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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Going Paperless - Reading Music Off A Computer

You may have read my earlier post where I detailed how I constructed a trailer to transport my double bass and amp via bicycle.  Now I'm continuing this geeky green revolution by moving away from printed music, towards reading music off of my laptop. In this post I'm going to explain some of the technical side of how to do that, and discuss the pros and cons of going paperless.


The first question is what you are going to read off of.  I was originally considering purchasing a tablet computer such as an Android tablet, a tablet PC, or an iPad (probably the most desirable option).  The lure of a tablet computer would be that they lie flat, they have touch-sensitive screens (making it easy to make notes during rehearsals), and they are generally very portable.  However, once I realized that I could just turn my little "notebook" computer that I already owned sideways, I decided that worked fine and it wasn't worth it to me to purchase a tablet computer. (Incidentally, these "notebooks" are really cheap. Mine is an Acer "Aspire One" which is currently selling at FutureShop for $269.)

One important tip: be sure to modify your power settings so that your computer doesn't go to "sleep" during your performances. While I was at it, I also edited some of the advanced power settings to make my computer work better as a music reader.  This screenshot shows how to do that on my netbook with Windows 7 Starter (sorry Mac people, everything that follows about software is going to be pretty Windows-centered):

The next piece of hardware I needed was a foot-pedal to allow me to turn pages.  I found three on the market: the AirTurn ($129), the PageFlip ($79.95), and the Foot Page Turner ($59).  They all seem like they would work fine.  The Foot Page Turner works via USB and I'm unsure if it would work with iPads or Android tablets. The AirTurn and the PageFlip both work via Bluetooth. The Pageflip comes with a USB Bluetooth antenna in case you want to use it with a computer that does not have Bluetooth (such as my Aspire One). I decided to go with the PageFlip. It is working fine so far. It seems a little on the flimsy side; I'm concerned that it could break after a year or so if I'm not careful with it. Also, it isn't 100% silent; in extremely quiet passages in very intimate settings, the audience might hear it (the AirTurn advertises that it is totally silent). The bluetooth takes a bit of fiddling around with at first to get it working, but I think it is worth it to avoid having unsightly wires going from the pedal to the computer. I haven't had any problems with the connection since I got it working. All in all, I'm pretty happy with my purchase. All these pedals are available from Kelly's Music, which has a Canadian shipping center in Mississauga. My pedal arrived in two days. Here is what my whole set up looks like:

Software - Viewing The Music

The next question was what software I was going to use to view the music with.  There is a program specifically designed for reading music on your computer - MusicReader ($59). It has some cool features, but I didn't go for it. My main complaint is that MusicReader wouldn't allow me to rotate the screen (this wouldn't be a problem on tablet-style computers that have screen rotation built in). Instead I found a free solution the: Nitro PDF Reader.  One tip with it: if you are going to load a full set of music at a time, it is good to use shorter file names, so that they can all fit in Nitro's sidebar while in full screen mode, making it easy to switch from one song to the next.  Here's a screen shot from my recent gig with Circles:

Nitro reader allows me not only to view PDF files, but also to easily make notes on them if I need to, for example in a rehearsal. Nitro also has "QuickSign" feature designed to allow you to stamp an image of your signature on to legal documents. I hijacked this feature to allow me to easily add musical symbols if need be. All I did was import a collection of images of musical symbols as "signatures".  Click here to download a zip file containing the images I used.

Software - Formatting the Music For Reading On Computer

Finally, I had to think about how to prepare some music to be read on computer.  How this is done depends on what the source of the music is - a program such as Sibelius, an existing PDF on my computer, or a physical piece of sheet music I need to scan.

Using a program such as Sibelius

One of the drawbacks of using my particular notebook was that the aspect ratio of the screen (my notbook has a 10.1" screen) doesn't match closely with a standard 8.5x11 sheet of paper (I think the iPad screen dimensions would be better in this way). So, to take best advantage of my screen, in Sibelius I go to "Document Setup" (under the Layout menu) and change the paper size to "Legal (8.5x14")". While I'm there I also set all the margins to 3, except for the left margin, which can be zero. I also make sure the staff size is at least 7. Here is a screen shot showing this:

Before I print it, I also set the chord symbols to at least size 15. (Easy to do by simply clicking Edit->Filter->Chord Symbols.)  Sometimes I may also check for repeats that cross pages and reformat the layout accordingly. When you are reading music off of a computer, page turns stop being a problem, but repeats across pages become a drag, because then you have to keep flipping back and then forward again.

Then, I just click print and set the printer to "Nitro PDF Creator 2 (Reader)". This "PDF printer" came along automatically with the Nitro PDF Reader when I installed it (see above under "Software - viewing the music"). Be sure to click on the "Properties..." box next to the printer name and then click on the "Pages" tab, and set the "Page size" to "Legal".

Formatting a file that is already a PDF

I can read any old PDF file on my notebook, but I sometimes want to remove the margins, which makes the music bigger and thus easier to read on my screen. I found a handy free app to do this with called PDFill Free PDF Tools. Just use the crop function to remove the margins. This tool also allows me to rotate the PDFs, which saves me having to do that each time I load them into Nitro PDF to read them.

