6 Ways Any Musician Can Improve Their Timing
Timing, tempo, rhythm, pulse, feel. As a drummer, these words have been the focus of countless hours of my life. But these things aren’t just important for drummers. Solid time is one of the most important aspects of music, and possibly one of the most misunderstood by musicians. When you practice licks, learn solos, or write new songs, do you think about how fast and consistently you are playing? Just like scales, tempo and timing should be something you think about, practice, and develop. This post will explain why timing is so important and give you 6 ways that you can improve your timing.
Why Focus on Timing?
Timing alone can be the determining factor between a clean recording or performance and one that leaves you beginning for it to be over. In remote session work, songs are often being sent online to multiple musicians, and if those musicians are interpreting the time differently, and not playing well together, the end result is going to sound subpar at best. While the drummer is primarily responsible for keeping time, it only takes one musician with bad time to make an otherwise world class song sound sloppy.
So how do you learn to play with great time, and how do you make sure all the instruments on your songs keep great time? Here are 6 things to keep in mind:
1) Learn To Use A Metronome
Whether you’re in your bedroom practicing, or you’re tracking your next big hit, the metronome (or click track) is your friend. Learning to play naturally with a metronome is a skill that can take decades to master.
Every DAW (Digital Audio Workspace) will have a metronome built in that you can turn on and off while recording or listening. In some DAW’s like Logic Pro X, you can even automate tempo and time signature changes if different sections of the song sound best at different tempos. (I would suggest keeping tempos at least somewhat close for most styles of music).
There are also lots of metronome/click track apps on your phone that you can use. A few of my favorites are: Tempo by Frozen Ape, and Pro Metronome by Xiao Yixiang. These apps allow you to find tempos by tapping, save tempo setlists, and can play tempos in different time signatures.
No matter what kind of click track you are playing to, it will measure the tempo in “BPM” which stands for Beats Per Minute. The more beats per minute, the faster the tempo. Most songs will have a quarter note tempo between 70 bpm and 190 bpm. Learn to play at lots of tempos. The faster the tempo, the more difficult it is to get all the notes out. The slower the tempo is, the more difficult it is to keep track of where the actual downbeat is. You should learn to play accurately at both fast and slow tempos.
If you’ve never played with a metronome, prepare to be surprised. The metronome never lies, and you’ll be surprised how much your tempo fluctuates while you play. The more you play to a metronome, the more accurately you’ll be able to stick with it.
2) Hone Your Internal Metronome
While metronomes help you avoid drastically changing tempos, it’s easy to constantly speed up and slow down while you play to a metronome, and think you are staying steady. When this happens, the metronome can become a crutch, that when removed leaves the time in a pile of smoking rubble.
Varying the subdivision
If you want to really build your internal clock, try playing to whole note clicks between 40bpm and 90bpm, and 32nd clicks (Most metronomes will have a setting to change the subdivision from quarter note clicks to 32nd note clicks. This makes it so you don’t have to change the quarter note bpm up to 300bpm or higher).
Moving the click to different beats
Almost everyone plays with the click on the downbeat, what if you try moving the click around? Try playing to a click with the beat on the upbeat, or on a different 16th note of each beat. This will increase your awareness of different beats.
Playing to a gap click
Try using a click that leaves out beats in the measure. There are youtube videos that have gap clicks for 1 bar, or even 4 bars that play for an hour. The “Pro Metronome” iphone app has a setting that silences the click on random beats. You can increase or decrease the frequency at which it silences the click. This will dramatically increase your ability to play confidently by yourself, or when other musicians drop out.
3) Analyze And Shift Your Time
In your DAW, you should be able to zoom into your recordings and see exactly how close you are to the grid. This can be a bit like trying to play to a metronome for the first time. There are wizened studio dogs that fear the zoom button like the black plague. But, this is a great learning tool! In general, almost all music with a back beat (rock, pop, country, hip hop, r&b) sounds best when the instruments (especially the drums) are just the tiniest bit behind the beat. This will give the song space to breathe.
When you practice, try recording what you’re playing and analyzing where you are on the grid. Try to identify how it sounds to play in front of the beat, and behind the beat. Work on playing consistently on the grid.
Being aware of where you are on the grid, and being able to purposely shift your playing to be more laid back, or more in front of the beat are skills that are integral to becoming a versatile musician.
4) Play With Other People
Some of the best records ever made weren’t recorded to a click. In some cases, a song will sound better with nuanced tempo shifts, or with no metronome at all. This is especially true of roots music like jazz, folk, and blues. At other times, the musicians you play with just won’t have as solid an awareness of time as you do (or just have a different approach to timing). In these situations, it’s better to play together, than for one musician to play perfect time on their own while the rest of the musicians float around them. If musicians fluctuate the tempo, or rhythm together, it can sound incredible.
The goal is not to become a time robot, but to make great music. At this day in age, having an inhuman awareness of time is useful, but music will always be a human expression. Learning to play with a variety of people will improve your time drastically.
5) Play Along To Great Recordings
Today we have access to an almost unlimited amount of music. What music do you love? The chances are good that that music has lessons to teach you about timing. Whatever instrument(s) you play, listen to how the player(s) on the track are approaching time. Are they out in front of the rest of the band? Are they lagging behind? Are they dead on? Do they play with a swing? Listen and take note of these nuances and see if you can imitate their approach to time.
Want to have your timing mind blown? Listen to neo soul and hip hop like Hiatus Kaiyote, D’Angelo, or J Dilla. You’ll notice that these songs have an undeniable groove, and that they are anything but on the grid. See if you can figure out what’s going on.
6) Set Up Sessions The Right Way
If you’re working on a song, think about the timing. With today’s technology, you can quantize, or fix timing inconsistencies as long as the performances are relatively close to the grid, but this can be time consuming and difficult to do well. Before you start a session here are some questions you should answer:
a) Should this be recorded to a click? The vast majority of the time the answer should be yes. Even if different parts of the song sound better in different tempos, most DAWs allow you to automate tempo changes.
b) What tempo should this song be? Try playing your song to different tempos and see what sounds best.
c) Are there parts of the song that sound best faster or slower than other parts of the song? Sometimes choruses sound best faster and verses a little slower.
d) Do I want this song to push forward or lay back? If you want it to lay back, at least some of the instruments should play behind the beat. If you want it to push forward the opposite is true.
e) What do I want to be the foundation of the time? If you send tracks to a musician that aren’t perfectly in time, do you want them to play tight with your fluctuating tracks, or with the metronome? If you want the song to have the best timing possible, make sure the tracks are performed perfectly in time, or are quantized before you send them to the next person down the line. Or, if the time is fluid, make sure to communicate that to the other musicians and tell them what instruments they should lock into.
Answering these questions before involving other musicians in the recording process will help ensure that the end result sounds as tight as possible, and will make the recording process much more enjoyable.
A musician with perfect timing doesn’t exist. It’s important to remember that everyone is in a different place in their journey to playing with good time. Don’t let your criticism of someone’s time exceed their experience or ability, or your desire to be better ruin your enjoyment of making music. Keep making music and you will get better over time. We’re all in this together!