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Before you do anything else, get the tempo right

Many people blunder into a new recording without giving tempo more than half a moment's consideration. But setting the right tempo can make or break a track...

Unless you are writing music to a specific BPM, which is often done in dance music, then choosing the tempo for your track is going to be one of the key decisions that will lead to success or failure, artistically, of that track. Let me tell you why...

Firstly, if you are recording audio in the conventional way, it is tricky to change tempo once the recording has been made. In the past, it was impossible without also changing the pitch. And even today, although changing the tempo of an audio recording is possible, it isn't a situation that you would actively want to get yourself into.

This means that before even a note of music is recorded, you have to decide on the tempo. Has this ever seemed like a difficult decision? Perhaps not. Now that begs an interesting question... If you have never thought of tempo as a problem once recording is under way, do you have some kind of mystical ability in prognosticating the right tempo? Or are you just that good?

The answer is that many times you probably haven't chosen the right tempo. But subconsciously you have adapted your sounds and performances to the tempo you have chosen. So the end result sounds OK, but probably not as good as if you had actually thought about the best tempo to begin with.

"Aha!", you say, "I don't record audio, I record MIDI - that means I can change the tempo any time I like."

Well I can't argue with that logic. Actually, I can... Although you can change the tempo of a MIDI recording at any time, you will find that you have subconsciously already adapted your sounds to the original tempo.

This applies particularly to the release times of notes. When you change tempo, you will find that notes overlap to a greater or lesser extent. This will change the overall feel of your recording. You might even find that there is no tempo other than the one you originally chose that really works.

So, my conclusion is that many recordists don't give enough thought to tempo. Ask yourself how often you use a nice round number for the tempo? Always? But if you really thought about it, you would set a tempo that was precise down to a single beat per minute, perhaps even more precise even than that.

So next time you start a recording, let the sounds play in your head first, so you get a feel for the music. And when you have started to lay down tracks, then before it's too late, consider whether the music would play better if it were a little faster or slower.

By David Mellor Friday February 25, 2011