by Jon Chappell
Transcribing is an essential skill for a guitarist trying to amass as much information and knowledge as possible. Most people do it slowly and with much deliberation, but it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, transcribing can be fun and easy, especially if you get big assist from software. Software-based audio recorder-editors have essentially replaced the more cumbersome hardware tool-of-choice of yore, the multi-speed tape deck. A tape deck had some advantages, but the biggest setback is that when you changed speed, you also changed the pitch. That's okay if you're slowing down a blazingly fast up-the-neck guitar solo, but when you have fast passages in the lower register, slowing down the recording also drops the pitch to level that only blue whales and seismographs can detect. Software eliminates this problem. You can now hear the guitar in the register it was originally played in, but at a speed slow enough to enable capturing onto paper. Software offers other advantages that all visual-based editing systems have, including zooming, looping, spot-processing with EQ, and so on.
All high-end DAW software (Pro Tools, Cubase, Live, Sonar, Logic, etc.) and other loop composers offer tools to change pitch without affecting speed, and vice versa. But that's a lot of horsepower when you just want to grab some notes off a lick or fill you stumble upon while browsing your iTunes library. That's where Capo comes in. Now in version 2, Capo allows you to drag and drop an mp3 file from your library into it and then displays a piano-roll-type graphic analysis of your tune. Capo assigns waveform shapes, which reveal their pitch when you mouse over them. Pitches are represented vertically, durations horizontally.
This is a highly intuitive way to show notes, as you can easily see the up and down shape of the line, as well as note names by virtue of their vertical placement. The piano-roll arrangement of light and dark bands help you distinguish the 12 notes of the chromatic scale (with adjacent white bands for B-C and E-F).
Selecting a note turns it into an adjustable bar on the display, and automatically places it on the tab staff below (see Figure 1). Once selected above, the bar symbol can be lengthened and moved, the position of which is reflected in the staff below. Selecting notes this way allows you to pick out the important pitches in a solo from the non-important ones (including sounds played by other instruments). If you want to keep the note, but change a string (such as making an open 1st-string E a 2nd string/5th fret E), simply control-click the bar to put it on a different string. The program does the fret conversion for you.
Figure 1. Selecting a note on the graphic display turns it into an editable bar (seen in yellow above), and puts it on the tab staff below. The string/fret assignment can be changed. (Click images to englarge.)
Of course, analysis is only part of Capo’s workings. It can also slow down (or speed up) your recorded music without changing the pitch. Again, all sophisticated audio editors can do this, but Capo is quick and simple. A sliding bar on the left-hand side of the screen allows you to quickly change the tempo by several large-scale percentages, including 3/4 (or 75% of the current speed—75 bpm instead of 100 bpm, etc.), 1/2 (50%, or half tempo), and 1/4. (There’s also a 1.5x speed for getting through ballads.) The audio gets more garbly-sounding with the smaller (slower-speed) fractions, but the quality is really good at 75% and pretty good at up to 50%. If in-between settings are required, just drag the bar slowly for fine-tuning the percentages, down to the unit percentage point (73, 72, 71, etc.).
Sometimes changing the pitch of a recorded passage is helpful in transcribing, and Capo does this with equal facility. For example, many guitarists (including Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan) tune down their guitars a half step. So while they might be playing in the key of E on their guitars (using E, A, and B chords), the sound coming out of the speaker will be in Eb. You could retune your guitar down a half step, to match the recording, but a better way is to simply raise the pitch of the recording without changing the speed. Click on the Pitch button below the Speed button, and the bar will now move you in increments of a half-step, up or down the chromatic scale, plus or minus 24 semitones (two octaves).
Of course, you can combine the pitch and speed adjustments, slowing a song or passage down to, say, 67%, while raising or lowering its pitch any number of semitones. If you track the speed to the pitch (like -12 semitones at 50% speed), you’ll emulate an analog tape deck or turntable.
Capo provides many other transcribing aids. You can loop any selected audio portion for repeated playback while you shed a given passage. On the left side of the screen (see Figure 2), you have drop-down menus to change the instrument type (bass, mandolin, ukulele and banjo), tuning, and capo (if applicable). These are great translation shortcuts and saves you from doing the math while you’re just trying to hunt notes.
You can also selectively drop chord markers and type in the chord qualities yourself (see Figure 2). After you type in their names, the chords will sound the appropriate quality when you mouse-click them. This chord marker is a nice extra to have, but I’m not sure of its usefulness, at least with regard to transcribing.
Figure 2: On the left side of the screen, drop-down menus let you select among instruments, alternate tunings, and capo placement. You can selectively drop in chord markers too.
Over on the right side are three “Effects.” You can sum the stereo recording to mono and vary the strength of either channel. If you look closely at Figure 3, you’ll see that the slider is pushed to the right, and that the waveform squiggle of the Left channel (the lower one) has been reduced in amplitude. A three-position EQ allows you to better isolate bass, mid, and high frequencies, and you can dial in your own as well. Finally, a useful “vocal eliminator” function helps you reduce somewhat the lead vocals, allowing you to better hear the backing instruments.
Figure 3: The Effects section allows you to perform three useful functions when transcribing: summing to mono (note the reduced amplitude of the right channel in the setting above), EQ, and vocal reduction.
The speed and simplicity of Capo are its two greatest strengths. You can loop a passage, slow it down to any percentage of the original, and change the pitch up to two octaves in either direction, if necessary. That’s 95% of all transcribing work, and Capo does this beautifully. If you regularly transcribe using other instruments, and/or with a capo, you’ll appreciate the Note Settings tools. Audio fiddlers will appreciate the Effects section, as it really does give you an extra layer of control, especially for busy or complex mixes. You can even save and export your loops and edited files for others to review or for future reference. At just $50, there’s no reason every musician shouldn’t add Capo to their musical bag of essential software tools.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
HarmonyCentral.com is the leading Internet resource for musicians, supplying valuable information from news and product reviews, to classified ads and chat rooms.