Tempo fluctuations: How much is tolerable?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [BG]' started by LBS-bass, Oct 20, 2021.

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  1. LBS-bass


    Nov 22, 2017
    I am pretty sensitive to tempo variations and wondering if I'm being too obsessive about it. I'm working with a drummer who is a little green and, with his consent, I am trying to coach him in filling in some of the cracks with things he needs to work on. Tempo is a big issue; he's gotten much better at it but will still manage to speed up or drag in certain areas; usually these are sections where his playing will go from simple to busy or vice versa, so I'm trying to make him aware of that tendency, so he can work on it.

    He has an app on his phone that will show him his tempo as he's playing, and when he watches it, he manages to stay within what, to me, is a tolerable level of variance. But when he starts going beyond that level, I have to stop him and remind him to pay attention. I might alert him to that when he starts to approach a certain bpm or so above or below where we started, but I'm usually feeling it before then.

    I'm not saying what that level is yet, because I don't know if I'm out of bounds for what most people would say is tolerable, and I want your unvarnished views.

    Also, if you all agree with me, it could be helpful for me to be able to show him that I'm not being too picky. And if you don't agree, then perhaps I am being too picky, and that would be useful too.

    Editing to add, since I'm sure it will come up: He has practiced with a metronome for years and he's gotten very good at keeping in time with a click; this is a problem that he has in playing freestyle without assistance of that sort, so I don't think using a metronome or click at this stage is going to fix this.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2021
  2. JCooper


    Oct 21, 2009
    Good post, IMO…(long-standing question about potential obsessive listening by me).
    I am very sensitive to and aware of tempo changes, however, if I find myself telling a drummer about tempo deviations that they are not hearing…it’s never really helped.
    I’ve only played with a couple drummers who were ‘rock solid’, seemingly regardless of experience.
    ‘Locking in’ seems to require an agreement between all participants….IMO
  3. mrcbass


    Jan 14, 2016
    Sacramento, CA
    I can't say how much is tolerable, but I do notice it as well when the drummer's tempo swells. It's so hard to lock into a groove when they do that especially when playing syncopated lines. So if I have to FOCUS on the drummer, the variation is too much. You're not alone.

    Sounds like your drummer works well with outside stimulus - maybe use a click track all the time? I know that there is a certain tempo flow that come naturally and a perfect tempo can be unsettling sometimes (kind of like constant perfect voice pitch), but it's probably better than undesirable fluctuations.
  4. Slater

    Slater Leave that thing alone.

    Apr 17, 2000
    The Great Lakes State
    Will this drummer follow your lead while playing? Can you rein him in by playing behind, or on top of the beat to get him back on track? This might be a short term solution until this drummer has a better feel for the tunes you’re playing.
    chadds and gregouille23 like this.
  5. DWBass

    DWBass The Funkfather

    I play with a drummer who rushes a lot. I don't think he counts or internalizes tempo. It does bug me. I do my best to reel him in. It's a process.
  6. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    IMHO, the answer varies by individual. I prefer for the tempo and feel to be very steady and consistent. If the drummer drifts too much, then I prefer that he/she uses a click to lock in the time. However, my observation is some drummers can play well with a click and some cannot.

    Just because a drummer plays with a click does not necessarily mean time and the feel will be stable. Years ago I worked with a drummer who could play with a click all day, but the internal symmetry of his measures varied continuously. If you listened to him practicing with a metronome, you could hear him speeding up and slowing down, but his tempo always stayed with the click. Nice guy but I hated playing with him.

    Many of my peers expressed the idea that playing with a click is distasteful and makes the music sterile. They say music should breath. Personally this feels like an excuse for bad time to me, but it's probably best to view it as a different philosophy.

    Another thing to consider is the shape and consistency of the pocket has a lot do with how we perceive tempo. By pocket I mean the rhythmic tension between where each player is perceiving/placing the beat. In order for the tempo to really lock in, the drummer and bassist have to agree on the size of the pocket. If one person feels the pocket is too big or too small, then they will tend to react by slowing down or speeding up. This can create ironic results. For example if the bassist feels that time is rushing, he/she will naturally try to pull back. This may create a perception for the drummer that time is dragging, causing the drummer to push ahead. Usually this is a loosing battle for the bass player.

