Part 5: Tuning with the iPad

This is the fifth part in a look at what the iPad has to offer you if you’re a classical/acoustic musician. The earlier posts are here:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Today’s post is about how to use the iPad as your electronic tuner, but before I get into that, people have been asking me how much space sheet music files take up. Mostly, they’re very small, but things like colored cover art can bump a single piece from a few hundred K up into the megabytes. Here’s a look at the current state of my iPad, with about a hundred gig tunes (average about 4 pages) on it:

relative size of music files on iPad
The circled area includes all my apps and sheet music on a 16 GB iPad. For comparison purposes, there are three full length feature films in the Video section. (Click for larger image.)

So there’s plenty of room for a LOT of music.

One place the App Store really shines is in the number and variety of electronic tuners available there. There are dozens to choose from, including all sorts of specialized guitar tuners, cello tuners, violin tuners, etc. As a harpist, I need a full-range chromatic tuner, and these are my two favorites. They’re both really iPhone/iPod apps, but you can use pixel doubling to enlarge the display, if you want. Even at the 1x size they’re pretty easy to see.


If you like the microscopic accuracy of a strobe tuner, you’ll be in heaven with the iStrobosoft, which gives you a Peterson strobe for a measly ten dollars, and what’s more,  a strobe with the strobe pattern instead of those annoying chasing lights found on the lower end standalone strobes.  You can set your A from 340 Hz to 540 Hz, and you can calibrate to an external source–very handy if you want to set the A from, say, the piano in the hall.

the istrobosoft tuner display
The iStrobosoft. Click for larger image.

As you can see in the image, it tells you the note it hears and just how exactly how many cents flat or sharp you are. The Noise Filter button helps eliminate background noise from the equation (although I will say that since I’ve had the iStrobosoft I now know the exact frequency of the hum from every appliance in my house), and the Input Boost amplifies a soft sound source.

At $9.99, this is one of the most incredible deals in the whole App Store.


On the other hand, if you like a match needle type tuner, this is the one. Bitcount’s Cleartune includes both a rotating wheel display and a fine-tuning meter at the top. With this one, you can tune to 22 different temperaments in addition to the standard equal temperament, and you can even add your own if you need something that’s not already there.

cleartune interface
When the note is in tune, the pointer (yellowish here) turns bright green to let you know. (Click for larger image.)

In addition to all the visual clues, you can also set up Cleartune to act as a pitchpipe if you prefer an audible reference pitch. Cleartune is $3.99 at the app store.

Which of these is better? That depends on what you want. Both are very accurate, and I will say that both suffer from the same major flaw–they’re too darned sensitive when tuning a harp. They respond immediately to sound decay, so you have to be fast to catch the attack. I find them both useful in different situations, but I’m not sure either is  a good choice for a beginning student, who may find the higher tolerances of a dedicated tuner like a Korg easier to use.

The iPad has a built-in mic, and that’s fine for tuning in quiet conditions, but we all know that as soon as you get the cover off the harp, a brass player will appear from nowhere and start warming up. You can still use your old tuner pickup with the iPad. There are several different cables available  that let you connect anything with a quarter-inch plug to the iPad via the headphone jack. I use this one, from Peterson:

peterson connector cable
Just plug the mini-plug into the headphone jack and your tuning pickup into the other end.

It’s not the most deluxe by any means, but it does the job, and it only costs $12.99. (Incidentally, for those of you who’ve asked–the links on these pages aren’t sponsored. I don’t get anything if you click on them; they’re just for your convenience.)

Now that you’ve got the basic equipment, it’s time to consider how to carry it to the gig. Next time: The Happy Owl Clutch.

Part 4: Apps for Sheet Music, continued

This the fourth in a series on the iPad for classical/acoustic musicians.

Part 1, part 2, part 3

Musicnotes Sheet Music Viewer for iPad

If you ever buy sheet music via download, you know, which is pretty much the only authorized source for a lot of the more current tunes. They do provide a free app for use with your purchases, which is fairly handy for you as the musician (no need to waste time scanning and saving as PDF), and handier still for the publishers (no unauthorized copying going on, no sir).

I want to love the Musicnotes app. It has one completely killer feature (transposition), but on the whole, I just don’t like it except for the PDF-creation time it saves. It has a lot of features that seem to be nice but aren’t that well thought out. For instance, when you open the app, you get this nifty coverflow-style view:

musicnotes main page
Cover flow view. (Click for larger image.)

The problem is that every time you open the app, you get the nifty coverflow-style view. It can’t remember where you were last time, and there’s not even an option to open to a simple list view, so it’s scroll city every time.

