Sheet-Music programs for the iPad
Update May 2013: See this followup article
As mentioned in a previous post, my aging and no longer supported MusicPad Pro tablet that I had been using for the past 9 years to display and manage my sheet music is dying. So, I invested in an iPad. This article is a brief look at a few iPad apps I’ve looked at. It is not intended to be a comprehensive review.
I would like to be able to clearly read the music from a keyboard with page turns and repeats being reliable and possible. A decent way to manage and find the songs is needed. I also need to be able to have a set list – where a whole concert is in one listing with the ability to move from song to song without having to do anything special. A program that reads PDF files without having to convert to another format would really help. While I hardly ever used annotations in the 9 years I had the MusicPad, it is still a nice feature to have.
I tried three free programs.
First, there is iBooks — A free app from Apple. This app is designed to view books in either the ePub format or PDF format. Once you transfer your music to iBooks, it shows up in the app and can be viewed. That’s pretty much it. There are no special features that would help the musician. I couldn’t get rid of un-needed white space. (Even reading books, there is too much white space that I can’t seem to remove).
The second free program is piaScore. For a free program, it works. However, the one negative that made it useless for me was that I cannot zoom in (at all) or eliminate white space from the sides of the imported PDF files. The quality of the PDF file will make a big difference, but not being able to zoom in can make even the best PDF file hard to read. There is a metronome and, for me, an odd feature, a link to YouTube that tries show videos with the same title as the sheet music. As with many free programs I examined, they have an online store that will sell you music to use with the app.
Another program worth mentioning is ScorecererLite, a free offering. (There is also a paid version that I did not look at). What looked good for me was a free desktop companion program that lets you import music from various formats, including the MusicPad freehand (.fh) format. It does do that, but, it does not import FH files you may have bought from Freehand as they were copy protected. As best I could figure out, no matter the source, you have to convert your music to the app’s format using the computer program and even then, you have to transfer the files via wireless. It does not sync via iTunes. It is useable, but barely.
In the paid category, two programs stood out over others.
This seems geared toward ‘fake books’ and PDF collections. With quite a bit of work on the user’s end on their computer, one can create a csv file consisting of an index of a large collection. One could then use that to quickly find a song within the collection. Alternatively, you can add bookmarks manually. As I think is true with any large PDF file on the iPad, large files were sluggish when turning pages. The song management and set list options were acceptable but not ideal.
It has a number of features that allow you put a button in your score that can: 1) control the metronome, 2) start/stop the recorder or 3) the player, 4) play a pitch and 5) a popup note is displayed. The ability to type in lyrics, I assume to use to display via an exernal display, is also available. You can also use the ipad’s camera to take a photo of a piece of music or load an existing photo(s) that is then converted into a PDF file.
I didn’t cover all the features the program offers. I’m someone who doesn’t have to have a program instantly work for me and I don’t mind reading the manual and studying how a program works. However, with this program I read the manual more than once, played with the app for a while and just didn’t get it. The unrealBook may suit your needs perfectly and it may be more powerful, but if it is, I’m not sure the extra time required to learn it is worth it when you factor in the time you’ll spend transferring music into any of these apps.
The final paid product and the one I’ve been using on a weekly basis is forScore. It is entirely PDF based and reads any PDF file. (Again, large files can be problematic in this and any iPad app). In addition to transferring your own PDF files into the app, another iPad user can send you files via email or bluetooth and vice versa. The app also features the ability to use its own browser to save PDF files directly from the web. Turning pages is fast and easy. You can either tap the right edge of the screen or swipe, or both. I found that as I reached up with my left hand to go forward, I was unintentionally swiping from right to left resulting in going back a page. There is nothing on the screen besides your music, which is good. When you tap the screen, the menu items show up. You can use the standard iPad pinch gestures to zoom in while double-tap returns to default zoom. You can also touch on the title in the top menu bar where a dialog box showing metadata appears. It also shows a thumbnail of the page with a slider at the bottom that allows you to fine-tune the zoom level so you can eliminate just the right amount of white space.