Scanning music into the computer

When I'm scanning the files, I'm careful to crop out all the margins. I also may change the settings to increase the contrast a bit to make it easier to read. Then, take each resulting image file, and print it using the Nitro PDF Creator 2 PDF printer using the process mentioned above for Sibelius (again, in my case, I'm sure to set the paper size to legal to match my screen dimensions). In order to incorporate several image files in to one PDF (such as with a multi-page chart), just "print" to the same file name again for each additional page. You will be prompted to append, overwrite, or cancel. Select "append" to make the image you are currently printing the next page of that PDF file. (Note: some scanners come with software that allows you to scan multiple pages into a single PDF file all it one step.)

Pros and Cons

So! After that is all done, was it worth it? Well, there are pros and cons. Here is how I see it:

  • Page turns are no longer a problem - never again miss a bar because you had to stop playing to turn the page.
  • Easily keep charts organized - no more sorting through a stack of messy paper to find the chart you need, only to realize it is an old version in the wrong key. It is easy to keep stuff organized inside a computer.
  • Have a library of all your charts on your laptop at all times. Easily send any chart using e-mail - along with any notations you may have made at the rehearsal.
  • You can have a library of PDF fakebooks at your finger tips at all times, in case you get requests. (Be sure to buy hardcopies as well to support those music publishers!)
  • Notes on charts are more neat, in full color, and you can easily delete re-edit them, rather then having charts covered in scrawl from different versions and arrangements. Easily create multiple copies of a chart to record notes about different arrangements. 
  • Extremely easy to read in the dark - with no need to bring a stand light.
  • Never worry about the wind, vibrations, people, etc. knocking your music off the stand.
  • Uses no paper - better for the environment.

  • You have to scan and/or format all your music for the computer- time consuming.
  • Music is smaller (on my screen anyway) and therefore harder to read.
  • Adds more potential technical problems to your gig - e.g. laptop running out of battery power.
  • My screen sometimes reflects glare from lights, requiring me to adjust the angle.
  • Screen may be difficult to read in direct sunlight.
  • If you had to sub out to someone who didn't have a set up to read music electronically, you would have to make a paper copy of all the charts (or loan them your set up?).

Final Assessment

Making page turns easier is a huge advantage. I recently did a big band recording of Cherokee that was eight pages long with virtually no breaks.  I'm not sure how I would have done it without my new set up - I guess I just would have had to memorize the whole chart. Having my charts organized is also a huge plus. It saves me from being the guy at the rehearsal with his charts all mixed up, crumpled, and/or lost.  The biggest con is just the time investment of processing and formatting all the music.  However, printing and taping music can also be a hassle. The music being smaller on the screen vs. paper is a slight concern, but it hasn't really been a problem. Overall I'm extremely happy I made the switch and I think it is a improvement.

Let me know if you try going paperless as well, or if you have any questions about anything mentioned here!

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  1. In loading my paperless music library for MusicReader I learned a few things. (1) MusicReader can add metadata - the information about each title that you normally include in a spreadsheet list ut many PDF tools drop off this XML metadata. (2) No great tools exist for splitting a PDF file into separate instrumental files to go in separate folders just like paper music for a band. Jpdfbookmarks adds bookmarks in a labour-intensive fashion and A-PDF splits files by bookmark, one file at a time, all into a single folder. For the impending stampede to paperless music we will need a faster bookmark adder and a PDF splitter that will process a batch of files, appending the bookmark to each output filename and distributing the output into a folder per bookmark and passing on the XML metadata. I will not go paperless until a suitable two-page display unit becomes available at a good price. That might be several yeara away.

  2. Does anyone have any recent experience with a laptop for reading music on a piano music rack. I'll need to mark in fingerings, etc. Thanks!

    1. I have been thinking about the Thinkpad Yoga 12.5. The Thinkpad Yoga 14 and 15 are coming out soon with Pen support and can flip into a tablet, but the 12.5 already has pen support. There's also the Surface pro, which works wonderfully for sheet music, but I wasn't too crazy about it as a full on laptop. Hope that helps!

  3. Really Helpful, Thank you

  4. Hi, Matt. I've been looking long for a WIN(10) music reader for my Asus tablet and ran across your blog entry. Thanks for writing it. It seems everything is oriented towards Apple in this regard! But I'm determined to not have to get an iPad just for my chord charts. I can view my charts one at a time on my tablet, but it entails opening the viewing platform (LibreOffice) and clicking on the song. I want to scroll through all the songs and not have to open just one. So I just downloaded both versions of Nitro Reader 3 (32 and 64 bit) and tried out the 32 bit version on my Vista computer. It opened nicely, let me put 5 PDF songs in it, and I can scroll from song to song, but only the miniature picture versions. When I open just one song I can scroll to the next song, I have to close the open song, scroll to the next one, open it, etc. Is ther any way to just scroll through already opened songs? Earlier I had written a maker of one of those Bluetooth foot controllers you mentioned and he'd responded that their controller would work IF the program I had my songs in responded to arrow clicks. Nitro Reader 3 doesn't unless the opened song is closed first. Got any solution? What am I missing here? Please respond to Thanks.

    1. Sorry, I meant to type above "When I open just one song I CAN'T scroll to the next song,"

  5. Thanks for this post. It gave me a good idea to try the Surface Pro 3 which makes a decent solution. I wrote a post on my blog NJN Network called Surface Pro 3 Full Sheet Music Reader

  6. Thumbs up!!! I also suggest Vender app. This is a trusted app. It is used for business and for offices just want to share guys