The Gentle Art of Transcription (Part 2)
Printing the Part
David Ellis concludes his survey of music-transcribing devices. Among the products featured this month are units from Fairlight, New England Digital, Con Brio and Xerox.
David Ellis concludes his survey of machines that turn a musician's performance into traditional musical notation.
One consequence of postponing last month's episode of this transcriptional saga is that it gave me a chance to dig a little deeper than I might otherwise have been able to do, and as a result, I was able to discover a good deal more about Passport Designs' Polywriter transcribing program.
The first point is that unlike the Notewriter software, Polywriter is fully polyphonic. Secondly, whilst Passport have retained the Apple II or IIe as the transcribing tool, keyboard input isn't restricted solely to their Soundchaser keyboards: the good news is that any MIDI keyboard can be used, provided that there's also the necessary interface card in the micro. The not so good news is the cost: $495 for Polywriter and $195 for the Apple MIDI card. Still, if you've already got MIDI software for the Apple and want to add on the sort of transcribing facilities that Polywriter provides, the price might not seem such a heavy cross to bear.
As with Notewriter, the program works only with real-time input (with timing resolution down to triplet 16ths) played in time with a variable click track. Editing facilities are pretty comprehensive (they'd need to be with realtime polyphonic input) and include the option of adding text and lyrics above or below the stave.
Where Polywriter really comes into its own however is in the printout department. Not only are there eight ways of having the music formatted - from single treble or bass clef lines right up to 40-part orchestral scores - but the program also tracks and adjusts accidentals, adds proper beaming and flagging, auto-justifies rests and spacing, and prints out parts with automatic transpositions.
Polyphonic transcription is an order of magnitude more complicated to put into effect than its monophonic version, so life is hardly all sweetness and roses when it comes to fitting in your own notion of an accurate polyphonic keyboard performance with what the computer perceives as such. As with Notewriter, a lot of editing is required to get the printouts looking as good as the examples shown, a fact that begs the obvious question of whether it wouldn't be more efficient to make more use of the QWERTY keyboard in entering the notes in the first place, ie. use the music keyboard for pitches and the QWERTY keyboard for everything else...
All in all, though, this is a very clever bit of software, even if the insistance on real-time creation of orchestral scores is being a mite optimistic given the keyboard technique of most composers I know! It's good to see that the software doesn't require anything more grand than an Epson dot-matrix printer for the printing-out operation, because there's a lot of snobbery attached to the ultra-high quality of daisy wheels, plotters, and the like, and the quality of the Polywriter printout is a convincing demonstration of what can be achieved with a sub-2300 printer.
Aside from the ADS200R's 16-track polyphonic digital memory that stores 80,000 notes and allows automated mix-down and editing, the 16-bit stereo or quadraphonic outputs with a 96dB S/N ratio, and the Music Programmer, which allows the musician to edit a keyboard performance by interacting with a conventional music score displayed on a built-in monitor screen, the Con Brio system also has a Scorewriter option, which enables the printing of a conventional music notation from either a keyboard performance or the Music Programmer.
So why, oh why, isn't the ADS200R more widely known?
Well, to start with, there's the price: $20,500 for a single keyboard, 32-voice model with stereo outputs, $9300 for an extra 32 voices and the quad outputs, and $4000 for the Scorewriter option, including the printer as well as the software. In addition, of course, there's the fact that Con Brio, like a few other American manufacturers I could mention, seem to produce their extraordinary equipment more for their own enjoyment than for greater glory in the commercial synth world.
On the subject of Scorewriter, which does look very interesting, the closest I've got to it is a murky photo showing music emerging two staves at a time from a printer. It's a great shame when such interesting systems hide their light under a bushel...
Stavewriter is a new addition to the growing software library of the Fairlight CMI, aimed at providing a high quality printout of musical notation from either MCL or the Real-time Composer (Page R). At the moment, the software prints only a part at a time from MCL (though this is expected to eventually extend to four parts), but it will print the whole eight parts of Page R, using what Fairlight call 'a simplified notation', while four complete patterns can be fitted on a 11" x 17" page.
