[REVIEW] Samplemodeling “The Saxophones”

Even if I am fond of “real” acoustic instruments,I have always been intrigued by “synthetic” wind instruments,be them sampled or synthesized. For example,I really like some flute patches that come with the Patchman Turbo VL upgrade chip for the Yamaha VL70-m,and I find them quite expressive and playable with my Akai EWI 4000s. Alas,I always failed at finding a decent implementation of a virtual sax.

Using a sampler rather than a synth – including synths that use physical modeling to replicate the sound characteristics of a real wind instrument,as is the case of the VL70-m – surely delivers a result closer to a natural sax sound,yet I have always been disappointed by the lack of playability and the inability of achieving the many timbre variations that only a real sax can offer.

When I decided to record music for sax quartet,the choice was between purchasing a real tenor and baritone (to be added to my alto and soprano) or trying again with a sampled instrument. This is how I got to Samplemodeling and its range of products,which includes brass (Trumpet,Trombone,and French Horn &Tuba) and woodwind instruments (Saxophones,Clarinets,Flutes,and Double Reeds).

Their list price ranges from 159 euros (about 200$) for products with two instruments (e.g. Trumpet,Trombone and Clarinets) up to 259 euros (330$) for packages with four instruments,such as Saxophones (which includes soprano,alto,tenor,and baritone) and Double Reeds (oboe,English horn,bassoon,and contrabassoon). These price tags make Samplemodeling products more expensive than libraries that offer hundreds instruments for a fraction of a dollar each,but this comparison is misleading,because none of the instruments in these libraries can really compete with Samplemodeling.

The company has been on the market for a while and gained a very high reputation among musicians,especially EWI players. The first line of their products is based on the Native Instruments’ Kontakt platform,and in fact they include the free Kontakt Player for users who don’t own the complete product. This holds true for brass instruments,but newer woodwind instruments – including The Saxophones – are based on a proprietary engine named SWAM (Synchronous Wavelength Acoustic Modeling). For more tech information about SWAM check this page,but for now it’s enough to say that this platform is a further step towards more realistic virtual woodwind instruments. SWAM instruments don’t require you to install the Kontakt player.

Installation,licensing and required hardware

The good news is Samplemodeling software needs no dongle key (e.g. the iLok dongle),which means you don’t have to give up to a USB port on your computer AND you don’t feel you are treated as a potential pirate. Instead,you get two license keys,which allow you to install their software on two different computers. If you buy a third computer you can have one key deactivated and reactivated on the new hardware. As is common with most vendors,a valid license gives you the ability to download future minor releases of the same product,without having to pay for a yearly subscription. My review is based on version 2.4,but I learned that version 2.5 is about to be made available (for free) to all registered users.

Samplemodeling instruments work on Windows XP and later and on Mac (OSX 10.6 and later). They are provided only as plug-ins in the VST2,AAX,and AudioUnit formats,therefore they require a plug-in host such as Cubase,Live,Logic,or ProTools. If you don’t have a host program,you can use a free one,such as Cantabile Lite. In all my tests I used the AudioUnit version loaded inside Apple MainStage 3.

Interestingly,Samplemodeling virtual instruments are built with the wind player in mind:unlike other software,you must use either a wind controller (such as the Akai EWI or Yamaha WX5),a MIDI keyboard with either a breath controller (such as the Yamaha BC3) or – at the very least – an expression pedal that emits CC11 messages. Without any of these MIDI controllers,SWAM instruments don’t sound at all!

Installing The Saxophones on my MacBook Pro was a breeze. I haven’t used by second serial key yet,therefore I don’t know how it works on a Windows system,but I don’t expect any trouble. I scanned the Samplemodeling forum before getting the software,and the satisfaction level among users is impressively high. This surely means something.

First impressions

Quite opportunely,Samplemodeling provides three configurations to start with:for keyboard players with an expression pedal,for keyboard players with breath controller,and for wind controller players. Each configuration correctly initializes the program’s parameters to work properly with the corresponding MIDI controller,and in fact all the four instruments of The Saxophones worked “well enough” as soon as I loaded them in MainStage.

But probably “well enough” isn’t enough for you,thus you need to read the manual to get the best out of these instruments;failing to do so means that you are leveraging a fraction of their potential. The documentation is short,clear and concise,and just takes a few minutes. Once I grasped the fundamental concepts,it took less than one hour to tweak the many available parameters until I got the sound and the responsiveness I expected. The parameters are grouped in three distinct sets:

  • basic sound parameters,in the main window
  • advanced sound parameters,in the Options window
  • MIDI CC mappings,also in the Options window

Let’s have a look at basic parameters first,even though they aren’t really “basic”,as you’ll see in a moment. In the top half of the window you can set the intonation (in Hertz or cents),the transposition (in semitones),the pitchbend up and down ranges,the volume,and the pan. You can also control reverb,even though I prefer MainStage’s own reverb plug-ins because they provide more options.

TheSaxophones main windowA rectangular area in the center of the main window shows a subset of the messages arriving from the MIDI controller,i.e. pitch bend,velocity,expression (CC11) or breach (CC2),and vibrato. It also provides a graph of the dynamic envelope and shows how the software is interpreting the way you articulate the phase (e.g. legato or staccato). These pieces of information are crucial,because The Saxophones – unlike traditional samplers – uses sophisticated algorithms to understand the musician’s intentions and generates slightly different sounds depending on the result of this analysis. If what you hear isn’t what you had in mind,you should keep an eye on these parameters to understand how the software is analyzing your playing style.

The quest for the perfect parameter value

In the bottom half of the main window you see more advanced controls that directly affect the resulting sound. Your first option is which instrument/microphone combination you want to use:each sax model (soprano,alto,tenor,and bari) provides between 8 and 10 variations,labeled with names such as “Sax 1 Dry” or “Sax 2 Bright”. Each variations results in a slightly different timbre,even though the differences aren’t always noticeable,at least to my ears. After some tests,I found myself focusing on two or three different variations for each sax model.

Except for a few sliders whose meaning is obvious – for example,the amount of growl,the compressor rate,and the release time – the controls in this area require a deep knowledge of acoustic principles and honestly I can’t really claim I could grasp the meaning of each of them. In some cases I managed to have interesting sound variations by moving a slider,in others I found no audible difference,probably because some controls must be adjusted in groups rather than individually.

