IT’S ALL ABOUT THE... TIMING!
ROB LONG EXPLAINS TO US WHY KEEPING THINGS IN TIME CAN SAVE YOU PLENTY OF... WELL...
When I’m asked, "What’s the most common challenge you face in the studio?" I usually respond within less than two seconds – usually depending on whether or not I have a mouth full of coffee – "Timing!" This usually prompts the response, "You mean finding time to record?"
Well, yes, but no – I mean getting people to play in time!
I couldn’t say how many times I’ve sat in the control room and listened to a solo performer, someone overdubbing, or an entire band and thought, "This is fantastic – great song, great tones, great ideas and parts... I wouldn’t change a thing... Ifonlyitwasintime!"
And thus, it begins... No, I can’t simply sit back and watch this all go down, enjoying the grooves, the lock, the sure-footed tightness, the seamless joining of musicians working as one entity – in the pocket with the zip done up!
No! Now I’m going to have to really earn my money. Most of the time, I’m going to either have to find out if there’s some credible reason why this is sounding like everyone’s playing in a different band, or if the performer has just forgotten to put their headphones on.
If there’s no technical excuse for the sloppy timing, then I’m left with three simple choices: ignore it and keep smiling through the glass, resolve that I’m going to need to spend a lot of time massaging the tracks later, or raise the point with the artist and – assuming they are receptive – see what we can do to tighten things up!
Obviously, there are types of music which require absolutely clock-perfect timing with no compromise. But then there’s the natural push and pull that occurs when normal human beings play and vocalise together. Of course, there’s super lazy, swampy, 'see ya when ya get there' stylings. Some genres are going to work with a click track, whereas others need to breathe like a living creature.
There are no rules, but there are conventions. The thing is, a jazz band would pack up and leave if the producer suggested they use a click. They may well push the tempo and feel all over the shop in the course of one piece, but you can bet that they make it sound like the musical forest has grown from one seed – and ultimately, that’s the kicker.
It’s not about the clock – it’s about intention, sync and groove.
Good players can do anything. Less experienced players need to work a lot harder, and they are often the people smaller studios are dealing with. If you’re producing, it’s your job to be the policeman for such things as tuning and timing, and to help steer the piece or project in the appropriate direction.
The first step is to make a call on exactly what is appropriate for the genre, the people involved, where the project is being pitched and the relevant expected outcomes. Is the ‘looseness’ within acceptable boundaries for the piece or style? Or is the audience going to feel slightly seasick listening to it?
Once you’ve ascertained that there is a ‘bit of an issue’ at hand, it becomes a case of how best to deal with it. The greatest single stumbling block is that nine times out of ten, the musician is blissfully unaware that there’s even a problem, though they’ve come to you to record or produce their work and have handed you part of the responsibility to help bring it home.
So, breaking the news can be tricky, but that’s part of the gig!
So often, people using studios are writers and singers first and foremost, and ‘players/musicians’ by default. By nature, these creatives tend to play mostly alone, or with other musicians who are not necessarily out there every weekend polishing their craft.
Thus, they often struggle to play parts that they’ve invented themselves, but don’t realise until they get under the microscope of the studio and get some feedback from people who do it every day. Rehearsal spaces, like live gigs, often mask the more subtle issues with the ‘wall of noise’ effect.
Generally, I find the issues tend to centre around transitions. To use an analogy, straight roads are fine, until there’s a bend. You have to readjust mentally and physically to make smooth transitions. Most people will be able to sit nicely on a groove, and even play the next groove well – but moving from one to the next seamlessly is often where the cracks appear.
Drum fills are the classic telltales. It’s almost par for the course that people will physically slow down during a busy part that requires more chops and even beat distribution, then speed up when things swing up to a beat or two per bar, and they’re not properly counting the rest of the beats.
If you’re going to a photoshoot, you’re probably going to have a good look at yourself in the mirror and sort your grooming and funky threads well before you let anyone snap you – you should have the same mentality when it comes to your music. It’s critical to have a really good listen to yourself and your parts (individually and as a group) before you start forking out hourly rates in the studio.
If you’re producing for other people, encouraging pre-production is mandatory. This could be as simple as having them send you iPhone recordings of their kitchen sessions, and allowing you to troubleshoot and provide them with valuable feedback in advance.
If you’re working to a click, life will be simpler. You can drop in, mix and match takes, and generally use the grid as a guide to push and pull things around in post-production. But this should always be a last resort – if you can minimise manipulation and get things down right at the time, you’ll always end up with a more organic sounding product.
Using a standard four-beat click with a typical hi-hat or rimshot sound will work okay for some people. If that doesn't do the trick , try going with eight beats to the bar, as it saves the distraction of counting on the artist’s behalf.
I find that most people feel more comfortable with some kind of groove – either a drum feel based on the intended groove, or a percussion loop. I’ll still run this as a guide even if the intention is to have a
percussion‑free final product, and just ditch it once there’s a solid bed track to build on.
Headphone mixes are highly crucial when it comes to nailing parts and getting then the pocket. Whatever part of the track is the designated ‘God of Time’ must be clearly audible up and over what is being overdubbed.
Oftentimes, inexperienced players will saturate the headphone mix with their own tracks, then wonder why nothing is gelling when they hear it all played back.
Sometimes it’s necessary to analyse, and then simplify a part in order to get it down. It could be that a tricky passage can be split into several parts or totally reappropriated.
For example, I once had a drummer struggle with a change that had him playing 16ths on the hats for one part, then eighths for another. I simply suggested that the 16ths would feel better and sit more comfortably in the mix if played by a shaker or small tambourine. Similarly, a busy acoustic guitar part in one song was replaced by an overdubbed mandolin, which actually improved the texture and dynamics of the overall song.
It’s incredible how a lazy or anxious vocal take can make it feel like the whole track is out of sync. So many vocalists (at all levels) are anxious about recording and get thrown off their game. Oftentimes they are simply not used to hearing themselves so clearly, and it takes time to relax.
Sometimes I’ll grab a vocal take and push it back in time a tin y bit, just to get it to sit mor e ‘musically’ in the grander scheme of the track. If I think it’ll help, I’ll actually do that while the singer is watching, and then point out the difference.
If they are receptive (and often, they are putting a lot of trust in you as their engineer or producer), you can get a much improved result right off the bat!
Tracking in sections can really help, especially when there’s a major feel change and you can virtually hear the tension rising as it approaches. Breaking things into bite‑sized chunks takes the pressure off from that, and allows people to focus on one thing at a time.
For musicians tracking live together, visual cues are critical. A simple nod of the head, eye contact, being able to see drumsticks or hands laying down a groove, or marking an accent is what most people are accustomed to. The pros can do without it, but it still helps people at all levels.
Before you set yourself up for a marathon session and end up with a sterile, lifeless track that sounds nothing like the artist, try to draw the very best out of them during the tracking stage.
You won’t end up with RSI and a caffeine overdose, and their ears will be happy!
BELOW: GETTING READY TO DRUM UP A STORM
ABOVE: TIPPING THE SCALES
ABOVE: MILLENNIAL DRUM CIRCLE
ABOVE: THERE'S SO MANY LAYERS, THIS TRACK MIGHT AS WELL BE AN ONION RIGHT: HEADPHONE HOME