Saturday, November 12, 2011

More Experiences with MuseScore

As related in a couple of previous articles, I have become something of an evangelist for MuseScore, the free and open source music notation software that is positioned to completely replace Finale for me. Version 1.0 had shown tremendous promise, and I described my impressions very favorably in my initial article on MuseScore. Based on this, I was motivated to work with the developers in implementing some significant improvements for the 1.1 release, as described in a followup article and also in a tutorial I put together.

With the 1.1 release, I felt confident enough in MuseScore to undertake the task of going through my existing charts and re-creating them with MuseScore. My "book" consists of more than fifty original compositions that had previously been scored in lead sheet form with Finale. Over the course of the past few months, I have been replacing these with MuseScore versions. I finished just this weekend, and as I have been taking advantage of the score sharing site to post these charts online, I can post a link to the full set for your perusal and enjoyment:

In honor of the occasion, I would like to share a little about my experience with this project.

The compositions involved range from simple blues heads to multi-page scores of some complexity, incorporating both lead sheet and grand staff (piano) notation as well as some non-traditional notation styles, plus the use of background figures, irregular and multiple meters, and other elements that had pushed the capabilities of Finale when I created them originally.

I am pleased to report that MuseScore did not disappoint. The simple scores were simple to create - easier and faster than with Finale - and the complex scores never required me to compromise my musical intent for the sake of notatability on account of any limitations in MuseScore. And the results were always beautiful. Kudos to the developers of MuseScore for creating such a powerful and eminently usable application!

As an example of one of the more complex lead sheets I created, check out the first page of Down (click the image below to see it larger, or click here to view the full chart on

This arrangement demonstrates the basics of melody, chords, and lyrics, but also shows off more advanced features like switching between single and double staves, notation of accompaniment rhythms using slash notation, time signature changes, etc. All of this is easily accomplished in MuseScore. Although it might not be obvious, this score also presented a number of layout challenges in order to fit it on two pages while keeping it at a readable size. This is one of several compositions for which the MuseScore version is actually a significant improvement over the earlier Finale version.

I have worked on and off for a major publisher over the past few years, producing and editing charts for what has become perhaps the most popular legal fakebook series in the jazz world. I have thus become something of an expert on the preparation of lead sheets for professional publication, above and beyond my own personal experiences as a composer and as a gigging musician. I know what is required in order to produce a good lead sheet, and I can honestly say that MuseScore is the ideal tool for creating charts like those in The Real Book - to name a popular fakebook series that may or may not have been the one that I worked on :-).

I teach at two universities where both Finale and Sibelius are in use, and I often work with students struggling to learn these programs and to produce decent jazz charts with them. This year I started having my students use MuseScore, and I am amazed at how quickly they have been able to produce charts that look far better than those their predecessors created in Finale or Sibelius. Note this isn't to say that Finale and Sibelius are not capable of producing results just as good, or that this process cannot be made easier through extensive customization. But many people don't make the effort to improve on the defaults, and the lead sheet defaults in MuseScore are definitely much better.

During the last few months I also produced several arrangements for larger ensembles (eg, octet and big band). Again I found MuseScore to be the equal of Finale or Sibelius for the most part, although I am looking forward to the "linked parts" feature that will be coming in MuseScore 2.0. I hope to write an article on creating larger scale arrangements will MuseScore sometime in the near future.

Speaking of which, I will be giving a couple of hands-on workshops with MuseScore at the upcoming JEN (Jazz Education Network) / TI:ME (Technology Institute for Music Educators) conference in January. The sessions will cover lead sheets and arrangements. I hope to see some of you in Louisville for this event!

Anyhow, for anyone out there are still wondering if MuseScore is suitable for serious use (particularly in jazz): as someone who has been using it seriously for several months now, I can say most emphatically that it is!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

MuseScore 1.1 released, lots of improvements for jazz

In an earlier article, I wrote at length about MuseScore, the free and open source notation software. The short version for those who missed it: I said that MuseScore can do almost everything that Finale and Sibelius can do, and I predicted that, despite a few minor limitations, it would completely replace Finale for me.

Since then, I have become more personally involved in the MuseScore project. I haven't done any actual programming - at least, not on the core application itself. But I have contributed some plugins, templates, and other configuration files, I have worked on one of the fonts, and I have helped with the documentation. So I no longer qualify as a completely unbiased observer.

With that said, today, MuseScore 1.1 is released. While it is mostly a bug fix release, we have managed to make some significant improvements with respect to creating jazz charts.

Two of the areas I had mentioned in my previous article where MuseScore needed improvement were in entering chord symbols in places where there are no notes and in creating slash notation. Both of these have been addressed in version 1.1. In addition, the new Jazz Lead Sheet template creates great looking charts right out of the box. An enhanced version of the MuseJazz font allows you to get a handwritten look for titles and other text markings as well as chord symbols. You can also select from a wider variety of chord symbol styles, and it is easier to customize these styles further.