For example,I found out that lowering the default value of the Dyn.Pitch parameter – which controls random pitch fluctuations in response to different breath intensity – allows me to articulate phases in a way that is closer to my playing style on the real instrument. Likewise,increasing the SubHarm value – which simulates the sub-harmonics that acoustic instruments create one octave below the played note – results in a “richer” sound.

Some parameters are meant to be controlled dynamically by sending CC messages from your MIDI controls. For example,the Growl and Flutter Tongue values should be set to zero because you don’t want these effects in all your phrases:by mapping them to specific CC messages you can enable them on-the-fly and add expressiveness to your phrases.

A couple of sliders affect the noise produced by breath and keys;when playing at low volume,these two parameters add realism to the sound. You can control them using CC messages,too,but in practice their default value is OK for most circumstances.

As if all these options weren’t enough,the Options button (near the bottom-left corner) brings up a window with additional advanced parameters (see right portion of following figure). Here you can set the way portamento and vibrato work,the expression curve,under which circumstances the virtual sax “overblows”,etc. I haven’t played much with these values,because I was already satisfied with their default value,but it’s good to know that you have so many options to tailor the virtual instrument to your taste and style.

TheSaxophones options window
The SWAM engine also supports microtones and non-tempered tuning. In the Options window you can select the detuning value (in cents) for each of the twelve semitones,but this operation alone doesn’t change the intonation. Instead,you have to activate the microtuning feature either in the main window or by sending a specific CC message. In either case,you can decide which notes use the alternate tuning. Notice that you can detune any note by the desired amount of cents,but you still have “only” 12 notes available:this means,for example,that you can play non-tempered Indian ragas and other Eastern scales but you still can’t perform any sort of quarter-tone compositions,which would require up to 24 different keys.

Optimal MIDI and EWI settings

The fields in the left portion of the Options window allow you to customize how MIDI CC messages map to most of the parameters just described. The default mappings are reasonable,yet they assume that you have a large number of CC controllers available,such as a MIDI keyboard with a lot of sliders and knobs or – if you are an EWI player – a foot MIDI controller such as Behringer FBC1010 or McMillen SoftStep. Even if I have both these foot controllers,my goal was to achieve good results with the EWI alone,thus I spent some time to configure the software and the EWI for the highest expressiveness. Here’s the configuration I came up with.

In the SWAM Engine:

Trasposition: +3 semitones for alto and baritone,-2 semitones for soprano and tenor – this means that a given fingering delivers the same note that would produce on the real instrument,so for example the low Bb generates more or less the same characteristic tone you get from the saxophone.
PitchBend Up: 0.0 semitones – this is necessary so that you can use the EWI pitchbend plate to send a specific CC message without affecting the pitch.
PitchBend Down: 1.0 semitones – with an acoustic sax you typically don’t “bend” a note for more than a semitone;besides,using a small value allows you to achieve a “pitch vibrato” by rapidly moving the thumb on the EWI pitchbend plate.
Expression: mapped to CC2 (breath controller),the standard setting if you select the wind instrument configuration.
Vibrato Rate: mapped to CC1 (default),to allow you to apply vibrato using the modulation wheel (on a keyboard) or the pitchbend up plate on the EWI (by using the configuration described below).
Portamento Time: mapped to CC5 (default)
Growl: mapped to CC4,so that you can add growl effect by pressing an auxiliary key on the EWI (see below).
Overblow: mapped to CC64,so that you can achieve this effect by pressing a key on the EWI (see below).

On the EWI:

You should configure the EWI to send note velocity and breath information (CC2) with each note,and not send volume (CC7) messages. Sending velocity doesn’t really change the note volume or timbre (which depends on CC2),but can affect other behaviors,for example the transition time from note to note during glissandos.

To match the SWAM settings described above,you should map pitchbend up values to the CC1 (modulation) message,which lets you easily have a variable degree of vibrato by simply sliding your right thumb up the pitchbend plate. The Glide plate should map to CC5,so that it controls the portamento in legato phrases.

The Hold key – i.e. the auxiliary key closer to the mouthpiece – should be mapped to CC64 and send the value 65 (or any value greater than 64) when pressed the first time,so that you can activate overblow mode by just pressing this EWI key. Pressing it again disables overblow.

The Octave auxiliary key should be mapped to CC4 so that you can achieve the growl effect by pressing a single key;in the setup you should specify a value between 30 and 127,depending on the amount of growl you desire. Unfortunately,the EWI can only send a single value,thus you can’t apply a varying degree of growl unless you use a MIDI foot controller. Pressing the key again returns to normal (non-growl) sound. Alternatively,you can give up to either overblow or growl,and instead use one of the EWI auxiliary keys to activate microtuning.

Finally,I strongly recommend that you reduce the delay that the EWI introduces between playing a fingered note;the default value for this parameter is 7 and you probably never edited it,but Samplemodeling tech support recommends adopting a lower value,say 3 or 4,to reduce the number of “ghost” MIDI notes that the instrument sometimes emits and that is sometimes responsible for spurious notes,clicks,etc.

Reality check

It’s time to answer the questions that always come up when speaking about virtual instruments:do these instruments sound as good as the “real” ones? Can “The Saxophones” replace real,acoustic saxes?

Unfortunately,the only answer I can provide is:it depends. More precisely,it depends on why you want to use a virtual instrument in the first place and what are your expectations.

Let’s start saying that the quality of sound is fully satisfactory:if you play single notes or slow musical phrases,the saxes in “The Saxophones” can be hardly distinguished from acoustic instruments. Same consideration applies if you want to record a big band section:to get the idea,listen to the demos in this page. In the hands of a good EWI player,a virtual sax can be also used to play ballads and medium-tempo songs,as this video demonstrates.

Samplemodeling instruments were accurately recorded in an anechoic room with expensive mics and using first-class instruments played by professional musicians,thus a recording session based on these sampled instruments can often deliver better results that those you typically obtain in your home studio. If you don’t have four saxophonists at hand,“The Saxophones” is your next better option.

The sound of all the instruments provided in the package is equally good,yet I have my preferences. In my opinion,the baritone and the soprano delivers slightly better results,then comes the tenor and finally the alto. But again,this is my personal opinion and it probably depends on me being an alto sax player,which means that have higher expectations for that specific model.

Playing these virtual instruments in live gigs can be challenging. The detail that makes the biggest difference between a virtual or real sax isn’t the sound itself,rather it’s the playability of the virtual instrument:a sampled instrument just cannot render the countless timbre and articulation variations that you can achieve with an acoustic instrument,such as alternate fingerings and different tonguing techniques;you can sing in the instrument,use multiphonics,produce vibrato by using either the breath or the jaw,and so forth. You can’t reasonably expect that a virtual instrument can implement all these techniques,even though Samplemodeling offer some interesting possibilities,for example in the way they implement growl and flutter tonguing.

Just remember that every single detail of how these instruments sound can be controlled via CC messages:if you really want to get the best results you should read the manual,learn how to tweak the most important parameters,and maybe use an EWI with a MIDI foot controller (or a master MIDI keyboard with a breath controller and a lot of sliders and knobs).

Calypso Score,the perfect iPad music score reader

One of the good reasons for jazz players to own an iPad is the ability of using it as a score reader. Unfortunately,finding a score reader app that satisfies all your needs might not be as simple as you might imagine. Before diving into a more detailed review,let me briefly outline the features that,in my opinion,the ideal music reader app should have to appeal a demanding jazz/rock/pop/fusion player.

The primary goal for such an app is replacing tons of fake books and paper scores,therefore the most obvious feature is ability to store,browse,search,annotate,and bookmark large PDF files,such as the many editions of the Real Book and other fake books you can find on the Internet. If you play original compositions or songs that aren’t included in those fake books,adding your own PDF should be a very quick and simple process.

Secondly,I want the ability to associate one audio file to each score,so that I don’t have to switch to the iPad music player to listen to the original song or practice over a play-along version of the tune (e.g. Aebersold or Hal Leonard CDs). Ideally,I’d like to associate a given score to multiple audio files,so that I can quickly reach different versions of the same song,or play-along tunes with different tempo or harmonization.

Another important feature is the ability to quickly e-mail my scores to other musicians,backup them on the desktop computer (or the cloud,Dropbox,etc.),move scores and associated audio files to another iPad,create song subsets (great for creating the song list for a gig),and print them when necessary. Additionally,a perfect score reader should automatically turn pages,or at least give you the ability to do that with a foot controller.

There are a few other,less critical features I’d like to see in a music reader app:a metronome,a tuner,a virtual keyboard (very useful if you are a singer or a choir director). Being an alto and soprano sax player,I’d also like the capability to store multiple versions of the same song,one transposed in Eb and one in Bb.

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As I anticipated,finding the music reader app that fulfills all my needs hasn’t been simple.

The first one I tried was forScore. It features an elegant and simple user interface,an integrated music player,the ability to turn half-pages (i.e. displaying the upper half of next page while you read the bottom half of current page),and an impressive arsenal of tools and music symbols for annotating a PDF score. Unfortunately,forScore doesn’t provide indexes for the most popular fake books,therefore you have to create such indexes manually. (Alas,the app occasionally crashed when trying to organize and re-arrange large PDFs.) All in all,forScore is a good app that addresses the needs of classical music players,yet it is less useful for jazz and rock musicians.

forScore

My next attempt was iGigBook,which claims to be the perfect replacement for jazz and rock fake books:it comes with the index of 70+ popular fake books (including many editions of the Real Book,with Bb and Eb versions),plus over the chord progressions of 1,000+ jazz tunes that can be transposed to any key. While these indexes are theoretically very useful,in practice they work flawlessly only if you own exactly the same PDF used to create the index,which isn’t often the case:iGigBook provides a way to define a page offset and compensate for missing pages near the beginning of the PDF,but if your PDF lacks one or more pages in the middle or if own a PDF of a different version of the fake book used to create the index,the iGigBook index is useless. (Needless to say,the iGigBook documentation can’t include links to the PDFs used the create the index,because it would infringe copyright laws.)

In practice,only few of the PDFs I own perfectly match iGigBook indexes,thus I had to create my own indexes. Unfortunately,creating a custom index is a slow and an (unnecessarily) contorted process:you must upload the PDF to the iGigBook website (after creating an account),then enter information about individual songs (title,start page,number of page,etc.),one by one. If your Internet connection isn’t optimal,the workflow can take a lot of time. There is the option to upload a text file in comma-delimited format,containing data of multiple songs,but quite absurdly this simplified procedure can be used only for PDFs with 50 or more songs. This threshold prevents me from using the simplified upload method for many of my scores (e.g.,none the Aebersold booklets can be uploaded in this way). Once you have (painfully) created your indexes,you must download them from the iGigBook site to your device,which happens automatically the next time you launch the app.

iGigBook

On the plus side,iGigBook (as well as forScore) allows you to bookmark any page in the score,can import bookmarks scored in PDSs,and can search your music library for music tracks that match the name of the song title that you are current viewing with the option to automatically play the track and repeat it. (Thank you Phil for correct me on these points)

iGigBook has other shortcomings too:its interface isn’t user friendly,it doesn’t offer context-sensitive help and,more importantly,it lacks many other features which I consider as essential. For example,it has limited sorting capabilities,no integrated tuner or metronome. Conclusion:after wasting a lot of time for my tests,I decided to delete iGigBook from my iPad. For sure,it isn’t worth the $15 I paid for it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There are a few other score reader programs in the App Store,but their feature list was too short and/or readers’ comments were negative,thus I was about to abandon my search for the ideal iPad score reader when I finally bumped into Calypso Score.

Calypso has an impressive set of features,which almost perfectly matches my wish list. For example,it can handle large PDFs and associate any number of audio files to any song. In addition to setlists,you can create “books”,i.e. collections of scores that you can then share using iTunes,iCloud,Bluetooth,Dropbox or email. A song can belong to zero,one or more books,and all of them are automatically inserted in the special “All my songs” book (see figure). You can remove a song from a book,but it will be deleted from the device only if you delete it from the main “All my songs” book.

The book list in Calypso

You can assign a color label to a song for your own purposes. For example,I might use a red label for songs I play on alto and yellow label for those I play on soprano,but you can find other interesting uses. You can sort the songs in a book by their title,composer,poet (i.e. lyrics’ author),genre,color label,or creation date.

