Working With Click Tracks

In Uncategorized by tfwm

A click track is just that – a steady metronome “click” either pre-recorded or fed directly from the source. A click track can be used during a service to ensure that all of the musicians are playing in sync with one another.

So how much have you worked with click tracks before?

Any trained musician has used a metronome during practice to develop their ability to keep a steady “time” or rhythm throughout a song. Percussionists in particular almost pride themselves at being able to play at a steady pace, and in part that comes from having practiced for years with a metronome. Once that sense of time has been drilled into them, they can play without it. Still, working with a click track has its advantages.

Of course during a worship service we don’t want the congregation to hear the click. It is just for the musicians. So we feed the click to them privately over their headphones or in-ear monitors.

Can’t the musicians just play together without using a click track? Of course the answer is yes. But what about when we want to create a “bigger” sound from the platform. Maybe your worship pastor wants a string section or brass section in one song, but you only have a couple of string players and one trumpet. In that case, you might record a string section at a local studio, or buy the tracks from the original sessions, or build a big brass section sound with multiple layers of MIDI instruments. You didn’t really think that huge sounding choir and amazing string section were being played live did you? They probably weren’t.

Actually, in some cases they truly are live. If you have the players, great arrangements, the microphones, the stage space, the loudspeaker system, the console, and the knowledge to pull it off, it really can happen live. If not, consider using this time tested production technique.

Allow me to take you back a few years to a time when I regularly cheated—er—enhanced the sound of the choir. Early in my career I worked full time as the audio director at a church. Our worship music style could be called contemporary praise and worship. In fact much of what we recorded in our services was ultimately released as part of the Hosanna! Music series by Integrity Music.

During worship services, I often had trouble getting our 80-voice choir to sound strong in the mix. They sang out okay. Players in our worship band all wore headphones. Drums were electronic save for the cymbals, and we even did early experiments with building Plexiglas walls around the drums—with a lid—to control that cymbal spill into the choir mics.

Still, I wanted more choir in my live mix. Being trained as a recording engineer and having worked for years in recording studios, I was used to stacking vocals—the process of recording one pass of vocals, rolling the tape back, and recording a second pass of vocals on new tracks, essentially doubling or even tripling the vocal sound. Going from 80 voices to 160 voices sounded like a good idea to me.

So we first experimented with recording a guide keyboard track on one channel of a cassette tape, with a click track on the second channel. I would transfer those guide tracks to two channels of a 24-channel multitrack deck.

Then I ran cabling from the studio control room down the hall to the choir rehearsal room where I could set up microphones and feed their monitors from the recording console. The choir director wore headphones, to which I fed him a mix of the guide keyboard part, the click track, and a mix of the choir mics. I had flown a pair of speakers for the choir to hear tracks during rehearsals, so I fed just the guide keyboard part to their speakers – only loud enough for the choir to sing along with. And of course their job was really to keep in time based on the choir director’s lead.

Our choir sang just once a month, so during their rehearsal on Monday evening before they were to sing, I would have everything set up and ready to record them. After a few practice runs, we would record a first pass. I could play that back to them so they could hear how they were sounding. And then we would stack their vocals on a second pass.

Our primary focus was to make sure that we had a good recording of the song they would be singing for special music. We also tried to capture their vocals for other songs that would be sung that weekend, although that was a lower priority.

It was our custom to do fairly detailed soundchecks and rehearsals on the weekends, followed by a full run through of the worship set. In the early days of this process, all I had to work with for source decks in the FOH booth was a cassette deck. So during the week I would mix down the tracks recorded on Monday night to the two channels of the cassette deck – the guide track with keyboard and click on one channel, and a mix of all the choir tracks on the other channel.

With the worship band all on headphones, they could turn up that click/keyboard track as much as they wanted. The band played with the click, the choir director led his choir with the band, and the choir and praise team vocals sang with the band. I mic’ed the live choir of course, and used that as strong as I could in my mix. But if I needed more level, I had all the choir sound I ever needed on another fader.

Later on, we got fancy. I had proven my production technique, so we upgraded to a pair of 8-track ADAT decks – one in the studio and one at FOH. That allowed me to do everything on the ADAT in the studio, then bring that tape down to the FOH booth for the live events. One year we even mixed the guide tracks to a pro quality 2-track deck and brought that down to the booth. We recorded SMPTE time code as the guide track, with some pre-recorded music on the other track, and used that to lock both our computer on stage driving the MIDI keyboards, and locked the video decks as well.

Were there ever any problems? Of course not. Well, unless you want to count the times when we got to the Saturday rehearsal and the person singing the lead vocals looked at the band leader in exasperation and said “But I can’t sing the song in this key! You’ll need to lower it a step.” So much for my choir backing tracks! And I won’t mention the time that I accidentally hit “stop” on the cassette deck that was playing the track for the choir’s feature song. That’s a good story, but I’ll share that another time.

Don’t be afraid to use technology to your advantage. If you see vocalists racing across the stage, dancing to the music, yet their vocals sound clean and effortless—chances are their vocals aren’t live. That doesn’t make it “illegal”. That doesn’t make it fake. It’s their voices on the tracks. But we do still have to live and work with God’s laws of physics, and when those realities and what the worship pastor wants the production to look or sound like don’t play well together, it’s okay to use some time tested production techniques like these.

Curt Taipale enjoys over 30 years of experience in audio as a recording and live sound engineer, a consultant, AVL system designer, design/build contractor, educator, author, and professional musician. Reach him through his websites ChurchSoundcheck.com and TaipaleMedia.com or email curt@taipalemedia.com.