I stumbled across an interesting question on the internet, as to why a classical piano teacher would ban the metronome ... a quick Google search unearthed a body of debate around criticism of metronome use that dates back hundreds of years.
As someone who has fun programming drum tracks, the question 'whether to use a metronome' seems analogous to the question 'should we track with a click?' Most engineers will agree that a fully free tempo track will often be far more dynamic and full of life, whereas a click-built track can be utterly flat, dull and lifeless (though constructing tempo maps from a live pieces can go some way to help).
In the early 19th century the metronome was not used for ticking all through a piece, but only to check the tempo and then set it aside. This is in great contrast with many musicians today.
Much like the 19th century, around the time of the invention of the metronome, recording studio clicks were often used only to set intro tempo, until the engineer hit the drum machine 'stop' button, once rhythm instruments arrived (or when the natural tempo drifted away from the click). Today, recording in DAW software, we often use click (or percussion loop) throughout the length of the track, in order to facilitate editing and addition of later overdub material.
This can be a static tempo, or a tempo map, complete with pre-programmed timing nuances - it's instructive to check out Paul Lamere's interesting post In search of the Click Track, where he plots the variation of tempos throughout a selection of well known tracks.
Disadvantages of overly metronomic music
Obviously, the genre has great bearing on whether it should be performed in a metronomic style (see one extreme,notes inégales)
The dramatic purpose of musical tempo is discussed in The Craft of Musical Communication, by Marianne Ploger and Keith Hill, 2005 -
The cognitive partner of hesitation is anticipation: anticipation is created by building up assumption on assumption about what will happen. When the event which should occur fails to happen at the expected time, there exists a moment of disappointment. Disappointment, however, is soon transformed into a rush of pleasure when the anticipated event is consummated. The art is always in the timing.
Alternatives to metronome use
In alternatives to metronome use, one suggestion that resonates is the suggestion that we "hear music in ones mind's ear first before playing it." The latter is an approach I use, e.g. to try to 'hear' the riff or motif of a song in one's mind's ear before playing it.
An interesting question you might ask yourself when playing with a click is "can I imagine the music I'm supposed to be playing?"
Another suggestion is that a person "play music in their mind's ear along with the rhythms of walking or other daily life rhythms." Can this be as fun as singing beating harmonies along with the Hoover? It has an electro-bagpipe effect :)
Playing in the pocket
In relation to practicing with click tracks, the article contains a nice passage around developing the art of playing with a click
"It is harder to play in the pocket with the metronome than one might expect, especially with piano or percussion. That's because the metronome click may seem to vanish when you hit the click exactly – or may be heard less distinctly. The further you are away from the click the more easily you hear the metronome. Musicians who attempt to play in the pocket with a metronome without use of the established techniques for doing this may find that it introduces tension and effort into their instrument technique.
"To address these issues, the musicians start by learning to play consistently ahead or behind the beat whenever they want to. As a result they develop a clear sense of "where the click is" and so can also play to hit the click as well, in a relaxed way.
When programming rhythms, watch what real drummers do...
A few years ago, after recording my fabuloso drumming pal Gene Maynard with a click, I was able to check out the tempo variations across different sections of the song. I noticed that he uses a pattern of a slight rall at the end of a chorus or break, and then push a little back into the verse, before sitting back into time again ... so it all evens out. Maybe as subtle as +/- 1bpm... but he can do it consistently, time after time, even whilst singing and drumming. It's a v natural, subtle way to make sure we don't sound too much like machines!
For musical performance, try to minimize overdubs for core rhythm instruments (vocals, bass, percussion!) The best performance result is usually gained from laying down the rhythm tracks all together, Blood and Chocolate style (see episode 10), and then minimizing overdubs. Most great albums were recorded this way, even after the invention of multi-track recording.
Key here is to try to capture the vocals live, with the initial performance, as later overdubs will always lack the rhythmical verve of the synchronous part.
If you need to do MIDI work for the track, use your favourite DAW to detect the tempo of the live track - but bear in mind that the tempo you get is the 'nuanced' tempo for the part you detect, which is perhaps not the 'real' tempo (try smoothing it out!)
Pick a track (or several tracks) whose rhythmical feel and structure you like, and generate a tempo map from the track in your favourite DAW. Next, you might play a midi loop to check the feel of the tempo map, e.g. in BFD3. Once the song is gelling, throw the old audio tracks away and lay down parts for your new track.
Here's some more stuff I need to check out...
Beyond the metronome
Lean Agile Architecture and Development