Calypso comes with indexes for many popular fake books in PDF format and,as it happens for iGigBook,you have to create the index manually if you don’t own the same PDF file used to create the index that comes with the app. However,the workflow to extract a song from a large PDF is much simpler than in iGigBook:you open the PDF (which you must have copied to the device using iTunes sharing),move to the page where the song begins,and press the “Add Page” button once for each page in the song. It took me a relatively short time to index a couple hundred songs from my Real Books. As a bonus,you can quickly create a page from a photo taken with the iPad camera,which is very useful during jam sessions.

Unlike forScore and iGigBook,Calypso doesn’t really create an index into PDF files. Instead,it allows you to browse a PDF and then take “snapshots” of one or more pages,which don’t have to be consecutive. This approach has so many benefits that it surprises me that other apps fail to adopt it. For example,individual pages can be resized,tilted and cropped to better fit the iPad display. These snapshots are stored in a single database and you can later remove the original PDF,so you don’t actually waste any memory on the device. In addition to pages and songs,the database includes books,song information and annotation:you can backup this database to your computer or copy it to another iPad. Even more important,a score can be formed by pages taken from different PDFs,thus I can combine the Eb and Bb version of a song (taken from different Real Book editions) in a single score,so I can switch between these versions by simply swiping to the next or previous page.

Calypso can associate a song with one or more audio files from the iPad music library,a feature that I consider as essential when practicing. These audio files aren’t stored in the database,yet an option allows you to show them in the iTunes folder,so that you can easily backup them and move them to another iPad. By the way,you can also record an audio file yourself using the iPad mic,a feature that might be used to music teachers to monitor their students. Calypso lets you to slow down an audio file and/or modify its pitch,a feature that can be very useful when practicing over a though piece of music. There are other iPad apps that offer this feature alone (and honestly do a better job than Calypso),but having it embedded in the score reader app is a real bonus.

Calypso lets you associate one or more songs to each score

One of the most intriguing features is automatic page layout,i.e. the ability to create jumps and bookmarks inside a song,and synchronize them with the associated audio file,so that Calypso can automatically turn pages for you. The process to associate a measure in the score to a position in the audio file is simple and effective:you just tap an area in the score while the tune is playing (see figure below). Calypso can interpolate between the bookmarks you defined,therefore you only need to tap when there is a repetition or a-capo,or when the tempo gets faster or slower. All in all,automatic page layout puts Calypso ahead of its competitors,even though – admittedly – preparing a score for it requires a good degree of manual labor.

An example of automatic page layoyut (taken from Calypso's user manual)

Calypso includes a simple metronome and the ability to annotate the score with text and markers,even though it isn’t as flexible as forScore in this respect. It lacks a tuner,a virtual keyboard,and a few other frills. It does have the ability to turn pages using a Bluetooth foot controller such as Air Turn BT-105.,yet I would also like to see the same half-page turn feature seen in forScore,that would be useful with scores that haven’t been prepared for automatic page layout.

All in all,Calypso is very robust and can be used with confidence both at home and during gigs. To tell the truth,the program crashed a few times during my tests,but I was impressed by how quickly the offending bugs were found and fixed. Not only that:Siegfried Koester,the developer behind Calypso,was nice enough to share with me some details about future development plans,which are very interesting.

Like any piece of software,Calypso isn’t perfect,even though it gets quite close. Some users have complained that the program didn’t behave as they expected,and wrote somewhat negative reviews on the App Store. In many cases,however,the workflow makes sense once you understand that Calypso stores PDF scores using snapshots rather than indexes. It is essential that you read its manual before trying to use it in a real environment. Calypso’s most recent release offers a more detailed context-sensitive help and introductory screens,thus this is going to be less of a problem.

Context-sensitive help,with links to the relevant section in the manual

Calypso shares with iGigBook the limitation of pre-built,non-flexible indexes for popular fake books. However,the author told me that a future release will make much simpler to modify existing indexes to adapt to PDFs with missing pages or taken from different editions of a given fake book.

There are a few other features I’d like to see in Calypso,for example additional fields for song metadata and the ability to filter the song list by these fields;the capability to loop between two positions in the audio files,that would be useful to practice the most difficult sections of a song;an integrated tuner and virtual keyboard (as in forScore);the ability to turn page using the new IK Multimedia’s iRig Blueboard or other MIDI foot controllers (in addition to dedicated Bluetooth page turner foot controllers). These are minor improvements,though,and the author told me that some of them (and many others) are planned for future versions of Calypso.

The bottom line:if you own an iPad,Calypso Score is a must-have! It changed the way I study and play with my band. At just $6 it’s a bargain you can’t miss.

P.S. If you aren’t sure yet,try Calypso Jam:it’s a free version that comes with indexes for 25 popular fake books and allows you to add a limited number of personal scores,so you can see whether Calypso Score is your ideal music score reader app without spending a dime.

Six (or more) iOS apps for practicing

If you think of it,sax players (and any other musicians,for that matter) need a lot of accessories when practicing. You need your horn,of course,but you also need a metronome,a tuner,a robust music stand,one or more exercises books,the RealBook or other music scores. To practice improvisation you also need a CD or MP3 player with some Aebersold play-along records. If you study harmony you surely need a piano or at least a keyword where you can play chords.

It’s a lot of stuff to carry around,uh?

The good news is that today all you need is an iPhone or an iPod Touch,or an iPad if you like larger and more screens. Well,you still need your saxophone,but nothing other than that!

Metronome

If you search for “metronome”in the App Store you get about 350 matches,so it’s easy to pick up that one that fits your needs. Some of these matches are programs that do a lot more than just keeping the time,but even not counting them you still have a couple hundred apps to choose from. All those that I have tried out are accurate enough for training purposes.

If you just need a “plain”metronome there is no point in spending your money,because most free metronome apps are enough accurate and complete. I especially like the Steinway Metronome,because of its nice “wooden”interface. It supports most common time signatures and has a handy visual indicator that doesn’t force you to connect your iPhone to a loudspeaker to make its click audible when playing your horn.

There are many other apps that offer fancy variations on the basic metronome job,for example progressive changes towards faster or slower tempo. I am not interested in these variations,because they defy the main goal of a metronome. However,they are in the store,if you need this and other additional features. For example,you might invest 0.99$ for the Ultimate Metronome,which additionally supports weird time signatures,different sounds for each click,custom/compound time signatures inside a single song,and more.

