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Digitalising 3,500 pieces of sheet music – The iPad Project

The time has come . . . for The King’s Singers to go digital!

The King’s Singers 2nd countertenor, Timothy Wayne-Wright, talks about his, and the group’s initial journey in ‘going digital’.

 

We live in a world where personal technology is constantly evolving, seemingly on a daily or weekly basis. It is almost impossible to avoid the promotion and hype for the latest computers, tablets and phones, all claiming to have better features and to be more efficient than the version before. Many of these updates simply pass us by, but every once in a while there is a product that grabs our attention. Well, I’m very excited to announce that one such item has well and truly grabbed our attention here in The King’s Singers – the Apple iPad Pro. We have been eagerly awaiting this new arrival, but why? To find out, please read on….

 

What is the iPad Project?

Over the nearly 50 year history of The King’s Singers we have been fortunate enough to accumulate a vast library of sheet music. There are over 3,500 individual titles at present and, of course, it is always growing. The library contains an array of genres – music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras, orchestral and other accompanied repertoire, close harmony pieces, folk, jazz and pop songs, spirituals, contemporary music – including a large number of commissions too. As current custodians of this treasure chest of music, it is our sole responsibility to safeguard its future, much of which is original music written specifically for The King’s Singers. Our beloved archivist, Manfred Luchs, who has worked closely with the group since the 1990s, has safeguarded many of these paper scores by taking photocopies and storing them in his ‘backup’ library. However, the safest way to truly protect this library is to scan each piece and to store everything electronically – in other words, digitalising the library. As the current librarian of the group, it has been my responsibility to lead this project and to work out actually how such a large undertaking could become a reality.

 

Initial Challenges

1) Alongside turning each piece of music into a digital document (a PDF) we also had to find a way of reading these scanned pieces on a device. We agreed that a tablet of some sort was the way to go. A few years ago we had considered the earlier generations of the Apple iPad but this was quickly discounted as the size of the screen was simply too small for us to see the music easily on stage. However, recently the iPad Pro was released which has a 12.9’’ screen and is the largest tablet currently available on the market. It was certainly going to be large enough for us to read our music from!

2) Our goal was to have the iPads ready to use on our current Asian tour – this is where we would unveil our project to the public! So the start of this tour became my objective – all of the Asian tour music had to be on the iPads by 16th May, which is when we left London. Although there was not a huge amount of music for this tour, about 30 – 40 pieces for each King’s Singer, I still had to try and find the most time and cost efficient way of digitalising it all. This was important as I was hoping this would be the chosen method to digitise the rest of the music in the library too. I chose a selection of stationery shops around London and hoped for the best! However, there were a number of problems apparent straight away. First was the cost. Even at the larger chain stores their ‘per page’ cost was expensive. It was fine for the purposes of just the Asian tour music but it would have worked out too costly to use the same method for the rest of this vast project. Secondly, the quality of the scans was not consistent. For a clear, easy-to-read scan we need the resolution to be at least 300 DPI (dots per image) and for some of the older, handwritten scores that have become faded over time, this resolution needs to be higher – up to 400 DPI. The difference in the type of scanning we needed was having to be changed and monitored manually on the scanning machines, consequently the number of staffing man hours was rapidly increasing the bills. After a few weeks of trawling the internet trying to find the right company to help us in this quest, I stumbled across AMS (Archive Management Systems LTD). All of my prayers seemed to have been answered! This company specialises in scanning, and projects like this are really quite small in comparison to some of the workloads they usually undertake. Their price per page was the lowest around and also the scanning machines they use take 9 ‘photos’ of each page of music. The machines automatically adjust the DPI setting, resulting in the clearest results without the need for extra man hours monitoring the different types of scores that we have – old and faded/new and clear.

 

What other technology have The King’s Singers embraced as part of this initiative?

1) Now that we had chosen our iPad Pros we needed to find a music application (or ‘app’) that would allow us to read these scanned PDFs from our tablets. I did a lot of research into the options but there seemed to be one clear frontrunner – ‘forScore’. The launch of this music reader app was announced in 2010 and its subsequent updates have seen it go from strength to strength, now achieving rave reviews across the globe as “arguably the best sheet-music tool ever” (PC Magazine).

