Software for IBM PC and compatibles
As scorewriting software increases in popularity, it increases in variety - if you're using an IBM PC and you're on a tight budget, Songwright could be for you. Ian Waugh scores the wright stuff.
If Chrisunas and rising mortgage repayments have left you short of cash as well as scorewriting software, this IBM PC program could level the score.
WHAT ARE WE talking here? We are talking budget, that's what. SongWright is a rare beast, especially in PC circles - a scorewriting program which doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
To run SongWright you'll need an IBM PC or compatible (I ran it on an Amstrad 1640), 256K of RAM and a printer. A MIDI interface is optional but it could be useful. The standard Roland MPU401 is supported along with the Optronics interface. There is an "Other" option on the MIDI configuration page and this is configured as a "COM2 port at hex address 2F8 using interrupt IRQ-3" (I don't understand either) but you can modify these parameters by altering one of the files on disk.
Operation is strictly from the computer keyboard - the mouse is out. The first screen proffers the main menu which has eight options. We'll do the easy ones first.
THESE ALLOW YOU to set the path and drive for data files and list the current directory. SongWright files are displayed along with their titles - if you've given them one. This is very useful. Even during the review I accumulated nearly two dozen test and half-finished files.
LETS PUT SOME music in. In Record mode you enter note pitches first then tap out the rhythm in real time to the beep of a metronome. You can play the computer keyboard (ugh!) or enter notes from a MIDI keyboard.
You can wipe a recording but you can't delete, say, the last note should you press the wrong key, but you can record a few bars, check them then record a few more.
When you've recorded some pitches you move on to a stave display. A metronome ticks away and you have to press a function key to enter the rhythm. The note durations are drawn as bars across the stave as you do so. You can erase your effort and try tapping again until you're happy with the results. Then the program turns the bars into notation. There's a quantise function here (called Precision) which helps enormously.
The metronome speed, however, bears no relation to tempo markings (which are usually in beats per minute). The default is 100, which is about 40bpm. It's far too slow for accurate tap timing - you try it. Speed it up and the beep becomes irregular. I found it very difficult to enter anything of any complexity although 'Frere Jacques' I managed - just.
You can enter the notes and durations in real (tap) time from a MIDI keyboard (this draws the bars directly onto the stave) but the irregular metronome is no help here.
FORTUNATELY THERE IS a second method of input which is far more flexible and versatile: the Compose screen is effectively a note editor. Here you can correct mistakes made in Record or enter notes directly onto the stave - in my opinion, a far more sensible idea.
Three clefs are supported - treble, bass and alto. The note range extends to four octaves over each clef beginning with low C, but notes will not print higher than four leger lines above the stave.
It's important to understand the layout of the staves. Unlike some scorewriters (C-Lab's Notator, for example), SongWright's staves are of fixed length. When you fill one stave you must move manually down to the next one.
If you need two or more staves (for a piano part or orchestral score) you can link adjacent staves together. You can insert staves at will (if you want to add an extra part, for example) but you could have problems if you suddenly decide to insert extra bars, as you can't push bars off one stave and onto the next. You can move and copy part sections, however, so all is not lost but it will pay to know exactly what you want to enter before you start to enter it.
Notes have four parameters: Name (pitch), Accidental, Value (duration) and Link. Link is used to tie one note to the next (and to slur them - an aspect of music not supported over MIDI) and to form chords. When you form chords you have to work from top to bottom and the program won't let you link two notes of the same pitch even if one has been accidentally lowered, for example, A and Ab.
The shortest note length available is a 16th and the shortest triplets are eighth-note triplets. This could be restricting, although 32nd notes are available from user-defined symbols.
You can set time and key signatures and change them within a stave although the program can't line up different time signatures on connected staves (a la Tubular Bells). This is a very difficult thing to implement and many more expensive programs can't do it either.
SongWright supports many music symbols, however, including 1st, 2nd and 3rd time endings, repeat and double bar lines, accents, tenuto and fermata signs. You can also define your own symbols using a text editor and several symbol definitions are supplied on the system disk.
The spacing or Width between notes can be adjusted and, indeed, may be necessary at times. For example, if you enter a bar of 16th notes the default Width value makes the notes overlap the bar lines. This isn't always obvious from the Composer screen and needs to be considered when constructing a score. Width adjustment has to be made manually.