Printing options include adjustable stave width, length, spacing, number-per-page, proportional spacing, transposition, and automatic computing of irregular rhythm groups. Unfortunately, the high quality of the example shown carries a weighty price tag because of the tailoring of the program to a specific X-Y plotter - the Hewlett-Packard 7475A (a cool $1895). And then there's the cost of the software - unknown as yet. Personally, I don't quite see the point of using a six-colour plotter for music printing, but no doubt Fairlight have multi-coloured plans in store for their customers...
Whether or not it's 'every musicians dream... to have his or her music printed out in real notation after it has been recorded' is a moot point. Personally, I'm just after the sounds. Anyhow, given that you've added the Terminal Support Option (around $10,000) to the basic (?) Synclavier system, an extra $3000 or thereabouts will purchase the means of that quoted writer's nirvana, the Music Printing Option. Life's all about options over in the Land of NED, it would seem, but if you asked me, I'd say Terminal Support Option sounds gruesomely reminiscent of institutionalised medical care for AIDS patients or a scene from the film Coma.
New England Digital's printing program takes Script (the Synclavier's version of MCL) files for input and produces hard copy on a Prism dot-matrix printer, included in the £3000 for the Music Printing Option. If you're after real-time transcription in its true sense, you're in for a slight let-down, as recorded pieces have to be reverse compiled into the Script format before they can be displayed, edited, or printed. Doing this to the start of a performance of Bach's Third Brandenberg Concerto demonstrates the major problem with all transcriptional programs - the annoying tendency of all computers to go one better than their masters when it comes to accurate timing. What the example shows is how easy it is for Bach's sublime counterpoint of quavers and semiquavers to be transmogrified into a syncopated nightmare, and all because of a slight timing discrepancy on the F sharp in Part 1 making the computer add on a semiquaver more than there should have been. That's where the editing process steps into the picture with a vengeance, turning a base performance into liquid gold.
What's more, parts generated from the Music Printing Option can include all manner of n-tuplets and odd tempo divisions, dynamic markings, articulation markings, instrument names, text, and even page and bar numbers. In short, the printed output from the Synclavier is just about as good as anything that can be generated from a conventional printing press.
Recipe for Mockingbird a la Xerox: take one Dorado computer with a 60ns instruction cycle, eight megabytes of RAM, an 80Mb hard disk, an A4-size, high-resolution, bit-mapped display, a Yamaha CP30 keyboard with computer interface, a high-resolution, computer-driven, raster-scan laser printer, and simmer gently with a mouse and a couple of humans for a year or so at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centres.
Mockingbird is 'an interactive music notation editor', or, in more traditional parlance, an honest-to-goodness composer's scribe. The purpose of Mockingbird isn't to invent new music, or to suggest variations to the composer, but simply to aid him in recording his own ideas by speeding up the notational process. Fair aims, indeed, so how do you go about using it?
Well, unlike the Polywriter or Synclavier programs, Mockingbird doesn't attempt to cover the area of automatic transcription. Instead, it takes in a performance as a series of unadorned events as a 'piano-roll input' from the CP30 keyboard. Editing can then be applied to turn the raw notes into a form that's typical of a completed piano score. In fact, this scribe is a lot more interactive than the foregoing might suggest, because not only is the display updated according to what editing actions are performed with the mouse, but the CP30 will also then play back the new note, bar, or entire score. So, if the user puts a trill marking on a note, Mockingbird will trill when playing it.
Unfortunately, Mockingbird is a research prototype, and there's not much chance that it'll ever see the light of day outside the protective wings of the Xerox Corporation. The problem, of course, is that the technology it uses is prohibitively expensive, but if anyone's interested in knowing the full story, the January 1984 issue of Byte magazine carried a very complete account of the project by its designers, John Maxwell and Severo Ornstein.
Feature by David Ellis
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