increasing or decreasing in tempo, depending on mood or intensity. Tempo as an artistic device has become a casualty of the digital age, and we’ve thusly lost a powerful tool in our endeavours to uniquely interpret a musical piece. Surely tempo can have as close a relationship with a song as melody or rhythm; indeed rhythm and tempo have historically been intrinsically related.

If you haven’t already attempted to record without a metronome, I highly recommend it. If you’re using midi, try playing the parts freeform on your keyboard.  Even if you’re not sold on it as something to officially release, you’ll learn valuable lessons about yourself and the studio process in general.

Happy tracking!

- OP, January 15th, 2021