Each stave can hold two parts (each containing chords), well suited to Bach's 3-part Inventions and their like, as long as they don't include durations the program can't handle. Many modern rock and pop song arrangements are written in three or four parts on a piano stave.
Apart from the music content you can enter a music header above the stave (which will probably consist of chord symbols) and sets of lyrics beneath them. A novel feature is Sing mode which prints out the lyrics as it plays the tune. Interesting.
Chord symbols will be adjusted if you transpose the piece but be prepared for some A sharps (you can alter them manually, of course, if you wish). You don't have full control over the accidentals either and can't alter them enharmonically.
The program remembers the attributes of the last note and offers them for the next one. Pitches can be entered from a MIDI keyboard, too, and then stepped through adding their Value and Link attributes. This helps make step-time input a little easier and quicker.
Compose has several helpful features. For example, it reminds you if you try to leave a line containing an incomplete bar. It also advises that Cb is not often used but it will permit it.
To sum up, Compose doesn't give you infinite flexibility but it is written to support probably around 75 to 80 percent of "average western music" (I generalise, I generalise).
ONTO THE EDIT screen. This displays a (slightly smaller) set of eight staves. You can cut, copy, paste and move bits of the arrangement around in bar increments - very useful for repetitive scores - and sections can be saved and then loaded into different scores, enabling you to build up a complete score from lots of individual parts (or vice versa).
The Edit module didn't take to my Yamaha PF70 piano, however, and crashed when I tried to leave it (parting is such sweet sorrow). After several conversations with the suppliers (and several experiments), we began to suspect it was the Active Sensing messages put out by the PF70 which were causing the problems.
However, equipment which doesn't recognise Active Sensing should ignore it (most do) and it's really no excuse for the program to crash.
YOU CAN HEAR individual lines played back though the PC's speaker from Compose. Chords are played as arpeggios, which, given the restrictions of the PC's sound chip, is fine. To hear the whole score you have to select Perform.
Playback via MIDI is a consummation devoutly to be wished but, unfortunately (aye, here's the rub), in its present incarnation SongWright is a scorewriter rather than a sequencer. Consequently MIDI playback is rather erratic. Give it busy parts to play at speed and it goes to pieces.
You can enter the speed before playing the piece but the program restricts you to values between 15 and 300 but, again, this does not represent a bpm tempo. The speed can be altered as it plays but it doesn't tell you what value of speed is current. If you speed it up you can get much faster than 300 and on return to the playback screen you may see a value of 700 or more. I've cranked it up to 1993 to play Handel's Queen of Sheba. Very odd, and hardly an ideal state of affairs. Accurate playback via MIDI would greatly increase SongWright's potential.
SONGWRIGHT SUPPORTS IBM, Epson, Star and Proprinter printers and you can choose low, medium and high resolution printout. High resolution is pretty good - see sample printout.
Notes aren't beamed in the Composer but they can be joined together for printout, although you have no control over the grouping of the beamed notes. Some aspects of the layout could be improved but I think SongWright has a fair crack at a difficult job. Remember, we're talking budget here.
Read the manual from the beginning and you'll walk through a very good tutorial section. The reference section, however, only lists the options available from the various menus and really should be expanded.
HAVING LOOKED AT some of the big boys in the scorewriting business - and some of the smaller ones - I find SongWright a difficult fellow to place. It hasn't got all the bells and whistles of the big boys, and I'm afraid certain sections of the music community won't be able to produce the scores their hearts desire, but it will cater for a great deal of popular music. If you simply want to write lead sheets (melody, chords and lyrics) it will do the job with nonchalant ease.
Let's not beat around the bush. SongWright's real strength is its price. My main disappointment is the poor playback via MIDI but, as this is a software consideration, perhaps the situation can be improved.
Having said that, playback still serves as a guide to what you've written and if you bear in mind the fact that even some of the more expensive scorewriters don't have a MIDI playback facility, I think that puts SongWright's place in the musical scheme of things firmly into perspective. It's by no means fully comprehensive but it does perform a good range of scorewriting functions quite well - and cost-effectively.
Price £87 including VAT
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