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Practical steps to transcribing?


scyzoryk

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I've been taking music and aural theory class and would like to dive into transcribing bass lines of my favorite songs by hand and ear onto sheet.

 

Could anybody offer some advice on practical ways to doing this from scratch? I assume it's more than just pick out each note by ear.

 

Are there steps you usually go through first? Ex: identify how many bars, identify key signature, chord progression, rhythm, etc? Do you pick out the accentuated notes the first time through, then go back through again and fill out the minor details? Do you use a key signature right away or use accidentals?

 

Any help from the seasoned pros would be great. I'm hoping to build a collection starting from easy melodies and basslines. :cool:

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I write in all the barlines first.

 

Then I write in the chord changes, while sitting at the piano. The chord changes will give you an idea of what the best key signature will be.

 

Then I start with the bassline. Sometimes I write all the rhythms out first and then I fill in the notes. Sometimes I do both at the same time. I get as much as I can and instead getting hung up on a detail, I skip it and come back later.

 

Of course my method has to do with how I hear. I usually can hear all the chord changes immediately---that's how I survive on many gigs on which I have to play tunes on stage that I haven't played before. I also hear rhythms very quickly and can write them down.

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I can't imagine anything more useful than this exercise.

 

You know, Beethoven learned much of his composition by copying Handel manuscripts.

 

Step 1...get a good dark pencil that will erase clean. IBM Test taking pencils work (the kind made for bubble sheets) but my favorite is the Pentel Fiesta 1.3 MM mechanical.

 

I mark an entire page of music with bar lines...make them exactly straight all the way down the page. Start with 4 measures per line (I usually do 6 now) because since music is often phrased in 4 bar phrases, it will make sense.

 

Get the key and time signature quickly. On scrap paper (if necessary) sketch out the song structure (intro-verse-chorus-break-signature riff.) When you have that down well, transfer that information to the staff paper.

 

Do a harmonic analysis (as Jeremy said, write down the changes.) If the changes are simple enough, you may not need to write them down. On the other hand, if the bass line is a simple root-five line you may only NEED the changes for many bars.

 

Don't write extraneous information on the page. If a chord is repeated for a bar, leave the space blank. Use measure repeat signs instead of writing notes.

 

Be VERY NEAT! I am not very neat, but when I write manuscript, I work hard to be neat. Make sure you follow careful measure spacing. Each quarter note takes exactly 25% of the space.

 

I often put a single dot to represent a note on first listen, then erase the measure of dots and replace them with notes.

 

Keep working at this...it's great.

Yep. I'm the other voice in the head of davebrownbass.
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I wouldn't call myself a seasoned pro (not posting after Jeremy C and Dave Brown), but I would suggest using a program like SlowGold as an aid. You can set markers and loop between them as long as you want. I usually just let the song play and punch in a marker every four bars before I start transcribing, then work on the four bar chunks. You can change the speed of the loop, and/or change the pitch-- I've found that raising the pitch an octave can help when transcribing hard-to-hear bass lines.

 

I'll also suggest buying the best manuscript paper you can find, because the cheap stuff falls apart after you erase the same spot a dozen times or so. And when you're starting out, you will do that.

 

I use Passantino manuscript no. 52 paper; it's larger than standard "notebook" paper and has only 10 staves per page. Most paper has 12. It just gives you more room to work, to write in chords and add lines above the staff.

 

Ed

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Hey,

Possible repetition here I know, but here's a transcribing help sheet I give to students:

 

Transcribing

Transcribing the work of other bass players is a valuable part of your ear training. I enjoy transcribing, and I do a lot of it. But I often meet players for whom the idea of working something out for themselves is considered to be too much like hard work. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we as bass players are becoming more and more spoilt by the various teaching materials available. Its now possible to be able to walk into a music shop and pick up a transcription book of an album by your favourite artist, and DVDs teaching us how to play our favourite players licks are readily available. Unfortunately, the availability of such materials encourages young players to be lazy in their musical studies, and believe me, it takes the fun out of it. Much of the enjoyment that comes from learning a piece of music that you love is a result of having figured it out yourself. If youve ever sat down and worked out a difficult piece youll know how good it feels to finally get it right. More importantly, by transcribing music yourself, you are getting to know how another player thinks and plays, as well as giving your own ears an unbeatable workout.

 

As a bass player you are hopefully seeking to find your own voice on the instrument. The best way to do this is to absorb as much music as you can, and learn from the players that you admire. Transcribing other bass players parts helps you to learn their style, their note choices, and encourages you to think in new ways. When you transcribe a lot of material by the same artist you will be able to get into their mindset - start making accurate guesses at how things were played or conceived. Transcribing and learning from a wide variety of bassists, each of whom play in differing styles will do wonders for your playing. In order to craft your own style you must first assimilate the styles of others. Jaco would never have sounded like Jaco had he not spent years learning soul and Motown tunes, assimilating the work of Jamerson, Jerry Jemmott and Duck Dunn, transcribing Charlie Parkers sax lines and learning and studying melodies.

