Because the App Store Doesn’t Already Have Enough Metronome Apps

“I don’t need no stinking click” —Alex Van Halen

Many rock musicians like to talk about purity and raw energy. They reject the notion of technological interference in their art.

But here’s the thing: most of them could use a little interference from technology every now and then.

I remember going to see the Doobie Brothers do a demonstration at the Apple Store in Palo Alto many years back. They were talking about the recording process, and how back in the 70s they would burn their voices out trying to sing perfect harmonies together on every chorus. But since the development of computer-based recording, they just get it right once, then cut and paste the rest.

This shocked me at first. These guys? I’ve heard them live. They sing like birds. Why would they want to cheat this way? Their answer: When they didn’t have the luxury of cut and paste, they worked their butts off to make the second chorus sound exactly like the first. So if they have a machine that can help them do that without singing it a hundred times, why wouldn’t they use it?

Ever since then, I’ve adopted a similar attitude towards technological advances in music production. It’s not about using technology to mask your flaws or being lazy; it’s about making the music as enjoyable to your audience as possible. Sure, technology can make the untalented seem more talented than they are. But in the hands of someone with talent, it acts as a multiplier. It gets you the results you want faster, and that frees you to be even more creative.

And that brings me to the topic of metronomes. Again, many “purist” musicians consider a metronome to be a crutch. Something that will suck the soul out of your music. They brag that they don’t need to use one. But the truth of the matter is that the majority of musicians could stand to sit down with a click and learn to play in time properly.

You know how some musicians seem to have developed that perfect clock and always play in almost perfect time? They got there by playing to a metronome whenever they practiced, hours upon hours, for years, until the sense of time became fully internalized.

The rest of us think our tempo is that good, but it’s not.

Let’s practice to a click

When Airplane Mode finally found itself in possession of a full group of musicians—guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards—it quickly became evident that our time was going to need some work. We were all new to each other, playing new songs together, and our senses of time were not lining up magically. So we decided to do something about it.

If the members of the band were fighting each other from a tempo standpoint, why not let a metronome become the referee? We could have burdened our drummer, Patrick, making him constantly have to think about tempo and wrangle us all back to reality every moment of the song. Drummers often get stuck with that duty. But I’d much rather let an inanimate object with perfect judgment be the keeper of the One True Tempo™ than a person, with whom we could all disagree. Settle on a correct tempo for each song, then always play to that tempo from start to finish.

Logistically, however, this is harder than it sounds. Rock band practice is a loud affair. How do we hear the click? We could just download an app onto one of our phones, and let that person play the click in their earbuds to drive the rest of us, but then only one of us hears the click, and only one of us can wrangle us in. If we can all hear it, we can all discipline ourselves and work together.

To do this, we’d need a combination of hardware and software. For hardware, we’d need some equipment to take the sound of the click and relay it to the four of us in such a way that we could hear it, but no one in the audience could.1 For software, we needed an app.

Of course, finding the right app isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s not that there aren’t many fine metronomes on the App Store. There are hundreds of metronomes available, and dozens that are very nicely designed. But we had one very specific need that almost all metronomes on the App Store lack: We wanted to store the tempos of all of our songs and be able to call up a specific song tempo with a single tap.

While “Between the Stars and You” might be set at 92 bpm, “Chasing the Train” is at 150 bpm. I don’t want to have to a) remember those numbers nor b) adjust the metronome manually to go from one song to the other.

One or two apps on the App Store did have this functionality, buried amongst hundreds of other features we didn’t need. But there didn’t seem to be a simple app that would serve this specific purpose elegantly and effectively in a practice or live situation.

Which is why it’s fortunate there were two app makers in the band.

We’ll Just Make it Ourselves

Is it hubris to suggest that because you’ve written an app or two you can build something better than the hundreds of options already available on the App Store for your purposes? Maybe. But we did it anyway.

It was Friday afternoon. Practice was the following Tuesday. I opened Xcode and decided to experiment. Could I put a start button on an iPhone screen and press it to play back a click sound at a specific tempo accurately? And could I accomplish that in a few hours, max? If I could do that much, I figured the rest was just a matter of implementation details.

