I found out while recording (pickstyle) bass tracks into my DAW that I have a tendency to play about 25ms in front of the beat. I'm so consistent about this that I assumed the issue was the DAW's latency compensation, but a loopback test has shown that my playing is accurately recorded to within 3ms†.

Why might I have such a strong and consistent tendency to play in front of the beat like this, and how can I correct this?

Here's an image of what most of my note onsets looks like, in the DAW.

Image: Typical Note Onset in DAW

Here's an exemplary audio demo. Of course, there is some fluctuation in timing, but I average about 25ms ahead. I think earliest note is about 35ms ahead and latest note is on the beat.

*Note: This is just one sample. This issue has appeared across all recordings I've done, not just this one.

Dry DI + Drums

With Effects

Drums Only

†More information:

This is my listening situation while playing Diagram 1

This is the loopback test I did Diagram 2

I've done one further test- actually measure the round trip latency of my instrument signal. (Method: Place microphone inside my headphones, tap the pickup of my instrument, measure the time between the two recorded clicks. The instrument was about 1 foot from the microphone.)

 Interface: Focusrite 2i2 3rd Generation

 Buffer: 128smp @ 44100 (2.9ms) Triple Buffered

 Round Trip Latency (Dry): 13ms

 Round Trip Latency (With Effects): 15ms

 Buffer: 96smp @ 44100 (2.2ms) Triple Buffered

 Round Trip Latency (Dry): 12ms

I intended to record with 96smp buffer but I must have had 128smp buffer by mistake. All the reported latencies are higher than I expected.

  • 2
    SO many anecdotes, so little time ;) Do you do this at all tempi? A tendency to rush is usually because you feel the drummer is draggy. Maybe it's the way the rest of the instrumentation is sitting with the beat. – Tetsujin Nov 12 '20 at 16:34
  • 1
    It's not the drum track per se, it's the relationship of it to everything else. If you're playing over only drums, nothing else, then idk what to suggest, except maybe… relax a bit. Either that or the drum track itself isn't as tight as "quantised midi" would suggest. I used to spend a good amount of time sliding midi drums into a more comfortable position, when we were limited to actual midi transmission speeds, back in the day. [These days I just play them in & don't quantise them up too much ;) – Tetsujin Nov 12 '20 at 16:39
  • 2
    …before midi, we used to predelay the timecode to tape so we could get the LinnDrum to play the snare in time ;) [Yeah, I'm that old] – Tetsujin Nov 12 '20 at 16:43
  • 2
    Hang out with the string section, not the brass section; they'll teach you how to play late :P – Tetsujin Nov 12 '20 at 16:52
  • 3
    How are you listening to the sound of the instrument you're playing? If it's going through your DAW, then you may be playing so that the sound you hear is in time with the drums, but what the DAW is trying to record would be equivalent to the timing you'd hear if you were to play through a direct-connected amp while listening to the drums. – supercat Nov 13 '20 at 16:19

That drum track sounds like a shuffle feel to me.

Try adding a temporary percussion part that makes that a bit clearer. Here's me tapping along on my laptop. It's not at all perfect - that would take a little more time. I don't come in straight away, and I'm not brilliantly locked in. Although note that with one of the later snare hits, to me, it sounds like my tap has disappeared... that's a sign that they are correctly aligned. When I'm playing drums with a metronome, if my hits are bang on, I can't hear the metronome clicks (or the metronome is too quiet / I'm too loud, ha!). Also I suspect a shaker would be more helpful than taps here, but I don't want to go & dig one out. Anyway - hopefully this gives the idea.

Drums only + tapping

Record along with that. Hopefully that will make it easier to lock in with. Once recorded, throw away the temporary part.

That's assuming the issue is with the performance.

But perhaps the issue is actually with the recording. I'd like to hear more detail about your loopback test. Perhaps your recording rig is actually the problem, but the test hasn't nailed this down. From what you've said, it sounds like your DAW may be working on the basis that your bass input has a latency of 25ms, compared to the drums track you are listening to (via cans?). So you are performing it correctly, but then the DAW moves the bass track 25ms ahead when it is played back.

To try and get to the bottom of that, I'd set up a recording experiment. The idea here is that hopefully we can rely on the rig to keep the two tracks in a "stereo" recording aligned - and then we can use that to look at other timing relationships in the system.

So... set up a track with just a metronome. Straight feel, not a shuffle. Listen to that in cans, and play along with it. Then, do a "stereo" two track recording: your bass on one track, and what you are hearing in cans on the other. Yes, actually re-record the cans, via some loop back external to the rig. Eg via a Y cable split: the feed from the DAW comes out, goes to your cans, and also back in to an input. Or perhaps give cans L output to the actual cans, but feed cans R output back in again. It's important to do this split with physical cabling outside the DAW - don't try and do it with some kind of software routing (because we're not sure if we trust that yet).

