Modern Alternatives to the Metronome

In Search of Something Less Traumatizing Than My Metronome

Navindra Umanee
Jul 11 · 9 min read
Mechanical metronome of limited adjustability and accuracy.
Mechanical metronome of limited adjustability and accuracy.
Mechanical metronome of limited adjustability and accuracy.

A traditional mechanical metronome is not only boring, uninspiring, harsh-sounding, and lacking in adjustability, it often falls short of its fundamental duty of keeping accurate time. Nonetheless, metronomes play an essential role during practice of any rhythm-based art such as music or dance, and there is a certain skill to using one effectively.

If you’re looking for something much better and much cheaper than a traditional metronome, and you don’t mind having a smart device on hand, look no further than your local App Store for a variety of apps with wide-ranging features such as dynamic tempo and haptic feedback on the wrist.

A metronome of sense and sensibility.
A metronome of sense and sensibility.
A metronome of sense and sensibility. [credit]

If you’re otherwise looking, quite sensibly, for a standalone modern metronome, then Piano Buyer’s recommendation is reasonable. The KORG KDM-3 Digital Metronome appears to do everything a basic metronome should, boasting ease of use, supporting a variety of sounds, time signatures and rhythms, and tremendous battery life. It certainly looks and acts the part of a metronome.

For a demanding musician, the BOSS Dr. Beat DB-90, released in 2004 by Roland, is considered the be-all and end-all of metronomes. It covers all the possible bases from irregular rhythms, tempo changes, looping, foot operation, and more. The major downside of the DB-90, along with the outdated design, is the paltry 6-hour battery life on the derided 9V battery. The DB-60 solves the battery issue while retaining much of the core functionality.

Also deserving consideration is the Body Beat Sync, released in 2010 by Peterson, featuring comprehensive and innovative functionality that appears to match or exceed the Dr. Beat.

Beyond the Metronome

KORG volcas — bizarre grooveboxes of surprising utility.
KORG volcas — bizarre grooveboxes of surprising utility.
KORG volcas — bizarre grooveboxes of surprising utility. [credit]

While pinnacle metronome meets the professional need, amateur musicians may find metronomes somewhat lacking, particularly in terms of fostering motivation and creativity — they suffer an acute lack in the soul and fun department.

Fortunately, there are other rhythm devices, such as drum machines, sequencers, loopers, or grooveboxes, to consider. For a rhythm device to be usable as a metronome, other than keeping time, it also needs to be portable in terms of size, be battery-powered, and include a built-in speaker. These requirements significantly narrow the field of suitable devices.

Rhythm partner of organic grooves.
Rhythm partner of organic grooves.
Rhythm partner of organic grooves. [credit]

The BOSS Dr. Rhythm line includes the DR-01S Rhythm Partner, released relatively recently by Roland in 2017. The device is simple to use, sounds good, has modern touches, and qualifies as fun. The most significant limitation appears to be that support for time signatures is restricted to common time (4/4), waltz time (3/4), and 6/8 time. This may work for many styles of music, but one would otherwise have to fall back to a basic metronome beat.

There’s a more sophisticated dimension to the story here, but before diving too far into minutiae, here’s a first demo video of my Korg volca sample as I might typically use it with music from Alfred’s Basic Adult All-in-One Course for piano:

KORG volca sample as Metronome Basic Demo (1 of 2)

This demo is a showcase of the volca device functioning as a basic metronome, keeping waltz time.

What is more notable is that all the sounds the volca is producing in this demo are arbitrarily selected and fully customizable. In this particular video, I used a mix of tabla sounds, synthetic voice[1], clave, clapping, etc, layered and mixed in various ways. While the demo is intentionally simple to focus on metronomic aspects, one’s creativity is the limit.

I also make strong use of voice counts including & counts[2] for half-beats, for good reason, since counting rhythm while practicing is a fairly fundamental aspect of learning music and can be particularly challenging for beginners. Although I used a synthetic voice in this demo, natural voice recordings could have just as easily been used. The ability to use voice counts with the degree of flexibility available here exceeds the voice functionality of most metronomes.

Other aspects of the demo worth calling out are the beat accents. In addition to being able play or layer different sounds for different accents, the volume level of each sound can be tweaked. I used a higher volume for the 3rd beat count in the second example.

Finally, this demo showcased the ability for variations measure to measure — which does begin to strain the memory limits of the device.

KORG volca sample of mine.
KORG volca sample of mine.
KORG volca sample of mine.

What even is a volca? In 2013, KORG launched the volca series with 4 units, and has been releasing new units year by year ever since, for a present count of 10 distinct musical devices. The units are, variously, sequencers, loopers, drum machines, synthesizers, etc, but almost all of them can be adapted to some flavor of metronomic duty. Notably, the volcas work on battery power, sport speakers, and are priced in the same range as the higher-end professional metronomes.

The volcas are generally intended to be instruments in their own right, operated live, either individually or in combination. Choosing a volca is a matter of taste. Those with an inclination to sound synthesis, might pick one of the synthesizer models, those with an interest in bass, might pick one of the bass models, while those purely interested in rhythm might pick one of the drum machines, etc. Finally, those who have no idea about any of that, might pick the Jill of all trades, the volca sample.

The volca sample is a digital sample sequencer — or more simply, it’s a device that can play back original or manipulated sounds in a rhythmic sequence. It can store up to 100 samples with maximum length of 65 seconds, but those limits become somewhat meaningless given the creative possibilities offered, as demonstrated by this video of the volca designer working with a single sample and this one of a user getting clever with compressing lengthy samples.

