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A few days ago I started recording a song (not mine, it is going to be a cover version) and when I first recorded a guitar intro (just four bars of fingerpicked chords) I was horrified by my timing. But that was nothing compared to the horror I experienced while listening back to the two freshly recorded guitar tracks playing at the same time — I couldn't imagine myself play that terribly out of time.

And this is where I'm stuck. No matter how many takes I do, it seems like I do not get closer to the desired result (for now, I just want to fix my timing). The song itself consists mostly of one chord progression (Em Em7/C G D) with the chords syncopated (chord changes are shifted by an eighth from the beat).

Nevertheless, I have encountered several problems:

  • Metronome was too quiet. I had to raise the volume of the metronome considerably to hear it better. It helped me a lot with my 4-bar intro. I also changed the default metronome sound in Reaper to the sound taken from Cubase (for those interested, please check this link).
  • For some reason I am more comfortable playing at a certain tempo (looks like it is the original tempo of the song, which seems logical). Any slower, and I make more mistakes, tending to rush.
  • I usually play guitar sitting on a bed (it has a wide wooden rim, so no I don't sit on a soft mattress which some people don't recommend), and to record a track I need to move to my desk and to sit on the chair which is not that comfortable for playing (no armrests thankfully, but still). Not sure how that contributes to sloppy playing though.
  • I feel like I'm playing better when I'm not recording (the metronome is still on though, in fact I like playing guitar with the metronome on) but I'm not sure.

So my questions are:

  • What would be the correct technique for recording without drums? My understanding is that where there are drums, they are recorded first (with a click track possibly) and then the other musicians record their parts listening to the drums. Should I record both guitars listening only to the metronome (and then hope they are in sync!) or should I record the first guitar part, and then record the second one listening to the first?
  • (this one looks like already discussed here on music.SE) How should I practice to get better timing? Many suggest playing at slower speeds (should probably try this), many suggest recording yourself (this is what I was trying to do in the first place!).
  • Is it normal to discover awful problems with timing when first recording with the metronome? (I've recorded myself before, just not with the metronome, and that sounded fine to me then.)
  • Is it possible that I try to get in rhythm when playing with the metronome and that causes the problems? In other words, maybe I'm just using the metronome the wrong way?

I have read this (which seems to answer my question about practicing) and this (among other similar threads). I don't think I'm nervous when recording a take. Maybe I strain a bit too much though. And my audio interface latency is below 10 ms (about 5 to 6 ms) so the sole problem seems to be the player, and that would be me.

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+1 on the drum track suggestion. For me it's a lot easier to play in time when I first program in a simple drum beat, rather than a click/metronome track. You can scrap the beat after you record. Also when I first started recording I noticed I wasn't very good at playing in time, because I had not practiced with a metronome enough. When you start recording yourself you learn very quickly where your shortcomings are as a guitarist. Keep practicing. – Charles Sep 26 '14 at 22:19
Are you assuming that the first guitar track has perfect timing? If so, try recording the other, and dub them the other way round. – Tim Sep 27 '14 at 5:54
@Tim No, I do not assume anything there has perfect timing except for the click track :) – ethc Oct 2 '14 at 11:53
up vote 8 down vote accepted

When you first start to record yourself against a strict tempo, that's when you discover the unforgiving world of click tracks.... it's a pain we all have to go through.

Things to make life easier...

  1. Use some kind of 'drum machine' - anything that can give some 'feel' to the track you are about to lay down, even if it sounds nothing like a drummer, that kick/snare/hat can really help - then remove it after there's enough to hang onto to put down the rest of the track.

  2. Turn up the metronome til you can feel it, not just hear it. Drop track volume on everything else to compensate.

  3. Don't slow it down, you'll just learn the part slower, which won't really help, unless it's not your timing but your ability to keep up with a complex part.

  4. If you have any kind of MIDI keyboard, or any plugin virtual instrument, you could put down a simple rhythmic piano/synth part, just chords, fully quantised, which may give you more to work with.

I often start with simple chords/drum machine, so that the first real part to be recorded doesn't feel like I'm playing in a vacuum.

Playing to a click track is a discipline... a craft rather than an art.
If you are going to layer up an entire song one instrument at a time, it can be a necessary 'evil' - the drummer will love you if he doesn't have to guess;-)
The feel of a track can still be malleable if sufficient people/instruments contribute; each feeling either side of the click track, whilst overall retaining 'absolute' timing.

[TL:DR - click track louder + practise.]

