Get it Down: It’s About Time

Timing in life, as they say, is everything…

It’s, obviously, pretty important in music too so let’s talk tempo.

As songwriters we all think of tempo as the most basic of basics. Tempo, or the speed at which we perform a song, is sort of the quiet engine, the driving force behind all our tunes yet because we consider it so ‘Songwriting 101’, tempo can sometimes become songcrafts sadly neglected middle child.

The hard, cold facts are these - Perform a great song too fast and you’ve lost the race. Play a great song too slow and the only animal left in the barn when you finish will be the turtle you rode in on. Your audience may never intellectualize your tempo miscalculations but they will certainly feel them and sense something’s ‘off’.

Disclaimer: I have to admit, I’m pretty horrible at picking the right tempos for my tunes. Conversely, I know a lot of songwriters who are just plain naturals at the process (hate them). If you’re one of the former, like me, here’s a few survival tactics I’ve developed over the years -

Recording -

Before you begin to record those new songs with your band, have all your tunes’ tempos decided upon and documented via the BPM (beats per minute) standard of tempo measurement.

Despite your drummer’s claims of his ‘killer’ feel and his promises of an early departure from the bar the night before recording, the studio is a bad place to pick tempos. Just too much going on.

Every home Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) comes stock with a click track and BPM tempo controls. If you have, use these tools and mess around with your tempos off-line, on your own time. Even record yourself with just one instrument and a vocal at different tempos and listen back ‘till you find the right tempo that works for each particular tune. Then write them down. Even if you don’t plan on recording to a click (aka fixed time) in the studio, your pre-selected tempos will make for a great reference/starting point.

Don’t have a DAW set-up at home? Check this metronome app for iPhone or this free online metronome, these will help you get the job done. And if all else fails, get your hands on an old fashion metronome, it should help as well.

Another tempo-finding hack I’ve employed goes like this - Think about your new song and try and recall a favorite tune from another artist that might have a similar vibe or feel. Dig out that artist’s track and try and figure out what tempo their song lives at. You can do this by using the ‘Tap’ function in your DAW or app.

Once you establish the model song’s tempo, apply that BPM to your tune. It may not be perfect, but it probably will be close. Adjust accordingly and quietly give thanks to super producer Jack Douglas for helping you pick out a tempo for your song via that old Aerosmith record.

Live -

Same thoughts above apply. Before leaving that dingy rehearsal room and stepping on stage, try and get your tempos in place. If your drummer is tempo challenged (& a bunch of good drummers are, believe it or not), they make a lot of tempo-keeping gear for live application that can be used as an on the fly reference. If you can, use these tools. They will stop you from playing that 45min set in 15 (been there, done that).

What are you methods/tricks for getting your tempos down? Let us know.

-Posted by Mark

A recurring feature on IVC, “Get it Down” will cover subjects related to capturing our songs/song ideas and the tools we use for that purpose. Posts on recording, gear, etc will all be fair game.

Mark Bacino
is a singer/songwriter based in New York City with three album releases to his credit as an artist. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark is also the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus.