If there's one piece of musical paraphernalia that makes blood boil, egos mount, and uneasiness unfold it's the metronome.
The click. The doctor. The beep. boop. boop. boop. Playing with a metronome can seem unnatural and it can often reveal that we have a little more work to do when we think we've got a part down. Never fear, here are some tips from experience working in the studio with artists who are uncomfortable with a click track. Hopefully with this perspective you may even grow to appreciate our very misunderstood friend and have a more comfortable time in your recording sessions.
First off, why do we even want to play with metronomes? You may say things to your producer like, "I feel more comfortable and my performance is smoother if I don't use the metronome. And it's not my style..." Now any good producer knows an artists style is first and foremost but if you play this card remember there are some trade-offs to not using a metronome.
Recording yourself without a metronome will make it hard on the rest of the musicians who have to play with you and line up with what you record.
If you are uncomfortable playing with a metronome there's a chance that it's because your timing is a little spotty. Now, fluctuations in timing can be musical and expressive, but often times they can be sloppy and distracting if they aren't done intentionally.
Editing and transferring sessions becomes more difficult because your engineer or producer doesn't have a tempo or a grid to snap to.
So maybe you SHOULD consider using the metronome. How? Ok...
First up, one of the things we frequently do for artists to help them lock in with the metronome is actually just not using a metronome. Instead of using a click track, we'll quickly program some midi drums which are quantized to the metronome and serve in its place. This works in 80% of the situations. It's much easier to play with drums than to play with the click. Ask your producer if they could do this for you, it should take about 10 minutes for them to do and can save you a ton of time redoing takes.
Caution: Be careful if your song has a lilt to it or if the rhythm is swung. Sometimes recording to drums that aren't lilty or swung can interfere with your rhythm feeling natural and sounding good. In these cases your best bets are to either import a lilty or swung drum loop or to try swing quantizing the programmed drums (this can get a little tedious but it's worth a try sometimes).
Whether you're now jamming with a basic drum loop or if you're still hardcore metronoming it, it's important to remember that the metronome is just a guide. Don't get me wrong for some music you're ideally wanting to be right on the beat and burying the click, but the way your timing relates to the metronome can also be expressive. The goal isn't to have everything be 100% perfect all of the time. Sometimes playing ahead of the beat can add intensity, aggression, or excitement to your music. Other times being behind the beat can contribute a feel to your music that is relaxed or even more emotional.
This is the hard part, friends. Practice. Please practice with a metronome before your session. You can play in time, just spend some time with it and you'll start getting it. When you record you want to be going to the studio to capture something that is natural for you. Relying on sheer willpower isn't the way to go. Be prepared. If you aren't prepared to get the takes you want, it will break up the flow of productivity. You don't want to take 40 takes to get the guitar or drums done. It can bring down the morale of the rest of the people recording too. Show up with the confidence that you're prepared to create a beautiful moment in the studio to capture forever. If you aren't sure, turn on the metronome and record yourself at your house on your phone. The click never lies! If you aren't there yet, don't worry; you'll get there!