Click Tracks: 4 Metronome Tips for Better Rhythm in Your DAW

Click tracks are a fundamental part of any DAW recording session.

In fact, setting the project tempo with a click track is one of the first actions you’ll take when you start a new song.

But how well do you really know your click tracks? Do you know why they’re important and how to use them best?

In this article I’ll go through the basics of click tracks, explain why you always need one and suggest some tips to get more from your metronome.

Let’s get started.

What is a click track?

A click track is a DAW feature that provides a tempo reference for musicians to keep their parts in time.

Click tracks are used to sync overdubs with previously recorded material. They also let producers move audio across the tempo grid without throwing off the rhythm.

In the analog era, metronome clicks were recorded to a spare track on the tape machine to create the timing reference.

Today’s DAWs create tempo tracks automatically, and they often don’t appear as a separate track on your timeline.

When they do, they’re usually in the form of a special VST plugin like Logic’s Klopfgeist or Avid’s Click II in Pro Tools.

Built-in clicks like Ableton Live‘s metronome typically appear as part of the transport pane that can be toggled on and off.

Why use a click track?

It’s tempting to think that metronome clicks make music feel soulless and sterile. It can be true in some cases, but the benefits of tracking to a click are hard to ignore.

If you’ve ever tried to play along to a recorded track that’s not in time, you might know what I mean.

Multitrack recording only works if each new layer syncs up with the last. Without a tempo reference from a click track there’s no common pulse to line up new tracks.

For example, most producers lay down percussion tracks early in the production process. If the drummer speeds up and slows down throughout the song, the other musicians will have to match their timing.

While it might feel easy to do while jamming together in person, it’s much more unpredictable when multitracking. The result is a loose and scattered feel without a sense of rhythmic unity.

Click tracks fix it by providing a locked tempo for the whole recording session. Even if a few tracks are slightly out of time, the song feels tighter since each track references the click.

Multitrack recording only works if each new layer syncs up with the last. Without a tempo reference from a click track there’s no common pulse to line up new tracks.

Not only that, tempo-synced audio gives producers much more flexibility during audio editing. They can easily move sections around the timeline without worrying about losing the feel of the groove.

Finally, the idea that metronome clicks make music boring is mostly a myth. The reality is that it’s perfectly possible to play expressive rhythms and stay locked into a tempo.

Metronomes were used in recording for decades before DAWs took over, and it’s only recently that click tracks have come under criticism.

Excessive DAW editing is more to blame for robotic rhythms, so just remember not to go overboard aligning every single note to the grid.

4 tips to get more from your click tracks

Click tracks might seem like a minor detail in music production. But they provide the foundation for the tempo that gives your song its groove.

With that in mind, using them well is important for getting the most out of your recording sessions.

Here are four tips to help you use click tracks more effectively.

1. Change the metronome sound

Click tracks are meant to be heard clearly over the other elements in your mix. That means they have to be loud and easy to recognize.

For some musicians, the harsh metronome clicks can be distracting when you’re trying to feel the groove.

Luckily, it’s possible to change the sound of most DAW clicks to a range of different tones.

Try a more musical click sound like a woodblock if you find the stock click too aggressive.

For some musicians, harsh metronome clicks can be distracting when trying to feel the groove.

2. Use a count-in

Some DAWs include an option to give yourself a count-in click before recording begins.

This can be especially useful if you’re tracking to recorded rhythm parts and don’t need a continuous metronome throughout the song.

For example, in Ableton Live’s Session view, recording to a new clip begins immediately. If you want to begin playing on the first recorded downbeat, you’ll have to set a count-in.

You can specify how many bars to add to the count-in, but one or two bars works well in most cases.

Hot tip: Setting a count-in is also important while punching in for overdubs. In these cases your DAW may have a specific workflow for defining when recording starts and stops.

3. Change the subdivisions

A basic click track plays the quarter note pulse of the rhythmic meter you specify in the song’s time signature.

This works well for most musical situations. But it’s not always perfect for very fast or very slow tempos.

In these situations, you may need to change the click behavior for a more comfortable tempo reference.

For slow tempos, a metronome click on the eighth note can help you stay locked in when there’s more space between quarter note pulses.

For fast tempos, using a half-note click can reduce clutter from too many pulses on the rapid quarter notes.

Experiment with different subdivisions if you’re having trouble tracking to quarter note click.

4. Tap in the tempo

You might not always know the right tempo for your song when you first start recording. Sometimes it can be difficult to find the BPM value that aligns with the groove in your head.

That’s where tap tempo comes in. Instead of choosing a BPM by tempo value, you can use a tap tempo function to sync the DAW to you.

Ableton Live‘s tempo control bar features a handy tap tempo that automatically sets session tempo after you tap it in.

If your DAW doesn’t have a built-in tap tempo function, there are plenty of online tools that let you tap in the tempo with your space bar.

Once you know the BPM you can enter it directly into your session’s tempo field.

Power of the pulse

Recording to a click takes some getting used to when you first start. But it’s worth it.

As you produce more music, you’ll see just how important a solid rhythmic foundation can be to a great song.

Use the tips in this article to get better results from your DAW metronome and get tighter rhythms in your tracks.