Content, Part 2: Apps for Reading Paper Sheet Music Sources

by airturn

As we discussed in “The 5th C: The Art of Converting Paper to PDFs“, paper sheet music sources need to be converted to PDF files by using a scanner (or a scanning app from your smartphone) to take digital pictures of each page.  Once you have your PDF files assembled, the next step will be to decide which app or program you want to use to use to read and perhaps mark up your digitized music (in general, “app” is the term used for mobile devices like tablets and smartphones; “program” is the term used for more traditional computers running Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X operating systems).  Keep in mind that while your reader app/program options will be determined by the operating system running on your reading device du jour, your PDF files themselves are universal in nature, so it’s pretty easy to migrate them between devices.

Got Ink?  Beware

One caveat: if marking up your music with annotations is a high priority, you’ll want to be aware about the portability of those markings.  While the source PDF itself is a universal file, the added layer for digital ink annotations is not, and every app/program developer comes up with different ways to work with that ink layer.  The markings you make in one app/program generally aren’t viewable in any other app/program.  Fortunately, some apps/programs give you the option to “bake in” the ink layer, meaning that the ink markings you make would become a permanent part of the source PDF, kind of like having your sheet music with your markings all in permanent magic markers.  You won’t be able to change or erase those markings after baking them in, so keep that in mind if you need to juggle between “clean copies” and inked up ones.  I’m sure there’s a henna vs. tattoo parlor zinger allusion in here somewhere, but it’s too early in the morning for me to come up with one…

PDF Apps/Programs

Given that the PDF is a universal file format, there are literally hundreds if not thousands of apps and programs for reading these types of files.  To help narrow down the field, I’ll point out PDF readers that are either specifically designed with musicians in mind, or at least offer sheet music-friendly features that are worth considering.  I’ll list a number of basic factors:

  • the ability to add annotations,
  • the ability to export those annotations to other PDF readers,
  • the ability to create set lists (set lists give you the ability to select a number of songs, put them in any order, and have the app/program automatically open each song in succession as if they were put together into one big binder), and
  • one cool feature that’s worth considering.

By the way, all the apps/programs below are compatible with external page turning devices like the AirTurn – after all, what’s the point of reading music digitally if you can’t enjoy a bit of digital moxy and be able to turn pages hands free?

Here is a list of PDF sheet music reader apps and programs broken down by device and/or operating system:

iPad

Let’s face it: the iPad at the time of this writing is the undisputed champion of the tablet world.  With its commanding market share and relatively uniform design across 3 generations, the iPad has attracted the broadest pool of developers writing apps for reading PDF sheet music files.  Here’s an alphabetical listing of PDF reading apps for the iPad (all generations):

DeepDish GigBook

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: If you have a large PDF file containing dozens or hundreds of songs, you can create “super bookmarks” to extract the songs you want to use so that you don’t have to keep flipping pages to go from one song to the next.

forScore

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Yes
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: You can create multiple versions of a song.  This is great for collaborative pianists who have to accompany 14 versions of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and want to be able to have customized marked up copies for each rendition.

iGigBook

  • Annotations: Yes, sort of (more like typed post-it notes)
  • Annotations export: Yes, sort of (can be shared with other iGigBook users)
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: A fake book lover’s dream app, iGigBook has done the hard work of indexing over 60 popular Jazz fake and real books, making searches for any song (as well as searches by composer and key) within those collections a breeze.

Music Binder

  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Got a big collection of songs? Need to pull up a song in a jiffy? Music Binder features the fastest – and I really mean, the fastest – system for instantly finding any song in your collection, thanks to an innovative on-screen keyboard system.  The developer claims you can find any song in one second.  Guess what?  He’s right!

MusicPodium for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: Your music is listed as picture snippets of the front page in addition to the title and composer, making it easy to see the first few measures of the piece at a glance.

MusicReader PDF for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: You can annotate your music pretty quickly while turning pages hands free with a page turning pedal like the AirTurn.    It’s nice not to have to tap extra buttons to open and close the annotating feature each and every time you need to draw some ink on the page.

