If there’s one hallmark of local metal or prog bands across the country, it’s running a click track.

As cliche as it is to hear “yo, can you turn our bass drops up?” at a show, there’s certainly no arguing that a well-coordinated, in-time live show with the added sonic color and punch of backing tracks is a luxury that audiences didn’t have up until recently.

When done well, it can set you apart from other bands both technically and from the perspective of crafting an entire live “experience.”

But how easy is it to do? When you see all the big bands do it you have to ask yourself… Do you really need to buy 5 sets of in-ear monitors? Does it require a 16-channel rackmount mixer with WiFi that makes Pop Tarts? No, definitely not!

In fact, you can have a simple, effective click and backing track setup for less than $50. We’ll show you how.

Bare Bones Gear Requirements

First thing’s first: not everyone needs to hear the click track.

The drummer is the timekeeper of the entire band, and while some of you may have the type of drummer that’s more of a “passive contributor” to keeping time, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s the only one who truly NEEDS to hear the click 99% of the time.

While there are often parts where a guitar starts the song, or there’s a soft acoustic break, all you need is for the drummer to simply keep time with a subtle tapping on the hi-hat to ensure the entire band is on the same page.

Secondly, you don’t need a stereo setup for your backing tracks. You just don’t.

If you’re reading this article you are not playing venues where the stereo spread is large enough to truly matter, in smaller venues any sort of stereo or spatial effects will be lost to the vast majority of the crowd because where you stand in the venue makes all the difference.

Stereo is great for headphones and larger venues where more of the crowd will notice, but otherwise, you’re just wasting time. Sum your backing tracks to mono for now.

All that being said, this means we only need two signals, both of which can be mono. Two mono signals mean we only need a mixer that provides two inputs and two outputs so we can control their volume and routing independently. That’s it.

The shortlist of requirements is as follows:

– Playback Device (MP3 player, phone, laptop)
– ⅛’’ Stereo to 2x ¼’’ Mono Splitter Cable
– 2 In/2 Out Audio Mixer
– Headphones (for your drummer)
– Output Cable (see details under “Setting It All Up”)

Mapping Out Click Tracks

Creating a click track requires mapping out your songs in some form of Digital Audio Workstation. Reaper won’t cost you a dime and is fully capable of this.

1) Map out the tempos, time signatures, and song structure for each individual song. We recommend making one project file per song rather than a single project of the entire set, it makes it far easier to change things up when you’re sick of the old set.

Pro tip: If you’ve got Guitar Pro files of your songs you can actually export the MIDI data from GP and import it into your DAW to automatically create a tempo and time signature map for you.

2) Once all the mapping has been done your DAW’s metronome should line up perfectly, but we need to extract that metronome into an actual audio file.

In most DAWs you can route the metronome as an actual track into your DAW where you can control the volume, mute, pan, and even record it, so that’s what we’ll do.

Failing any attempts at this, there’s always the old school way of turning it up, recording it to your phone’s voice-memo app, and importing that back into the DAW as a single mono track.

3) Pan your click all the way to one side, this will condense it to just one side of your stereo output track, the side that will only be heard by the drummer.

Preparing Your Backing Tracks

1) Load in all of your different samples and effects, but make sure each new effect is on its own track in your DAW so we can mix them independently. Make sure to convert any stereo samples to a mono track.

2) Pan all of them to the opposite side your click track is on. You should have a stereo output where the click is coming in through one side and the backing tracks are coming out of the other side. Plug some headphones into your computer to verify, if you’re unsure for some reason.

3) You’ll need to do some mixing to make everything clear in the mix. If you’re using pre-mixed samples you still might need to do some refining now that everything is in mono rather than stereo. Make sure each sample has its own area of the frequency spectrum to live in to prevent a muddy mess.

Pro tip: Keep in mind that the PA systems you’ll be using likely won’t have a subwoofer, so be sure to mix with that in mind for the low-end. If you want you can create two sets of mixes, one for venues with a sub and one without.

4) The best way to finalize your mixes is to take them to band practice and run through the set, adjusting volume levels as you go. Bring a laptop – if you can – to make these changes on the fly until everything is balanced properly, not just from sample to sample, but from song to song.

In other words, if your bass drops are set to -12db in one song, make sure they aren’t set to -6db in the next song. Standardize the volume levels whenever possible, with slight changes made for louder/quieter sections of music.

5) Export your tracks as a stereo MP3 or another preferred audio format.

Setting It All Up

To play your tracks, simply have everyone in the band toss them on their phones and MP3 players. This makes sure no one forgets or has a phone die and then the whole presentation goes down the tubes.

Your drummer also needs a set of headphones as well, preferably ones that can block out the sound of his playing enough to hear the click without having to crank it up, potentially putting him at risk for hearing damage.

1) Start by taking your playback device and plugging in your splitter cable, also known as a Y-cable. One end will be a standard headphone jack that goes into your device, and on the other end, you’ll have 2x ¼’’ mono jacks to split the click and backing tracks. Depending on your mixing device you can use RCA or XLR instead of ¼’’.

The ⅛’’ jack will go into the playback device and the other two ends will go into your mixer, make sure they go into two separate channels with independent volume controls.

2) On your mixer, pan the tracks to opposite sides. Yes, you already did that in the DAW, but that’s just to make sure you have two separate inputs to work with in your stereo audio file.

If you have a smaller mixer you likely only have a Left and Right main output, no additional outputs. If we take one of those outputs and send it to the PA without panning anything you’ll still hear the click in the PA.

3) If you panned the backing tracks left, send the left output to the PA. Depending on the setup you may need different cables (¼’’, XLR, etc.) and a DI box can be handy for this as well, but many venues can supply that for you if you don’t already have one.

4) For the click track, you can plug your headphones straight into that output, or if you need more volume you can purchase a small headphone amplifier for more output.

You can control the individual volumes for each track using the track volume in tandem with the master volume on the mixer.

After that, you’re good to go!

Closing Thoughts

It’s surprisingly easy to get this all going, and if it means you can tighten up your rhythms and tempos while adding a bit of polish to your live show, then why not?

Playing to a click doesn’t mean your music will be lifeless, and I encourage you to think about the experience for the fans and how this can make it that much better.