The art of transcribing – Part 1

Hello folks! This year, I’ve pretty much been transcribing every single day. As many of you know, I am the owner of DC Music School, where I produce videos for many wonderful musicians. I get them to play a bunch of stuff, and then I transcribe it. The vast majority of people using this site are incredibly patient and understanding that making transcriptions is an extremely long and mind-numbing process. To these people, I say THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I can’t say it enough times, how much I appreciate your support and your patience. Many of you know that I have sacrificed a huge chunk of my personal life and musician career in order to transcribe. However, there’s also the 0.1% who send me messages asking when the TABs will be ready. I must say that when I receive such messages, I feel a bit of pain in my heart. It might feel like it’s an innocent question, but when you look at my email inbox and you see that it happens a few times a week, it really feels a bit painful. This is not a question that can be answered. Transcriptions take the time that they take to make, however long that may be, and a certain level of mental sanity has to be maintained. We’re not talking about one or two transcriptions, we’re literally talking about hundreds and hundreds of transcriptions to make. We’re not talking easy songs either, many of these are intricate improvisations that require tremendous concentration and knowledge of theory and notation conventions, in order to properly notate. Some of you may wonder then why don’t I wait until the transcriptions are ready to release the full products. As soon as I announce I’m working on a project, I already get impatient emails asking me when the videos will be released. The very first day I was filming with Angelo Debarre, a fellow kept harassing me, asking me when I was going to release the videos. I remind you, this was the very first day of filming, I got the message AS we were filming, When I didn’t reply, he kept asking me, visibly upset that I didn’t reply right away. This is but one example, but if people are impatient about transcriptions, an even higher percentage of people are impatient for the actual videos! This is the age of social media.

One thing that I take pride in, is making “academically” correct transcriptions. By and large, the transcriptions that I make are not only extremely accurate, but they conform to standards used in music schools. These transcriptions can be read and analyzed by any trained musician in a harmony class for instance. This process is generally referred to as “engraving”. Back in the day, the engraver would literally engrave the sheet music and make it look nice and easy to read while conforming to certain notation conventions. Knowing how to read music is not enough, it requires a knowledge of theory and basic notation conventions.

In the guitar world, many guitar educational sites use software such as Guitar Pro, which is a fantastic tool for quick notation but all the engraving is automated and, as a result, often wrong. This is not a criticism of the software; in fact, if by some chance, the developers of Guitar Pro read this article, I implore them to stay as they are. I have Guitar Pro 6 and I can tell that they’re trying to compete with Finale and Sibelius in the engraving department, but I feel that it is a terrible mistake. Guitar Pro’s strength is its extremely user friendly and efficient interface. It also helps that it is very affordable! By trying to improve the engraving system, the software will unnecessarily become more complex. The vast majority of people using Guitar Pro don’t even know how to do proper engraving anyway. Most guitar educational sites use Guitar Pro, precisely because it takes very little time to make transcriptions. They are not wrong to do so, I’m actually insane to be going this way, as it takes more time and costs more money for something that only a tiny percentage of people will actually use! Why do it then? For historical value.

The engraving process is time consuming, and therefore, by economic standards, not commercially viable for the target audience. I must admit, most people using my site don’t care about engraving, but I still feel it’s necessary for me to do it right. I had this discussion with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius when he came into my studio last month, and I quote “It will pay off, because you’re not offering people fast food, you’re giving them an actual healthy meal”.

So, with that said, this first article won’t deal with the engraving process. Instead, I will just show you my actual workflow. I use Sibelius for my transcriptions. Sibelius and Finale are the two giants when it comes to notation. Which one should you choose? They both pretty much do the same thing, so choose one and stick with it. People who work regularly with publishers sometimes have to learn both, but if you’re like me, that’s unnecessary. They also make basic versions of the software for more specific purposes. You might not even need all the bells and whistles, so if you’re on a tight budget but need to make professional looking sheet music, ask yourself what it is you’re going to be doing with the software. In many situations, a budget version of the software may suffice. Of course, there are other notation softwares out there that may even do the same thing. I’m not biased, so go ahead and do your own research. Nonetheless, Sibelius and Finale are the two standards, and you can’t go wrong with either.