I had written a tutorial on creating lead sheets in MuseScore 1.0, and I have now completely rewritten it for version 1.1. The new tutorial is in two parts: The Basics and Advanced Topics. If you hadn't already checked out MuseScore before, or if you had looked but had not gotten very far with it, now would be a good time:

Here, for example, is the lead sheet I created for the advanced tutorial:

There are more exciting things to come in the MuseScore world over the next few months, and I plan to be sharing those with you soon!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

MuseScore 1.0 - A Milestone in Free Music Notation Software

I'm a big fan of free / open source software. I'm not opposed to commercial software; I'm just frugal. I do a lot of writing, but (and its recent incarnation LibreOffice) is more than good enough to render Microsoft Word and other Office applications unnecessary for me. I also use free / open source programs for audio editing (Audacity), for desktop publishing (Scribus), for Web site development (KompoZer), and a host of other tasks.

As a professional composer and music educator who often produces his own teaching materials, though, I hadn't found a free / open source application for music scoring and typesetting sophisticated enough to replace Finale for me. Power users of the other major commercial application - Sibelius - would probably tell you the same thing. If you wanted to produce printed music beyond the simplest of examples, you resigned yourself to spending a few hundred dollars on Finale or Sibelius, and another hundred or so every couple of years for upgrades.

Until now.

MuseScore has been around in some form for almost a decade already, beginning life as the notation engine of the sequencer MusE. I had seen references to it over the years when searching for free / open source alternatives to Finale, which I tended to do whenever I got ready to shell out another Benjamin for the latest Finale upgrade. But MuseScore had always seemed too obscure and too limited in the past to warrant serious consideration.

Over the last couple of years, however, it has really come into its own. I checked it out again a few months ago on the recommendation of one of my students, and was blown away by how far it come since I last looked. I began using MuseScore (version right away and it was able to handle everything I asked it to. While it cannot do everything that Finale or Sibelius can, it comes surprisingly close, and the development team is proving to be committed to improving it further and has been doing so at an amazing pace. Oh, and by the way, MuseScore runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, and has been translated into over two dozen different language, so it is not just for English speaking PC users like myself.

You may have already encountered MuseScore by now - it's popularity has really soared in recent months. Still, the fact that the version number started with a "0" suggested to most people that the project was still experimental. With today's release of version 1.0, the MuseScore team announces to the world that the product is ready for "real" use, and I wholeheartedly concur.

In addition to the leadsheets and other smaller projects I had been for, I have recently begun using a pre-release version of 1.0 for a relatively large project: taking an orchestra score I wrote a few years ago and adapting it for a jazz octet. I am happy to say that I am finding it at least as capable as Finale in almost all respects, and generally easier to learn and use as well. And of the few time-saving features I miss from Finale, some turn out to be already on the plate and implemented for the next major release.

But there is no need to wait for that next release before using MuseScore. The list of features already in version 1.0 reads like a checklist of things most composers would be hoping for in a Finale/Sibelius replacement: unlimited number of staves; up to four independent voices per staff; MIDI playback and import/export; MusicXML import/export; lyrics; chord symbols; cross staff beaming; slash, drum, and other alternate notation styles; professional spacing and positioning algorithms with manual overrides; incorporation of graphic elements; output to PDF and various graphic formats; output to various audio formats, and much more.

I am no expert in the finer nuances of music typesetting, but MuseScore uses fonts from the GNU LilyPond project, which is often considered the gold standard for typesetting (too bad the latter is not a particularly useful tool when it comes to the actual process of composing). To my eyes, at least, printed scores produced with MuseScore look as good or better than those from Finale or Sibelius. And it is often easier to get great looking results in MuseScore - it is noticeably smarter about collisions between notes in different voices than either Finale or Sibelius is, so less manual positioning of notes may be needed when notating complex music.

I should also note that as with most major open source projects, there is an active and helpful user community, and the developers actually participate in the forums. Unlike the case with most commercial applications, you really get the feeling that bug reports and feature requests from ordinary users are seen and taken seriously. That's why I feel confident predicting that most of the minor limitations I may mention here will be taken care of in the very near future.

To give you an idea of what can be done in MuseScore 1.0, here is a screen shot showing what I've been up to in my orchestra-to-octet reduction. You can click on the image to see it full size:

As you may notice, I have two documents open at once here. The top window pane displays my octet arrangement, the bottom the full orchestra score. I had initially created the orchestra score in Finale, but after exporting it to MusicXML format from within Finale, it loaded into MuseScore with virtually all markings intact - instrument names and transpositions, slurs, dynamics, etc. Using MuseScore, I can actually copy and paste passages from the Finale-created orchestra version directly into my octet version if I wish. I am re-entering the music manually, though, as I wish to gain more familiarity with the process.

Overall, note entry is very straightforward in MuseScore, as are the tools for copying and replacing and other tasks. Simple things like selecting a range of notes and hitting a cursor key to transpose them up or down step by step are like a revelation to me compared to Finale. FWIW, basic note entry in MuseScore is much more like Sibelius than like Finale. I think most unbiased users would probably say is a good thing, although it took me a little while to get used to the difference. Sibelius users should be able to make the adjustment more quickly.

I love that MuseScore allows you to customize keyboard shortcuts for most commands, and within a short time I had developed an efficient note entry workflow that feels very natural to me. I have to say that making this octet adaptation from the orchestra score is probably going as fast in MuseScore as it would have in Finale, despite the original being in Finale format and my having years of experience with Finale but only weeks with MuseScore. Incredible!

Note that while MuseScore supports MIDI input, it is step-time entry only - no transcription of real-time performance. This doesn't bother me; I never found real-time transcription to be a particularly useful in feature in Finale, because it took longer to correct the transcription and make it readable than to simply enter the music myself. You can always record to MIDI in a separate program and then import the MIDI file - this does work in MuseScore. I normally do all my note entry from the computer keyboard in Finale, and that is how I am using MuseScore.