The file management system is the most detailed of any app I looked at but could still use improvement. It uses the PDF metadata to propagate the various find and search options available. You can search on title, composer, genre and keywords and more. You can organize your music into set lists. You can display the setlist in the order you entered it, sorted alphabetically, recently played or a shuffle/random order. Bookmarks can be added to any page of any music and are easily searchable. When looking at a list of titles, you can press on a title and hold your finger down. Doing so results in a decent sized thumbnail popping up. Click on the thumbnail and the music is loaded. The big drawback with the file management is that it relies either on the original PDF having all of its metadata present or the user entering it once it is on the iPad (or using an auto-scan option to import the metatdata, assuming the PDF has any). I found editing the files first on my computer to be the best way to do it.
You can attach/bind an audio file to a song. There is a metronome that can be used in the traditional way but also to attach a unique BPM value to each score. You can also program the pages to turn automatically based on the tempo and beats/measure per score. I have yet to try that feature. You can move, duplicate or delete pages from within your score. Generally speaking, this is not to be used for repeats as there is a ‘links’ option available to setup repeats. For DropBox users, it also integrates with that service to allow you add files straight from DropBox. You can also create PDF files from within the app by taking photos of the music or by importing photos already in your iPad picture folder. You have to get a really good photo (lots of light, flat pages and good angle) in order to get a decent PDF and then it can end up being a large file.
If all that wasn’t enough, there is a pitch source, an on screen piano keyboard and options for TV/external output. And of course you can make annotations. You can draw, type erase and clear. There are a number of drawing styles available. You can also make a snapshot of the current annotations and display different annotations at different times. You have hue, saturation, transparency, brightness and size options with the drawing styles. There are music stamps available to add markings to your music (mainly articulations) and you can create your own 48x48px stamps. You can also have different versions of the same score, up to 24 different versions. This appears to be variations in the metadata (and possibily the annotations). There are numerous options in the settings dealing with such things as swipe or no-swipe, page types, look/feel and the like.
Here are some other apps worth mentioning. There is a “Baptist Hymnal” app. The free version includes a few titles from the 2008 Southern Baptist hymnal. You can purchase the entire hymnal with an in-app purchase. Not bad, but I couldn’t find a way to remove the top menu. That meant the music was too big (vertically) for the iPad.
Another is the Hymnal Lite. It has only 19 hymns with audio (organ) recordings of the hymns. More hymns can be purchased at the developer’s website (but not via in-app). The recordings do nothing to add value for me and could be left out as far as I was concerned.
Just announced as I started this article is the Adobe Reader for iPad. Adobe, the big name in PDF files has released a reader for the iPad. It obviously would not be geared toward music but it views PDF files and has some annotation features that would work for music. Did I mention it is also free?
PDF files and music
Since I’ve been composing, arranging and selling music in PDF format for over 10 years, I’m accustomed to music in PDF format. However, there isn’t as much music from legal sources out there available in PDF format. Not too many publishers, especially the big publishers are selling music in the PDF format. (I know some of the classical publishers have experimented with CD-ROM products – remember the CD-ROM? – that were password protected PDF files, but as to contemporary music, I just don’t see it out there for sale. Please let me know if it is). I don’t know if they are being pressured by the rights holders to have DRM on their products using propriety DRM methods or what? As more publishers move to selling music in digital form – usually for a user to print out at home – they do so using proprietary formats with DRM but don’t offer sheet music for download to a computer file in a standard format. So, finding music legally in PDF format is hard and until publishers start selling PDF files (without copy protection), people will be forced to turn to piracy to find what they need.
If you already have a large collection of paper music, you’ll need to get it into your computer. The easiest way is to scan it in. Of course, that assumes you have or have access to a scanner. Use grayscale and 150 or 300dpi. That seems to work the best, but experiment. Another option is to take a photo of it and touch up before converting it. You then need to take those images (scanned or photo) and convert to PDF. There are some free ways to do that, but most likely you’ll end up having to buy a program to do it. If you have a program like Finale or Sibelius and have time, you can use its score reading features (like PhotoScore in Sibelius) to read in your scans and convert to notation. You could also enter the music by hand. Either way is time consuming but the resulting PDF file that will be created will be small and better looking than almost any scan. Once you have the PDF file created, importing into any of the apps mentioned (that support PDF) is no problem.
I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions for other iPad music apps to look at.