One of the first documented uses of recording with a metronome (or click track as it is also called) was in 1940 for the soundtrack of the Walt Disney film ‘Fantasia’, because the timing of the orchestra panning had to sync up with the picture, so it was a lot easier to manage with the music recorded to a stable metronome.
The regular use of a metronome for recording really started in the 80s with the advent of electronic music, with many records using sequenced musical parts that needed to be fixed to a specific tempo, since then this method of recording to a metronome has become almost universally standard expect for live concerts and certain genres such as Jazz and Classical music.
Benefits of Recording with a Metronome...
It allows for a stable ‘clock’ for each performance to be measured against, it can help ground the musicians to stop them from speeding up or slowing down due to nerves or inconsistent playing and it allows for several takes to all be lined up so that the producer can easily switch between takes to piece together the best performance.
Another benefit of using a metronome is that post production editing and mixing is easier, with a musical grid in place, effects such as delay echoes will be synched to the tempo of the song.
Downsides of Recording with a Metronome...
It can be very difficult for players, especially beginners to play with groove along to a metronome, it takes a lot of practice with a metronome to be able to play with a good groove that is in time with the metronome and doesn’t sound stiff. Experienced studio musicians that record with a metronome regularly will be able to ‘tune out’ the metronome mentally and play either behind the beat, on the beat or ahead of the beat intentionally to create some movement and rhythmic excitement.
Another downside is that recording with a metronome doesn’t allow for rhythmic spontaneity and improvisation, often when a group of musicians are playing together without a metronome they will naturally speed up and slow down depending on the feel of the song, often the chorus of the song will be faster than the verse to add excitement and movement to song. For some genres such as Classical music, it would be very time consuming and unnatural to record to a click track, therefore it is rarely used.
Using the Powerful Technology of modern recording...
DAW programs such as Pro Tools, Logic Pro and Cubase, we can implement some tricks to allow for a more natural performance with a metronome. One example is a tempo map, where the tempo can be varied throughout the song, with the tempo going up and down either in steps or with a smooth ramp up/down. This means that you can record a song with tempo variations as long as you always play those tempo variations in the same place. While it’s not quite the same as recording with a click and just going by feel, it does provide a somewhat in between compromise.
And even more advance approach would be to record the musicians playing together without a click, and then map out the tempo to that performance, while this is a more painstaking approach, it can allow the performance to retain it’s natural tempo whilst providing the benefits of having a musical grid to work with in post-production editing and mixing.
Example of Cubase Tempo Map