    When musicians come together for the first time, it can take awhile to get comfortable with one another and lock in. This can also be a factor when musicians learn a new material with a feel they have not previously played together.

    For a song to breath, I prefer the size and shape of the pocket to have consistency within sections of a song, but different sections may have a slight change in feel. For example, time may push forward during the chorus and then pull back during the verse.

    Distance between the musicians and their instruments can have an impact on how the feel is perceived. Time travels at about 1' per millisecond (actually 1.12533' per mS). The threshold for audible perception of time delay is somewhere between 10 and 15mS, and the subconscious threshold may be even faster. So when combined propagation delay is >10mS, there is probably some impact on how we perceive the pocket.

    Also in my experience how your amp is aimed and adjusted has an impact on feel. If the drummer can hear more highs coming from your amp, it tends to push their perception of where you are placing the beat forward in time. This is not always the case as some drummers prefer to focus on how your notes bloom; rather than where you are placing the attack.
  7. Jeff Scott

    Jeff Scott Rickenbacker guru..........

    Sounds like the drummer has become too dependent on that click track. You say that he is a little green then go on to say he's practiced with a Metrognome™ for years (a bit confusing to me). Not dissimilar to many classical musicians who can't play a single note on their chosen instrument without written music in front of them (I have known a few like that).

    The drummer in my last classic pop-rock band was no SpringRooster® and was generally considered a good drummer, but he had inconsistent tempo issues that drove me bonkers, sadly.

    I don't know of a solution to your problem, but, maybe with time he will get better if he disregards the click and just listen to what is going on all around him, musically, with other musicians.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2021
  8. HRS


    Aug 28, 2021
    If the drummer can't keep time then I wouldn't waste it (time) on him for long.
  9. packhowitzer

    packhowitzer 155mm of pure destruction

    Apr 20, 2011
    As usual, Rick Beato has an excellent and well-explained treatise on a subject that is very similar to the topic of this thread. Do yourself a favor and take ten minutes to watch this vid. It shows how the natural swing of human timing has a certain hard-to-define quality that a perfectly locked in tempo just can't quite replicate.

    mike57, dkelley, J-Mags and 12 others like this.

  10. You should listen to this song...it will drive you crazy!

    The tempo fluctuations are entirely intentional - drummer's left side of the body will stay constant as the right side speeds up and slows down.
  11. MVE


    Aug 8, 2010
    I once had a similar problem with a drummer.
    Then we worked on a song that had intentional subtle changes to the rhythm based on the story the lyrics we’re telling.
    We discussed the parts where it would speed up and slow down and we practiced it for a few hours until we got that song right.
    After that, we never had a problem with any song again.
  12. jerry

    jerry Too old for a hiptrip Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 13, 1999
    Tell him your trying to work with him, a lot of people wouldn't do that. Also, I'm guessing you're singing some of the songs he's rushing or dragging, explain to him how important it is for the vocalist to have stable time backing them up.
    Frankie Fender and djaxup like this.
  13. mongo2


    Feb 17, 2008
    Da Shaw
    It just makes things more difficult when someone's tempo is wandering.
    JCooper and Dudaronamous like this.
  14. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    Not a whole lot, thank you very much.
    two fingers and Dudaronamous like this.
  15. Strange in that he plays with a click well, but wanders without it, after several years with a metronome.

    I figure I've spent an aggregate 2 years of my life listening to that damn tick/tock, tick/tock. I absorbed it. I'm one of those guys you can count of the first 10 seconds on a watch's second hand, and 50 seconds later, after you take it away from me and keep an eye on it, I WILL be there, on the money, when the 60 seconds comes back around.

    Wandering drummers make me crazy, but you can't fix them. I had a couple I'd drag around all night, they kept trying to catch me. Nuts.

    I used to listen to older records where the band would speed up or drag back here and there and thought it was cool as a youngster. Over time, it dawned on me the only way to do that right was with a clock-precise drummer with the band leaning a little back of forward, but still in time, for drama.

