Laser Music Processor
David Mellor reviews this affordable music printing program for IBM PC compatibles, which is capable of producing very high quality scores.
In my days as a gigging musician, I used to very much enjoy depping in other people's bands. I would take along my trusty guitar and my mediocre vocal talents, and have a bash at any of the many musical standards which go down well in the working men's clubs. Sometimes, the band's leader would be a thoughtful soul, who would give me a wad of chord sheets to see me through the evening (but I never could find out the proper chords for The Girl From Ipanema!). Other times, it was up to memory and a musical ear to strum along. One band leader I worked for — once — didn't bother even to tell you the title of the song he was about to launch himself into, he would just stick three fingers in the air to mean that the song's key had three sharps — you had to guess whether he meant A major or F sharp minor — or two fingers pointed down to mean that the key had two flats. When he pointed two fingers up, that either meant D major or you weren't playing as well as you ought to have been!
The best band I ever played in, as far as parts went, was for the Ken Dodd show — would you believe? — where the quality of the hand-written band parts was superb. They were easy to read and easy to follow, with never a doubt about any of the repeats, da capos, dal segnos, etc. Some of his jokes, in the second house of the evening, were pretty good too.
Classically trained musicians playing 19th Century music and earlier would probably wonder what all the fuss is about, because their music is all pretty well standardised and can be found printed to a high standard. But if they could see some of the scraps of parts I have had to deal with in my time, they would immediately see the possible benefits of a system which allows the production of clear, printed musical scores and parts. Arrangers and composers alike will be rushing to the door of any company who can come up with simple-to-use, versatile software that can deliver the goods on the page.
The Laser Music Processor, produced by Teach Services of the USA, is ideal for just what I have been talking about. For band parts and simple scores, it has just about every feature you would need to print music the way you would like to see it. As we shall see later, it isn't the ultimate music printing tool and wouldn't suit orchestral arrangers or modern classical composers. But if it can do its own particular job well, then it should find an eager market.
The Laser Music Processor is so-called because its main aim in life is to drive a laser printer, although it does claim to give draft quality on a dot matrix machine. Without further ado, let's take a look at the results that are possible from the system (Figure 1).
As you can see, the results are undoubtedly very good and Beethoven might have approved. I wouldn't like anyone to think that this is equal to an engraved score, because it does have certain faults — slurs and ties, for instance, being rather approximate and tending to cut through other symbols. Also, if you wanted the bar lines to extend all the way from the top stave to the bottom, as you indeed might, then Laser Music Processor won't let you do this. Crescendo and diminuendo symbols, which are not shown in this example as I hesitate to modify the master's work, are rather jagged, being composed of a series of short horizontal lines rather than smooth slanted ones. Even so, the result is not bad at all, if not as good as the very best available from manual techniques.
Now we have seen the results, let's find out how to get there. The first thing you'll need to get anything out of Laser Music Processor is an IBM compatible computer: PC, XT, or AT will do nicely thank you, as does my antique Amstrad PC 1512. Two useful additions are a mouse, which saves a lot of work with the cursor keys, and a MIDI interface (compatible with the Roland MPU401) for inputting data from a music keyboard or sequencer. To print the results to the best standard available, you obviously need a laser printer. Laser printers, unfortunately, are still not as cheap as we might like them to be but the good news is that they are coming down in price. I own a Hewlett Packard LaserJet IIP, which I would recommend to any low volume user who needs good print quality (it's a bit on the slow side at only four pages per minute).
Opening up Laser Music Processor we find the one main screen, the Edit Screen, which you can think of as a window onto a piece of blank paper, which will become manuscript paper as soon as you draw some staves. After looking at some of the sample scores that were supplied with the software, I decided that my first course of action would be to draw some staves in the format I would most commonly want to use, which is just a simple lead sheet format, and then I would be able to use that to start each new page of music. This led to my first disappointment with the software. I found that, although the ultimate results are impressive, the package is not particularly easy to use.
