Category Archives: Technology

Inserting Music Excerpts into Microsoft Word

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Preface
I frequently find myself in a situation where I need to insert an excerpt of music into a document that I’m working on, whether it’s a church bulletin, a research paper, a music test, or a program for a choral concert. I’ve done this a few different ways and would like to discuss them here. I sincerely hope that anyone who has a better solution will email me.

I use Finale 2014 and Microsoft Word for Mac, though I’ve started using Adobe InDesign for more serious design work.

The Problem
I am self-admittedly a little (…very) anal retentive about printing documents, and avoid using raster graphics (such as JPG, TIFF, or TIFF) whenever possible – especially for music excerpts. The problem with raster graphics is simple: if you need to resize the image, it will become blurry. If you have a raster image with a high enough DPI (usually 300+) and keep its original size, it would be practically impossible to notice any difference to a vector graphic. In contrast, vector graphics can be resized as large or small as necessary and keep their sharpness.

Finale has a feature to export graphics in both raster and vector types. The EPS format has been a widely supported and popular type of vector images, but it is essentially outdated and is now frequently replaced with PDF. While EPS is still supported, PDF is generally recommended as the preferred format for things like this.

However, an issue arises when exporting PDF graphics from Finale. When the following selection is exported as a PDF graphic in Finale:

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…it looks like this in Microsoft Word:

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Notice that the copyright logo (at the bottom of the original Finale document) is shown. It’s as if the file was imported with the correct size, but the X and Y offsets are off.

Curiously, as far as I can tell, the file appears just fine in the Preview application and even lists the correct page size.

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Even more bizarre is that the file imports correctly into InDesign:

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Trust me, I’m a VERY happy InDesign user. It’s fantastic at what it does and it saves me immeasurable amounts of time. But, for all its merits, there are some projects that are simply better done in Microsoft Word, such as research papers. And when I’m working in Word, I really need a method of importing music graphics reliably.

The Search Begins
After spending a bit of time trying to find solutions, I discovered that PDF documents are somewhat indestructible. Even in Adobe’s own Acrobat software, when pages are cropped, objects outside the cropping region are not deleted – just hidden.

Is it possible that Finale’s PDF export simply creates a “cropped” document in which the remainder of the document is hidden, but still included? Perhaps Word doesn’t ignore the hidden objects as it should, and overrides any X and Y offset meta data to attempt to display all of the objects embedded into the file? That’s my best guess, anyways.

Some users on the internet suggested “printing” the music excerpt as a PDF from Preview. To my surprise, this actually worked – sortof. The file was able to be imported into Word, but some of the data (such as line thickness) became distorted. That wasn’t going to work! I’d rather a slightly blurry TIFF image than an excerpt in which the lines are varying thicknesses.

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One Solution
When I first began doing this many years ago, I created music excerpts in Finale by deliberately setting the page size to whatever I needed and creating the PDF from the print dialog. (Doing this requires that you set the page size in BOTH the Page Layout>Page Size dialog (shown below) and in the File>Page Setup dialog.

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I admit that this is probably the “best” way to do this, as it creates a PDF that is unquestionably the correct size and can be imported accurately into Microsoft Word, et al. On top of that, you can be more specific about the margins and whitespace. (Using the Graphics tool in Finale is significantly easier and faster, but you can’t export a graphic of a defined size; you must use your eyes and intuition to select the region to be exported!)

Another Solution
As I mentioned above, the “easier” but less accurate way to export an excerpt of music is to use the Graphics tool.

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Note: when graphics are exported as EPS, they do open and insert properly into Microsoft Word.

Conclusion
I wish that Finale had a way of setting the size of the region to be exported, and I wish Microsoft Word did a more accurate job of importing “cropped” PDF documents. Until then, I guess I’ll be doing it the hard way by setting the page size, or by exporting as an EPS graphic.

I welcome your feedback and suggestions! Did I overlook something, or can you think of a better way to export music selections and import them into Word? If so, please contact me!

How (Not) To Use Click Tracks in MainStage

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At the end of September, I was the Conductor and Associate Music Director for the regional premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot at Shenandoah Conservatory.

It quickly became apparent in our preliminary meetings that it would be necessary for us to use a click track for the production, since so much of the show would be completely automated. It would be impossible to consistently sync the music to the automated movable lights, video, and projections without using click tracks. In the end, approximately 90% of the show was on a click. This left little room for for “artistic expression” during performances, but also ensured that everything lined up perfectly night after night.

