Q-Logic Midi Metro
Heard the one about the silent metronome? Simon Trask investigates a MIDI-driven metronome that uses light instead of sound to keep you to the beat.
If it's in MT then it must be hi-tech, right? Fear not, the MIDI Metro makes intriguing use of technology to come up with a new angle on a familiar device.
LIFE CAN be full of surprises. I'll bet that when you woke up this morning you never thought you'd be reading a review of a silent metronome. Yet that's exactly what you're doing, for the MIDI Metro is a metronome with a difference: it uses light instead of sound to provide you with the sensation of a regular beat. More specifically, it uses visual motion, switching on and off an array of eight LEDs to create a swinging pendulum motion, recalling the traditional mechanical metronome. The LEDs are positioned so as to form a shallow upturned arc, so allowing the "swinging" effect to be created. The manual claims that the MIDI Metro simulates the motion of a conductor's baton, but this isn't strictly true: a conductor beating 4/4 time traditionally uses a downward motion for beat one, a pendulum motion for beats two and three, then an upward motion for beat four - hence the terms "downbeat" and "upbeat" used to indicate respectively the first and last beats of a bar.
While we're getting used to the idea of a silent metronome, we might as well also get used to the idea of a metronome with MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets on its rear panel. Actually, their inclusion on the MIDI Metro isn't as strange as it might seem at first. After all, we're used to the metronome bleeps emitted by sequencers and drum machines, so being able to sync the MIDI Metro as master or slave to a sequencer or drum machine makes a lot of sense. In fact, the Metro's ability to substitute for those often irritating bleeps is one - but by no means the only - reason for its existence.
When the Metro is set to MIDI sync, its light pattern is activated by incoming MIDI Start and Continue commands, and stopped by an incoming MIDI Stop command, with tempo being derived from the 24ppqn MIDI clock rate (within the range 40-240bpm). One advantage of slaving the Metro to an external MIDI source rather than the other way round is that it can respond to tempo changes, and therefore to a sequencer's tempo track. Incidentally, when you're using the Metro in place of your sequencer's metronome bleep, the sequencer's own count-ins are rendered ineffective, because the Metro's light pattern is only triggered when it receives a MIDI Start or Continue command. So at the beginning of a track you'll need to use bar one as your count-in and then delete it later.
Q-Logic have used coloured LEDs set out in the "palindromic" sequence yellow, yellow, green, red, red, green, yellow, yellow. The red LEDs are the default beat indicators, falling as they do in the part of the pendulum swing which we perceive as the accent, but you can effectively set the beat anywhere in the light pattern by editing the Metro's bias parameter. Bias adjusts the light pattern in relation to external timing, and can be used to compensate for playing which is consistently ahead of or behind the beat.
The Metro also allows you to select either Beat or Bar operation. The latter accents the first beat of each bar by flashing all eight LEDs at once. How does the Metro know what constitutes a bar? Simple: it allows you to set a time signature (0-31 for the numerator and 2, 4, 8 or 16 for the denominator). In case you're wondering how it would handle a time signature of 0/4, a zero numerator allows you to halve or double the apparent tempo by setting the denominator accordingly (so you use 0/8 instead of 4/4). Of course this only works for Beat mode, where the numerator is unimportant because no beat is required to be accented.
A quarter-inch jack socket on the Metro's front panel allows the unit to be started and stopped remotely from a footswitch, while on the rear panel the mysterious Link socket is apparently reserved for future Q-Logic equipment. MT's review model had an external PSU, but by the time you read this Q-Logic will be fitting internal PSUs as standard in all their Metros - a direct result of feedback from potential customers.
By now you've probably digested the concept. But does the MIDI Metro actually work, and is it likely to be a useful addition to your equipment setup? Firstly, by checking out timings with a sequencer I found that I was able to play more tightly to the beat (as in milliseconds) with an audio signal than I was with the Metro's light signal. But it has to be said that this isn't really the purpose of the Metro. Rather, it's intended to help you get away from the tyranny of the beat. There again, the Metro is ideal for drummers who have to play along to sequenced music and are tired of having a click track blasting in their eardrums. And apparently the most enthusiastic take-up so far has been from the drumming fraternity.
When you first start using the Metro there's a temptation to stare at it all the time, but this only has the effect of mesmerising you. In fact, you should have it at least 6-10 feet away from you, and off at an angle so that you pick up its light motion in your peripheral vision. Then you should try not to concentrate on the Metro's pendulum motion (after all, you should be concentrating on your music) but should instead let it become an almost subliminal impression. You really do pick up a sensation of a regular beat by means of a perceived accent which falls on one side or the other of the "pendulum"'s central point, depending on the direction of swing - which is exactly where the red LEDs are. Apparently these LEDs are also given accentuation through being flashed twice, on consecutive MIDI clocks, though you don't perceive separate flashes.
One advantage of a visual metronome is that, by turning away from it altogether or closing your eyes, you can shut it out at any time, something which you can't do with an audio metronome (ever tried shutting your ears?). It's this sort of flexibility which allows you to get away from the constant beat reinforcement of an audio metronome, while by its very nature the Metro's signal doesn't clash with the music you're playing. This gives you the freedom to play "outside" the beat for a while (a rubato section, perhaps) and then pick it up again at any time.
When I started playing music, a metronome was something you practiced your scales and your music to in order to develop a good underlying sense of timing. Then you'd set it aside and put in all the nuances of timing which help to bring a performance to life. In our hi-tech world the metronome click has seemingly become more a device for keeping your playing in sync with a sequencer, and nuances of timing don't really come into it.
The MIDI Metro allows you to play into a sequencer without being a slave to it, if you see what I mean - though some experimentation with the Metro's bias parameter may be needed to bring your playing into sync with your sequencer's expectations. In this way you can lay down your first sequencer or tape track without being constantly reminded of a beat. Having said this, a sequencer will still record your notes in relation to its internal timing, and if you're using a notation program the results might not be quite as you expect if you stray from this timing. Sequencing software such as C-Lab's Creator/Notator can nowadays extrapolate tempo fluctuations from your playing on the keyboard or other MIDI instrument, or even, in conjunction with an add-on box, from an audio signal. But that is, perhaps, another issue.
I'm concentrating on sequencing here, but although the Metro has MIDI connections it's by no means only intended to be used with a sequencer. To get away from the hi-tech side of things I took the old classical guitar out of its case and tried playing along to the Metro - and found that I took to it quite naturally. Perhaps by this time it had, er, clicked in my mind.
Learning to play to a light pattern is a bit like learning to ride a bike: you're wobbly at first, but once you've cracked it, it becomes second nature. Operationally there's very little you need to learn, but then you shouldn't need to know much in order to use a metronome.
Ultimately the MIDI Metro is something you need to try out for yourself. I suspect everyone will have their own reaction to it, some will take to it more readily than others, and still others won't see any advantage in it at all. Nonetheless, the MIDI Metro is a useful addition to the musician's tools of the trade, and something which other manufacturers will kick themselves for not thinking of first.
Price £239 excluding VAT.
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Review by Simon Trask
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