When it comes to MIDI playback, MuseScore can handle both my octet and orchestra scores without difficulty, but current versions of Finale and Sibelius are definitely ahead of MuseScore in terms of realism. Things like playback of articulations (especially slurs) and dynamics make a big difference. If you are trying to produce "studio quality" recordings via MIDI directly from your scores, that is one area where MuseScore falls short. But for simply checking your work, it is fine.

The other major area where MuseScore 1.0 does not measure up to Finale or Sibelius right now is in the generation of individual parts. Linked parts are coming in the next major version, but meanwhile parts must be generated manually, and MuseScore does not provide independent formatting settings (eg, page orientation, staff sizes, margins) for parts versus score. So one can expect this final aspect of a project to take somewhat longer with MuseScore than with current versions of Finale or Sibelius. On the other hand, MuseScore is not particularly worse in this regard than Finale was just a few years ago, and actually, I'd say the generated parts are perhaps closer to being usable right out of the box in MuseScore.

So overall, despite a few limitations, I am very impressed with the facilities MuseScore provides for dealing with larger scale projects. As the above screen shot and discussion suggests, MuseScore has the tools one would need to create anything from a jazz octet arrangement to a full orchestra score, and I am comforted to know linked parts are on the way. But the simplicity of the MuseScore interface also makes it ideally suited for the smaller scale projects a working musician might undertake more regularly.

As a jazz composer, I create a lot of leadsheets, and MuseScore handles these well. Just as I did with Finale, I spent a fair amount of time up front customizing the appearance of chord symbols. The default leadsheet template, which uses the MuseJazz font that comes with MuseScore, does a good job right out of the box. But I elected to configure my own leadsheet template in MuseScore to use the Jazz font that came with Finale instead, as I still find that to be my favorite for chord symbols despite trying quite a few alternatives. My customized MuseScore leadsheet template allows me to get results almost exactly like what I get from my customized Finale template, and the actual process of creating leadsheets is much easier in MuseScore than in Finale for all but the most expert Finale users. The simplicity of the MuseScore interface is a real benefit here.

One thing I do miss from Finale is that I had configured my leadsheet template such that I could easily enter chords in mid-measure whether there was a note there or not. Current versions of Finale, I understand, finally make this easier right out of the box, but my template using hidden rests on layer 2 works fine for me in older versions. I couldn't find an entirely satisfactory way of setting up a MuseScore template to allow me to enter mid-measure chords as easily as my Finale template did (hidden rests in voice 2 unfortunately affect stem directions in voice 1), so in that respect it's more like using Finale versions from a couple of years ago and positioning chords or entering hidden rests and flipping stems manually where necessary.

Also, working with slash or rhythmic notation is a little more awkward in MuseScore than in Finale - although no more so than in any but the most recent version of Sibelius. Basically, you create normal notes then change their heads to slashes, and optionally hide their slashes and mute their playback. You also have to get the vertical positioning correct when using this notation in transposing parts. Not a big deal, but not as straightforward as Finale's "Staff Styles" (or, presumably, whatever Sibelius has finally done in its latest version).

There are only a few other small areas where I find MuseScore 1.0 a bit more cumbersome than I would like. While there are keyboard shortcuts for most functions, and many can also be activated with a click or double click, a few operations (eg, adding key signatures) can only be achieved by dragging and dropping, which I find inefficient. And while the program does a great job of automatically positioning most elements, and most default behaviors make sense, manual intervention is still sometimes required at times when it seems it should not be (eg, for multiple repeat endings).

But aside from these few minor complaints, MuseScore is very powerful and easy to use overall; certainly easier to learn and use than Finale and almost as powerful. And of course, were I just coming to Finale from MuseScore, I would doubtless find plenty of things to quibble about in Finale - there are just different things that are easier or harder between the two programs. In fact, my list of complaints looks no more significant to me than a list of differences between Finale and Sibelius, or between one version of one of these programs and the next. Really, the capabilities of all three programs are more similar than different.

But considering that I am comparing version 1.0 of a free / open source application against a $600 package that has been maturing since the 1980's (Finale) and an equally expensive if not quite as venerable challenger (Sibelius), I think it is truly remarkable that the differences come down to such minor details. Even if one of those differences turns out to be a deal breaker for you right now, I project that within a year or so at the rate the developers are working, there may be no reason at all why MuseScore could not completely replace Finale or Sibelius for almost all purposes.

But again, even this 1.0 release should satisfy the needs of most users. I have already been recommending MuseScore to my own students looking for music notation software, and now I can recommend it for educational institutions and professionals as well. There are many things one can spend the better part of a thousand dollars on; music scoring software no longer need be one of them.

So if you're in market for notation software, MuseScore should be on the short list of contenders, and considering that it is free, there is a good chance that it will end up at the top of that list for you. I urge you to check out MuseScore even if you're happy with your current scoring package but are open to other options that may turn out to provide advantages in the long run. I for one believe I have bought my last Finale upgrade.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Concert Photography Workshop in November!