Another interesting metronome app (also at 0.99$) is PolyRhythm,which helps you work with compound polyrythms,such as 7-over-2 or 11-over-3. This is more geared towards drummers,but mastering this sort of complex rythms can be useful to any musicians. Its author Wolfram Winkel has also created a reduced version of this software that runs inside any browser,so you can have an idea of how the apps works before purchasing it. (The main difference between the iPhone app and the browser-based app is that the latter doesn’t let you specify the exact BPM value.

As for most music apps,remember to disable auto-lock when working with metronomes,else you’ll spend most of your time unlocking the screen.

Tuner

The category of tuners is nearly as crowded as the category of metronome apps and,like for metronomes,you can find a tuner inside many popular apps,especially apps for guitarists such as AmpliTube,AmpKit,and iShred Live. As for metronomes,you can save your money and get a free tuner.

For my setup I chose n-Track Tuner. There isn’t much to say about it,except that it works well and that only a few years ago I spent about 30$ only to get a “real”chromatic tuner that does the same thing and that I never carried around because I had no room in my sax case.

Ear Training

There are many iOS apps that can help you develop the ability to recognize individual notes or even chords. Several free apps cover the basics (e.g. simple intervals),but you might need to spend a few bucks for a complete ear training course. It’s a good way to spend your money,though. The good news is that all commercial apps also offer a free version that lets you try before you purchase.

The three apps that you should try are Karajan at $14.99 (or its free version Karajan Beginner),Ear Training at $14.99 (or the free Ear Training Lite),and Ear Trainer at $5.99 (or Ear Trainer Lite for free).

Play By Ear offers a different and interesting approach to ear training. In this case,instead of touching the screen to indicate your guess,you just play the note on your instrument. Last but not the least,it is absolutely free!

Tempo/pitch changers

If you are transcribing,studying,or practicing a solo you badly need a player that can slow down a song without changing its pitch,or maybe by changing the pitch so that all notes are in a more comfortable key. In the good old days,when records were made of vinyl,it was possible to play a song at half velocity (and lower the pitch by an octave,more or less),by playing the LP at 16 r.p.m. This is how I learned by first solos by Bird or Coltrane,but luckly there are better means today.

In my opinion,the most versatile app in this are is Slow Down Music Player,that supports importing from the iPod library,the ability to bookmark a point and to loop over a section of a song,and to share individual phrases via email. Best of all,its absolutely free! It’s only limitation is that it doesn’t work with DRM-protected songs,becase they can’t be imported from the iPod library (a limitation that is common to all apps of this type,though).

In the App Store you can find other programs with similar features,though. For example,you may want to try Slow Notes Music Player,which has a better user interface and is free as well.

Score Readers

If you own an iPad you can finally leave all your Real Books at home! In fact,there are several great apps that allow you to browse music scores in PDF format.

For starters,any PDF reader can work as a music score browser,for example the great GoodReader,which also supports annotations and the ability to display two pages in landscape mode. For example,I use GoodReader to store the PDF version of my exercise books. However,there are a few apps that fit the specific needs of musicians much better than generic PDF readers.

The two apps that I regularly use are forScore and forScore Both are available on the iPad only,because it would make little sense to view a score on the iPhone’s tiny screen.

At $4.99 forScore is the less expensive of the two,and includes virtually any feature you may desire,including importing from iTunes or Dropbox,bookmarks,the ability to search for title,genre,composers,etc.,annotations,zoom,landscape support,and page cropping (so that you can discard large margins and make better use of iPad screen estate). It comes with an integrated metronome,a tuner,the ability to automatically turn pages (even half pages) or link two portions of a score (great for repetitions,codas,etc.),score sharing via Bluetooth,a piano keyword,output to an external monitor,support for AirTurn pedal (for hands-free operations),and more.

iGigBook costs three times more ($14.99) than forScore,however if you are a jazz musician the extra money might be well spent. The main iGigBook feature,in fact,is the index of about 60 fake books,including all the most popular ones (e.g. all Real Books editions,including their Bb end Eb variants). This means that –if you have the PDF version of one or more such books –you can find all the versions of a given song in a few seconds.

iGigBook includes many other interesting features,such as chord changes (no themes) for 1200+ popular jazz standards,that can be transposed to any key,and the ability to build a PDF book of selected stored (quite useful to hand out printouts to your fellow musicians before a rehersal). As for forScore,you can point at repeats,D.S.,D.C. so that iGigBook can turn pages for you,and in my opinion iGigBook is slightly better in how you can organize your score lists. The authors also offer a separate iPhone app,named iGigBook Pager,which allows you to wirelessly turn pages on the iPad,a great feature if you are display the score on an external monitor. On the other hand,iGigBook doesn’t support half-page turns,doesn’t include a tuner,doesn’t support sharing via Bluetooth or DropBox,just to name a few of its current limitations.

To recap,as of this writing forScore and iGigBook apps aren’t perfectly equivalent. For this reason,you should carefully compare their features before you pick your choice. Or maybe buy both of them and use one or the other depending on the circumstances,as I did.

Play Alongs

In this area there is only one app that you should absolutely have:iReal b. This app has been in the store for at least a couple years and it’s updated and extended on a regular basis. When it started it just offered a “chord-only”version of the Real Book (the melodies could not be included for copyright restrictions),with the added ability to transpose it automatically to any key and to account for Eb,Bb,F,and G transposing instruments. Great for all wind instruments.

Some time later the author added a few in-app purchases (for jazz,pop,and latin styles) that allow you instantly generate the accompaniment for any song in the archive,using the style and the tempo you like most (see left image below). Thanks to this great feature not only can you practice on Giant Steps at a slowed down tempo,you can even try changing the style,and maybe play Donna Lee with rock or latin flavor.

The newest releases of iReal b come with no songs,but you can easily download 1300+ chord changes or enter your own (see right image below). On the authors website you can find several tutorial videos that teach you how to leverage the many features of this great software.

iReal is priced at $7.99,and the jazz,pop,and latin style packs cost $5.99,$4.99,and $3.99 respectively,so be prepared to spend about $23 for the entire suite. It’s much more than the typical iOS app,but it’s absolutely worth it. It’s like owning the entire Aebersold series in your pocket:the computer-generated accompaniment can’t compete with the great musicians that play on Aebersold records,but the result is absolutely first class and can keep you busy for years and years of practicing.

Even if you aren’t interested in the play-along feature,iReal b is still a must-have even just for its repository of chord changes. I never go to a jam sesssion without my iPhone now.

