PDF Music Readers at the end of 2011 (forScore and unrealBook)

I continue to write about PDF-based music readers for the iPad, because they are the single category of iPad application that has the potential to bring technology into music education, especially at the middle school and high school levels.  As an example, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at the Iowa Music Educators Association Professional Development Conference in November, and Iowa as a whole is a leader in the United States in terms of 1-to-1 implementations (the number I heard at the conference was about 25% of all Iowa schools).  Notebook or netbook computers make up the majority of those 1-to-1 programs, but iPads are coming on strong.  At the conference I asked how many music educators were using those 1-to-1 computers in music classes, and the majority of people I asked indicated that use was infrequent in music…sure, there are common resources like SmartMusic, but you typically don’t use SmartMusic “in” class, just outside of class.  There just aren’t many settings in any music class (other than theory, perhaps), where a teacher is going to ask students to pull out their notebooks or netbooks, particularly with no place to put those devices (most music rooms have no desks, although companies like Wenger make desks for music chairs).  In comparison, iPads can be used as the main delivery method for music, meaning that technology can be used every moment in your class (on music stands or held in the hands of choir members)!

As I’ve discussed in the past, the screen of the iPad can be too small for instrumental scores, but I know a number of players–including pianists–who have simply turned their iPads to landscape mode and use a foot pedal (PageFlip, AirTurn, or Footime) to advance half pages, displaying at pretty much the original size of the music, just one half page at a time.  I can’t imagine my life as a music teacher without the iPad at this point, and I have about a dozen students who have now bought their own iPads, and they have also quickly grown accustomed to having these programs to the point where they would not use sheet music unless they had to do so.

Yes, PDF readers require you to scan your own music.  There is some file sharing on the Internet, which isn’t legal (not recommended), and there are some sources for free PDF music on the Internet as well.  The music publishers are slowly moving towards digital resources, but it is a giant paradigm shift that is a topic in and of itself.  Again, the kiss of death would be for each publisher to offer their own app.  Imagine that nightmare as a band, orchestra, or choir director, with each piece inside the app of the publisher and trying to perform that way.  I’d prefer music in PDF format or in MusicXML format.

Throughout the 2011-2012 school year, I’ve been using forScore ($4.99) as my primary PDF Music Reader.  Readers of this blog will know that I’ve recommended unrealBook ($4.99) as my favorite PDF music reader for most of the past two years, and in full disclaimer mode, I’ve been a beta tester for unrealBook (There is no financial benefit, but I do get to work with beta versions of the program before they hit the public).  I’ve interacted a bit with the developers of both apps while maintaining a self-imposed policy of non-disclosure for items that are in development with unrealBook.  As a beta tester, I don’t discuss new features of unrealBook until a new update is released in the app store. Currently, I’m running a non-beta version of unrealBook (v. 1.6, the latest release) on my iPad.

To recap, in the past, I’ve preferred unrealBook over forScore for three major reasons: set lists are easier to use and control; your entire music (mp3) library is accessible in-app with embedded controls in the menu bar; and annotation was easier to get to.  Readers of this blog will also recognize my main theme of annotation: how important I feel annotation is for a musician of any level, as well as the ability to quickly get to that ability to annotate.  unrealBook also offers recording, a great addition for the music rehearsal (forScore currently does not have this ability).  The first two items in this list remain features that are better with unrealBook, although access to annotation has been addressed by forScore, which significantly changes how a musician can use the program (typically, you want to mark something very quickly with as few key presses as possible).

That doesn’t mean that forScore doesn’t (didn’t) have its own areas of superiority.  forScore has always been more graphically pleasing (it just looks nicer), it offers metadata for scores, and has a number of features that are very useful, such as symbols that can be placed in scores (a really nice feature for editing scores with manuscript errors, which is a very common occurrence).

unrealBook is the product of a single developer who is a gigging musician, therefore some features are geared towards that task, such as MIDI options that can be saved with scores.  Even from my first interactions with Aron (the developer of unrealBook), it became clear that Aron is a person who continues to add to his app, but doesn’t like releasing a buggy product.  This means that updates for unrealBook, although frequent for beta testers, have been steady but infrequent for “normal” iOS users.  forScore is developed by a team of developers, and they continue to release updates that redefine the app and add new features.  They’ve released close to forty updates since the app was introduced less than two years ago.

So why the change in my choice of forScore over unrealBook?