Next month my wife Wendy Fopeano and I will be teaching a concert photography workshop at Denver's premiere jazz club, Dazzle! The workshop is sponsored by The Gift of Jazz. For more information and to register, see:

Jazz Concert Photography Workshop

The workshop will take place on two consecutive Saturday mornings - November 13 and 20 - with an evening session on Tuesday, November 16 photographing a live band in performance.

Some of the topics Wendy and I expect to cover include selection of equipment, technique and the unique demands of concert photography, composition, etiquette, capturing the spirit of the performance, processing, and organization. We are extremely excited by this, and hope to see the class fill up quickly!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Announcing The Marc Sabatella Octet!

On Saturday, May 15, I will be premiering a new jazz ensemble, the Marc Sabatella Octet, at Dazzle (930 Lincoln, Denver). There will be shows at 7 and 9 PM, with a $12 cover ($8 for students at the 9 PM show). The band will feature Brad Goode (trumpet), Josh Quinlan (alto), Peter Sommer (tenor), Tom Ball (trombone), Bill Kopper (guitar), myself (piano), Drew Morell (bass), and Mike Marlier (drums). Additionally, several of the pieces will feature vocalist Wendy Fopeano. This an extremely special performance for me, and I'd like to take a few minutes to write about it.

The music for this show has been in the works for a long time. One could say it began with my composition Mystic Reverie, written in the late 1990's as a tribute to the larger scale works of Charles Mingus. It combines fully composed chorale-like passages with sections for spirited improvisation. Although it has been performed occasionally in quartets and other smaller ensembles, I have always had in mind a larger setting for this, with Mingus' and David Murray's octets specifically serving as inspiration. Another composition from that same time period, “Venable”, is freer in structure but also episodic in nature, and I have always intended this to be played by a larger ensemble as well.

But the real motivator for putting together a regular working octet came when I went back to school in 2005 to get my Master's degree in composition from the Lamont School of Music at DU. While studying with Dave Hanson, Eric Gunnison, and Lynn Baker, I had the opportunity to regularly work with and write for ensembles of seven to nine musicians as well as big bands. Mystic Reverie and Venable were among the existing compositions I was able to arrange for ensembles at DU, and several brand new compositions were created as well. I also studied classical counterpoint and orchestration with Bill Hill and Chris Malloy, and I wrote pieces that were performed by classical chamber groups and the Lamont Symphony Orchestra.

Most of the music I wrote during this period was performed once for a school concert or student recital and never heard again. After graduating from DU in 2007, I hoped to find another opportunity to present this music. At the time, though, I had a steady quartet gig at Denver's famed El Chapultepec, and I was also writing music for this group. While some of the music written for larger ensembles at DU made the transition to the quartet repertoire, most did not.

After the El Chapultepec run ended, I turned my attention to forming a new ensemble of my own to perform the larger-scale music that I had been working on for the last decade. Although I had arranged music for ensembles of varying instrumentation at DU, I wanted to standardize on one configuration for this project. I settled on an octet consisting of trumpet, trombone, two saxophones (who double on other woodwinds), guitar, piano, bass, and drums. By using the guitar as one of the “front line” instruments, I am able to write five-part textures similar to those used in big band writing, and by including the guitar in the rhythm section, I can be freed from the piano when necessary to conduct – plus it gives me the possibility for different textures in the rhythm section. I also wished to feature vocals on some arrangements, since I had written more several songs for which I or my wife, jazz singer Wendy Fopeano, had written lyrics.

Very few of my existing arrangements from my days at DU exactly matched the instrumentation I chose for my new octet, so I had to spend some time reworking those charts. Big band arrangements in particular provided a real challenge, as I wished to preserve both the saxophone “soli” sections and the brass-dominated “shout” choruses, as well as the contrapuntal sections. This is difficult to achieve with only two saxophones and two brass instead of five and eight. Some of this music ends up being unusually demanding to play as result. The charts originally written for seven to nine pieces were more straightforward to arrange for the new octet, but I managed to work in a number of new passages and improvements suggested by my experiences with the original arrangements at DU.

In addition to the charts that began life as larger ensemble pieces at DU, some of the pieces originally written for the quartet at El Chapultepec have also been arranged for this octet, and a few pieces were newly conceived especially for this project.

So after a long journey, the music is finally ready for its debut at Dazzle. Of course, any composition is only as good as the musicians playing it, but the band I have assembled comprises some of the top players on each instrument. Trumpeter Brad Goode serves in multiples roles. During the big-band-style passages, his part alternates between what might be a typical lead trumpet role and a typical lead alto role, and of course he is the trumpet soloist as well. Luckily, Brad is one of the best in business at all of these. Josh Quinlan has the been the alto saxophonist of choice for several of the more creative big bands and other large ensembles in the area, and he has played regularly in smaller groups at El Chapultepec as well. Tenor saxophonist Peter Sommer was featured on my first two CD's – the first recorded when Sommer was only months out of high school – but we have not had the opportunity to work together much in the last decade I am especially pleased to be reunited with Pete for this project. Tom Ball is one of the few improvising trombone players in the area capable of navigating the sort of demanding parts I wrote. On some pieces, Tom also plays euphonium. Guitarist Bill Kopper worked with me on Wendy Fopeano's most recent recording, and as with Tom, Bill has the unenviable task of reading parts of a technical nature that players of his instrument seldom encounter in this type of music. Accompanying me in the rhythm section, Drew Morell has been one of my favorite bassists to work with for many years, and Mike Marlier is one of the tightest but hardest driving drummers around – exactly what is needed to hold an ensemble like this together. Featured vocalist Wendy Fopeano is one of Denver's most expressive singers and is well-known as the host of a regular jazz show on KUVO for the last several years.