Since Musicnotes wants  you to use a unique app for their tunes, it ought at a bare minimum to stay where you left it the last time you closed it, since they’re making you switch apps to use other scores. For example, if I have a wedding where the bridesmaids are coming in to the Vivaldi Largo from ‘Winter’, that’s in forScore. But then if the bride is coming in to ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ by the Verve, that’s in the Musicnotes app, or at least they’d like it to be.

Now that wouldn’t be a really big nuisance if I could get to it quickly enough (tap Home button, tap Musicnotes icon), but instead it’s tap Home button, tap Musicnotes app, scroll madly to find tune, tap tune. That’s a panic-inducing number of taps when you want a quick, smooth transition.

The Musicnotes app does include a set list feature, but I haven’t ever been able to get it to work without crashing and you can’t make the app open directly to a setlist, so I avoid it entirely. Also, once you’re in a tune, there’s no default magnification available for the scores. They come in small and you have to pinch each page to enlarge it to fill the whole screen, and do that again if you turn back while you’re playing. Page navigation is okay, but not great. You see the page numbers arrayed along the bottom of the page and you can jump to a page by tapping its number. (You can see this in the graphic below, if you look carefully.)

Despite all these drawbacks, there’s one feature that makes the Musicnotes app a must-have for anyone who buys sheet music from them. You can download your tune transposed to a number of different keys (but not print them–there’s no printing from this app, unlike forScore):

how to transpose music in musicnotes app
Just tap the Menu button for your choice of keys. (Click for larger version.)

You just tap the Menu button when you have an internet connection and you can choose to download any or all of the alternative key versions for a particular tune. Once they’re on the iPad you can still use them without a connection. If you play lever harp, as I mostly do, this is a wonderfully helpful feature, and it’s also great if you have to accompany soloists, no matter what instrument you play.

Another very nice feature is that the first time you fire up the app and tell it to sync your tunes, it will automatically find every song you’ve ever bought from them. And in my case, some tunes I never did buy. As a harpist I’m 99.995% sure I never had occasion to purchase “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from them (or anyone else) for any reason whatever, but there it is in my song list, along with a few others I know I never bought.

They also send out free tunes each month, a feature about which I’m kind of ambivalent. Mostly they’re not things I have much use for, at least not in their arrangements, but it’s a nice idea and once in a while there is something. Unfortunately, there’s no way to prune those from your main library. It’s show all or nothing for free tunes, which makes the main window even scrollier. And each time you purchase a new song and sync it to the iPad, the free ones all come back again.

When you have an active internet connection you can purchase tunes right from within the app, which is nice, too, but overall I’d prefer they either fixed the app to make it more usable on a gig or else offered the option of downloading a PDF in the first place.

Next time: Tuning with an iPad.

Part 2: The iPad goes to a gig

So just what can the ipad do for you on a gig? Well,  you can fit all the sheet music you could possibly want on the longest job on something you can easily hold in one hand, for one thing. And it can also replace your electronic tuner, stand light, watch, and calendar. It can help make sure you don’t get lost on the way to the gig. You can take credit cards from forgetful brides, so you don’t have to wait around while someone runs back to the room for the checkbook, without the hassle and expense of setting a merchant account. You can even include a book to read or a movie to watch on your break.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Yeah, it’s totally wonderful, except when it’s not. Playing from an iPad is different in a lot of ways, and you definitely want to practice with it before you head out the door. For one thing, music on the iPad is smaller than a printed score. Sometimes a lot smaller. Here’s the same page in print next to the iPad rendering, so you can get an idea of the difference:

printed sheet music compared to iPad version
Click for a larger version.

As you can see, if you’ve got great eyesight or really good glasses, it’s not a big deal. But if you’re like me, in the years where you need glasses for regular reading but not yet for reading what’s on the stand, it’s a dilemma. Vanity or vision? Of course, if you turn the iPad sideways, the notes are back to nearly normal size, but you have a whole lot of scrolling to do to get through a page:

music on the ipad turned sideways
Now the music is larger, but there's a lot less of it.

So while this is useful when you’re practicing hard on a couple of measures, for most people sideways isn’t going to work so well on the gig.

Another consideration is that you can only see one page at a time. If you play a single-line instrument where much of your music is only one page long  this isn’t much of an issue, or even if you play a keyboard instrument where you can turn with either hand. But for harpists, (we can only turn pages with the left hand because of where the stand is placed relative to the harp), it’s something to think about.

On the other hand, you just tap or swipe to turn the page, so turning is a lot faster, especially compared to trying to turn in windy conditions with page clips everywhere. And there’s a nifty bluetooth foot pedal that lets you turn without taking your hands off the strings. (More on that in a later post.)

The biggest problem with the iPad, though, is the screen itself. It’s great in dim light. You don’t need a stand light anymore, and it can put out enough light to illuminate your strings, too. For lever harpists, it’s borderline okay for finding your levers, even on a high-headed style harp. (For non-harpists, the lever harp is called that because the strings have  hand levers you flip to change the pitch of a string to make sharps and flats. The pedal harp has, you guessed it,  a series of foot pedals for this.)