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Good answer! Just a note on #2: if mics are involved, be very careful with the click track bleeding into the recording! This is a common issue, specially in voice tracks. – Archundia Sep 27 '14 at 6:54
I thought of a 4... – Tetsujin Sep 27 '14 at 7:01
@Tetsujin Good points, thanks! The (2) I have discovered myself the hard way, and the (4) really helps. As for the (3), I think slowing down can help me understand my part rhythmically. I also write notes on a staff (just durations, without pitches) to be sure I understand the rhythm. – ethc Oct 2 '14 at 11:51

Trying to keep time with a metronome is not for everyone. People who play in bands may find it easier than bedroom players, but by and large, most players would prefer to play along to a drum track. Especially band players, for whom this would be the norm on stage.Click tracks are used by pros, not to keep them in time as such, but to reference the recording for further tracks.

If you are not used to playing with others, and are trying to play along with yourself, is there actually any need to play along with a metronome? The finished article will sound pretty good if all the tracks are in sync with each other, obviously, but if the timing strays by a few milliseconds, that doesn't make it wrong - unless it's for 'Strictly Come Dancing' - which I doubt !

Better to record the second part whilst monitoring the first. If you were playing along with a second person, this is what you'd do anyway.Try standing up to play - it's less sloppy and the guitar probably hangs better to help your playing.

As regards practising - play along with as many different songs as possible, I used to (and still occasionally do) to the radio - not knowing what's next. Bear in mind that actually, lots of songs that you hear were not done using clicks - particularly 60s and 70s stuff - so they will duck and dive a little - that's never stopped people dancing to them though...

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My understanding is that where there are drums, they are recorded first (with a click track possibly) and then the other musicians record their parts listening to the drums.

That would be highly unusual, unless you're using a sequenced drum part. When a band records, it's most common that the other musicians record their rhythm parts (which may include keyboards and lead vocals) along with the drums. Playing a song's drum part without any other context is really difficult. Even the most capable and experienced drummers benefit from cues to tell them where they are in the song. This doesn't mean you have to use the parts recorded by the other musicians. They can rerecord their parts if necessary or desired.

Alternatively, if you've got a rhythm guitar part and vocals, for example, and the timing is good, there is no reason you can't overdub drums. Most drummers don't have a problem doing this. (They play along to recordings all the time when they practice!) Just make sure the reference has solid timing.

Should I record both guitars listening only to the metronome (and then hope they are in sync!) or should I record the first guitar part, and then record the second one listening to the first?

Do whatever helps you get the best performance. When I do this, I generally have the metronome in the middle, pan the original track extreme left, and pan the doubled track that I'm recording extreme right. I find my timing problems are more glaring this way. The doubled track is usually better than the first. Then I go back and rerecord the original.

How should I practice to get better timing?

Record yourself while you practice. Listen back every time. This will train you to have "that horrifying feeling" as you play. Devote a certain amount of practice exclusively to timing. Play a variety of tempos (fast/slow) and beats (something that swings/something that's straight).

Is it normal to discover awful problems with timing when first recording with the metronome? (I've recorded myself before, just not with the metronome, and that sounded fine to me then.)

If it sounds fine without a metronome, it might be that you're being too hard on yourself. Is "the horrifying feeling" triggered by your eyes or your ears? There is variation in all humans' timing and sometimes it's expression, not a mistake. You're not a computer. If your DAW shows transients that are off the grid, it may just be that you've zoomed in too far! A little drift is normal. What you don't want in your recordings are tempo checks. Those are obvious to most people and they sound terrible.

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I would disagree. IN the studio a drumbeat/clicktrack/rhythm of some kind is always recorded first. Otherwise there is no way to run a consistent tempo. You can remove it later when you record the full drums, but you need it. – Dr Mayhem Sep 26 '14 at 23:53
Are you saying there are no recordings with tempo changes that come from human expression? No bands that ever recorded just following the drummer? No ritardandos? No fermatas? Or were those always programmed into the click track? How were live recordings made? – trw Sep 29 '14 at 14:22
Nope. I include that in my second sentence. – Dr Mayhem Sep 29 '14 at 15:38
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... – trw Sep 29 '14 at 15:40
+1 for panning advice, it helps. As for "horrifying feeling" being triggered by my eyes or by my ears, it is the latter, but I admit that when I was just starting recording, I was perhaps paying a bit too much attention to the waveform-grid alignment. – ethc Oct 2 '14 at 11:46

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