On Click Tracks And Going Off The Grid

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If you record your music using digital audio workstation (DAW) software such Apple Logic, Garageband, Ableton Live, or Digital Performer, you’ll notice that every time you go to hit Record a metronome click synced to your file’s tempo automatically clicks into action. The default tempo is 120 bpm (the optimal electronic dance music tempo) and the default meter is 4/4 (the reigning electronic dance music meter). The software gives you a few lead-in clicks—“four clicks for nothing” as the saying goes—as you brace yourself for playing along with it. You begin recording, trying to fit your audio or MIDI part to the click’s relentless precision. Within seconds you feel inadequately trained for the task (yes even percussionists feel this way)—too human to seamlessly interweave yourself with this level of digital, you’re on or you’re off perfection.

But if you botched your part here and there, no worries—your DAW software offers ways to time-correct and even out your playing: you can stretch your audio file or quantize your MIDI notes to predetermined markers on the DAW’s time grid, and you can cut and paste the truly rhythmically locked moments (did you get lucky?) from here to there to cover up your timing lapses. This functionality is demo’d in many electronic music making instructional videos in which someone awkwardly finger drums a part, almost without care (or without the requisite drumming skills) for precision, presses a button to “snap” the notes to a predetermined grid, and just like that a perfect beat loop is in the can. The important idea to remember is that the click is here to serve you. And there is a good argument for using a click: if you play or sequence all of your parts to one, everything will line up at the important junctures, making it easy to add to and manipulate your material in endless ways. By disciplining yourself to the click, the click will reward you down the line. Who knows—maybe someone will even remix you, hooking into your perfect 120bpm music and tempo-syncing it with something else. Stay with the click and hopefully you’ll be off to the recombinant races!

But despite their usefulness for hooking us into the ecosystem of our digital tools, click tracks also have downsides. The main problem with them is that they propose overriding our own time senses with inferior means of musical measuring. Click tracks propose that we play along to them instead of following our own internal clocks as we play. And, as we play along to them—trying to keep up or subdivide our parts to them—we arguably give up some degree of what makes us human.

I have quite a bit of experience with click tracks. I grew up practicing to an electronic metronome (for fun and because my music teacher suggested it), I play with one every day at my job, and when I’m recording my own music the click is always, well, one mouse click away. Whenever I record the click wants to jump into my foreground—click! click! click! click!—until I remember that I can shut it off. Sometimes I just sit and listen to it, thinking about the head space one has to be in to hear possible music existing in and around such a relentless presence. The more I listen to the click the more it sounds like I’m Here! Here! Here! Here! What kind of music has the space to breathe with this hammering away in its ears? Not any that I’m making.

Sometime last year I had a small revelation when I turned off the click in my DAW. Instantly, the computer became a calming machine. There was nothing telling me what the tempo was supposed to be, nothing marking the meter (clicks accent every downbeat, according to your meter: 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 for 4/4, etc.), nothing dividing time into smaller, chugging along units. I hit record and sat there, watching my unfolding MIDI sequence fill up with…nothing at all. Now the DAW was absolutely silent, listening to me and waiting for my first move, wondering what I would do now that I was momentarily off the Grid.

When we talk about click tracks what we’re talking about is how tightly fastened contemporary popular music is to what could be called the Grid. The Grid arrived in music in the early 1980s with the development of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), a protocol for syncing electronic musical instruments such as drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers with one another. When computers with MIDI-compatible interfaces arrived in the 80s, you heard the results in popular music instantly—in synth pop, in electro and hip hop, in techno, and so on. Between the arrival of MIDI and its ecosystem of MIDI-compatible devices, the Grid soon became entrenched as the default timing framework for making electronic music. Today, DAW software and hardware MIDI controllers like the Akai MPC and the Ableton Push are literal embodiments of the Grid aesthetic. Everything about these machines is square: with their rubber drum pad layouts these controllers not only look like grids, they also bring musicians onto the Grid by asking them to play and sequence all of their parts to a click.

But my revelation with turning off the click sent me in another direction. Without a click, I was now free to play freely. I could wander along the keyboard as if it were an open terrain rather than a circular running track. I could zigzag and accelerate, change directions on a whim or stop dead still to take in a view or listen to a soundscape. While this freedom doesn’t necessarily make for interesting music, it has allowed me to listen to myself play in a new way by hearing musical thoughts unfold at the pace of my internal clock, not an external click. One surprising finding here is that I like to play slowly. Now I wonder: have we been serving the click or our own, more variable sense of how the music should go?

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