But in bright light? Well that’s a whole ‘nother story. Those Kindle ads aren’t kidding when they make fun of how impossible it is to see the iPad in full sunshine. The screen washes out badly, making it almost useless for what would otherwise be its best musical use–those miserable outdoor jobs where the sun is beating down and there’s a semi-gale blowing. Even if you are stern and insistent with your clients about shade, that’s not always a complete solution:

the ipad in reflected light
When glare happens. This is inside in a fairly dim room with bright sunshine outside the sliding doors.

Reflected glare can be really, really bad with that shiny screen. I’ve tried several different anti-glare films on my iPad. They work great on the iPod, but even the best of them, the one from Power Support, isn’t enough of a help on the iPad. The glare just becomes more diffuse, but it’s still there. I wound up removing the film altogether, partly because the iPad seemed to run warmer with the film on it. You do get a little used to glare after a while, but I sure wouldn’t want to be sight-reading in a glare-ish location.

Ironically, though, all those customers who can’t understand at all why a very expensive instrument needs to be out of the sun are invariably totally cooperative when I say, “But my iPad needs to be in the shade.” That they get immediately. I’ve never once had a client refuse to move me to the shade for the sake of the iPad, for all that they’ll always argue and roll their eyes about getting the harp itself out of the sun.

Another point about the iPad is that it’s rather heavy for its size. You definitely want a good solid stand if you’re going to use it, rather than a cheap folding wire stand, or anything prone to twisting around when bumped. I love my Anderson music stand, but a plain old Manhasset should be fine, too, or any sturdy wooden stand. If you already have mic stands around, you can just get the iKlip or the GigEasy, but I don’t want to lug something as hefty as a mic stand everywhere I go.

So while it’s far from ideal, I love having the iPad on a gig, with certain limitations. I don’t want to sightread music that size, even in ideal lighting conditions, for one thing, and I’m not crazy about it for ensemble scores with more than one cue line.

But it’s definitely the future and it can be very, very convenient compared to lugging around twenty pounds of sheet music. And it’s wonderful to have all your music with you, so that when you’ve only been hired to play classical for the ceremony and they ask you afterwards to stay for the reception since the DJ didn’t show up, you can just tap your screen to break out the Bruno Mars or whatever. And I find that clients really like it that there’s no need to have the tunes bag and the purse and anything else that might be necessary cluttering up the floor nearby.

I don’t think I’d buy an iPad today, though, especially not for use as a music reader. There are lots of rumors that the next version of the iPad, which is probably only a couple of months away at most, will be lighter weight and have a less shiny screen. There’s also a rumor that it will have a smaller bezel area, but I don’t believe that one. While the iPad would be absolutely perfect for music reading if you could expand the working area to include all that black space around the edges of the  screen, losing the bezel width would be pretty annoying for a lot non-music uses.

But it’s really all about the apps. Those are what make the iPad so pleasant to use. Next time, I’ll tell you about my favorite music organizing apps and about how to get sheet music onto the  iPad.

EDIT: Oh yeah, I forgot. A couple of people have emailed me to ask how long the iPad battery lasts. For me, it’s close to ten hours on one charge, as long as I turn off Push notifications, so it will get you through the longest day of gigging.

The iPad for Acoustic Musicians Part 1

You know, probably the biggest surprise I had in the past year was my iPad. I bought one very reluctantly when they first appeared, thinking that I was investing in a necessary but tiresome tool for authors who want to continue to be authors. (For those who only know me as a musician, I have another life writing books about tech-y things like Photoshop Elements software.)

I was absolutely astounded at how instead it’s wound up becoming my favorite gig tool ever. There’s a lot of stuff written about the iPad for electronic music and electric guitar players, but even for classical musicians the iPad is becoming a gotta-have. It’s let me go from lugging all this to a gig:

musician's gig stuff
What I used to bring: Big bag 'o tunes, purse, stand light, tuner

to bringing only this:

Happy Owl clutch
This small clutch replaces everything in the photo above (and yes, the two images are to scale--check the tile lines).

and let me tell you, when you also have haul a harp around, that makes a big ol’ difference.

When things work out, the iPad is the best gig resource ever, but unfortunately there are some issues, too. In the next few days I’ll go over just how I use mine. I’m a harpist, and we have some special considerations (page turns are harder for us than for most instruments, for example), but even if you play flute or acoustic guitar or whatever, pretty nearly everything will apply and I hope be useful for you, too.

I never expected to love the iPad so much for music. (Ironically, for a technical author there are still puh-lenty of issues with digital publishing, alas.)

Next time: The iPad itself: what’s hot and what’s not when you’re on a gig.