Thank you for covering this important topic, Lydia!
I would like to emphasize the value of the count-off. This is as true for the person originating the tracks (i.e. the 'client') as it is for the musician adding tracks to a project. When, for instance, you need the bass to enter on the down beat of the song, your reference tracks need to include a click before the song, so it all begins together
The topic of this article may seem self-explanatory and barely warranting an article written about it. Yet, in this age of online recording, where musicians rarely work in the same room anymore, it becomes one of paramount importance. And that is, staying in sync with the rest of the tracks.
No, I don’t mean playing in the pocket, keeping with the beat, locking in with the groove of the band – which is another subject altogether and is more a matter of musical competence and performance experience. I am talking about a shift that sometimes occurs when tracks “fly” from one studio to another, from one DAW to another, from one format to another. A mere technical glitch. You might wonder, wouldn’t it be immediately apparent that there is a technical issue to be corrected, and wouldn’t it get remedied right away?
You’d be surprised. In my professional career, this has happened more times than I can count fingers on my hand. Too many times. So: a glowing client shares with me their “final” mix (of a recording that I either sang or played on) and I end up having to look for diplomatic words to let them know that my parts sound out of sync. Because I care. Because I want their project to sound the best that it possibly can, especially when the issue is so minor and so fixable. Sometimes this can backfire and people can feel like their toes have been stepped on... But usually the response is, “I am so glad you said something!”
Yes, of course I bounce all my tracks from the exact same spot as the tracks I’m working with (although, I admit, I am human and therefore not immune to making an occasional mistake). Yes, of course I record in the specified tempo. Yes, of course the client gets to hear a reference mix of my work with the original tracks and approve it, before I send back my tracks (that’s how I roll, anyway). Still, after all that the resulting mix sometimes sounds out of sync.
If it is an almost imperceptible or even an intentional shift, that is a whole other story. But let’s just say, it was not intended and it sounds, well, wrong.
What is the solution? First and foremost, communication. Initially, about the project’s tempo. And afterwards, if you should receive tracks from a session musician and something doesn’t feel quite right syncwise in your mix, don’t be afraid to “bother” the musician with your concern. Remember: we are here for you and for your music! And while the issue might be on your end, any respectful professional will be more than happy to double-check their end of things and make certain that what you receive from them is 100% correct and 100% usable.
For client’s sync peace of mind, there are several very simple ways for musicians to ensure that their tracks sync up:
1. Copy and paste the same click "count-off" on all tracks before bouncing or consolidating tracks. It's very easy to sync tracks if each one contains identical clicks in the beginning.
2. Copy and paste a snippet of the song's intro on all tracks (not my favorite method, not as easy to line up as a count-off).
3. Or, get from client a separate metronome track (click track) that starts at bar 0 and syncs perfectly with all the original tracks, and then play to that click track. This might be especially useful to do upfront, particularly if there are tempo changes throughout the song.
And that is really it! Other than those suggestions, just use your ears. And when in doubt, communicate-communicate-communicate!
Guest post for SoundBetter by Lydia Salnikova