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I recently watched a recording of Jean Michel Jarre's Twelve Dreams of the Sun concert and noticed that his drummer seems to rhythmically move to a beat not audible to the audience, e.g. as 11:10. You can clearly see he's having fun doing what he does, but what exactly might he be listening to?

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    probably a click track, or click + cues - though I'm not going to watch 2 hours of youtube just to find an example. – Tetsujin Apr 19 '15 at 10:52
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    You should incorporate that into an answer Tetsujin. – Neil Meyer Apr 19 '15 at 11:13
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    So tempting to suggest he's listening to "Toad" (for you youngsters, that's en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toad_%28instrumental%29 ) – Carl Witthoft Apr 19 '15 at 12:24
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    @user 2808054 - you beat me to it! I used to play with a guy who had the Beano on his music stand, for the more tedious parts of a gig. – Tim Sep 8 '16 at 8:01
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    @Tim He sure did, but only by little less than 1.5 years. – Wormbo Sep 8 '16 at 11:41
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He is probably listening to a click track, which is a kind of sophisticated metronome. In concerts like this, most of the music is being played by live musicians, but some parts of the music you are hearing have been pre-recorded in a recording studio. With each piece of music, the drummer is listening to a rhythmic clicking sound which is synchronized to the beat of the pre-recorded parts. This enables the entire band to perform their live music alongside the pre-recorded tracks and to keep everything tightly synchronized.

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  • I should have mentioned a time index in the question. For example 11:10 supports the click track explanation. I'll accept this answer unless anyone can provide a better theory. – Wormbo Apr 19 '15 at 15:23
  • I would add there may or may not be monitors in the headphones also. Sometimes the headphones are for click only and traditional monitors are used and set to be audible through the headphones, and or some monitor signal may be mixed in with the click and either no traditional monitors used or just a sub is used or they are set at a lower level to fill out the sound. Side note: The drummer for Mutemath is famous for taping the headphones to his head to keep them from falling off from his gyrations. – Todd Wilcox Apr 20 '15 at 13:21
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I skimmed through your youtube video, and found a spot at about 1:07:08 or 1:07:09 that I think shows what you're talking about. We hear strings and piano, the drummer has some rests, nods his head with the beat and then comes in. In this case my guess is he isn't listening to a click track, because there is a conductor -- I saw the conductor at, for example, 1:03:19. Now, if the conductor had headphones too, then I could see that they both might be listening to a recording of the piece.

I think that at the 1:07:08 spot, the drummer is probably moving his head to the beat, feeling his rests before he comes in.

If you're wondering why the drummer is wearing headphones at all, I believe it's to protect his hearing. He needs to hear (monitor) what the rest of the ensemble is doing; and he needs to hear himself but with reduced volume.

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  • I'm sorry, I should have mentioned a time index. Starting with 11:10, for example, you can clearly see the behavior I mentioned. – Wormbo Apr 19 '15 at 15:22
  • I've watched a lot of drummers play live in small to medium venues -- I live in a university town. (I've never been to a big rock concert, though.) I don't think a drummer moving to a beat in his head (or given by a conductor) means that he's necessarily listening to a click track. However, I can't swear this drummer isn't listening to a click track. My problem is I just don't know what the layout was for this concert. Could the drummer see the conductor? - Out of curiosity I did some reading on the internet, and found lots of discussions of when to use a click track, (cont.) – aparente001 Apr 19 '15 at 22:26
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    (cont.) when not to, etc. Some people said they are more likely to use one in the recording studio than live. Personally, having played in symphony orchestras for years, I just don't see how a drummer playing with a full orchestra can use one, unless the conductor is using it too. After all, this drum part has some pretty substantial rests -- and that's different from a simple pop or rock tune, where the drummer probably plays consistently all the way through. When the drummer isn't playing the conductor is liable to wander off a click track if he can't hear it. – aparente001 Apr 19 '15 at 22:29
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Personally, I listen to an audiobook of the latest Stephen King whilst playing a gig on the drums.

More seriously, there's three likely answers:

  • A click track, basically a metronome pulse, possibly with the same signal being heard by some of the other musicians, keeping them in time.
  • A Monitor track, they're hearing a mix of the music which is taylored to the drummer, it'll probably have a lot of the bass sounds and vocals.
  • Far more rarely, there may be instructions from a musical director, including some real-time notes on the performance. This doesn't happen often unless it's a musical theater-type performance, and would often be heard as well as one of the above signals.
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I was invited to go out on the road and play with a country band, im a drummer, and they told me they use click tracks in their ears to keep time! Im new to this gear! But sounds like fun!!!

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  • If they need to use click tracks to keep in time, they can't think much of the drummer! That's way more than half of his job, and apart, unless they're playing for line dancing, etc., they most likely aren't aware that a lot of music needs to get stretched and squashed, ever so slightly, otherwise it ends up more like disco stuff. Unless, of course, they're using backing tracks as well. – Tim Sep 8 '16 at 8:08
  • Rather sadly, a lot of bands think they have to reproduce a studio recording on their live gigs. That means pre-recording all the stuff that is impossible to play live. So they're locked to a click track. It's sad, because the logical conclusion is to record it ALL and just become a mime act. – Laurence Payne Sep 8 '16 at 16:42
  • Maybe thats what it is then! But this band is doing original recordings. I don t think i ll need the click track! I play loud anyway!!! – Michael Logue Sep 17 '16 at 13:26
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It is probably that the headphones is linked to the sound system, and works as monitors so he can hear a balanced sound image of the total live performance and hear the others over the drums.

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He may be hearing a click or other pre-recorded material - a simple sequenced drum track can be more useful to play with than a simple click. He may be monitoring the rest of the band - wedge monitors are not always appropriate among the forest of mics often used on a drum kit. Or, if he's sensible and wants to have some hearing left when he's 40, they might be ear protectors.

My drummer for a school production once was very attached to his ear protectors. Very sensible too, when he was playing in his rock band. It took some time to persuade him that in THIS situation his job was to play quieter, so he didn't NEED the protectors.

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An additional consideration which I don't think has been mentioned yet.

In huge stadium production gigs such as those put on by Jean-Michel Jarre there are other elements than just the music, such as video projections, pyrotechnics, etc.

The drummer will be listening to a click track and/or other cues in their headphones so that they, and as a consequence the rest of the band, are precisely in time with the computer system that is driving the non-musical effects. Any slight timing errors between the band and the video wall behind them would be glaringly obvious, so the drummer follows the click track to make sure that doesn't happen.

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