Free backing tracks for practicing!

Practicing can be quite boring,especially if you play sax,flute,trumpet,clarinet,or another monophonic wind instrument . Worse,practicing with your instrument alone can bring to some bad musical habits,including not being able to play “on the beat”and not being aware of the relationships between the notes/scales/arpeggios you play and the chords these notes were supposed to be playing upon.

Virtually all teachers recommend to use a metronome to prevent bad timing habits,but what about the inability to hear and “feel”the actual harmony implied by the scales you are playing?

Many players remedy to this issue by using play-along records (e.g. Aebersold,Hal Leonard). For example,Aebersold’s volumes 1,3,and 16 offer great backing tracks for practicing scales,II-V progressions,and turnarounds,respectively. Other musicians prefer making their own backing tracks with Band-in-a-Box (BIAB). However,both approaches have limitations.

Play-along CDs include realistic backing tracks,but limited choice of keys,chord sequences,and tempos. Most recording tracks are medium speed,which can be problematic for beginners,who should practice scales and arpeggios VERY slowly to master the subtleties of rhythm,such as playing “ahead”or “behind”the beat.

Band-in-a-Box and other similar programs far more flexible,in that you can enter any chord sequence as well as easily change the key and the tempo. Recent BIAB versions include features such as RealBand and RealTracks,which can produce natural-sounding tracks that are much more realistic than the computer-generated sounds of its earlier versions. However,all these additional features make BIAB quite a complex software to learn,so complex that BIAB maker PG Music had to produce many tutorial videos to let users learn how to master all these features.

Finally,both play-along CDs and BIAB surely don’t come for free. Aebersold CDs are 10-15$ each,whereas BIAB starts at 129$ and goes up to 669$ if you want all the RealTracks you might need. No pocket money,really…

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In a recent post I introduced ChordPulse,a simple yet useful Windows program that can generate backing tracks in a very easy manner.  Chord Pulse accompaniment styles are simplicistic –if compared to BIAB,at least  –yet they exactly what you need to practice rhythms over basic harmonies. More important,ChordPulse is so simple that it takes only a few minutes to discover all its features. Like BIAB,you can define chord sequences of (almost) any length,define loops inside the sequence,change the tempo,the accompaniment styles,and the key. You can even tune the software to frequencies other than the standard 440Hz.

What I overlooked in my review is that there are as many as THREE versions of ChordPulse,namely:ChordPulse (full version,$27.95 or 19.95 euros),ChordPulse Lite (freeware,has limited number of chord types and accompaniment styles),and ChordPulse Player (also freeware,can play songs created with the full version but can’t create new songs). The great thing about the Player version is that you are still able to change the tempo and the key,define loops,etc.  It was perfect for what we need!

Using the full version I created a few chord sequences that are specifically meant to be played while practicing with a wind instrument. You can download and play these files with ChordPulse Player at the speed you prefer,starting at lower tempos and going faster once you feel comfortable to do so. Most sequences are available in all keys,but you can change the key by pressing the Up/Down arrow keys.

You can download these sequences as a single ZIP file,which contains the following exercises:

Simple Chords -Major,minor,dominant 7th,augmented,diminished,and half-diminished chords,played by themselves or in simple sequences (e.g. Major to Minor). The first 12 sequences (or pages,according to ChordPulse terminology) only contain chords in C key,but you can easily transpose them using the Up/Down arrow keys. Pages from C to Z include sequences of chords of same type that raise or descend chromatically,whole tones,minor thirds,perfect fourths,etc. Great for practicing Brecker-like patterns!

II-V-I Sequences –The first 12 pages contain the basic II-V-I sequence in all keys. If you want to practice on the II-V sequence,you just create a loop that includes only the first two chords in each page. You can practice each page separatedly,until you feel confident in that key,or you can play these 12 pages as a loop (read later). The remaining 24 pages contain II-V or II-V-I sequences that raise or descend chromatically,by whole tones,minor thirds,major thrids,and perfect fourths.

II-V-I Sequences (Minor) – Same as previous exercises,except it contains IIm7/5b –V7+alt –Imin sequences. (Unfortunately,ChordPulse can’t easily generate complex chords such as dominant augmented chords,therefore the sound of the V7+alt chord isn’t perfect.

Turnarounds –Contains many variations of the common I- VIm7 –IIm7 –V7 turnaround,including variations with tritone substitutions. The first 10 pages contain only turnarounds in C key (use arrow keys to transpose),the remaining pages contain turnaround in all keys,in ascending or descending sequences. When creating these turnarounds I used this page as a reference.

A few tips for using ChordPulse and these chord sequences:

  • Use the File-Session Notes menu command (or just press the N key) to read a description of the contents of each file.
  • Use the Up and Down arrow keys or the commands near the bottom-right corner to transpose to different keys.
  • Use the Repeat All command to play the entire sequence,or the Repeat Page command to loop over the chords in current page. (You can alternate between these modes by clicking the third button from the right,near the top border.
  • You can loop over chords in the same page by clicking the mouse immediately under the first chord of the sequence,and then dragging the mouse to the last chord in the sequence.
  • You can loop over chords in different pages by right-clicking the first chord and selecting the “Loop from this Bar”menu command,then right-clicking on the last chord of the sequence and selecting the “Loop to this Bar”menu command.

ONE LAST WORD! If you find ChordPulse useful,consider purchasing the full version! Even if you don’t do it immediately,at least send its author Laszlo Oroszi an email saying how much you appreciate his work and his generousity (don’t forget that the Lite and Player editions are completely free!).

Introducing ChordPulse…sure you need Band-in-a-Box?

I purchased a license of Band-in-a-Box in 2009 and recently updated it to version 2011. Overall,I am quite satisfied with it but I have some complains.

BIAB is surely a great piece of software,but at times I feel overwhelmed by all its features. After all,I purchased it mainly to practice over common (and not-so-common) chord progression,or improvise over jazz and rock tunes that weren’t available as an Aebersold play-along,or improve my playing over any key and any tempo. I wasn’t the least interested for 90% of the remaining features,that were added mostly for song writers and composers. For example,I don’t really care for the ability to generate a solo over a chord sequence,or add lyrics,recording vocals,etc. Granted,BIAB lets you precisely define every minor detail in its music,but many of these advanced features require some effort to learn,which I don’t have. I prefer spending my time playing,not learning how to use this software. To make things worse,BIAB user interface isn’t exactly modern and intuitive.