In the professional world, it isn’t uncommon to use a click track for any number of reasons. In some cases, the click helps to keep the tempo consistent between different conductors (whether or not other theatrical elements are being synced to it or not). In other cases, the click helps to keep the live orchestra in time with the pre-recorded elements (such as many of the organ parts in Phantom of the Opera).

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This was my first time to use… much less create a click track. After countless hours and several unsuccessful attempts, I finally built a setup that worked reliably. I will briefly discuss my failures, as well as what ended up working, in the hope that this post might assist others who are trying to do the same thing. But first, I should explain the parameters for our setup:

  1. The clicks should be triggered entirely in MainStage. Most, if not all, professional productions trigger clicks in some other software (e.g. QLabs). I didn’t have immediate access to this, so it all needed to be done within MainStage.
  2. The clicks needed to fire immediately and reliably. Although a few of the clicks started on top of dialogue where an extra second would be alright, most of the clicks were timed precisely or initiated a tempo change – and it was critical that they start right when triggered, and without any noticeable delay.
  3. MainStage should also handle my keyboard patches. In addition to conducting, I was to play the keyboard parts.

For our production, we were fortunate to have a talented sound team (Harry Post and Steve Cusick) who equipped us with Aviom personal mixers. One of the channels was to be dedicated specifically to the click track, and another was a talk-back microphone for me to speak directly to the musicians. Each of the musicians was also equipped with a set of noise-canceling headphones.

First, I made some initial decisions: 1) The click tracks would be audio files that I would create in Finale. 2) I wanted to trigger the clicks using the lowest key of the keyboard.

I should mention that MainStage does include a basic metronome tool. I spent some time tinkering with it, thinking that it might be a potential (and more efficient) way to use a click. However, I discovered that it’s actually pretty clunky and simply isn’t flexible enough to handle tempo changes quickly or easily.

I started off by creating Finale files for each click track, using a Percussion instrument. I chose the “High Agogo” sound because I figured it would be audible over a rock band. I was teased for the clicks sounding too much like a cowbell, but it worked. (Next time, I’ll try to figure out a way to make this closer to a metronome “beep”). I set the reverb to “None” and exported the audio as an audio file (as AIFF files).

americanidiot-click1Since these audio files were uncompressed and in Stereo format, I used Audacity to condense the tracks to Mono and save them as MP4 files. In addition, there was approximately a half a second of silence at the beginning of the file that I removed. I assumed (incorrectly) that a compressed audio format such as MP3 or MP4 would be more reliable because the files were smaller.

americanidiot-click2I then tried to use the “Playback” tool in MainStage to trigger these files. I quickly realized that while the files played consistently, they didn’t always start immediately. Occasionally, there would be a small delay before the file would play. Most frustratingly, the delay was completely inconsistent. It would happen sometimes, but not always, and it didn’t seem to matter how large the file was. This tool might be ideal in some circumstances, but it wasn’t going to work for a click track.

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I switched to using the EXS24 tool, which worked. Sortof. Unlike the Playback tool, the EXS instrument would start immediately. However, the files would sometimes “hiccup” a second or two after the playback started – a major problem for a click track!

 

How TO create click tracks in MainStage

This post wouldn’t be very helpful if I didn’t mention what actually worked. After reaching out to a few of friends that are unquestionably more experienced in MainStage than I am, I found a solution that worked.

As counter-intuitive as it might seem: the problem was using compressed audio files. I originally assumed that smaller files would be easier to work with, but didn’t account for the fact that compressed files would need extra processing power to be played. Uncompressed files could be read and played directly with no additional computing work.

I went back to Finale and exported the click files again. I opened the newly exported files in Audacity again and reduced them to Mono, but instead of compressing them to MP4 files, I saved them as uncompressed AIFF files. Following that, I created EXS instruments to trigger the new files. This worked beautifully!

I assigned the file to the lowest key on the keyboard. In addition, I also created a “blank” AIFF file, which is about a half a second long, assigned to the lowest “B” on the keyboard. This allows me to immediately STOP the click (in the case that I accidentally started it at the wrong time). In order for this to work, the EXS instrument needs to be set on “mono” mode. I also disabled “pitch” so the clicks would play at the correct pitch and enabled “1Shot” so the click would play entirely without me having to hold the key down.

americanidiot-click4For the majority of the clicks, it was preferable for the click to stop immediately when I changed to the next patch. In a few exceptions, I needed to change the patch while the click continued. This was easy to do by disabling the “instantly silence previous patch” feature.