Note, I’m a designer by trade. I’ve built a few apps, but I’m always plagued psychologically by my limitations with code. I hadn’t really worked with audio for any of coding I’d done in the past. I didn’t want to promise the band anything until I was sure.

But it turned out easier than I was expecting. I tried various different tempos and repeated the test. Hit Start, play it alongside another metronome app I knew to be accurate, and sure enough, the beat was right every time.

I messaged Dave: “Okay. I’ll see what I can do to get this ready for the next practice. Can’t be sure it’ll be finished, but we should have something at least functioning by then.”2

Three-and-a-half days to build out the list of songs and tempos, a tableview to display them, the ability to add and edit songs, and while we’re at it, let’s throw in Bluetooth foot pedal support, so I can jump between songs with my feet, rather than having to tap on the screen. No problem. By Tuesday, I was ready to show off my new creation. And meanwhile, Dave had pieced together the necessary hardware. We were in business.

It took the band a while to get used to playing with a click, but that was the point. If it was challenging, that was proof that our tempo without the click had been off the mark. The more we used it, the more it would become natural to play together in time. This was guaranteed to make us better musicians.

Let’s Use it for Gigs, Too

We enjoyed playing to the “Clickarus”3 so much that we soon decided we could use it for gigs as well as for practice. Some of our songs needed more sound than we could easily produce with the four of our instruments, and we thought it would be cool to try and trigger some samples with my MIDI foot pedal controller. These triggers, being essentially recordings of small elements of our music, required that we not only be relatively close in our tempos, but exact. No matter how good our internal clocks became, there was no way they’d be good enough to match a pre-recorded sample.

Since the hardware had been carefully designed to be set up and torn down in a matter of a few minutes (practice studios are rented by the hour, after all), using it live wouldn’t hurt our ability to get on and off stage for our set. I’ve always been a big believer that one should attempt to make rehearsal as close to the actual live experience as possible, anyway, so that there are fewer new variables on stage. Quickly, it became clear that using Clickarus live was a great idea. We’ve used it at every gig since.

Making it App Store Ready

Of course, any app you build in three-and-a-half days isn’t going to be ready for the App Store. We weren’t even planning on releasing it at first. It was an internal tool, built for our purposes. It worked in practice, and it didn’t crash. That was all we really needed. But if we were going to be using this app every week, it was going to get polished, anyway.

I don’t use crappy apps, as a rule.

And no doubt others would find this useful if we did. So why not put it out there?

So we started to polish. Three months worth of polish, actually. Cleaning up the look and feel, adding new features as we thought of them. I didn’t spend every waking moment on the app, but I kept tweaking it whenever I had some spare time. Adjust tempo by dragging? Check. Tap tempo? Check. iCloud sync for all my personal devices? Check. A way to export the song data so you could share it with the other band members? Check. And my favorite, a suggestion from Dave: When you adjust the tempo for a song, it remembers your previous tempo, so you can switch back to it quickly, if desired.

We decided we’d try and release the app alongside our latest EP Amsterdam, iBook, and Podcast episode. Make it one giant week of releases from us.

What other band could pull this sort of four-way creative insanity?

And we decided to make the app free to use for everyone, because we wanted as many people to use it as possible. Apps are not how we make our living. But they can be a way for people to discover us and what we’re all about. Every time we mentioned the app to one of our musician friends, they wanted to get their hands on it. So we made that a breeze. Go get it on the App Store now.

Whether you are an individual looking to practice your favorite songs, or a band like us, hoping to make your practices or live performances run more smoothly, we think you’ll find Clickarus to be a great tool for improving your abilities. It’s battle-tested, because we use it at every single rehearsal and every single gig. And I’m sure we’re going to keep finding new ways to improve it.

  1. See Dave’s post on the hardware involved here.

  2. I’m a real under promise and over deliver kind of guy.

  3. The nickname Clickarus was given to the hardware portion of our metronome by Dave at the first rehearsal in which we used it. It stuck well enough that we decided to name the app the same. Clickarus, like Icarus, was an endeavor full of hubris. Only in our case, it was far more successful than the character from Greek myth. We haven’t yet burned our wings with it, and it doesn’t appear as if we will.