After I had worked out how much space I would need to leave for a title and added my first staff, I had to work out by trial and error how many staves I could fit onto a page and work out the spacing for myself. I found that if I made a mistake and tried to overstep the page boundaries, the screen became covered in diagonal lines which I couldn't get rid of, other than by starting again.
Eventually, however, I did fill my page and could start on the clefs and bar lines. Once again, I might have thought that bar lines could be inserted automatically if desired, at a certain number of bars per line, but no, I had to insert every bar on the page manually — same thing with my treble clefs. But once I had finished, at least I had a format which I could use over and over again.
The Edit Screen is organised as a grid of 80x309 cells, each the size of a note body, and the cursor can be moved to any of these using the mouse or the cursor keys. This is actually a good idea because, if it limits options on note spacing, it makes it easy to align notes and symbols. With few (sensible) restrictions, any symbol can be placed in any of these cells. Obviously, notes are the most important so let's see how easily they can be put in position.
There are actually two cursors: the Edit Cursor, which is a rectangular box, and the Mouse Cursor, which takes the form of an arrow or a musical note. Notes are positioned by moving the Edit Cursor to where you want it, using either the cursor keys or the mouse, then pressing Return on the keyboard or holding down the left mouse button and clicking the right. In the bottom corner of the screen is a box showing the type of note which will be inserted, its duration and stem direction.
Note durations can be entered easily using the computer's numeric keys, and the stem direction, apparently, can be toggled up and down by using the ' key. Unfortunately, my Amstrad keyboard doesn't have one of these keys, so I had to change the stem direction by using the alternative method of cycling through the full range of note values, with stems up and down, until I came to the right one. As you can appreciate, this slows down operation. A third way of flipping the stem involves bringing the mouse down to the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, which is equally irritating. There really should have been an option for automatic setting of stem direction, with easy toggling after insertion if necessary. It would have speeded up the process enormously.
Beaming of notes is another potentially tiresome task which badly needed some automation. The way to beam two eighth notes (quavers) is to draw in two quarter notes (crotchets) and select the Beam function — key in the letters 'BM' — and position the cursor first at the start of the beam, then at the end. It is a bit fiddly, particularly so if you are working with a dotted rhythm, but the results look good on paper. In fact this is the tone of the whole program: whatever you do takes a lot of patience, but the results are eventually worth the effort.
Laser Music Processor is equipped with a fair array of musical symbols — not all, but the ones you are most likely to need. As well as Treble and Bass clefs, there are the Alto and Tenor 'C' clefs, for those of you who have to deal with viola, cello, and bassoon players. There are sharps and flats, and also naturals and double sharps, as well as the small circle that means 'diminished' in guitar chord notation. There is also a selection of fonts for adding lyrics, chord symbols, crescendo and decrescendo instructions etc, and of course titles. Adding text to the music is another process that is fiddly to operate, but it gets there in the end.
To enter text mode, the cursor should be placed where the text is to start. Then the command 'TX' tells the software you want to write some words, and the additional 'T', 'I', 'L', 'S' or 'F' will tell it that you want the Title, Italic, Lyric, Small Italic or Fine font. There is a good enough choice here, although I found Lyric best for guitar chords and Fine best for lyrics. Where lyrics are concerned, the most important thing is that each word should be accurately aligned with the note to which it is to be sung. This is done by starting a new block of text, preferably for each word, I found. If lyrics are entered in long strings, then they will come out of alignment very quickly when they are printed. Entering lots of short text blocks is time-consuming — you have to press 'TXF' every time you want to add a word. It would have been much better to have had a text mode, which you could simply enter once, then add all your text, and then exit it to get on with some more music.
Editing the text is even more tricky. For this, the command is 'L' for Locate and 'T' for Text. The Edit Cursor then moves to the first block of text on the screen, and you have to press 'N' for Next until you reach the text block you want to change, then press 'E' for edit. All this unnecessary palaver, when there is a mouse available that is perfectly capable of shunting a cursor around the screen very quickly, easily, and accurately.