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Finally, I created two bus channels for the output: one for the click track that would be sent only to the band, and one for my patches that would be sent to the main mix. (NB: the following image has “Output 1-2″ listed on both channels because I don’t have the audio interface connected at the moment!)

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Some final thoughts…

Our theatre owns several Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interfaces that we use for our keyboards. While the Scarlett is generally sufficient for everything we need, it is only capable of handling a single output. Our original plan was to create an aggregate device where the keyboard patches would come out of the Scarlett output and the click track would come out of the headphone port. This sometimes worked, but it was common for the clicks to start after a significant delay (?!). That wasn’t going to work!

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One of the sound assistants graciously allowed us to use his higher-model Focusrite audio interface that had multiple audio interfaces. This resolved all of the problems with the audio delays! Everything worked!

It’s not unusual for technology problems to arise during a performance, so it’s wise to always have a backup. I’ve seen several professional keyboard setups that run two instances of MainStage simultaneously, on two separate computers. If one starts to misbehave, the keyboardist can instantly switch to the other computer by flipping a switch or pressing a button.

We don’t have the equipment to do that, but I wanted to be prepared for an equipment failure. Just in case something happened during a performance, I kept my personal laptop with me so I could easily switch it out. As a secondary backup, I kept my iPhone (in Airplane Mode) with me, and I could easily pull up the metronome. Fortunately, all of the performances ran smoothly and I never had to resort to a backup!

I hope this helps someone that might be looking for a way to use click tracks in MainStage.

Please feel free to contact me with questions, suggestions, or comments!

What didn’t work: Compressed MP3 files triggered by the “Playback” tool using a single-output audio interface.

What worked: Uncompressed AIFF audio files triggered by the EXS24 tool using a multi-output audio interface.

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Photos: C. King Photography

Harp Glissandi in MainStage

I am currently programming keyboards for an upcoming production of The Secret Garden. Like many other productions, the orchestrations were reduced for touring productions after the Broadway production ended, and all of the harp parts were put into the keyboard books.

Often times, a keyboard book will specify exactly what scale a glissando should be. Up until now, I’ve always had to disregard that indication and play white-key glissandi. But since I’ve started using MainStage, I want to be much more accurate with keyboard programming – including accurately playing harp glissandi.

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There are other ways keys can be re-mapped in MainStage, but those are often time consuming and laborious, and I wanted something that was simple, easy, and could be applied quickly to any patch. So, I wrote a script that essentially mimics the pedals of a harp.

Concert harps have seven pedals – one for each note of the diatonic scale. Each pedal can be set in 3 positions (flat, natural, and sharp). If the C pedal is in the “sharp” position, all of the C strings become sharp, for example. Thus, to play an E-flat major glissando on a harp, the D, G, C, and F pedals need to be set in the “natural” position.

This script allows the user to change pitches similarly to a harp. Each note of the scale can be set as flat, natural, and sharp. When the user plays a white-key glissando, the appropriate notes will automatically be adjusted.
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To Install

  1. First, download and unzip the script by clicking here (2 KB)
  2. Unzip and move the “harppedals.pst” file to the “yourname/Music/Audio Music Apps/Plug-In Settings/Scripter/” folder on your computer

To Use

  1. Click on the “MIDI FX” button near the top of a channel strip and select “Scripter”
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  3. Click the drop down menu labeled “Factory Default” and select “harppedals”
  4. The following parameters will appear. With these parameters, you can specify whether or not each note is flat, natural, or sharp. (Unlike on a real harp, they are all naturally natural).
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  6. Once you’ve set all the parameters how you want them, you’re good to go! Just close out of the window and gliss away.

Final Thoughts

I’m continually blown away by just how powerful MainStage really is. Controls can be mapped to change parameters during a live performance. For example, you could add a button that changes one or more of the harp pedals. To do this, first select the patch in the patch list in the Edit view. Then click on the button control. If the button is already mapped to something else, click “Override Concert Mapping,” and click “Unmapped” to display a list of options. From there, click the voice name (in this case, “001 Harp (1)”) and select “Scripter.” You can change the individual parameters, and add multiple mappings to change multiple parameters at the same time.

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Note: If you add a script to a channel strip, it will also add to any of the aliases. If you add the script to an alias, it will add to the parent as well. If anyone has a good way to apply a MIDI script to just the current patch and not all the aliases, etc, please contact me and let me know!

This can also be used in recording glissando sequences for playback. Brian Li has been kind enough to include this script on his website as well. He has several excellent MainStage tutorials, including a couple on recording sequences and mapping them to keys. Check out his website here.

Questions? Comments? Contact me and let me know!