Transcribing music from audio to score is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember, if you count those music dictation tests we had to do at school. I’m lucky that I’ve got perfect pitch so the actual transcribing is fairly easy: what’s difficult when you’re using a computer is the mechanics of rewinding, stopping and starting while you’re trying to do the transcription. However, the technology I’ve got at the moment is the best I’ve ever had, so I thought I’d share the process in case you’re struggling needlessly. The same technology would also be pretty good if you’re having to go through video clips (dance notators, maybe?).
That’s the kit above – no real surprises: a MIDI keyboard, a laptop, headphones. I use an external keyboard with a numeric keypad on it, because it makes step-input in Sibelius so much easier and quicker). Transcribing is also one of the rare activities where I find a mouse is useful rather than a trackpad.
USB footpedals: the secret to transcribing music from audio to score painlessly
The killer tool though, is the USB footpedal under the table (which means that I also needed to get a USB hub to accommodate the extra USB input). I’ve already posted about this in relation to transcribing text interviews, but at the time I wrote that, I hadn’t yet used the set up for transcribing music.
The process is simple: ExpressScribe is a free programme for transcribing audio (there’s a paid version, but even though I’ve got it, I can’t see the point). You load the audio (music) file in just as you would if you were going to type up an interview (except this is music) and you use the footpedal to play, rewind and fastforward the audio, leaving your hands free to use the MIDI and computer keyboards. You can set the footpedal to automatically rewind let’s say half a second or a second when you lift your foot off the “play” bit, so that when you press it again, you’ve already rewound to the bit that you are trying to check or remember.
You can also get ExpressScribe to play slower without altering pitch – brilliant when you’re transcribing a stream of semiquavers, for example. If you’re lucky, and the recording is relatively clear and the music simple, you can get the speed just right, so that you can actually input with your left hand (in my set up at least) at the same speed as the music is playing.
Now meet TRANSCRIBE! (application)
I have used ExpressScribe for nearly five years, but for some reason, just recently the program has begun to lose focus intermittently while I’m transcribing. You have to go into ExpressScribe and click to make it register the pedal messages. It only takes a split second (alt-TAB into the programme and click the screen, then alt-TAB back to Sibelius), but it’s really annoying, and so the other day, I went on the hunt for another programme, and found this: Transcribe! I’ve used it for a few days, and I’m blown away by it. It has all the tools that ExpressScribe has, except – sorry old friend – it works better. It doesn’t lose focus, and it displays the audio file, allows you to enter text at key points (with one-letter key commands to enter hitpoints and text). It also has a guess at chords and notes in your file, and presents you with a piano roll, and a keyboard (if you want to see it) with those guesses on. That’s far more than I need, and doesn’t really help the way I work (which is by ear, rather than using the technology to “hear” for me), but it’s bloody clever, all the same, and it’s fairly accurate. I love it. It’s $39 US, but with a fully functioning 30-day free trial. OK, it’s not free like ExpressScribe, but I reckon it’s worth it.
The screen looks complex, but you don’t even need to see it, if, like me, you just want Transcribe to work as a tape-control in the background, operated by your footpedal.
Transcribing from video
If you want to transcribe from a Youtube video, then just download the video first using an extension or add-on for your browser, and import the video clip into Transcribe. You get a little video screen that shows the video in realtime as you play: handy if you want to put cues in a score, and of course, since the screen has a text area, you could write those cues into Transcribe! itself.
Don’t be put off by the screens and the software: the magic in all this is the footpedal. It’s like having an extra pair of hands, so to speak, and when you go back to trying to operate the transport controls and Sibelius with the same pair of hands, you realise what a waste of time that is.