    LBS, I guess it just comes down to what you and the band can live with.
    JCooper, Ggaa, 31HZ and 1 other person like this.
  16. keith rosier

    keith rosier Supporting Member

    Nov 16, 2004
    Southern California
    The click allows players with so so time to track, so it's a very effective tool in the studio. Like all of us, your friend will need to work on his time without a metronome and record himself; exposing his tendencies. If he practices with a click it should only beat once a measure or it will be keeping time for him. He needs more self awareness when playing, overall.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2021
    Dynacord likes this.
  17. andruca


    Mar 31, 2004
    Madrid (Spain)
    You please excuse my "darwinian" approach, but bad tempo and being a musician are simply incompatible. I've never witnessed the miracle of bad tempo being cured. Not by a metronome, not by the most intense of practices, nor by the most expensive teachers. Using a click for the whole band to hear is even worse: everyone must suffer it and it can only shame a bad drummer. Life's too short to spend your musical time with people with different degrees of amusia who shouldn't be playing music in the first place (moms and dads of the world, there's nothing wrong in telling your children they suck at a given task, saves frustration and in some cases even serious career path mistakes). As per me, if I have to pay attention to the drummer (moreso in bands I'm singing lead) it's wrong. Best compliment drummers hear from me is "I didn't have to worry about you, that's great". I've suffered a drummer about 10 years ago with whom I wasn't able to play/sing up to my real level with, because I was always chasing the guy around. At a point we were seriously thinking of adding a bass player so I could just sing. As soon as we changed drummer, right after playing the very first song at rehearsal, nobody ever mentioned such alternative again.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2021
    nealw, HRS, JCooper and 6 others like this.
  18. Jason Hollar

    Jason Hollar Jazz & Cocktails Supporting Member

    Apr 17, 2005
    Central Pa
    This year (post lockdown) is looking like about 50 some gigs with nearly 25 different drummers. (I’m in a couple bands and on several agency rosters).

    I can count on one hand the drummers that are rock solid in their time. Most of the drummers in my orbit are very good technically (and very nice blokes) but most lack that elusive consistency that really grooves the band.

    I’d also add that tempo is so important to a song as far as the bass line is concerned. I’m surprised by how many drummers count off tunes way too slow … and those that can’t maintain the pocket if the song gets counted off a little faster.
    Jeff Scott, Loopy3, Spearsy and 3 others like this.
  19. Smallmouth_Bass


    Dec 29, 2005
    I think that the song will ultimately determine amount of tempo fluctuation allowable. Some will tolerate a broader range of tempos and I find the main factor is how it makes the vocals sound. Without having a metronome available or setup for song count-offs, I always say if you can sing the vocal line in your head, you should be able to get a fairly accurate tempo.

    I do not expect any drummer to have metronomic sense of time. Part of the way I judge a drummer is if I feel like I am fighting them or overly concentrating on locking in with them to make it feel good. It just happens naturally with the good ones.

    As for how much fluctuation variation is acceptable? Maybe 10 bpm in either direction, provided it's not too drastic (from one bar to the next, gradually over the course of a 3 or 4 minute song should be okay).
    J-Mags and Gaolee like this.
  20. Ralph Manak

    Ralph Manak Supporting Member

    Aug 31, 2017
    Austin, TX
    A drummer who recently left one of the bands I'm in played with a support of an eye on a beat detector app, and he regularly sped up or slowed down. His choices of when and how to try returning to the song tempo were inopportune and excruciatingly obvious.

    Here's a thought: choose a tempo, maybe 95 bpm, and have the drummer practice to a click at that tempo for some time each day for a month. An app (or a loop in a DAW) that skips beats or bars can be introduced in week 2, with stretching out the gaps in later weeks. Benny Greb's Gap Click app is good. The idea here is to embody a tempo. The next month, keep working on 95 bpm, and add 120 bpm. The third month add 72 bpm.

    What is being played can also be broken down to simple elements, starting with just kick, just snare, then combining limbs and drums/cymbals. The important thing is to notice where things go wrong and develop an exercise to solve that problem. It may help to record at least some of this practice.

    Quite literally, an investment in time.
    31HZ, Dynacord and BlueTalon like this.
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