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I recently made a recording consisting of overdubs in GarageBand. Playing it back, I was horrified to hear that while I felt as if I was in the groove while recording, I had actually been wildly inconsistent with my timing, despite playing with a drum machine.

What practice can I do to improve my timing? It seems like playing with a metronome wouldn't help if the drum machine did not.

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8 Answers

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I would first try to focus on your timing and nothing else. If you can play in time that way, it's probably just a matter of practice to nail down your time and get away from the loose rhythm.

If you still have trouble, cut out everything except you and the metronome. You don't want extra beats or notes to interfere with that you're doing. If you can't play in time this way, you need to work on your technique and/or strength. Slow down to the point where you can play perfectly in time, even if it's just single notes in time to the metronome. Play scales and arpeggios this way (I'm assuming you're playing an instrument where this is possible) to build strength. Only when you can consistently play in time should you increase your speed.

Playing anything out of time reinforces the bad habit of playing out of time. If you find yourself unable to correct rhythmic errors, I've always found it helpful to immediately back off the tempo and play at a pace where I can get the timing right. Drill it in, make it automatic, and then increasing the tempo should be easier. If it doesn't work, go back and drill again before re-attempting the faster pace.

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It sounds like you have two problems: not playing in time, and not being able to tell that you're playing in time. This advice is great for playing in time reliably. I would just add: to tell whether you're playing in time, keep recording yourself. –  Stephan A. Terre Aug 8 '13 at 19:00
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I'll also say metronome, but will explain how, as Victor Wooten explained it.

Set a temp and play to it, set for all four beats. Then halve the time, so it's just 1 and 3. Then halve again, so you just have the 1. Then move it, so the best you're aligning to is the second beat, then the third and fourth.

The point is to move the other beats into your head.

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Practice awfully slow. Set a metronome at 40 BPM and try to hit quarter notes. At first this might be very difficult (and confronting as well) as we mostly try to improve our speed, instead of slowing it down. Take your time to do this until this feels completely relaxed. Sing the subdivisions (8 and 16 notes), this will help a great deal. Switch to playing 8 and 16 notes as well as triplets, back and forth. Don't expect this to work right away, but do it for a few weeks, and you'll find you're timing to be more accurate. If 40 is to slow, start at a higher tempo, but always choose a steady tempo for practicing. Don't gradually speed up or slow down, because this way you'll train your brain and muscles to be unsteady, instead of keeping it in the pocket. Good luck!

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I think of using a drum machine as being a bit like using stabiliser wheels on a bike. You're not really keeping time, its more that the drum machine is keeping time for you. To improve your inner sense of where the beat is use a metronome and gradually wean your self of the stabilisers by setting it slower: If you usually put your metronome on every beat then try setting it on beats 1 and 3 or beats 2 and 4. If you're comfortable with that try putting it on one click per bar. You will soon hear if you're getting too fast, too slow or subdividing the time unevenly. Once you start practicing this way regularly you'll notice improvements. This approach can be made more challenging still by going at even slower tempo's, subdividing even further (ie 1 beat every two bars etc), placing the click on a beat other than one or midway between beats (eg the "and" of beat one) or investigating more challenging time signatures. You can even set the metronome to click once every 5 beats and then keeping the same pulse switch to a count of 4. The metronome click will now be out of phase and will click on a different beat of the bar each time! Good luck..

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You asked what exercises. Play along to as many recorded songs as possible, using rhythm guitar mode, as in chords, and also jam along on lead playing with jam tracks, etc.Lots of these tracks will have been recorded using the dreaded 'click track' and as such, will be spot-on the beat for each and every bar.However lots of them won't, they tend to waver in and out of beat, that's the whole band, not an individual.Quite easy to prove using an electronic metronome.Establish the tempo, and later in the song, it will be out of time. Personally I find playing to a click-track/metronome a lot harder than working with a drum machine, so I wonder if you may keep time better that way.Having said that, all live music has the propensity,(and uses it ) to move slightly in and out of tempo. Good or bad? That's another question. Playing with many different musicians will give you more experience of timing,and only after you've worked with dozens of - drummers- in particular, will you feel the pulse with more conviction.

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Just a wild guess, but have you checked your input/output latency? Anything over 10ms is likely to noticeably interfere with your timing.

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Returning to GarageBand having played with the driver settings, and locking tracks to ease CPU load, it does seem as if latency was a big contributor to the problem, so it seems as if my own timing is actually OK (phew). However, good to leave this up for others. –  slim Dec 16 '11 at 17:07
    
I was having this same thought! To make sure, check that you are consistently behind the beat. If so, most likely latency. A better interface and DAW will reduce the latency. If you go back and forth between early and late, then you may have some timing issues to overcome. On the 10ms comment, I'm not sure whether or not it makes a difference but I've heard that the human ear cannot perceive a difference in timing if it is less than 30ms. 2 sounds occurring within 30ms of each other will sound simultaneous. Again, not sure that this would actually play into latency being noticeable. –  Basstickler Mar 14 at 13:37
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Spend a lot of time playing with a metronome.

I don't see anything different that could be done in order to practice timing.

EDIT: A drum machine is not a metronome. What I like about the metronome is it's simplicity, it won't introduce rhythm, just constant "claps". The problem in practising with a drum machine is that the beat configured in the drum machine can be quite complex, and mislead the musician in terms of time.

Imagine this drum machine configuration (with HH playing quarter notes):

HH      x---x---x---x---x---x---x-x-x---
Snare   x-----x-x-------x--ox---x-------
Bass    ----x-------x-------x-------x---

Notice how the snare beat marked as a ois clearly "out of time", and is, in fact, one eighth-note, but can easily confused with a quarter note.

If you practice with a metronome you don't have to worry about anything, you know that each "clap" is the note you programmed it to be.

I still think that a metronome would help.

Some times, when I'm studying some complex rhythmic parts in one piece, I usually put the metronome to "clap" at eighth or even sixteenth notes, to be able to understand it.

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The problem with this answer is that as I was playing I thought it sounded fine. Only on hearing the recording did I notice the problems. The same would be true with a metronome. –  slim Nov 23 '11 at 16:00
    
@slim A metronome provides a reference time that you will either follow or notice a clash with. It's not the same at all. –  Matthew Read Nov 23 '11 at 17:20
    
@MatthewRead On the recording I was playing against a drum machine. Again, I didn't notice the timing errors while playing, but they were glaring on replaying. Perhaps it's a matter of listening harder while playing. –  slim Nov 23 '11 at 17:25
    
@slim Ah, that's important information... –  Matthew Read Nov 23 '11 at 17:30
    
@MatthewRead good point. Edited. –  slim Nov 23 '11 at 17:32
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I would suggest not playing a song with the metronome but rather scales. Boring. But effective. If you spend a bit of time warming up on the dreaded scales to a metronome, you will probably find yourself keeping the beat more precisely.

But remember, you are not a machine, whereas the drum loop probably is. Play with real people and you may get different results.

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