Some of the highlights of the concert will include:

Zone Row G – this was adapted from a big band arrangement written in tribute to several different musicians. The central theme of the piece is a “zone row” - a melody made out of a series of pitches arranged to form triads, based on an idea espoused by George Garzone – that is then cast into different harmonic and rhythmic contexts. Over the course of the piece, the “zone row” visits territory inspired by the textures of Maria Schneider, the contrapuntal writing of Fred Sturm, and the serialism of Fred Hess.

Fanfare and Fugue – this piece takes a fanfare by Charles Carter that I learned and grew to love as a clarinetist in the Florida State University Marching Chiefs, pairs it with a honest-to-goodness baroque-style fugue based on two themes found in Thelonious Monk's “Brilliant Corners”, and opens it up for both fast-paced improvisation and a musical “conversation” reminiscent of duets between Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy.

Obsession – this Dori Caymmi song popularized by Sarah Vaughan has long been of my favorites, but I have always been interested to hear it in a slightly different arrangement. This version is adapted from a big band arrangement I wrote at DU. It is faithful to the original song while hopefully “kicking it up a notch” in intensity. My arrangement is a feature for soprano saxophone and vocal.

As I Do – I composed this after graduating from DU but while teaching there (which I continue to do). I wrote it as a demonstration of the process of writing a larger scale piece, since I was giving my class an assignment to do the same. It is an essentially “positive” sounding composition that balances melodicism and intensity. It contains a number of inter-related themes and different harmonic contexts for improvisation.

Serving Notice – the bartender at El Chapultepec while I was playing there made no secret of the fact that he hated jazz and would rather be working almost anywhere else. We all loved him anyhow. When he announced he would be leaving (after something like ten years there), I wrote him a song with a hip-hop beat - which is what he preferred to jazz - and had Wendy Fopeano write lyrics on the subject of finally leaving a situation you have been wanting to leave for some time. The groove, melody, and lyrics really resonate with people when we perform this in small group settings, and I'm excited to now be able to present this tune with a “Chicago”-style horn arrangement. Oh, yeah - the bartender ended up changing his mind about leaving; he's still working there today as far as I know.

Hymn For Peter – originally conceived as a simple 4-part chorale in honor of my brother-in-law who died tragically in 2008, the octet version combines a reverentially reflective solo piano rendition of the theme with a gospel-flavored tenor saxophone re-statement, adds room for improvisation, and concludes with a triumphant orchestration of the original chorale harmonization.

Down – while vacationing up in the mountains, I happened to share a lodge with folks attending a writing workshop, and on a whim I tossed out the suggestion that I might set some of their poetry to music while we were all there. One of the writers, Jennifer Phelps, took me up on this and submitted her poem “down (anything but red)”. By the evening I had turned it into a song. The octet version is based on an arrangement I did for my recital at DU.

Venable – this piece tells the musical story of a (real) backpacking trip through the mountains and an (imagined) midnight encounter with a bear. It is alternately majestic and heart-poundingly thrilling.

Mystic Reverie – the one that begat this whole project has always been a crowd favorite on the occasions when it has been performed in small-scale arrangements. The piece covers several different moods over its course, and the climax in which everyone in the audience is invited to sing along “like a drunken sailor” sends them home smiling.

My intent is to keep this octet together as a regular working ensemble – recording, writing new music, and adapting more existing pieces from my catalog. I hope to eventually expand into touring, bringing in guest artists, and more. But it all begins at Dazzle on Saturday, May 15, so mark your calendars!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Concert Photography - Post-Processing

In previous articles, I covered equipment and techniques for photographing concerts. But even if you followed all the advice I gave, you probably came home, looked at your images, and didn't quite see what you hoped for based on the examples you have seen in my articles or elsewhere. There are a few fundamental things I always do my concert photographs in post-processing (PP) that make all the difference in the world with relatively little effort. In this article, I will explain some of these techniques.

First, I should mention that the software I use for PP is ACDSee Pro. This application provides integrated image management and non-destructive editing much like Lightroom or Aperture or a few other programs. The techniques I describe are mostly things that can be done in any of these or similar programs, as well as other popular editing programs like Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro, or even Picasa. Since I expect people reading this will be using all sorts of different programs, I will try to be as general as I can rather than deal with the specifics of ACDSee Pro.

To give you an idea of the extent of the difference PP can make, I find it useful to look at a whole screenful of thumbnails first before focusing on what might be done to images individually. Here is what I might typically see when I first download my images:

As with the other examples in this article, you can click on it to see it larger.

There are a couple of things that usually end up being disappointing when we first look at our images. One is that we typically have a lot of very similar-looking shots. Part of this is the fact that concert lighting is usually fairly strongly colored. Even plain "white" spotlights are usually pretty orange. The color of the lighting usually dominates any other color in the scene. But another reason we often have a bunch of similar-looking images at first is because of how we typically shoot. We often take a bunch of pictures of the same musician or scene in hopes of one turning out well before moving on to the next.