With a suitable MIDI interface connected to your PC, Laser Music Processor can accept data from a MIDI keyboard or sequencer. Even without the interface, Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) can be converted into musical notation. There are two methods of MIDI data entry, Direct and Buffered. In Direct Mode, notes are entered onto the screen as they are played on a MIDI keyboard. In Buffered Mode, a batch of MIDI data can be played in and then processed into notation.
The system works completely differently from normal editing in either of these MIDI modes. In Direct Mode the starting position, from a blank screen, is a dialogue box where the default conditions are set. This time, you don't have to draw in staves before starting work, they are inserted as you need them, either single staves or double staves. As notes are played slowly and carefully on the keyboard, they are entered onto the staff with the current value set in the Note Status box. If a double staff is being used, notes above Middle C are automatically entered into the treble clef and notes below Middle C go into the bass clef. Notes are single spaced in a continuous stream, with a bar line every time you press the 'M' key.
Although the compulsory single spacing means that you don't necessarily obtain the layout you might prefer, it is a fraction quicker to enter notes in this way, and you receive immediate confirmation that you have entered the correct note. Buffered Mode is similar to Direct Mode but allows you to load a whole package of MIDI data into the buffer and enter it into the screen later. Be prepared for a serious tussle with the manual if you wish to go along this route. Recording into the buffer from a keyboard is simply a way of entering data in bulk, it ends up being scored pretty much like data entered in Direct Mode.
Loading from a MIDI File offers the tempting feature of Automatic Rhythm Analysis, which promises to enter the correct time values of notes and rests and also insert the bar lines correctly. It works to a certain extent, but the inability to change the denominator of the time signature is a drawback, as is the fact that there is no beaming of eighth notes.
All in all, I wasn't happy with the MIDI features of Laser Music Processor. If the manual offered more help, that would at least be an improvement, but what it really needs is the ability to achieve results as good as those which can be obtained doing it the slow way, with the mouse and cursor keys, and more quickly.
Printing is the easiest part of the whole process and it is gratifying to see the results of your labours in black and white. The process involves downloading the fonts from the computer into the printer. It sounds complicated, but as long as you do it right it is straightforward (it took a phone call to the States to find out that Laser Music Processor needs to see the MSDOS COMMAND.COM file in disk drive A: before it will download the fonts successfully), and only has to be done once per printing session. After that, any time you feel the need to preview a page — it's always clearer on paper — then just hit the appropriate key and the page will pop out a minute or so later.
The conclusion I have come to with Laser Music Processor is that it can deliver the goods but with certain limitations. I would say that it is suitable for scoring lead sheets, band parts, piano arrangements, vocal scores, and small bands. As long as the music is pretty conventional, there isn't anything you will miss. It can't create orchestral scores because, depending on the spacing, it can only fit around 10 staves per page. (You could, of course, build up these pages as a paste-up and make a photocopy.) Modern classical music is too complicated for Laser Music Processor to handle, there are just too many fancy symbols and too many possibilities — although it may well be useful to use it for the basic notes and then add the details by hand.
The big drawback to the system is that it is awkward to use. I have a graphics and desktop publishing program for my Atari ST which is probably 10 times as powerful (and not much more expensive) but is still extremely simple to use. If it included music symbols, then I would be very happy to use it for scoring. Laser Music Processor, in comparison, is not nearly as versatile and allows the user only limited freedom in choosing a page format, and is very fiddly. The part I disliked most was having to type in 'TXF' for practically every word of the lyric I wanted to add.
The good news is that, despite the problems, the printed results are very good indeed. If your requirements for a music scoring system fall within the scope of Laser Music Processor, and you are prepared to work hard to get the best out of the software, then I feel sure you will like what you see when you're finished.
£149.95 inc VAT.
Computer Music Systems, (Contact Details)
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Review by David Mellor
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