The basic sequencer design works naturally as a metronome and it’s very easy to get started. A sequence consists of up to 16 steps (4 beats with 4 subdivisions) which can loop indefinitely at the set tempo (which has a full range of 10 to 600 beats per minute). So if you wanted to do a rhythm in waltz time (3/4), you simply pick a sound and set it for each beat in a 12 step sequence — then play and go.

KORG volca sample as Metronome Polyrhythm Demo (2 of 2)

As demonstrated in the second video, even basic polyrhythms (such as a rhythm with repeating triplets and duplets) can be played on this grid using simple reasoning; this can be quite useful for grokking challenging rhythms given the volca’s ability to selectively mute, solo, or adjust the volume of, individual parts of the rhythm.

Up to 10 sequences can be defined and saved, and each sequence can use up to 10 samples from the sample bank. More complex rhythms or rhythm changes can be defined by chaining up to 16 ordered sequences to form up to 6 songs, and each song can loop indefinitely as well. Additionally, samples and sequences can be managed and uploaded to the volca sample with free software such as vosyr.

This provides a lot of canvas for metronomic creativity for enjoyable practice sessions.

The primary device limit is memory which limits the samples and rhythmic sequences that can be defined, although it is ample for typical metronomic tasks. Features such as count-in and tap tempo are not present, and automated tempo changes are not possible without an external signal. The battery life is rated as 10 hours continuous use on 6 AA batteries — in practice, mine has lasted for exactly 5 weeks on the included alkaline batteries, with light to moderate daily use. As a curiosity, unofficial firmware is also available.

teenage engineering offers the cheaper pocket operator series featuring excellent battery life and 16-step sequencers, as well as unmistakable quirkiness, allowing them to function as metronomes similar to the volca series.

The OP-1 portable synthesizer of wonder.
The OP-1 portable synthesizer of wonder.
The OP-1 portable synthesizer of wonder. [credit]

teenage engineering also offer the up-level OP-Z synthesizer which is 4 times the price of a volca, and the OP-1 synthesizer which is nearly 9 times the price. Despite the stratospheric prices, these are beautifully designed modern instruments and are highly capable.

Novation Circuit of lights and colors.
Novation Circuit of lights and colors.
Novation Circuit of lights and colors. [credit]

At a little more than twice the price of a volca, the Novation Circuit appears to provide startling value and is a highly usable musical device with many capabilities including velocity-sensitive pads. Novation has been particularly good about releasing free updates for the device, expanding the musical feature set. Depending on how far one is willing to stretch their metronomic budget, this drum machine appears to be a worthy contender with high musical potential. The Circuit supports samples and a sequencer workflow so should easily adapt to metronome tasks. Battery life, however, is rated at half of the volca’s.

Organelles of computational music.
Organelles of computational music.
Organelles of computational music. [used with permission]

Finally, for those who demand ultimate metronomic prowess, the Organelle M by Critter & Guitari is ready to end (or start) all arguments. At the cost of 4 volcas, the Organelle is hard to define, but it is nothing less than a music computer, almost demanding that one ascend from mere musician to virtual instrument designer.

Organelle patches are readily available for beat-making purposes, including sample sequencer or drum machine functions, multi-dimensional sequencers, and, yes, even a straight up metronome. Beyond the factory patches, the user community contribute their own creations. In a meta turn of events, this patch enables the Organelle to control the volca sample, while this one attempts to emulate OP-1 features. Want to combine or chain patches? Meet Orac 2.0.

The Organelle is built atop of Pure Data which “enables musicians, visual artists, performers, researchers, and developers to create software graphically without writing lines of code. Pd can be used to process and generate sound, video, 2D/3D graphics, and interface sensors, input devices, and MIDI”.

Although that sounds good in principle, Pure Data code initially looks like low-level symbolic code — fortunately, it is easy to make something musical in short order, if one has a handle on sound synthesis and MIDI concepts.

The Organelle runs Linux on a Raspberry Pi with everything that entails — it has a boot up time of 12 seconds, yields a 6 hour battery life on 4 AA batteries (roughly proportional to the volca power draw), and things like swapping samples is trivially done with a file manager, eliminating the need for special software. Similarly, adding or modifying patches is just as easy — modifying the existing Metronome patch with a new sound could be as easy as dropping in a new .wav file.

Needless to say, the Organelle is constantly evolving and improving, yet clearly, it provides all the building blocks needed to assemble the most advanced and ultimate metronomic functions — if one were so inclined.

To Groove or Not to Groove?

Metronomes can evoke soul-crushing dread for musical, dance, or general rhythmic, practice — unnecessarily so, especially for a pursuit which should otherwise be enjoyable.

As this article demonstrates, there is a zany world of sometimes peculiar musical devices that can be commandeered for a wide variety of useful metronomic tasks, helping develop the rhythmic senses, while also potentially opening up whole new avenues of musical creativity for amateurs and professionals alike.

— N.


All assets used in this article were either created by me, obtained as press/media assets, applicably licensed, or used with permission. All copyrights remain with the original owners. This article was written on my own dime and time.

[1] All the synthetic voice samples were generated on macOS using the say command with the Fiona voice.

[2] I intentionally captured a synthetic voice recording of “n” instead of “and” to represent & counts.

This isn’t my video, but listen to those volcas go! [credit]

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