 

Lets look at some of the ways you can approach transcription:

 

· Reading Music

It helps a great deal if you can read music, as it stands to reason that if you know how to read something you should be able to write it down.

 

· Speeding It Up

You may think that there can be no benefit whatsoever of speeding up something you are transcribing. However, speeding up a song up allows the bassline to pop out of the mix. This is best achieved on a double cassette player, using the high speed dubbing facility. At high speed, the bass part sounds roughly an octave above where it would normally be, although you may have to make minor tuning adjustments so as to be in tune with the track. I use this technique a lot on tracks where the bass part is buried in the mix.

 

· Slowing It Down

Digital technology now allows you to slow a song down without altering its pitch. There are several practise units available that offer this feature, and even later versions of Windows Media Player can do it. The advantage of using a device such as this is that what you are hearing is slower but the pitch hasnt altered and will be easier for your ear to follow.

 

· Looping

Computers can be an amazing help when youre transcribing. I find it useful sometimes to loop a small section of the tune I am transcribing. Again there are plenty of audio programs out there that will do this for you. Doing so means that you only hear the part you need to, around and around. Using the same software you should also be able to insert stop points. When transcribing you need to be able to stop the track after you have heard the group of notes you are working out anything you hear afterwards confuses the issue.

 

· Sing It Back

As I mentioned in the last point, you need to stop the track after the note or notes you are working out. Being able to sing them after you have just heard them is just as essential. If you can sing it a couple of times, it shouldnt take too long for you to locate those same notes on your instrument.

 

· Creative Panning

On some older music the bass is panned to one side either completely or partially. Check out some old Beatles recordings for example and try isolating one speaker then the other. In many cases the bass and vocals will be in one channel, guitars and drums in the other. Obviously you can use this to your advantage.

 

· Transcribing A Whole Piece

In many instances you wont want to transcribe an entire song, maybe just some lick or a fill you want to borrow. But sometimes you will need to do the whole thing from start to finish. When doing so, I recommend a little preparation. Firstly, listen through, pen and paper in hand and sketch out the structure of the song on score paper verses, choruses, middle 8, solos etc, try to draw in bar lines so that you basically have a blank chart to fill in. Look out for repetition - most songs use the same format and chord progression for each verse and chorus.

 

As with most things, transcribing can be daunting at first, but the more you do of it the easier it will become, I promise you. Perseverance may be required but once you can do it, youll realize that it is an invaluable skill.

 

Hope that helps

Stuart

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Originally posted by Stuart Clayton:

Digital technology now allows you to slow a song down without altering its pitch. There are several practise units available that offer this feature, and even later versions of Windows Media Player can do it. The advantage of using a device such as this is that what you are hearing is slower but the pitch hasnt altered and will be easier for your ear to follow.

Is this feature available on Windows Media Player 9? I can't find it if it is.

 

Making do with untrained ears.

Newf

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Originally posted by Newf Stimpson:

Originally posted by Stuart Clayton:

Digital technology now allows you to slow a song down without altering its pitch. There are several practise units available that offer this feature, and even later versions of Windows Media Player can do it. The advantage of using a device such as this is that what you are hearing is slower but the pitch hasnt altered and will be easier for your ear to follow.

Is this feature available on Windows Media Player 9? I can't find it if it is.

 

Making do with untrained ears.

Newf

I think it is yeah. You need to have the graphic equalizer visable, then use the blue arrows next the words graphic equalizer to scroll through other options. One of them is 'play speed settings', and thats the one you want. Simply drag the slider to the left slightly to slow it down - it's best not to go too far, even a small amount makes quite a difference. I think i'm right in sayng that the file needs to be an MP3 for it to work properly - or at least not a MP4 or whatever Itunes uses.

 

Hope that helps,

Stuart

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I use Tascam's CD player instead of a computer program like Slow Gold. I think it cost me around $150 - I highly recommend it.

 

I think transcribing, by making you stretch your ear to try and hear each note perfectly, has really improved my ear. And then by analyzing what I transcribe I've improved my theoretical knowledge.

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when transcribing a bass part I also EQ out the highs, boost the lows.

 

Stuart: MUCH thanks for the Win Media tip; I'd have NEVER found it on my own.

Things are just the way they are, and they're only going to get worse.

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My favourite program is Transcribe from http://www.seventhstring.com/. I use it every day. Besides slowing down, changing pitch, eq'ing and looping you can also put different sorts of markup's and text in the song to quickly find passages etc. This information is saved in a separate file. You can open both wav and mp3.

/Anders Vesterberg

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Originally posted by Dave Brown:

I understand the attraction to technology.

 

You'll learn more if you just do it live on paper.

 

I admit, though, a looping player might be of great use.

Don't cave, Dave!

 

You know it's far superior to develop precision needle-drop skill and rewind/play technique.

 

I mean, if we wanted a loop we could always transfer the recording to reel-to-reel and do some creative splicing to end up with an endless loop, right?