One of the most important but often overlooked principles of PP is that editing is as much a matter of selecting images as it is of actually adjusting the images themselves. Anyone can look like a much better photographer if we only look at their best images. So as soon as possible, I start the process of rating my images in ACDSee. My scheme is fairly simple: 1-star for images that are out of focus blurry or are otherwise not worth keeping; 2-star for images that are competent and not worthy of deletion but which I don't particularly need to keep looking at; 3-star for the images I intend to keep copies of after the originals have been should been archived to an external archive, 4-star for images that I think are worth sharing with others. Just by grouping my 4-star images together, already I look like a better photographer.

If I'm going to try to look like a good photographer, however, I am better off doing my PP first. And the other benefit of doing my rating first is that I can focus my efforts on the 4-star images. While I might process those individually, I often just copy the settings I used on my 4-star images to any similar 3-star images.

The following screen shot shows just my 4-star images from the same shoot as the previous example, so there is more variety in the shots themselves. And since I have done my PP - including white balance - there is more variety in color as well. Instead of the screen shot I showed previously, I'd much rather see this:

White balance isn't the only thing I changed in PP, of course, but it's the thing that made the most noticeable difference in this screen shot. The other changes I made would be more noticeable in larger views.

So now let's turn to the specific PP techniques I use. There's actually not a lot to it, but as the above examples demonstrate, they really make a difference.

The first thing I usually do with a concert shot is to apply a preset I created some time ago that sets the white balance to something that works for basic tungsten lighting, sets noise reduction to levels that often work well with my camera at ISO 1600 (my usual setting for concerts), and adds what I think of as a typically appropriate level of sharpening. With ACDSee Pro, I can apply this preset as a batch to all my 3-star and 4-star images if I like, giving me a good starting place for further processing in just seconds. Many other RAW processing program provide a similar sort of capability, but there are some older applications using an older paradigm that don't work this way: you can't apply a preset other than while converting to JPEG, which means no further RAW processing would be possible. I would not like to use such a program, but if that's what you have, then you'll have to do all your work on files one at a time.

Here is an image from a recent shoot loaded into ACDSee Pro as it came from my camera (before applying the preset):

After applying my preset, the colors look more natural:

The orange color cast is lessened, but now it is too magenta. The lights on the stage at moment probably used a colored gel. So I further adjust the WB by hand (using an eyedropper on the hair then fine tuning from there) to yield something I liked:

It is common for WB changes like this to affect our perception of exposure. The original image was mostly red light. By removing much of the red light from the image, I'm left with better color balance, but less light overall. So even though the original image actually showed clipping on the histogram - all in the red channel, which is almost inevitable when shooting under red lighting - the result is now underexposed. On the positive side, most of the clipping is gone. Also, I should mention that because my camera is limited to ISO 1600 and sometimes that is not enough to avoid blur, I will often deliberately shoot underexposed and expect to push exposure in PP. Beyond that, I would also say that metering in concert photography is tricky, and there is no shame in needing exposure adjustments in PP.

In this case, I added 0.75EV compensation to bring the overall brightness where I wanted it. This actually blew a few more highlights in the hair and the reflection in the bell of the trumpet, so I used a little highlight recovery to lessen that. While I was at it, I made small changes to two other controls on this same panel. I added a small amount of fill light to lighten shadows further, and I slightly reduced vibrance (similar to saturation, but "smarter") to make the skin tones a little more neutral still.

Here is the result of those changes. The green dots in the background show where I have deliberately allowed the background to clip to black, and the red dots show where I have intentionally allowed highlights to clip to white:

The next step for me is usually to use the Lighting tool in ACDSee to further balance the highlights, midtones, and shadows, while also increasing local contrast and bringing out detail appropriate. This is a tool that may have have an exact analogue in your software, but similar effects might be achieved using curves, local contrast enhancement, or shadow/highlight tools that you may have access to. It is kind of hard to explain exactly how ACDSee's Lighting tool works, but the effect is to allow me to lighten the shadow side of face without reducing contrast in that area, and similarly increasing contrast and bringing out detail on the light side of the face. I am not sure if this will come across well here, but here the effect of the tool on this image:

At this size, the image now looks pretty much the way I want it to. But I realize than in larger views, noise will be more apparent. The amount of NR I applied in my preset is pretty conservative, and after exposure adjustments, I often need to apply more. taking an exposure made at ISO 1600 and pushing it by 0.75EV is like shooting at the equivalent of about ISO 2600. Now, I should say that I am not as noise-averse as some are - some amount of noise is pretty much expected in concert photography. Too much NR can smooth away detail, and I prefer a somewhat "grainy" look over a "plastic" one. I should also say that while NR is best done while looking at a 100% view, this is not very representative of how most people will ever see your images. Viewed on the web, they will be much smaller than 100%, and even an 11x14" print won't show noise to the same degree as a 100% view on screen. So don't get too discouraged by how your images may look at 100%. Chances are they will be fine on the web and in smaller prints.

