Network: Plug and play for guitarists

A new program makes writing music simpler than before.
LEARNING THE guitar using multimedia CD-Rom works, but what next? For many guitarists, it is experimenting with writing their own music. Guitarmaster, from a small Scottish company, RoboSens, is a package aimed at them. It enables professional-quality songsheets and midi files to be produced by literally plugging a guitar into a PC soundcard and playing.

Guitarmaster has been designed for musicians by musicians to give a musical twist to the technologies underlying voice-recognition software. As the latter eliminates typing from word processing, the former automates the transcription of live music.

Finger-picking and single-note styles aren't supported, but chords are. Strum a chord sequence and the software processes it, turning it into musical notation or tablature which can be printed out, further manipulated, or saved as a midi file - opening up new fields of digital manipulation and experimentation.

Installation, under Windows 95 or 98, is straightforward and a lead to connect guitar to soundcard is supplied in the pounds 49.95 package. Electric guitars are ideal, but semi-acoustic models work well, too.

Visual tools allow accurate tuning to be done on screen, even by those with far from perfect pitch. Next you pick up your plectrum and give Guitarmaster some data to work with. The software asks for parameters - such as tempo, key and time signature - to be set. A metronome can be used to play along with if required.

If your knowledge of chords is less than encyclopaedic, an inbuilt chord computer will identify anything you strum, or even give you a fingering diagram for named chords outside your repertoire.

The performance is then recorded as a Wav file that can be replayed. If it passes muster, hitting the save button sets up the notation sequence.

Pentiums of at least 200MHz are recommended; even a minimum-spec machine produces an editable songsheet quickly. As with voice-recognised text files, some of the results are unexpected. Sometimes the software gets it wrong - though I suspect my F majors that drifted into major 7ths and exotic augmented chords were most likely down to sloppy fingering.

Editing songsheets is easy and intuitive. Chords can be "corrected" on the stave and dragged and dropped into new arrangements. Lyrics can be added. It's a shame that the polished version can't be run backwards into the guitar to make it look like a faultless performance in the first place.

The theory's fine. In practice it works as well as any voice recognition software; its claimed accuracy of 95 per cent easily stands up. The current version, 1.5, is worth the price for the tuning function and the chord computer alone. The next incarnation should be even better.

"We plan to develop the software so that it can recognise combinations of chords and single notes, including single-note runs played at high speed," says Julian Wagstaff, managing director of RoboSens. "We are not far away from the `holy grail' of being able to produce midi files from a Wav file containing combinations of chords and single notes, which would be a revolutionary departure. We hope that this technology will be available in the new year."