 

:D:D:D

 

All jesting aside, Dave has a point. The problem with relying on technology is that you become lost without it. How many of you have lost (or had stolen) a digital planner or cell phone with all of your contact information programmed into it? Suddenly it's hard to even remember the number for the person you speed-dial every day.

 

If we had "slower-downers" when we were learning, would we have used them? I'm sure we would, given that there's always some passages that are difficult to make out. For 98% of the time, though, I don't think it would make a difference.

 

The problem is when you get into a band situation. Do you ask the band to play a new song at half-tempo so you can learn it? How about that great gig you just landed; guaranteed at every performance the band leader plays something unrehearsed (like audience requests).

 

The bottom line is you need your ear to work in real time.

 

Is it a pain to learn a complex song entirely by ear from a recording? Sure. As Dave alludes to, the "old school" technology had us spending more energy and time just looping the snippet we were trying to hear than anything else. Just keep at it; it does get easier in time.

 

Being able to listen to a song with a notepad and pencil and just jot down the approximate elapsed time each section starts is already a huge improvement over trying to decipher the grooves on vinyl, IMO.

 

The software Anders describes sounds like a pretty good time saver. The only thing he didn't mention was whether or not the program supported music notation.

 

Believe it or not, there once was a time before music notation software. Yeah, we did everything with paper and pencil. Still a good skill, especially if you ever find yourself at a gig and need to copy a part by hand (that fell in the mud and the bus ran over).

 

Besides that, I'm a strong believer in the idea that the learning process is reinforced by writing as you're learning. I've been to a lot of professional and college lectures where the entire slide presentation is printed and handed out to the audience. No need to take notes, right? I almost never have any long-term memory of what is said at those lectures. If I'm furiously scribbling notes during the lecture, however, chances are it will stick.

 

So, IMO there is a huge benefit to transcribing by hand.

 

Once you have the transcription, though, there's no harm in entering it into something like Finale so you can have a professional looking printout. (In the past I've used general purpose graphic design software for music notation, and that is a true test of patience!)

 

In fact, with Finale you can have the computer play back your transcription to compare to the original recording. Woah! I always like to try to catch the errors when it's still paper and pencil. Read and play your transcription along with the recording. I usually have an error in the rhythm somewhere, and it's usually quite obvious now that I'm reading it back. Sure, I could have found it with the computer, but again I think you lose from a learning perspective. (This is somewhat akin to relying on spell check instead of learning how to proof read by hand.)

 

I'm sure I tried EQing before. Problem was I'm sure I only had a "tone" knob on the stereo, which just doesn't give you the control of a multi-channel parametric. You may have read some EQ tricks used while making a recording. For example, the kick drum is often given free reign over the very lowest frequencies. This means the lows on bass guitar might be cut. Similarly, the lows on guitar might be cut to make more room for bass guitar. So it's certainly possible that you can find that window of frequencies assigned to bass guitar and dial it in to hear it better.

 

However, you really need to learn the song as a whole, even if you're not directly paying attention to what the vocalist is screaming or the guitarist is wanking. Your brain will absorb that stuff, too. It will help you develop cues for your part from the other parts, so when you forget how many verses before the chorus or where the bridge is supposed to be ("Has anybody seen the bridge?") you can follow the rest of the band.

 

Once you've taken advantage of all the learning opportunities, it might be nice to take advantage of software to save yourself some time.

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Hi

Transcribe does not support notation. Markup can only be text.

Being a software developer by day I always have an eye open to find programs that can help me or save me some time, but what attracted me to music and bass playing in particular was the other dimension, "heart meets string", the live expression.

Software is useful, it can speed up learning in some ways, even help me to get bigger ears. But the goal is very clear, develop the flow from your heart through your fingers and instrument.

/Anders

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I've heard from multiple sources that musicians used to use the slower RPM setting on their record players to help with transcribing. I don't see how that's any different from the TASCAM slower-downer I use (I'm not familiar with any of the computer programs).

 

I'm guessing that my trusty TASCAM is not being included among the 'computer programs,' cuz even with the slower tempo the Sonny Rollins "Slow Boat to China" bass line I'm currently transcribing is still not easy.

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Well, the issue is with an LP if you use a slower speed, the pitch changes.

 

I'll bet the Tascam keeps the pitch.

 

That's pretty important. Even if you don't have absolute pitch ("perfect pitch") there is still a psychological response to key. When the key changes, it can get very confusing.

 

Also, even though I'm proficient with Sibelius, I don't generally transcribe direct to it. I still use pencil. I think I use the same brain muscles to think software as I do to listen...they get taxed. But when writing, it seems much easier.

 

Probably a lot of psycho-babble I just unloaded. Feel free to shoot it down.

Yep. I'm the other voice in the head of davebrownbass.
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That's a good point - Tascam does maintain the pitch.

 

I'd guess that a record player lowers the key a bit, so all the notes are the same relative to each other but in a new, lowered key.

 

So...with a record player you'd have to make sure to transpose back to the proper key, which isn't very difficult... but it would work the music theory brain muscles more than the Tascam.

 

So it seems Tascam's pitch maintenance isn't a huge time-saver, but it is an aid.

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