Saturday, October 2, 2010

Which type of metronome should I buy?

Below is an article courtesy of on purchasing a metronome, the musician's best friend.

In practise rooms around the world a strange "tick, tick, tick" can be heard. Open the door and you will find curious little boxes producing a rhythmic click with vexed musicians trailing in their wake. These curious boxes are of course metronomes, but why do we as musicians need them and how to we decide which of the many varieties to buy? The first of these questions is straightforward, the second less so.
Most of us who aspire to make music will want to do so with other people. Even those who have aspirations of being soloists or singers will need the help of backing groups and orchestras. One of the most fundamental requirements needed to play in a group is that you play at the same speed (or "in time") as other people. Very fortunately most humans have some form of "inbuilt" time keeping which can get us through the first stages of playing with others. However as you improve as a musician you will begin to notice tiny discrepancies which prevent a group from sounding truly "together". Here"s where our metronome comes in. The metronome is one of the best ways of improving you timing. We will deal with the best ways to use a metronome in a separate article but suffice to say time spent practising with a metronome is usually time well spent.
Metronomes take many shapes and forms but can be broken down into two basic categories: mechanical and digital. Within these two basic types there are many variations of shape, style and function. When choosing yourself a metronome you should look at a variety of factors to come up with your ideal:
  • Audio " do you prefer a click, tick or beep? A variety of audible sounds are available and you should ensure you can hear your choice over the sound of your instrument.
  • Visuals " not only what the metronome looks like but what indications there are of the beat. This could be an LED light or more traditionally a swinging pendulum.
  • Tempo Change " how easy is it to change between different Tempi or BPM (beats per minute).
  • Size " does the metronome fit where it is needed.
  • Functions " are all the features you need included such as subdivisions, tuning note etc.
  • Power " how is the metronome powered and are you able to replace or recharge the source.
Having used many metronomes we offer a view on 9 of the most common types.
Traditional mechanical.
When most people think of a metronome this is the device they have in their mind. This type of metronome has been around for centuries and provides all the basic function you could need. The cases are often made from nicely polished wood (though this can be wood effect plastic) and therefore will sit nicely at home on or near the piano. Operation is driven by a wind up clockwork mechanism which will provide enough practice time for all but the longest practice sessions. Be careful here though not to over wind the metronome as you will break it. You also need to take care to make sure the metronome is placed on a level surface during use or the tempo will be uneven. The front displays a list of all the most common tempo markings with the pendulum arm having grooves cut in at the corresponding places. To change the number of bpm you slide the weight up and down the pendulum to the required location. When in motion the pendulum arm will produce a pleasing "tick" sound, though this may be difficult to hear over loud instruments. The range of tempi available is usually in the 40-250 bpm range and is by increments of around 4 bpm.
Pros " good looks, will run forever if wound.
Cons " can be inaccurate if not level, audibility, lack of other functions and features.
Compact Mechanical.
These metronomes are a variation of the traditional model. Here the choice of look and color is a lot wider than for the larger traditional model. Again the device is driven by a wind up clockwork mechanism and will also need to be placed on a level surface. The range of tempi produced is similar to that of it"s larger sister but the "tick" tends to be a bit higher pitched. The real advantage this device has over the larger model is size which enables it to fit in most cases and bags. This means it can be taken to rehearsals and rooms outside the home.
Pros " compact size, will run forever if wound.
Cons " can be inaccurate if not level, audibility, lack of other functions and features.
Dial Digital.
This first thing to notice on this compact metronome is the large dial on the front which changes the tempo by degrees similar to that of the traditional metronome. The advantage here is a much quicker selection of the tempo you want. The dial will also usually present a setting for an A=440hz tuning note, the tone quality here however is not the best. From a sound point of view the tempo is heard via a simulated "click" which tries to emulate the sound of a traditional metronome. This device tries to combat audibility issues by supplying a volume control, in practice however you will keep this permanently turned up full. Another nice feature here is the inclusion of a phono mini-jack socket into which you can plug a pair of headphones " this does solve any audibility questions. Visually the tempo is represented by a flashing LED. Power is provided by a single 9 volt battery which is easy to change when the time comes.
Pros " very easy to use, compact size, phono socket.
Cons " none " does what it says on the tin.
Credit Card digital.