When transcribing, I generally import the audio track into my DAW which is Logic. There are specialized audio apps for transcribing, I’ve given them a try, and they were nice, but I’ve always felt most at home working with my DAW, primarily because I know the software really well. The less software I have to master, the happier I am. Any reputable DAW will do, and nowadays, they all pretty much do the same thing. They’ll often also do everything that the specialized transcribing apps will do: tempo change, pitch shift, loops. Many DAWs also have extensive plugins that can come in handy. I rarely use them, but for certain recordings, I can use various EQ plugins to clean up certain mixes, for instance. Lastly, I already own the DAW, so I might as well use it. Therefore, I’m not even recommending that you import the audio into your DAW, but if you own one already, you might as well use it. If you don’t, then the specialized transcribing apps are very affordable. When I’m on the road, I even have an app on my smart phone!

You may notice in the video that I have a large monitor, this certainly helps, for obvious reasons! I am using an LG monitor with Thunderbolt 2 connections for the 2013 Mac Pro desktops, which I use. Any decent speakers will do the job, and I sometimes also use headphones when I require extra concentration.

The most important thing in having an extremely fast workflow is to master shortcut keys on your notation software and your audio transcribing software. I will share with you some of my tricks with Logic and Sibelius. I highly recommend a full keyboard (with keypad) and at least two button mouse with a scroller between the two buttons.

First things first. Should you regularly update your notation and/or audio softwares? The answer is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I’ve been using Sibelius since Sibelius 5 or 6. In my studio, I have access to both a Mac and a PC. When I first started using Sibelius, it was on a PC, and I must say that back then, it was extremely fast on Windows 7. I don’t know how it is nowadays, but back then, I could press the ALT key, and it would open up the toolbar menu, and every single tool had an assigned letter or number. I had everything memorized, and was lightning fast. This changed when I started using it on Mac, and it changed even more when they introduced Sibelius 7 revamped interface. I, now, had to manually program a lot of shortcut keys. The option to be lightning fast is still there, but it is no longer native; I highly recommend that you take the time to create a set of shortcut keys for whatever tool you may be using regularly. Off the top of my head, I have shortcut keys for exporting to PDF, double barlines, single barlines, final barlines, repeat symbols, system/page breaks, etc.

The latest Logic update (sometime in the first quarter of 2016) really pissed me off, as it revamped many shortcut keys. I’m still not convinced it’s more efficient despite their claims. To add insult to injury, these shortcut keys are embedded into the software and cannot be changed. Nothing can be done about it, unless you have an older version, but nonetheless, I took the time to memorize the new ones, and while I don’t believe I’m quite as fast as I used to be, it’s maybe a difference of a split second so I can live with it.

On either software, I rarely use the mouse, it’s all about shortcut keys. On Sibelius, here are a few useful native shortcut keys (meaning shortcuts that are already embedded in the software):

  • S for slurs, and then SPACEBAR to extend the slur to the next note and so on. If you click away after pressing S, you will have to manually move the slur to the desired number of notes. I usually just undo and redo the slur. The spacebar saves a lot of time!
  • R for repeat. You don’t have to copy and paste if the next note is the same one. You can also highlight an entire section with the mouse and do the same thing.
  • I highly recommend that you use a keyboard with a keypad, or get a USB keypad. Sibelius is all about the keypad! The + symbol on the keypad allows you to navigate across all the keypad tools. The – symbol brings you back to the first set of tools. Each key on the numeric keypad is assigned to the various tools show in the GUI. So on the first keypad layout, 0 creates a silence, 1 is a 32nd note, 2 is a 16th note, etc. When I need to access a slide, I press +, then 0, then – to return to the main section. Extreeeeeemely useful! This past winter, I spent 3 months in Taiwan. I brought my macbook pro laptop but forgot to bring my USB keypad. I had to go the store to get another one; it’s really that important for Sibelius. For very long projects, we’re talking hours saved!
  • When notating directly on the staff, you can use the main horizontal numbers to create various intervals. So if you notate a C, and press 3, it will add an E above the C. However, for notating directly on the staff, which I only do on non-fretted instruments, I use a small midi keyboard to input the notes (not in real time), and I use the regular keyboard to scroll.
  • The ENTER key allows you to switch between enharmonics when selecting a note on the staff. Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow affect double flats or sharps. For that, you’ll have to access it from the keypad. So if you want to notate C#7#9 in a theoretically correct way, you know what you have to do!
  • CTRL + COMMAND + H will make notes invisible. I use this one during the engraving process when erasing tied notes in the tablature.
  • J for creating a guitar bend
  • L for accessing the tools for various notations (slides, 8va, etc.)
  • COMMAND and + / – for zoom in / out. COMMAND + mouse scroller does the same thing
  • SHIFT + Mouse scroller to scroll horizontally
  • CONTROL + mouse scroller to scroll vertically