NextPage for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Nice user interface, including a numbered navigation page bar that makes it easy to quickly jump to any part of the piece.

OnSong

  • Annotations: No (you can add “sticky notes”, but not ink annotations)
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: OnSong is optimized for text files (we’ll revisit OnSong in a later chapter), but it works well as a PDF scroller – instead of viewing page turns one full page at a time, you can set OnSong to vertically scroll a customizable amount of the page at variable speeds.  Very handy when you need to look ahead beyond page breaks.

Planning Center Music Stand

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes – sort of (set lists aren’t created within the app itself; rather, they’re created and shared with team members via the http://www.planningcenteronline.com web service)
  • Cool Feature: This app is a companion for the Planning Center Online web service and is optimized for worship teams that need to share schedules, sheet music PDFs, and playlists.  No more excuses like “the dog ate my hymnal”!

Scorecerer

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: This app is designed to work in conjunction with the desktop version of Scorecerer which you can get from Deskew Technologies (http://www.deskew.com/).  The desktop program does a great job of automatically straightening lopsided scans, and gives you options to crop and custom cut your scores line by line.  You can then wirelessly sync those cleaned up files between your iPad and your computer.

Set List Maker

  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes (duh – see the name of the app!)
  • Cool Feature: Primarily intended for audio file playlist control, you can link PDF files to songs as lyric sheets.  Best used for text reading.

TheGigEasy app for iPad

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Nice looking controls that can be moved anywhere on the page and tucked away for unobstructed views of your music.

unrealBook

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Link multiple iPads to do everything from opening everyone’s songs to turning everyone’s pages from a master iPad.  Talk about keeping everyone on the same page!

Mac/PC

The text-centric form factor of the laptop computer prevent it from mass adoption by musicians as a digital sheet music reader.  Tablet PCs made a valiant effort for over a decade, but they tend to be priced too high for most musicians’ wallets.  Nevertheless, here are some viable options for Mac and PC computers, particularly if you are looking for a viewing screen that doesn’t force you to squint or reconsider Lasik eye surgery.

PDF Annotator

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Yes
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: PDF Annotator was never designed specifically for musicians, but it features the smoothest, most natural inking experience of any program on any device.  Ideal for heavy annotators.  Best experienced using a digital pen on a Tablet PC computer.

MusicReader PDF 4

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Yes
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Multiple page view options, including customizable half page views to optimize the fit and zoom of a vertical page on a horizontal screen, and 2 page views for computer screens/monitors large enough to display 2 full pages of music at a time.

Android

The sad paradox is that while there are tons of Android tablets on the market in all shapes and sizes, there is a paucity of PDF reading apps that are adequate for use by musicians.  Developers complain that there is little to no money to be made making Android apps, so that may be the main reason we don’t have many options yet.  Hopefully that will change in the near future.

EbookDroid

  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: If you don’t like the glow of a tablet screen in a dark performance setting, you can reverse the colors of the sheet music, making the page black and the notes white.  Takes a little getting used to, but very effective for cutting down on making your face look like a glowing ghost.

ezPDF Reader

  • Annotations: Yes
  • Annotation export: Unknown
  • Set Lists: No
  • Cool Feature: At this point, it’s one of the few Android apps that give you the ability to draw ink annotations onto the PDF file, as well as turn pages hands free with an external controller like the AirTurn BT-105.

MobileSheets for Android

  • Annotations: No
  • Annotation export: No
  • Set Lists: Yes
  • Cool Feature: Well, besides the fact that as of this writing it is pretty much the ONLY PDF reader for musicians in the Android market? Keep your eye on this app, as lots of features are constantly being added and it’s only a matter of time before this app will be able to hold its own compared to other PDF readers regardless of device or operating system.

This overview only scratches the surface of the capabilities of most of these apps.  If you’d like to search for apps by features (what they can do), check out this interactive App Guide that works like an expanding outline tree.

 

From Paper to Pixels: Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution

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