The age of microelectronics has meant that devices as thin as a credit card are now available " though one has to question weather we actually need a metronome this thin? It"s thinness means that this device is ideal for carrying around in a pocket or instrument case. Power is supplied via watch batteries which can differ in type between manufacturers and these can also be tricky to buy and to change. Where this device does score points is on the features side. It is usual to find things such as sub-division of beats, accent of 1st beats, stopwatch and a range of tuning notes. Access to all of these functions is on a mono-chrome LCD screen. Buttons on the front of the device allow you to scroll through the functions but the selection can be slow on some devices and if used in bright sunlight the display can be difficult to see. Audio is a less than satisfying beep and visually the display of tempo on screen is not simple to determine. Being a computer driven device there is a freedom from the standard tempo increments found on other metronomes and every bpm setting from 40-260 can be found.
Pros " very compact, added functions.
Cons " awkward to use, battery change problematic.
Clip On Digital.
The clip on metronome is a variation of the thin credit card style metronomes discussed above. Its use and function are largely similar and it has the same strengths and weaknesses. The distinction on this device is that it has a "crocodile" type clip built onto the back of it. This means that it can be clipped to an instrument or perhaps clothing. However the most common place for this to be clipped is a music stand. This is not without issues. If you clip the device in a place where you can see it, it invariably interferes with the sheet music.
Pros " clip on, very compact.
Cons " awkward to use, battery change problematic.
Peg digital.
Whilst the usefulness of the clip on metronome is questionable the peg device fulfills a very definite function. The primary reason for this device is not metronomic so use as a pure metronome should be cautioned. Functionally the device has the same features as other digital metronomes, crucially however this device also has an integral chromatic tuner. Unlike most tuners where pitch is received via a microphone on this device pitch is instead received via vibrations. This makes it ideal for clipping to the tuning pegs of guitars, violins and other stringed instruments. Back on the metronome side usability continues to be an issue as does audibility.
Pros " clip on, very compact, specialized string tuning.
Cons " awkward to use, battery change problematic, poor audibility.
Pedal digital.
Devices like these have become tools of choice for electric guitarists & bassists. These boxes blur the lines between the functions of metronome and tuner and whilst they serve very well as all-in-one devices they perform better on the tuner side than the metronome. As with other digital metronomes there are a range of functions such as accents and subdivisions but usability & audibility are poor. Audibility is improved when using headphones in the supplied phono socket but visibility of metronome function is not ideal.
Pros " good all round for electronic musicians.
Cons " awkward to use, visibility issues.
In Ear digital.
In an attempt to address some of the audibility issues found in other metronomes the in ear device has been developed. Due to its small size functions have been reduced to core metronome only. In use this device is very fiddly, small buttons and having to remove from the ear do not make for easy tempo changes. As with all in ear devices unless you have the device made to fit your ear some people may find that the device does not fit and may fall out during use.
Pros " fits in ear!
Cons " gimmicky.
Some manufacturers have taken the basic metronome form, added other functions and created truly multifunctional devices. Among the features you can expect to find are: metronome with step increments, beat groupings, multiple subdivisions, headphone socket, large jack input and output, mute, tap tempo, tuning notes, tuner, stopwatch . . . the list goes on. Power to these devices is provided by easy to reach AA batteries. Usability is good in that functions are easy to reach and the display is colourful and clear. Audio is presented in a number of ways and headphones will improve any audibility issues. One slight niggle is the speed at which tempo changes can be made, however the "tap tempo" function can be used to reach your desired bpm more quickly.
Pros " functionality, compact size.
Cons " none " good all round tool.
So which of these 9 should you buy? In our opinion there are two clear winners. Both of these devices are easy to use and provide clear accurate tempo information. If you are looking for core metronome functions then we suggest you opt for the dial digital type " these metronomes offer an excellent no fuss way to accurate tempi and in a more useable format than others. If you want a more full featured device, and as a teacher you may well do, we would suggest opting for a multifunctional device.
Comparison Table
Type Size Sound Range Visual Tone Gen Vol Phono Sub Div Tuner Inputs Functions
Traditional Mechanical 117x220x117mm Tick 40-250bpm Pendulum No No No No No No No
Compact Mechnical 35x45x108mm Tick 40-250bpm Pendulum No No No No No No No
Dial Digital 108x41x76mm Click 44-208bpm LED A-440hz Yes Yes No No No No
Credit Card Digital 60x90x5mm Beep 30-250bpm LCD C4-B4 Yes No Yes No No Clock
Clip On Digital 50x40x30mm Beep 30-250bpm LCD No Yes No Yes No No Clock
Peg Digital 50x40x30mm Beep 30-250bpm LCD C4-B4 Yes No Yes Yes Vibration Swivel Display
Pedal Digital 140x60x25mm Beep 30-250bpm LCD BEADGBE Yes Yes Yes Yes Jack No
In Ear Digital 76x24x50mm Beep 40-208bpm No No Yes No No No No Fits in ear
Multifunction 108x65x18mm Beep 30-280bpm LCD & LED Chromatic Yes Yes Yes Yes Mic, Jack Various

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