The camera I used here is the Pentax K200D, which is fairly average in terms of noise. It is sometimes characterized as having more chroma (color) noise than some cameras but less luminance noise, with an overall blotchiness due to a small amount of in-camera NR that is performed at ISO 1600 even for RAW files. Here is a 100% view of my images with my other changes intact, but the NR I originally applied in my preset turned off:

Here is the NR applied by my preset (50% chroma, 5% luminance):

While it might not look fantastic at 100% I know from experience it should look good enough at "normal" sizes. But since if I look closely I do see some larger purple splotches that I know I can control with a bit more NR, I turned the chroma NR up to 75% and luminance to 10%:

That's as far as I'd want to take this. Folks who are really allergic to noise might want to investigate dedicated NR programs like Neat Image, but when I have tried them, I find I do not usually prefer the results I get. I could also try turning up ACDSee's controls all the way, leading to the sort of "plastic" look I referred to earlier:

Actually, while this is noticeably softer if you click on the image to see it full size, I admit that at typical viewing sizes, the softness is no more likely to be noticed than the noise is. Still, I prefer the image the way I had it before.

The final thing I would consider doing here is a slight crop. I don't crop very often, and when I do, it is usually because of something really distracting like another musicians' elbow in the picture or a stray microphone stand. But sometimes it is for purely aesthetic reasons, to achieve what I think of as a better balance in the composition by moving a face a little off center or trying to get the right proportion of body to instrument to background in the shot.

Some have an almost religious belief in not cropping, insisting on getting it right in camera. While I respect this, I feel I don't have that luxury. Concert photography is too fast paced for me to feel comfortable limiting myself in that way, and when shooting with primes as I usually do, it's often the case that the lens I have is not exactly the focal length I would choose if using a zoom. I do, however, maintain an equally irrational desire to preserve my camera's 2:3 aspect ratio when I do crop.

Anyhow, here is the image as it stands before the crop:

All I would want to do here is remove some of the empty space above the head, thus making the face more dominant element in the composition, and paying attention to where I place it. this is what I came up with:

Had I performed a more significant crop that might have affected my perception of the color or exposure, I would have done this much earlier in the process - perhaps right after applying the preset. To be honest, I went out of my way to find an example of an image I had cropped for artistic reasons as opposed to simply cutting out something I didn't wanted, but I don't feel very strongly about the need for the crop here.

This leads to a related topic. I virtually never resort to cloning out stands or other distracting items that cannot be cropped away. I suppose this is like some people never cropping. Actually, though, in my case it's more because cloning is a rather more complex operation, and ACDSee cannot do it within the scope of its non-destructive Develop mode. Instead I need to switch to its traditional Edit mode, which in turn requires me to convert to another format in order to preserve my changes, and a separate copy of my file is created as a result. This just seldom seems worth the effort to me as it might be if I using were a program that aloowed cloning in the non-destructive RAW processing, but even then, I still have reluctance to want to mess with brushes and selections and so forth.

Instead, I mostly just try to be conscious of my backgrounds when I shoot. I try to position myself so there are no distracting elements that would require cloning. In the case of this image, I suppose some might try to remove the bright line to the left of the trumpet (a reflection off the raised piano lid behind him), but I kind of like it.

There are more operations I could employ, and occasional do when necessary, but the steps I have outlined here are pretty much my usual routine. Preset to get WB and NR in the right ballpark, fine tune WB if necessary, correct exposure, play with lighting, further adjust NR if I had to correct exposure by much, and perhaps crop.

Here then, is the finished image:

Because I shoot in manual mode, it is pretty much guaranteed that all other shots I took of the same musician from the same vantage point will have the same issues in terms of color, exposure, and noise. So I can simply copy these settings (everything but the crop, which will rarely match from shot to shot) to all my other similar images in one operation, thus giving me a very useful starting point for further processing should I wish to do more. Often, though, I find no further processing is necessary at all after copying settings. But if the color of the lights changed, I can adjust WB while leaving everything set. Or if I had changed my shutter speed while shooting, I can adjust the brightness to compensate, again while leaving my other settings intact. This allows me to process a large number of pictures relatively quickly.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Birthday Present from Tom Harrell

This week I got to see trumpeter Tom Harrell play with his quintet at Dazzle here in Denver, and it was fantastic. The group featured Wayne Escoffery on saxophone, Danny Grissett on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums. The pictures that illustrate this story are from that show, and there are more pictures here. However, the story I am about to tell you is about seeing him in a different context a few years back. It's kind of a long story, but I think you'll enjoy it.

For my 40th birthday, I treated myself to dinner and a concert by Tom Harrell at the Mount Vernon Country Club. The show was billed as the Tom Harrell Piano Trio, and the promo made specific mention of the fact that Tom would be playing piano as well as the trumpet/flugelhorn he is famous for. Now, Tom is known as one the best trumpeter players in the world, but no one really knew anything about his piano playing. And as some folks reading this are probably also aware, he has some well-publicized mental health issues (diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic), and between that and the effects of the medication he takes to control his condition, there is always some element of mystery where Tom is concerned. So between that and the fact that no one in attendance had ever heard him play piano, and no one really had no idea what to expect that night.

I arrived early as I had made reservations for dinner before the show. I came alone, as my wife had a gig, and I was seated at a small table directly in front of the piano. I wondered for a moment if Peter - the general manager of the place and a huge jazz fan whom I had met but did not know well - had somehow made sure I would have a good view because he knew I was a pianist (he almost certainly would not have known it was my birthday). I decided this was pretty unlikely - why would the general manager be looking over seating arrangements personally? - and attributed my prime seating to nothing but coincidence and good fortune. During the buffet dinner, though, I happened to walk past where Peter was sitting, and he stopped me and asked if I liked my table. Apparently, he had deliberately sat me there after all; I was originally supposed to off in a corner somewhere.