More recently I have found myself more at ease with simpler programs,such as the fantastic iRealB (formely iRealBook),which is available for iPhone,iPad,iPod Touch,Android,and Mac. If you own an iPhone,odds are that you already know this app. If you don’t,let is suffice to say that it’s a sort of pocket Real Book (only chord sequences,no melodies) that has been enhanced with additional play-along style packs (jazz,pop,latin,fusion,etc.) that let you practice over more than one thousand popular songs,or define your own. (iRealB enthusiasts often post new songs to iRealB forum.). The quality of the computer-generated accompaniment is good:it can’t match BIAB’s Real Track feature,but it’s more than sufficient for practicing. For less than 20 euros –including the main app plus all style packs –I have all the BIAB features that I like most in my iPhone,and I can often leave the Real Book home when I join a jam.

iRealB isn’t available for Windows so it seemed to me that no viable alternative to BIAB is available for some million players that have neither an iPhone nor a Mac,until I found this little gem named ChordPulse. Its feature list is so short that I can summarize it in a few lines:

  • you can quickly enter chord sequences of any complexity;it supports 16 common chord types,plus inversions,slash chords,and bass notes
  • chord sequences can be arbitrarily long and are subdivided in “pages”that can contain up to 16 bars;chord length can be modified with the mouse
  • you can repeat the entire sequnce,or just the current page,or play the sequence only once
  • over 100 comping styles are provided,and new styles are added on a regular basis at each new minor release –styles range from jazz,blues,rock,pop,and fusion to more traditional styles such as waltz,shuffle,and bluegrass
  • chord sequences can be transposed to any key and BPM value can be changed very quickly,with the mouse or keyboard
  • limited ability to customize the accompaniment style on specific measures and beats
  • mixer for the four instruments,export to MIDI file,precount,fade out,tuning
  • resource-savvy:takes only 5M on disk and 64M of memory,downloads and installs in a few seconds,works on all Windows versions starting with XP,works at 1024×768 resolution…runs nicely on a 300$ netbook

and above all

  • very simple and intuitive user interface,no real need to study the manual.
  • only 28$ / 20 euros

Again,the best thing about ChordPulse is that it’s so simple,easy and intuitive that you need less than one minute to use it,and less than five minutes to explore all its features. Watch these videos for more information.

According to its author Laszlo Oroszi,the software is also good for songwriting,but I don’t fully agree with this as it lacks a few features that might be necessary. For one,you cannot change style,time signature,and BPM in the middle of the chord sequence. These minor limitations,however,don’t decrease ChordPulse’s usefulness as a great tool for practicing and improvising.

You can download ChordPulse and use it freely for 14 days. After the trial period,you must register. The trial edition has all the feature of the real product,including the ability to save your chord sequences.

Quite generously,the author makes a Lite version available for free. The Lite version has only 5 chord types and 24 styles,and fewer options to customize the comping style,but is otherwise as powerful as the complete version. If you just want a better metronome,it’s more than enough. But if you are looking for something more inspirational,have a look at the complete version.

Wireless MIDI for just 8.99$

I recently bought the MIDI Jet Pro for my EWI,so that I send my melodies to my PC,my Yahama VL70-m or Roland SonicCell without a cable in between. I am quite satisfied with it,but admittedly I wasn’t very happy to pay $425 for the joy of wireless MIDI.

Now a cheaper alternative exists for whoever has an iPhone,iPad or iPod Touch. MidiBridge by Audeonic costs only 9 bucks and offers much more than any hardware MIDI wireless system. (I should add “theoretically”because I haven’t tested it yet…)

In short,MidiBridge works as a virtual MIDI patchbay:it takes the MIDI data entering the iPhone/iPad/iPod and sends it to a PC,Mac or another iOS device that sits on the same wireless network. This is where the similiarities with a hardware wireless MIDI device ends,though,because there is a lot more.

  • You can dispatch (clone) the MIDI data to multiple devices,withouth the need of dedicated hardware
  • You can analyze input MIDI data and send it to different devices depending on their MIDI channel
  • You can filter out MIDI data based on several attributes,such as Control Change values,aftertouch
  • …etc. etc.

The vendor claims that the latency is very low with hardware devices and is in the range 3-8 milliseconds with CoreMIDI networking (RTP). Of course,your iOS device needs to be equipped with a MIDI interface (e.g. Line6 MIDI Moblizer,IK Multimedia iRig,or the camera kit if you have an iPad),but if you are a musician and own an iPhone,odds are that you already have them.

As an EWI player,I guess the most natural use of MidiBridge is with the iPhone or iPod Touch,which can be connected to the EWI and still be carried in a pocket or arm band. The iPad is a bit too large and heavy for that. Also,if you want to connect your MIDI instrument to an expander instead of a computer you need another iOS device (including an iPad) that sits near the expander.

BTW,Audeonic has another interesting MIDI app named MidiVision,which allows you to monitor MIDI data flowing into your iOS device. Very useful if something doesn’t work as expected and you need to understand why.

Will we throw away our Aebersold’s play-alongs?

I started playing sax when I was sixteen,and that was some years before James Aebersold begun producing his wonderful play-along albums. (Yes,I am *that* old…even if we prefer the term “experienced”).

In those days,the only way to practice a solo on My Favorite Things or Impressions –short of having a very patient friend who could spend hours on the piano while you assimilate the subtle differences between Dorian and Phrygian modes –was to play over the actual Coltrane’s record,trying to ignore their immensely beautiful melodic lines and concentrating on piano,bass,and drums.

Aebersold changed all this,and since then virtually every jazz player on the planet has perfectioned his/her style thanks to these or similar play-along albums. It is great to “virtually”jam with professional studio musicians (in some cases,*great* musicians). After all,what can be more inspiring than a pianist comping behind you in the same style of McCoy Tyner?

Of course,that McCoy Tyner is far more inspiring than any other pianist who plays in his style,but –again –it’s hard to play over Coltrane’s solo and still preserve some sort of self-confidence about your playing 🙂

Today I read an announce from Roland that might change all this. The new R-MIX software promises to be the next new killer-app for improving your music skills. In short,this audio processing software allows to “visually”manipulate an audio track and do a few wonders such creating “minus-one” type karaoke files from existing songs by lowering the level of the pre-recorded vocal or any other instrument you select.

