Monday, April 9, 2012

Creating a Click Track for my UCLA Class

In my UCLA and other classes, my students are responsible for creating their own click tracks and midi maps for their recording sessions.  All our recording sessions are recorded into protools, regardless of what program the student uses to write the music (often Logic Pro).

With this in mind, I have a very specific way that I have students prepare the elements so it is easy for our engineer to import these into the master template for the session.  This is focussed on quickly being able to get through 15 students in one three to four hour recording session.  A brief explanation follows:

Always use an audio click - the Urei click below.  Never rely on a midi click. 

Here's a direct link to the wave file.  It will be the source of your click track.

Even though your protools session will have a midi map that matches the click, and you may be used to using the internal midi click all through your composition process, the mechanics of creating the click in real time, while recording a symphony orchestra, is simply not reliable enough to risk studio time over.  This is why we always use an audio click when recording.  An audio click is bullet proof!  

Creating the click is a two step process:

Step One.  Export the midi map from your sequencer:

In Logic Pro this is simple enough:

Create a dummy midi track that runs the entire length of the piece - one that is not broken up into regions. 

In the dummy track, put a note at the beginning and a note at the end.

Then, after selecting just that midi track, export the selection as a midi file from the "file menu."

Side Note:  As an alternative, any of the midi tracks, consolidated from beginning to end, can work as the tempo map, likewise, an entire midi export of all tracks, but for the sake of simplicity of the class, a singe dummy track will do.

Step Two: We physically create the audio click track.

The click track is created by manually dragging the "Urei" sample above onto the predetermined grid of an audio track (quarter note, eighth note, etc.) and repeating the click for the duration of the cue.  Usually, this is a process of creating a single bar of clicks and duplicating it for the length of the piece.

Make sure to cut off the click immediately after the last note of the orchestra so that it doesn't bleed into the recording during the ring-out.

Next, bounce the click track to the exact duration of the midi region to make one single audio file of the click.

Now, when the engineer imports the audio click and the midi map into the protools session, everything should match up perfectly with all tempo and meter changes intact, no matter how complicated.

Here are some general questions I am often asked about this process:

Why this particular click sound?

Studio musicians have been using the Urei click for decades.  In the old days, this click would have been generated live by a click box called "The Urei," hence its name.  It is the sound they are used to hearing, and because of it's sharp, penetrating nature, it is the easiest to follow.

The click above is one that I personally edited to have the sharpest attack and the quickest possible release.  Other Urei clicks that exist have too much sustain and when played at a high volume, the release of the note can be mistaken as a new attack and can obfuscate the beat.

Why not use an accented click?

Experienced studio musicians do not want an accented click.  The main reason is that when the music in the room gets loud, often the unaccented clicks disappear into the room noise.  All the musicians will hear are the accented downbeats and their performance will drift.

How many "free" or "preparatory" clicks should there be?

The number of free clicks is a function of two elements:  The meter of the first bar, and the tempo of the piece.  Here are my general guidelines:
  • If the tempo is 80 or slower, the number of free clicks should be one bar in the meter of the first bar.
  • If the tempo is 80 or faster, the number of free clicks is equal to two bars in the meter of the first bar.
  • The number of free clicks should always be indicated on the upper left at the top of each part and in the score.  The number one reason for a take to be blown is someone not knowing the number of free clicks.

Can we use tempo changes and rubato clicks?

I am a big fan of roving clicks and tempo changes and have had lot's of success using them in the studio - but I say this with tremendous caution.  Be prepared that if you have a tempo change or roving click, it will take more time, and in a class where so many students have to record, often it isn't practical.

Still, I have developed countless tricks for making these types of clicks work - a basis for a new blog itself.  Here are three quick tricks for making things go faster - if you dare!:

  1. If you are conducting, practice, practice, practice!  If you can nail the tempo changes and present them clearly in your conducting, it won't take any time at all.
  2. Record awkward, non-related tempo changes as overlapped cues, using alternate click tracks with their own count-offs.  This allows you to give warning clicks in the new tempo so the players can nail the new tempo immediately.
  3. When truly rubato, feed the musicians a compound rhythmic musical part, such as a harp playing eighth notes, that will give the players the rate of change in tempo that occurs between the beats.  If the harp part is musical, the players should be able to use it as a guide and follow along.  You can remove this part later if needed.
General Rules for Safe Recording

Always bring a copy of your click tracks and pre-records to every session, even if you have uploaded the files to a server.  Files can get corrupted or lost.  S*#T happens.  As a wise friend once said, "He who laughs last, usually has a back-up."

If you have a pre-record, always confirm that the click and pre-record play in sync... before getting to the studio!  This is easy enough - just pull them into your master session or create a new one. You'd be amazed how many times my students have not done this and discovered to their horror things were not as intended.

If you have a pre-record that needs to synchronize with a click, always have the pre-record and click start at the same instant - at the same frame number.  In this case, the first part of your pre-record will be silent until the music comes in.  I have seen students bring in a click track that starts at, let's say, and a pre-record that starts two bars later at because that's when the music starts.  This is really dangerous!

Consider:  Audio files are accurate to one 48,000th of a second (at 48K).  SMPTE is accurate to at most, one 30th of a second.  Therefore, your SMPTE start point is by definition, an approximation of real time.  Consider what might happen if the start of your click approximates to the earlier frame and your pre-record approximates to the later frame?  When this happens, your click and pre-record will be 30 ms off - which is an audible flam.

General Rules for Conducting in Class

When the conductor is counting off in the studio, the conductor should always leave off the last few counts before the downbeat.

For example, after readying the orchestra, the conductor will hear the first click.  The conductor will then say aloud, "Two, Three, ..." and then leave the last counts before the downbeat silenced.  The main concern, especially in a studio with a great deal of natural ambience, is that the last counts could still be echoing in the room when the music starts and thus the count-off will be heard on the recording.

The conductor should always stay still, in "ready position" until the upbeat just before the downbeat.  Be aware that if the conductor moves too soon, there is always the danger of a player misunderstanding the motion and starting too early.  By staying still until the upbeat, there is less of a chance of the players misreading the intention and coming in wrong.

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