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A metronome is a device, either mechanical or electronic, used to keep a steady beat for musical practice and playing. Metronomes come in a number of shapes and sizes, and most are easily set to keep different tempos. Not all musicians use metronomes, and some consider their use to be at odds with the feeling or passion that can be expressed in music.
The quest for a working metronome began roughly a century after Galileo's discoveries pertaining to pendulums. The first attempts at creating a metronome were more or less failures. This was due to the unreasonable lengths required to keep even the slowest of tempos, rendering fast tempos impossible.
In 1812, Dietrik Winkel was the first to begin using double-weighted pendulums to create a device very similar to modern mechanical metronomes. Johann Maelzel took these ideas and began producing a portable metronome, for which he was awarded a patent in 1816. His design is known as the Maelzel metronome. This is reflected in the standard musical notation "MM=40," which stands for Maelzel Metronome.
Originally, metronomes were seen as a tool for measuring the tempo of a piece accurately, not as an aid for musicians to match a specific tempo. These early metronomes are thought by many to have been fairly inaccurate, as evidenced by the very fast speeds placed on some pieces of the time. Most famously, this is evidenced in some works of Beethoven, who began using the metronome in 1817, the year after its release.
Early metronomes were either set into motion by simply pushing the pendulum, or by utilizing a wind-up device to keep it powered for a longer period of time. Moving a small weight up or down the pendulum set the tempo either slower or faster. Once electrical apparatuses became common in the 1930s, many metronomes began using electrical pulses to keep time, often illuminating a small light to give a visual cue.
In the 1980s, electronic metronomes began to become more common, allowing for more features and customization of tempo and sound. Most metronomes generate a simple "click" at each beat, with modern metronomes also added a chiming sound at the start of each new measure. Some electronic metronomes — particularly those found on computers — allow for customization of the sounds.
The metronome is often recommended to music students as a valuable tool to help them learn to maintain a steady pace. If a particular piece of music is difficult, for example, a musician may be tempted to slow down when playing it; the metronome will remind him to maintain a consistent tempo. Some musicians find that practicing or playing with a metronome creates a "mechanical" feel to the music, however, leaving less room for "swing" or flexibility. In addition, some types of music cannot be played to the beat of a metronome.
I'm the same as @lapsed, but instead of recording to a kick beat I get the tempo of what I'm playing first so I can set it in the sequencer with the tap tempo button. So I'll do a rough take and tap along so I know the tempo is right. Then I'll record it properly and if it isn't quite in time then I'll edit the MIDI notes individually; software nowadays has quantize and stretching options which makes this relatively simple and if you had the tempo set right in the first place it should be pretty close anyway. You can even set the degree to which you want a note to be moved in time (which is what quantizing is) so you can maintain some of the swing or flexibility.
I'm one of those musicians that doesn't use a metronome unless I really have to. So many times I'll be jamming away on piano and come up with something I'd like to record and then when I try to play it to a click track it loses all feeling or I can't even make it fit. I figured out it was actually the literal clicking sound that would distract me and it was much easier for me to record to a simple kick drum beat or something like that.
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