Treat the rhythm section as the foundation. Often, an artist or producer will record bed tracks using a sequencer, or guitars and a drum machine, and overdub bass and drums on top of these basic tracks. This technique can detract from finding the right feel because the rhythm “specialists” — the bassist and drummer — are not in the driver’s seat; they’re following along with a canned “groove.” If possible, lay the rhythm tracks down first and track them at the same time. The interaction between the musicians, and their ability to be spontaneous, is a huge factor in finding the right groove and feel for the song.
Make sure the musicians can see and hear each other. Try tracking the basics without headphones. Musicians usually find it more natural and inspiring to be able to hear each other directly in the room. If you do use headphones, many musicians (especially drummers) prefer to use sound blocking cans, such as the AKG Sound Isolating Headphones or “Superphones” and “Ultraphones” from GK Music — these ensure the musicians aren’t struggling to hear the bass and other instruments over the live drums.
Also, if possible, make sure the musicians are all in the same room together or at least can make eye contact with each other. Some studios have a drum booth, which forces the drummer to be isolated from the other musicians — I prefer to let the drums live in the main room and put guitar amps behind baffles or in small iso booths (and maybe not even that, if the room is large enough), letting the guitarists and bassist stand in the main room with the drummer. If I do use baffles around the drums for a tighter sound, I lay them on their sides so the drummer can see over them. If the musicians can easily see and hear each other, they can truly listen to each other and interact, and that’s what makes the groove come alive.
Try losing the click track. Most pop music these days is cut to a click track, for many reasons: It ensures consistency in tempo (especially for inexperienced drummers), simplifies editing, and the click and tempo map can synchronize sequencers and time-based effects. But there are drawbacks, too: It usually forces the musicians to use headphones; it again doesn’t let the rhythm section be in the driver’s seat; and that same “consistency” that keeps anything bad from happening tempo-wise can also prevent something great from happening. Most forms of music throughout history have used shifts in tempo, both dramatic and very subtle, as a form of creative expression. Many of your favorite classic rock and R&B recordings are nowhere near exactly consistent in tempo; there are subtle pushes and pulls that happened spontaneously and add to the tension and excitement of the groove. Aside from those who know how to build grooves and tempo changes into sequencers, subtle timing variations seem to have become a lost art since click tracks have become standard.
Even inexperienced drummers with tempo problems often have trouble playing to a click, and therefore have a better feel without one. I’m generally willing to live with a bit of inconsistency in the tempo rather than sacrifice overall feel or the musicians’ comfort level. In fact, I don’t know who made the rule that all music has to be exactly consistent in tempo, but it doesn’t sound very rock’n’roll to me (or classical, for that matter, which uses lots of tempo variations). Most pro session musicians pride themselves on being able to groove even with a prerecorded track or a click, and there’s no doubt it can be done. But I’ve often heard even better results when they have the freedom to play with the tempo at will — so unless someone specifically asks for a click, or the groove just isn’t happening without one, I avoid it.
So how to deal with editing and sychronization when there’s no click? There are several methods. One is to overdub a track of quarter notes on a cowbell or other percussive instrument, and use that as a trigger or edit point. It’s easy enough with modern DAWs to stretch phrases that don’t exactly match in tempo when editing, or create a tempo map by using tap tempo. Tools such as Beat Detective can generate a tempo map from what the drummer played, rather than lining up the drums to a grid. And if you use loops, “acidized” and REX format loops can follow tempo changes, so no worries there, either.
This is all about using technology to serve the music, not the other way around. And once you try “thinking outside the grid,” you may find the results so rewarding that it’s easy to work around any pitfalls.