When I was growing up, music meant notated sheet music, pretty much. Sure, jazz players improvised, but nobody was teaching improvisation (or jazz anything) where I went to high school. Someone handed you a page of dots, and you played the dots.
How times change. These days, I still use pages of dots if I’m playing cello or piano, but my composing is done in a computer sequencer. There’s no notated score, and no need for one. It’s all MIDI tracks or loops. The old-line MIDI sequencers (Cubase, for instance) have notation editing and printing facilities, but that’s all legacy code. Very few people would ever touch it. Newer sequencers such as Reason and FL Studio, which are mostly what I use these days, don’t do notation. Nor does Ableton Live.
A couple of days ago, for reasons that I don’t want to go into quite yet, I decided that it would be a good idea to have notated versions of the melodies of some of the music I’ve done in Reason. This turns out to be possible, but it’s a bit of a scramble.
First I tried pencil and paper. That works, but it’s a punishing regime for the hand holding the pencil. So how about extracting MIDI files from Reason and importing them into a notation program? The pages would be easier to read, and also easier to edit — for instance, if I decide I need to add eight bars in the middle of a piece.
For the benefit of anyone else who may be contemplating such a quixotic venture, here’s what I’ve learned.
First, for basic notation you don’t need an expensive notation program. MuseScore is free, and it works very well. It will load a MIDI file and interpret the data so as to produce notated pages. But that’s not the end of the story; it’s just the beginning.
If you just want to export a melody from Reason, the first thing to do is save a special copy of your song called something like “MySong Melody.reason.” This is so you won’t accidentally destroy the song data! then select all of the other tracks except the melody, right-click on one of the tracks, and choose “Delete Tracks and Devices.” When you’ve done this, you’ll be exporting only a single MIDI track — the melody. If you export the whole song, you’ll have a multitrack MIDI file. MuseScore will import this, but editing it would take days.
If you’ve recorded a melody on a monophonic synth, you’ll probably never notice if a few notes overlap here or there. (If you’re using a preset that has legato enabled, you’ll probably want some overlaps, in fact.) But MuseScore handles overlapping notes by assigning them to a different voice on the staff. Voice 2 may have only one note in a measure, so MuseScore will strew rests across the rest of the measure and use conventional stem directions for what it thinks are the two separate voices.
Reason has a nice editing command for introducing a small, fixed-size gap between notes in a legato line. Use this before exporting the MIDI file, and most of the Voice 2 notes will drop back to Voice 1. But this command has to be used with care. If two notes overlap significantly (again, this will be inaudible if your preset is monophonic), the editing command will make the first note longer rather than shortening it, so there will still be an overlap. Also, you can’t do a select all on the track before using the command, because then all of the notes at the ends of phrases will be lengthened, perhaps radically, so that they reach almost to the first note in the next phrase. The way to use this command is by selecting one phrase at a time, clicking the button to use the command (the button is in the F8 tool kit), and then inspecting the whole track visually before exporting the MIDI file.
Even then, you may miss a couple of overlaps. You’ll see them when MuseScore imports the file, at which point you can go back to Reason, edit the offending notes, re-export the file, and re-import it into MuseScore.
And then we’re ready to print out the pages? No, not yet.
MuseScore analyzes MIDI files to figure out what key signature to use. This is a nice time-saver if your music is simple, but if you’ve changed key in the middle, or are using an exotic scale (as I will sometimes do), MuseScore may make a bad guess. The first piece I tried to import ended up in G-flat major when notated. This resulted in a whole big bunch of B-double-flats, among other enharmonic anomalies. Getting rid of the key signature didn’t change the way notes were displayed, other than adding a slew of new accidentals. From a quick trip to the MuseScore user forum, I learned about the Respell Pitches command. That took care of most (though not all) of the spelling problems. With the ones that remain, it’s click on a note, hit the J key. Click on another note, hit the J key.
The lengths of notes at the ends of phrases are not always easy to read. I had to delete a few sixteenth-notes that were tied to the previous note. Other notes had unnecessary staccato dots.
For some reason, MuseScore didn’t see my printer. I had to “print” to SnagIt (a screen-capture program) and save from SnagIt to PDF in order to print.
The next melody I tried extracting was deliberately recorded without quantization, and the tune has a gentle shuffle groove. Figuring MuseScore wouldn’t like that, I went through the track and quantized everything. The results were still a mess:
With this one (which fortunately isn’t too long) I’m going to have to transcribe using a pencil and then enter the data into MuseScore by hand. That’s almost bound to be easier than trying to thrash through that tangle.
I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, though. And the good news is, as you can see in the above clip, Reason exports time signature changes as part of the MIDI file. MuseScore happily inserted time signature changes in all the right spots.
I’m sure I’ll run into a few more snags along the way. The output is easier to read than pencil and paper, though, and I don’t have to worry quite so much about writer’s cramp.