Digital Music Pads

Posted on Saturday 9 May 2009

Here’s something quite cool; the Freehand Systems MusicPad Pro Plus. It’s essentially a Linux-powered keyboardless tablet PC that specializes in displaying music files. It uses a back-lit color LCD touch screen to display the music files that you load onto it by connecting it up to a Mac or PC. It can use music that you scan from sheet music, music files you buy & download from Freehand’s website, or transfer from an app like Sibelius.

The MusicPad Pro essentially replaces the sheet music a musician would use during a rehearsal or performance. It can hold an entire library’s worth of music, and if the user is playing outdoors there is no worry about having sheet music flying around in the wind. The user can also write notes on the music displayed on the MusicPad Pro and save those notes with the music. It’s a great concept, but at the price of $899, probably a little out of reach of most musicians and performing groups.

While I can’t take credit for this concept, it does remind me of something I thought up and sketched out while sitting through one of the kids’ band concerts years ago. I was bored out of my gourd (is it right to say that?) and my mind started wandering, thinking about all the work that goes into organizing sheet music for a band or orchestra; the conductor has the full score and most every player has a different set, and that’s duplicated for every piece the group plays. Just trying to wrap my head around the system needed to track all that paper makes me dizzy.

So I thought, what if the conductor had the music stored on a central computer — the server — with its display at the podium? And what if each musician had a wireless display — the client — that linked into that central computer & received the music from it? The musicians could tap a button on the screen or click a foot pedal to advance to the next page, or have the music scroll up as the piece progresses. For a stage performance, a tablet-sized screen would be great for the musicians, but when the cost of a display is usually keyed to the size of the screen, how about shrinking the screen down to the size of a recipe card — 3 x 5 inches — and attached directly to the instrument? I remember my older sisters using something like that for marching band back in the ’70’s, and the coronet that I used in junior high has an attachment that allows for that. With the display closer to the user’s eyes it doesn’t need to be very big (just look at the popularity of watching movies on iPods and other handheld devices.)

The difficulty I guess would be keeping the server & client pads coordinated through a performance… There are lots of things that could go wrong, and with a system like this, and going wrong in the middle of a performance… it would be ugly. Actually the real difficulty is in getting the concept to actually work in the real world, and to be able to sell it at an affordable price. The $900 MusicPad Pro is a great device, but it’s overkill for most bands and orchestras, and at that price just isn’t accessible to most primary & secondary schools and private organizations. An exhaustive three minute Google search shows that other than a few software solutions (like Music Reader) that can be run on a Windows or Mac computer, the Freehand device is pretty much the only game in town for digital music pads right now, so I think there’s potential for a system like this to really do well.

But the practicalities of the system won’t be my worry because I don’t know where to even start bringing an idea like this into reality, so I’ll leave the gritty details to someone more capable. I doubt I’m the first person to think of something like this.

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