 

On Logic, as I mentioned, certain shortcut keys cannot be modified, others can. On those that can, Logic has various templates to choose from, on top of creating your own. So if one of the ones I suggested doesn’t work, it’s probably because it’s another system or I may have added it myself. Sorry, I don’t remember! For the purpose of transcribing, these are the ones that I like to use:

  • Pressing T brings out the toolbox, from there you have various tools with assigned keys. I recommend that you memorize them all. I use T I to bring out the Scissors tool. Sometimes I cut off the parts that I transcribed already if I decide to take a break and come back to it later. I also sometimes do it while transcribing so I don’t get too lost in certain sections when there’s too much repetition. If you watch my video, I use it right off the bat to remove the chunk that I don’t need so I know where to start if I need to go back to the beginning.
  • < allows you to scroll back a few seconds. SHIFT + < scrolls back even more. Conversely, > does the opposite
  • COMMAND + UP/DOWN to stretch the waveform vertically
  • COMMAND + LEFT/RIGHT to stretch the waveform horizontally. Very useful when needing to zone in on certain parts and then zone out when done.
  • SHIFT + mouse scroller to scroll left / right
  • CONTROL + OPTION will turn the cursor into a zoom tool, and then you use the mouse to drag a region you want to zoom into.
  • On the top area, where the barlines are, you can left click and drag accross to set loop cycle. They call it the Cycle tool. C toggles it on and off.
  • COMMAND + F to switch to the Flex window. From there, on the desired track, you can choose whichever one you want, I usually select Polyphonic out of habit, but they practically do the same thing, it’s just different algorithms. Once Flex is enabled, you can change the tempo of the song by changing the BPM. The default LOGIC bpm is 120, you can switch it to 100 before toggling flex so that you can pretend it’s 100%. If you’re dealing with multiple tracks, you’ll have to enable Flex on every single one of them. Logic has a tempo shift tool that affects all tracks at once, but I find it very laggy, despite my extremely powerful computer.

 

These are basically the tools I use the most when transcribing. Since most of my transcriptions revolve around guitar and people who can’t read music, I usually do the tablature first. Music snobs are quick to dismiss tab, but I find them very important for fingerings. Fingerings are essential for certain technical aspects of guitar, and tablature really is the most efficient way of notating it. The classical guitar system of notating fingerings is way too time consuming only to satisfy snobs. I do the tablature first, because I do my best to guess the fingering right from the start. If I did the notes first, I’d have to redo all the fingerings one at a time. Once the tab is done, I revise/correct the ornaments as part of the first round of the engraving process. Once it’s all done, I copy and paste the tab onto the notation staff, and from there it’s just a matter of using the ENTER key to correct enharmonics. We’ll get into the engraving process in the next article.

So here’s Charlie Christian solo to Airmail Special. It looks like it took about 19 mintues to transcribe! This was considered an extremely easy solo to transcribe. So as you can see for 30 seconds of music (32 bars), it took me 19 minutes to transcribe. There’s far more intricate music out there, and it can easily take an hour if not more to do 32 bars!

Please forgive the swearing and the intrusion of my roommate!

 

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