2) In my mind during this whole process was the desire for the new approach to not distract the audience in any way from the number one priority – the music. I began thinking about how we perform behind music stands normally, with sheet music in front of us. We hide our hands directly behind the ‘lip’ of the stand in order for the audience not to see them – once again, trying our utmost to avoid any form of distraction for the audience member. This led me to think of other ‘interferences’ on stage that occur and were there any that we could eliminate in conjunction with this new technology? I looked back at some of our archive video footage to see if that would shed any light on the topic. It became very clear that the wonderful thing about when we performed in front of music stands was the fact that we were not constantly turning the pages of our scores. It wasn’t uncommon for our page-turning to be a tiny bit noisy too (!!) which again, especially in an atmospheric piece, can ruin the mood that has been built up by the music. So I now began investigating options to eliminate this specific distraction. A popular choice seemed to be a wireless foot pedal that turned the pages of the scanned music by a simple foot tap. However, the aim here was to eliminate any obvious movement on stage. The answer lay with a company called AirTurn. As well as foot pedals they also supply a rechargeable, multi-function, bluetooth remote controller called the DIGIT II. This seemed like the perfect solution. The controllers are small enough for us to simply hold in our normal clasped hands position behind the stands, and, at the click of a button, we can navigate backwards and forwards through our music.

3) Lots of our scores are littered with performance markings, some dating back to the early days of the group, but of course we are adding to these scribbles all the time! The final piece of technology that we embraced for this project was the Apple Pencil. This tool simply links up to our iPads via Bluetooth, just like the DIGIT II, and allows us to annotate our scores on the screen, as we see fit. It’s a fantastic tool and it certainly solves the problem of running out of pencil lead during a rehearsal!

4) I have set up a Dropbox Pro account to ‘house’ the PDF scans for each term. Furthermore, in case these scans are ever lost, I have everything backed up on USB drives and a 3TB external hard drive – both of which I carry on tour with me. The group also invested in a 5TB Personal Cloud. The plan is for this to contain all of the music in the library on thousands and thousands of PDFs. We will each be able to access this from anywhere in the world, uploading any piece using our mobile phones, tablets or laptops via cellular data or WiFi.

 

What are the pros and cons of The iPad Project?

Pros:

– We are drastically increasing the longevity of our paper scores by scanning them now. Many of our scores are getting very old and we are still touring with lots of the same copies that the original King’s Singers used back in the 1960s, so you can imagine that some of the scores now look pretty worn! One of our main aims in this project is to protect these historical documents.

– Touring life will be made easier. We will no longer need to travel with multiple folders full of music, meaning our luggage will be lighter and this will also reduce the risk of damage to the scores. Instead, we’ll just need the iPad, Apple Pencil and DIGIT II.

– In case, for whatever reason, our chosen programmes need to change whilst on tour, all the music will be available on the group’s Personal Cloud so we can access any score at any time.

– In case the unthinkable happens and The King’s Singers library and/or Manfred’s ‘backup’ library are impacted by fire or another adverse event, we can rest in the knowledge that all the music will be backed up and fully accessible, which is invaluable for the group.

Cons:

– All of these different pieces of technology need charging of course. Therefore we need to ensure that all of the devices are charged before rehearsals and concerts.

– The time and investment into this project has been significant, however, this can be turned into a positive given the above points. It will certainly all be worthwhile in the end!

I really couldn’t think of any more negatives regarding this project, but if you can think of any more positives or negatives, please get in touch!

This project is well underway and I envisage that by the start of next term (September), the entire King’s Singers library will be digitised and all these invaluable documents will be protected for the generations to come. As you can tell, this is one of my favourite subjects, so please get in touch if you would like to discuss any aspect of it further!

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article and I look forward to seeing lots of you at a King’s Singers concert soon to see the new technology first-hand! Thanks again, Tim. 

 

 
 
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