Play something simple along with the metronome as accurately as you can. We'll assume that your performance is on the button. Then, look at those two tracks in the DAW, zoom in, see how well they are aligned. Also look at the alignment between the original metronome track, and the re-recorded version. If everything is nicely together, I guess (perhaps I've missed something) that the rig is working correctly and there is a performance issue. If they aren't together... time for some more experiments to work out where the issue is.

  • "When I'm playing drums with a metronome, if my hits are bang on, I can't hear the metronome clicks" – I always mix the click (if I use one) just ever so slightly below the hi-hat in my in-ears, for exactly that reason: if I hear the click disappear, I know I'm directly on it. – Jörg W Mittag Nov 13 '20 at 19:13
  • I'm originally a drummer and I know the feeling of losing the click while playing (it even caused a mild internal panic when I did really well at an audition before! haha) Unfortunately the bass never seems to really do that for me. I think the attack is just not great at hiding most traditional metronome sounds. – Edward Nov 13 '20 at 20:10
  • I did a couple exercises yesterday and found that I have a negative response when my playing falls even 5ms behind the click (as recorded) and it sounds great when I'm 10-15 ms ahead. You've motivated me to properly measure my round trip latency, and I've added all that information to my post. If I understand correctly, my problem is actually half as big as I think it is. – Edward Nov 13 '20 at 20:12
  • @Edward Good, getting somewhere! I believe the 2i2 has direct monitoring, but I'm not sure of the details. I think ideally, set things up so you hear a mix of direct feed from the guitar (so what you hear matches precisely what you are doing physically), plus the delayed and effected signal via the DAW (perhaps with a wetter mix there than you've had before, because the direct feed is dry). I suspect that would help with the timing. – Ashley Nov 13 '20 at 20:36
  • And lastly, the results of the loopback test as you described. imgur.com/a/twbew4u – Edward Nov 15 '20 at 4:18

Even later edit
The question has moved a long way since I first answered it. originally, it appeared we had eliminated latency as the cause; now it seems not to be the case.

If you're playing to a 'drum machine', then I'd suggest something akin to what we used to do in the 80s - then because it was a fashionable sound, but it really does pull your timing into shape.

Set up a delay, playing between 2 - 5 repeats [the more repeats, the more accurate you need to be, so work your way up], at ⅛ or ¼ beat, depending on the speed of the track. Play something that doesn't generate a lot of clashing notes, as we're only looking at timing, not overall dexterity.
The idea is that the better you time it, the smarter the repeats will sound. The aim is to avoid 'fuzzy edges' to the timing of the repeats.

From comments
You play live over a constant drum part, bouncing the echo by adjusting your timing until it just about vanishes behind the next note you play. If you do this on a synth you can adjust until you actually start to phase against yourself [the whole 80s vibe] but on a live instrument you just have to reduce the attacks to shorter than an audible flam. It's a "feel" excercise.

Late edit - & some reasoning as to why you might be struggling with the feel
The audio samples weren't available at the time of this answer, & I hadn't considered we might be talking about a shuffle/swing/triplet timing.
I feel the shuffle of the drum track is actually too rigid a triplet than the track really requires, and a drummer wouldn't play it that way. It would relax a bit. As it stands the kick just before the 3 feels late, which makes the snare on 3 feel early. I think this upsets the whole groove & could be one reason you're rushing. When the kick itself is playing triplets, then because they're perfectly even it makes it feel like they're dragging, so that again upsets the next 1.
Putting a straight 4s click track over it might help - though I'd be more inclined to fix the drum track feel, as this is going to affect the groove of the entire piece right the way through to the final mix.

Depending on which DAW you're using, one idea might be to re-quantise the drum groove more towards what the bass is playing. That might just fix it all.

If you were to try the exercise above, I'd do it on straight 8s rather than a swing of any sort, at least to start with. Make sure you can nail that before moving on. I'd then test an actual triplet feel [which is kind of what the recording is, almost], before looking at 'real' shuffle or swing - because that's the one with the most human variation.

Anecdotally, when I started programming drums tracks way back in the early 80s, this type of triplet feel was almost impossible to achieve because the quantisation PPQ on drum machines wasn't fine enough to really make it groove. Lots of tricks were used to try bury that deficiency, including live percussion & played synth overdubs, rather than trying to get a sequencer to cope. Only by the mid 90s did we really start to have the tech to get these right. [I spent almost the entirety of the 90s doing this type of groove fix in thousands of commercial midi files & keyboard products' internal software. It became a bit of an OCD thing; my nickname throughout the company was Groove Monkey, which I was rather proud of ;)

In short - humans are absolutely abysmal at dividing by three, visually as well as sonically [this is proven fact not opinion, but so far off-topic I'll leave you to do your own research] which makes any triplet/swing feel very very subjective. Divide anything perfectly by three & humans think it's "wrong".