This appears to be much more sophisticated than any “vocal canceling”software seen so far,none of which works particular well. These programs simply remove sounds that are equally balanced between left and right channel,on the assumption that the vocal part appers at the center of the stereo image. This is seldom true for the voice and rarely true with sax,trumpet,guitar,and other jazz solo instruments.

Not only does R-MIX allow you to play with your favorite pianists,bassists and drummers,it only allows you to change the tempo and/or the pitch of the song. Now you can practice your favorite blues in all 12 keys and speed. That’s even better than Aebersold!

R-MIX can also perform sophisticated audio processing. For example,you can remove the noise from the amateur recording you made the last time you saw Michael Brecker on stage (something within reach of other similar software) or add reverb or delay to only your sax in the recording you made at your last rehersal (something no other software can do,as far as I know).

The great news is that R-MIX will be also available on the iPad,in a reduced (and less expensive,I guess) version that is still capable of producing the “minus-one”playing-along thing that I am so interested in.

R-MIX Tab (the iPad version) will be available in November 2011,whereas the full Mac and Windows versions will come in January 2012. Until then,it’s impossible to know whether it will keep its promises,even if this video is quite intriguing. In the meantime,I think I’ll keep my Aebersold collection under lock…just in case 🙂

Fingering diagram builder

I wish I had discovered this great tool a couple of months ago,when I built the fingering charts for the normal and altissimo register.

The Fingering Diagram Builder,courtesy of Bret Pimentel,is an online tool that allows you to create a fingering chart for a variety of woodwinds,including saxophone,clarinet,flute,oboe,and recorder,plus the AKAI EWI 4000s and Yamaha WX5. You can select the key size and colors,and you can save the image to your computer or your Dropbox account.

The most serious limitation to date is the fingering diagram builder doesn’t support any version of Internet Explorer,even though it should work fine on most other browsers. For sure,it works great on FireFox.

You can learn more about the fingering diagram builder in these blog posts.

EWITool,the “other”EWI 4000s editor

The Akai EWI 4000s comes with 100 presets which,quite frankly,don’t do justice to its internal synt. There are just a handful of patches that are really playable,and none of them vaguely resemble an acoustic instrument,including those that are relatively easy to reproduce with a synt (e.g. clarinet or recorder).

Short of using an external expanders or computer,for us EWiers the choice has always been between these two options:

1) purchase the fantastic Patchman Music EWI4000s collection of sounds by EWI guru Matt Traum
2) create your own sounds with the Vyzex UniQuest Editor that you can download from AKAI website,available for PC and Mac.

(Incidentally,if you don’t have the Patchman collection you are leveraging only a small fraction of the EWI 4000s potential,thus you should order a copy as soon as possible from Matt. At 90$ it’s a bargain.)

However,if you are looking for “that specific sound”and even the Patchman collection doesn’t have anything like it,your only option is to built the patch yourself with the Vyzex editor,which isn’t exactly fun. Or at least,I always found it a bit counterintuitive and unnecessary difficult to use.

Only recently I discovered a third option,in the form of an alternative,open-source EWI 4000s patch editor named EWITool,which you can download from here. Its author Steve Merrony did a great job,and the fact the the documentation is very concise is just another evidence of how simple the software is.

Obviously,to use it at its best you still need to understand how the EWI oscillators and filters work,but in general everyhting seems simpler than with the other editor. By the way,there are two versions,for PC and Debian (but I tested only the former).

EWITools has several neat features,including the ability to load and save all the 100 patches in the EWI,a clipboard where you can store as many patches as you wish (and the clipboard is preserved between sessions!),the creation of multiple libraries,and the ability to work with SYX and BNK files,including single-patch SYX files. Plus a few unique features,such as

  • the ability to create random patches,either from scratch or by randomizing some parameters of an existing patch
  • the ability to “merge”two patches,to create a sound that combines the characteristics of two patches
  • easy acccess to the EWI Patch Exchange.

EWI Patch Exchange was an attempt to create a “marketplace”for EWI players wishing to exchange (for free!) their favorite patches. Unfortunately this attempt should be considered as a failure,because after 3 years there are only about 20 patches in the marketplace,and there haven’t been any new items in the last year. But it’s there and it might resurrected when needed. If nothing else you can find a few new sounds for your EWI.

It seems that –like the EWI Patch Exchange –EWITool is a “dead”project that hasn’t been updated since 2008,which is a real pity because it was a very interesting project. At any rate,the source code is available and maybe not all is lost,because some other developer might pick it from there. Regardless,even in its “current”version 0.6,EWITool is an editor that all EWI players should have at hand.

 

 

A recording studio in 1.33 pounds

Yesterday 4PocketsAUDIO released an upgrade for their Meteor Multi Track Recorder for iPad.

Meteor is a digital recorder + mixer that supports up to 12 tracks with CD quality. It can’t be compared to a desktop DAW like Ableton Live or Cubase,because it only supports audio tracks (no MIDI),but it has a few features that makes it interesting for many studio musicians.

You tipically use Meteor to record small clips that you later duplicate,arrange,trim,split,and remix with the internal sample editor. You can import songs from the iPad music library and export the result of your work to compressed CAV and WAF files,or to other iPad apps that support the PasteBoard protocol,for further processing. It contains a few on-board effect processors and a few more (compressor,distortion,EQ) can be added via in-app purchases. You can apply these effects globally or to specific tracks.

The feature that intrigues me most –and convinced me into buying it –is mixer automation. You can draw volume,pan,and FX level lines for each individual track (see image),which makes it easy to prepare fade-ins and fade-outs for example. As far as I know,this is the only iPad multi-track recorder with this feature.

Video import (in-app purchase) even gives you the ability to watch a video while you arrange your music clips,produce a soundtrack,add a narration,and keep everything in sync.

The main issue with all apps of this kind is that audio processing can easily bend any CPU,especially if you add many tracks and effects. This is true even for PC and MAC apps and it’s even truer on the iPad. As a (partial) solution to this problem,Meteor allows you to “freeze”a track by calculating all the associated effects one and for all,or to bounce/mixdown multiple tracks into a single one. (Beware:freezing is reversible,mixdown isn’t.)

I haven’t played much with Meteor yet,but the first impression is quite positive. There aren’t many better ways to spend $19.99.