But that's not all. Peter then asked me if I would like to sit in and give Tom a chance to just concentrate on trumpet for a tune or two. Not that he had checked with Tom yet, but Peter wanted to gauge my interest. I was kind of stunned - I'm a reasonably well known pianist in the area, but people aren't normally asked to sit on concerts of this sort, and frankly, as far as I knew, Peter had barely heard me play before. I told him I would certainly love to play with Tom, and that I even knew one of his tunes - Sail Away. Peter told me he'd check with Tom and get back to me. I went back to my table and finished my dinner.

So then the concert started. Tom has written a whole bunch of new material lately, so he and the rest of the band were all reading it. I liked the moods they created. Tom mostly played the piano. I suspect that Peter, like most people there, probably wanted to hear Tom play a little more trumpet, as that's what he is famous for resides, and that's probably why he was so keen on having me sit in.

They finished up by playing a bebop tune and Tom introduced the bassist and drummer (the first words out of his mouth all evening). Then they left to a round of applause. At that point, Peter (the general manager) lept up to the stage and encouraged us to keep clapping, and maybe Tom would come back for an encore - and Marc Sabatella (that's me) might even join them.

Sure enough, Tom and the band came back out, and Peter motioned me on stage. He had told Tom I knew Sail Away, but the bassist looked at me and said he didn't really know the tune, so Tom and I should just do it as a duo. It shocked me at first that Tom's bassist wouldn't know what was undoubtedly his most famous composition, but apparently they had been playing Tom's new music exclusively in this group. I tried suggesting we just do a standard we all knew, but I don't think Tom heard any of this exchange, and he started counting off Sail Away in his usual manner ("uh, uh, uh, uh"). Tom started playing the melody, I started accompanying him, and the bassist and drummed slipped out the back.

Now, what happens next is best appreciated if I give you a little bit of backstory. Back when I was in college at FSU in the 80's, another famous trumpeter - Red Rodney - did a concert as a featured soloist with our school big band. I was new enough to jazz that I didn't know who he was, although someone probably told me he had once played with Charlie Parker. What I did know was that I had this big unaccompanied solo right in the middle of an arrangement of My Romance - a whole chorus of nothing but me. But no one told Red this. On the concert, when it came time for my solo, and the rest of the band dropped out, Red just kept playing, so it was me and him. Now, had I been a mature adult with any respect for jazz history, I would have been in heaven, thinking to myself, "how cool is this - I'm playing a duo with Red Rodney"! But alas, I was young, cocky, and ignorant, and my actual thoughts ran more along the lines of, "you m*****f***er, get off the stage - this is my solo"! I've been paying for this in bad karma ever since, with the price usually involving someone stepping on one of my solos on that same tune (which has happened on several other occasions strangely enough).

So, now, back to Mount Vernon. Tom Harrell counted off Sail Away, and it's just me and him. I'm thinking to myself, "how cool is this - I'm playing a duo with Tom Harrell"! I even managed to flash back to my experience with Red Rodney and laugh a little at myself for having wished Red Rodney would leave the stage and let me have my solo. So there I am up on stage with Tom, finally able to appreciate the opportunity I was being blessed with. I was playing accompaniment as he started playing the melody: "da da daah; da da dah da dah da daah; da da dah da dah da daah, daah, daaah...". And then - I swear I could not possibly make this up - before we got ten seconds into the piece, Tom walked off the stage and left me to finish it for myself, thus ending our duo and giving me the solo performance I had stupidly wished for 20 years earlier.

I knew enough about Tom's condition not to take this personally. There could have been any number of reasons for him to have left in the middle of the tune like that, and there was no point in worrying about what they were. More pressing was the question of what to actually do about it. I considered simply stopping right where I was, walking off the stage myself, and forgetting the whole thing. I considered just finishing up the melody and cutting it off there. But what I decided was this: people are there listening, so I might as well give them some music. So I played the rest of the melody myself, took a rather perfunctory but serviceable solo chorus, and as I was getting ready to play the head out, Tom rejoined me, so we did finish the tune together. The bassist and drummer came back with him, and Tom asked if I would join them for a tune everyone knew, so we played Like Someone In Love." The bassist informed me they did this in Ab, which is not one of the three keys this tune is most commonly played in. But I had spent the better part of two years learning to handle just that sort of situation - basically teaching myself to transpose by ear. So while it might not have been a great performance on my part, I acquitted myself well enough. And that was that.

After the show, we speculated on what happened. Someone suggested to me that perhaps Tom had left because he felt bad about doing an encore without the rest of his band. Someone else told me the piano was turned up fairly high in the monitors because Tom had a relatively light touch, and when I played with my heavier touch, it may have been too loud for him. Just this week when my wife interviewed him for her radio show on KUVO, we learned that Sail Away has major personal significance for Tom, and it is possible that whatever he was thinking, he may have been overcome with emotion as well. But I cannot discount karma as an explanation, either.

I did get to talk to Tom myself a little right after playing with him, but of course I didn't come out and directly ask about that, and I think I'm just as happy not having a definitive answer. Oh well. I got to hear a nice concert, had a great time on Like Someone In Love, had that surreal ten second experience on Sail Away, and most of all, came away with a story to tell. Not a bad way to spend one's 40th birthday. Tom, if you're reading this, thank you!