  • I don't totally understand what you're suggesting. Do you mean that I record a phrase and then loop it to see how cleanly it connects on both ends? Should I listen to a backing track or have it drop out? Or do you mean that I record over my own playing? – Edward Nov 12 '20 at 18:46
  • 1
    You play live over a constant drum part, bouncing the echo by adjusting your timing until it just about vanishes behind the next note you play. If you do this on a synth you can adjust until you actually start to phase against yourself [the whole 80s vibe] but on a live instrument you just have to reduce the attacks to shorter than an audible flam. It's a "feel" excercise. – Tetsujin Nov 12 '20 at 18:49
  • Oh, I get exactly what you mean now. The problem is, if I play consistently ahead or behind the beat, the delay signal will still line up perfectly with my playing, regardless of how far ahead or behind the beat I'm playing. – Edward Nov 12 '20 at 18:53
  • …but they'll all be flamming against the kick. It really ought to bother you enough that you'll shift backwards until it doesn't. – Tetsujin Nov 12 '20 at 18:54

I’d like to start out by answering your question with a couple of my own. Staring at waveforms aside, does it sound good? Does it sound like you’re way out on top of the beat?

I’m guessing it sounds fine, after all 25ms is a blip (maybe 1/2 or 1/4 of a blip), it’s a quarter of 1/10th of a second, so when you look at a stopwatch and see the 10ths of a second blur by it’s still 1/4 of one of those!

There is nothing wrong with your playing, you just have a tendency to play VERY slightly ahead of the beat, virtually undetectable I would guess. The main thing you should be happy with is “consistent”, steady time eludes many musicians throughout the ranks from aspiring to pro.

Recording technology has advanced so much and allows us to do so many things that were impossible years ago but they can be a bit of a crutch and cause is to lose our focus on what really matters, how it sounds. Bottom line, trust your ears first and if something needs tweaking then go to the 1’s and 0’s.

Some drum patterns and tempos will influence the way we play (and playing ahead of or behind the beat can sometimes be a desirable thing!) so if you really want to “dial in” your feel and ability to play in the center or on either side of the beat take advantage of the tech and practice playing and recording to just a click at different tempos. Try playing on top, in the center and behind the beat and take a look at the results. My guess is you’ll get good at all three. Doing these three things well is all in the feeling and attitude you have when playing, at least in my opinion. That’s what separates us from the machines.

  • It generally sounds... fine, I suppose. It sounds to me like I'm in time when I play, but on playback I notice that having the attack of the bass guitar pre-empt the drums has a tendency to "soften" the attack of the drums when they hit together, which is undesirable. – Edward Nov 12 '20 at 19:00
  • 1
    I notice you mentioned in comments that your drums are quantized midi. Try listening with the click track and muting the bass then the drums. If you have other instruments recorded leave them in. Go with whichever feels better with the click and other tracks. If it’s the drums just nudge your bass 10 or 15 ms back. Do the opposite to the drums if the bass is where you want it. The good news is it seems like your time is solid, just practice playing on different sides of the beat like I suggested and in the future you can make those adjustments with your playing. – John Belzaguy Nov 12 '20 at 19:31
  • I'm recording bass second, so there are no other tracks to be concerned with for now. I really need to resolve the mismatch between "feels in time" (while I'm playing) and "is in time". – Edward Nov 12 '20 at 19:36

I would suggest that as a musician, first and foremost, all equipment issues aside, your main goal should be to be able to play ahead of the beat, on the beat, or behind the beat at will.

The essential question then becomes: What kind of training will give you the ability to play ahead of the beat, on the beat, or behind the beat - at will?

A training strategy that I found highly effective is to practice repeated loops where you play short runs (anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds, depending on the material), record yourself, immediately listen to the recording of what you just played, notice everything good and bad, and repeat the process over and over.

For example:

  1. Play over your drum loop once, trying to be exactly on the beat, while recording yourself.

  2. Listen immediately to the recording, possibly with the help of the DAW to see the waveform against the backing track.

  3. Rinse and repeat, adjusting your approach every time, trying slight variations, etc. until you find a way to get the desired result.

You can go on doing these cycles for anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour. And if you do that for several days, I assure you that you will start to develop a keen sense of micro-timing.

Initially you should practice playing perfectly on the beat. Once you can do that consistently, you should also practice playing consistently ahead or behind the beat.

The key of this practice is the very frequent feedback that you get every few seconds of playing. It takes a little discipline to do that -- to stop and listen every time -- but I think I can assure you that eventually the results will be excellent.

I have given this advice to hundreds of people over the years (mostly while doing email support for the Micrologus Musician Training Center software, which I helped develop) and a lot of people who took it seriously and put it into practice told me that it worked really well.


Don't worry about the numbers or what the waveform looks like. Listen to the playback. ARE you sounding ahead of the beat? If not, no problem. Carry on.

  • Yes, I do sound ahead of the beat. You can listen to the audio examples in the question. The numbers and the waveform are a good way (maybe the only reasonable way) to precisely describe the problem. – Edward Nov 14 '20 at 18:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.