Dr T Copyist
Software for IBM PC and Atari ST
Music transcription comes to Atari ST and IBM PC computers with this new program. Chris Many finds out if it does a better job than the human hand.
Is computer-assisted music transcription a viable option, given the state of today's personal computer systems? Dr T's Copyist is one of the first programs to test the water.
MUSIC TRANSCRIPTION IS an ancient art, dating back thousands of years. In fact, putting musical thoughts down on paper using agreed upon symbols of notation is one of the oldest forms of written communication known. Through the ages, it has allowed musicians the opportunity freely to exchange their concepts of music performance.
It is fairly universal in nature; a quaver in Britain is written the same way the world over, just as forte is read the same way in Italy as it is in Germany. Lines, staves, notes, flats and sharps are shared symbols amongst all the world's musicians, allowing everyone to understand precisely what the composer wants to communicate, irrespective of their nationality.
Seeing that transcription has been around as long as it has, it's surprising that very few advances have been made to ease the task. The printing press certainly revolutionised the process, making scores legible and available to many aspiring musicians, composers and conductors.
But not much else has simplified the transcription process over the centuries. Professional copyists earn their livelihoods by copying parts for band or orchestra, cranking out page after page after page. It's a laborious procedure, often requiring special onion skin paper, India ink, calligraphic pens and other tools of the trade.
Here, then, is a field seemingly tailor-made for computers; an area that, in this age of desktop publishing, could benefit enormously from some improved speed and quality.
Enter the Copyist, a software program from American company Dr T. This is a program that promises publication-quality musical scores, allows full screen editing using the computer's keyboard and/or mouse, and also converts popular sequencer datafile formats into standard musical notation for editing and printing purposes. Sounds great, but does it make the process of music transcription simpler, with greater speed and quality the results? In other words, does it make the musician's job any easier? Before answering that question, let's take a look at some of Copyist's features and how the program actually works.
ONCE YOU'VE CONFIGURED the Copyist for your system (colour or mono monitoring, Mouse installation, printer type, and work and program directory selections), you boot the program, after which you're presented with the main menu across the top of the screen. The editing tutorial provided in the documentation suggests you load in a sample file included on a sample data disk. Once it's loaded, the screen is redrawn to display several staves of music, a title and a rectangular cursor with which you navigate the score. If you've installed a Microsoft Mouse (I've been told the program works with other popular brands as well), you can use it to move the cursor.
Which brings me to my first complaint. That's all you can do with the mouse - move around. You can't access any menus with it; you can't drag notes, symbols, rests, accidentals or anything at all with it; you can't scroll to another page of music with it; you can barely put the mouse buttons to any use with it. In short, the mouse is used solely as a substitute for the cursor arrow keys on the keypad. Even broad-based music packages available in the US put the mouse to good use, letting you select note types, drag symbols all over the page and run the program from menus. It's not that the Copyist doesn't use menus, it's just that the mouse is not enabled when the menu options are displayed. Seems like the mouse feature was just tacked on, without any real determination to realign the program to take advantage of a mouse. (Note: I reviewed the PC version of the Copyist, not the ST version, but the implementation is the same.)
According to Dr T, the reason behind this approach is that dragging notes to position them and selecting note values or items from a menu is too slow for note entry, and that in the hands of an accomplished Copyist user, notes can be entered much faster than they can with conventional mouse techniques.
While a professional mouse user might contest this statement (and I'm not arguing a mouse vs. keyboard input), the point remains that if software is going to support a mouse, then that device ought to be put to full use, giving users a choice of input method.
Mouse implementation deficiencies aside, Copyist's editing features are pretty extensive. All symbols are entered from the keyboard, and assignment of keys is fairly consistent with their function. For example, to enter a sharp, position the cursor where you want it on the staff and press 'S'. ('F' is used for flat, 'N' for natural, and so on.) Ledger lines are drawn automatically, but you can defeat this feature if you want. Some symbols require two key strokes; you type 'CT' for a treble clef, 'CB' for a bass clef, and so on. It's fairly easy to move around a page, whether you use the mouse or cursor keys. I actually found it easier to use the keys, since all entry is done from the keyboard anyway.
MANY OF THE standard musical notation symbols are implemented in the program, including trills, formata, coda, damper pedal, and arpeggiato. Beaming notes is another feature provided, either above or below the notes. It's a bit tricky to work out exactly how to do it, but if you go through the tutorial examples, everything happens quite smoothly. Making the transition from hand-held tutorial to working operation takes some perseverance, but suffice it to say that you an beam your eighths, 16ths, 32nds, and so forth, slanting them up, down or horizontally.
"Erasing symbols can sometimes be troublesome", the manual tells us, and it's true. The cursor must be correctly centered upon the symbol to be deleted, and this becomes especially tricky when using a mouse. The phrase the documentation uses to describe the correct placement of the cursor in most cases is "intuitive, but sometimes a little experimentation is necessary".
Copying bars or sections of a bar can speed up score entry, especially if your music is a repetitive motif. You can cut and paste, but you need to insert a space into your score, because Copyist doesn't do this automatically. This too can be a somewhat bothersome routine, at least until you've grown used to it.
"Once you've gained some experience, the editing features you have at your command cover everything you'd want in terms of editing music from a computer keyboard."
Which brings me to complaint No. 2. I found the editing features of Copyist, although admittedly pretty complete, cumbersome to use, and not readily learned.
Let me give you some examples. First of all, there are over a hundred different commands available for you to use. Obviously some will be used more than others, but the fact remains that there are lots of options, editing or otherwise. Usually, programs that are somewhat involved have a Help key, or some other form of online directory of commands or assistance. None is included with the Copyist. I found myself leafing back and forth through the manual, trying to figure out how to do the simplest things, trying to see why this happened when I did that, and generally getting frustrated about the way the program worked.
Here's an example of how the editing tutorial is laid out: "Let's add some more music by entering these strings of commands:
Now, it may not be fair to use a tutorial example in a review like this without defining what all of those keystrokes do, but I felt just as confused as you do now as I sat in front of my PC parroting this "tutorial" guide to editing. I could look up and find out that pressing 'B' placed a black note (quarter, eighth, and so on) wherever the cursor was positioned, or that moved the cursor one step to the right (I could see that when I pressed the key) or that the '+ + I' beamed notes together. But for me, editing and transcribing music on a computer just shouldn't require me to learn 10-20 new commands in order to get a page of music written out.
I suppose, in fairness, that if I was an expert in the use of Copyist, my attitude might soften. That holds true for many subjects, though; once you know how to use a tool, it's easy. The hard part is in mastering the tool. And that's the complaint I have with Copyist's presentation: it's slow learning compared to the time you have to invest. I'll reiterate, though, that once you've waded through the documentation and gained some experience using this program, the editing features you have at your command cover everything you'd want in terms of editing music from a computer keyboard.
COPYIST ALSO CONVERTS sequencer song files into music notation, which will probably find more use than entering transcriptions into the editor. It currently supports files from such American programs as Texture, Sequencer+ and MasterTracks, with conversion routines included to allow them to be loaded into Copyist. The problem with loading in a sequencer pattern or keyboard performance is that the computer can be all too literal in gauging your performance - though this problem is one all scoring programs have to solve, not just the Copyist.
For instance, how accurate are you in playing and releasing eighth-notes? Perhaps the computer feels you released a few of them too soon to be considered eighths, and so transcribes them as 16ths. So you'll need to spend some additional time editing the sequence after you've loaded it in.
This is not really the fault of Copyist; it does a good job of faithfully reproducing your performance, and allows you to adjust default settings (include or exclude) for parameters such as rests, dots, stems or beams, or whatever. But you can get a pretty odd-looking score after you first load it in, with 64th-note rests and 16ths instead of eighths.
You can change the note quantisation amount to different variables, which solves some of this problem. It's a neat idea and a handy way to cut down re-editing time, but you'll probably have to do some tweaking before you have a score you're happy with.
WHICH BRINGS US to the final evaluation, printing out the finished piece of music. Currently, Copyist supports several output formats: Epson (or an Epson-compatible printer), HP Inkjet or Laserjet+ printer, and HP-GL compatible plotter. I used a regular Epson printer, not having immediate access to an HP Ink/Laserprinter.
The Epson configuration prints out in either a high-resolution mode, in which the quality is greatly increased due to continuous passing of the print head, or a regular mode, which decreases the resolution but speeds up the print process dramatically.
This final point brings me to my third and most major complaint. No, it's not the quality of the printed page - the music is very crisply defined and more than adequate for publication or archive purposes. (In fact, I saw the Laserprinter output of Copyist at the NAMM show in January, and could not tell the difference between it and a page of sheet music or any professional publication.) But the time it takes to print out a single page of music on a dot-matrix printer can make the program almost unusable.
"When loading in a sequencer pattern or keyboard performance, the computer can be all too literal in gauging your performance - a problem all scoring programs have to solve."
How long, you ask? Well, in regular mode on an Epson printer, it took 8½ minutes to print out the first page of the demo song file included with the program. And in hi-res mode, it took over half-an-hour. For one page of music. Honestly, I thought there was something wrong with my printer, when I accessed printing in hi-res.
Now, you can multiply this out as quickly as I can, and when you do you'll discover it's going to take an hour to print out two pages of music, two hours for four pages, and so on.
Although it speeds things up threefold to use regular mode, waiting half-an-hour for the printer to produce three pages of music is beyond the borders of acceptably from my point of view.
In fairness, a Laserprinter can produce a very high-quality page of music in minutes, but how many musicians have access to one?
A PROFESSIONAL COPYIST, the good ol' human variety, would run rings around this program. Even an amateur copyist, or your average working musician, could easily write out a page of music faster than it would take to print out a page with a dot-matrix printer, much less edit that page as well. (By the way, I'm not comparing Copyist to any other scoring program on the market; my evaluations are based solely on my experience with computers as a subject, music as an art, and transcription as a necessary administrative duty.)
So now the questions posed at the beginning of this review should be asked again. Does the program make the process of music transcription simpler, with greater speed and quality the results? In other words, does it make the musician's job any easier?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Transcription is actually much easier the old-fashioned way, by hand. It's much quicker, and the editing tools (pencil and eraser) are a lot more user-friendly than those provided with this software package. The one function that might have sped up a copyist's work, a transposition feature, is only included in a roundabout way (move notes vertically one staff at a time and then readjust the key signatures).
So if you are a professional copyist looking for a way of easing your work load, keep looking.
If you regularly hire copyists to write out parts for you, have the time and effort to invest in learning to use the program, already own a PC (or ST), and use a PC-based (or ST-based) sequencer, it's conceivable you could make the Copyist a cost-effective investment.
And if you just want to have fun with a program that will print out music that you can input, either by hand/mouse or from a sequencer file, check out some of the consumer-based programs I mentioned above, if you can find them.
Copyist is an admirable effort, but sadly, it falls short of its mark.
Price £250 including VAT
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Review by Chris Many
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