First, major updates to iOS (3 to 4, 4 to 5) have caused a lot grief for unrealBook.  I will be writing a separate post that discusses this in detail.  But in simple terms, each version of iOS has changed how PDFs are drawn.  Aron has worked hard to address the issues (and has succeeded), however, there has been a period of time after a major iOS release where the unrealBook hasn’t worked smoothly (particularly with existing files), and in those times of transition, I’ve used forScore until the problems have been ironed out.  As we went back to school this year, iOS 5 was released, causing me to move to forScore for a while in daily use, and I haven’t gone back to unrealBook this year.

Second, forScore has continued to add features to the app.  Some of those features are features that unrealBook shares, or even had first.  One example is the use of “hotspots” or “links.”  unrealBook had the feature first, but forScore came out with an approach that was easier to use.  It used to be hard to get to the annotation features on forScore, but the developers made certain gestures (tap & hold, two finger tap) customizable.  forScore has added some wonderful options such as a pitchpipe that remembers the pitch of a song (unrealBook had a pitchpipe first), a re-vamped metronome, and even a piano keyboard (in their latest update).  Another interesting feature of forScore is the ability to take an image from the iPad and convert it to a PDF.  unrealBook had this feature for some time; forScore added it in a feature called Darkroom, and then later split Darkroom into an iPhone/iPod Touch app, both which have a better camera than an iPad 2.  Therefore, you can take a picture with your iPhone, and import it to forScore.  The developers of forScore have also added the pitchpipe and the metronome as separate iPhone/iPod Touch apps.  At one point, unrealBook was the only app to offer Dropbox integration, whereas forScore now incorporates it, too.

In other words, forScore addressed most of the issues that I had with the app in the past (if you read any of the old blog posts since April 2010)–even though my voice was only one of a multitude in offering feedback (I’m not a beta tester with direct communication with the developers).  There is one other hidden feature of forScore is that over past two years, it has always been blazing fast with nearly every score of any size that I’ve loaded with one exception (a PDF with both black and white and color pages, which causes forScore to hang–as well as unrealBook).  I’m not sure how it is done, but forScore seems to “cache” the next pages for a consistently fast page turn.  That isn’t to say that unrealBook doesn’t turn pages fast–it does, particularly if the score is optimized in DPI for the iPad.  Some time ago, I invested in a Mac app called PDF Shrink, which can optimize a PDF for reproduction of different levels (and save a considerable amount of space).  All of my PDFs are optimized for display on the iPad, regardless of whether they are on forScore or unrealBook.

I think it is important to note that I don’t think that unrealBook or forScore are copying from each other.  The features they have added are features that are a natural progression for an app that reads music, and each continues to develop on their own path, sometimes treading where the other has already gone.  There are a number of PDF music readers that have been out for quite a while that have added very few new features over time…and some have not been updated since their release.  You won’t find this practice with unrealBook or forScore.

To give credit where credit is due, if you want to see an excellent brand-new feature in one of these apps, unrealBook added a “transmogrify” button, which allows you to create a customizable button that shows tempo (metronome), start/stop the recorder, start/stop music playback, give a specific pitch, or display a popup note.  These are GREAT features for the performing musician or music educator.

That said, my recommendation for a PDF music reader, if you can choose only one, is forScore.  It’s $4.99 well-spent with a huge number of features that are ideal for music education (which, of course, is the topic of this blog).   There are still some things that I would like to see fixed (taller buttons in the document menu, and the ability to set the main sort by title instead of composer).  But in general, forScore is aesthetically more pleasing, has a few more tools (such as the piano keyboard–which could use optional letter names for beginners), and is more friendly for a beginner to use with a well-designed manual (unrealBook has a good manual, too).  The piano keyboard option is a real winner in terms of education…I was able to lead warm-ups from my iPad one day when we were rehearsing away from the piano (with a portable speaker).

As usual, I’d suggest that you don’t buy just one app–I’ve benefitted from having both.  For less than $10.00 (before taxes), you have a lot of PDF music reading functionality in your hands that Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Mozart and the rest of the clan would have killed for.  Have you ever wondered how they would have reacted to such a device?

I still recommend unrealBook, as a fantastic app in and of itself.  As you’ll see from the image associated with this post, I consider both apps to be “best of class.”  I remind you of the recent past (early 2009) where the only solution for portable music reading was the Freehand Music Pad Pro, which sold for $899.00, and served one purpose.  It’s wonderful to have multiple options for music reading with the iPad, at a fraction of the price with a million more uses (meaning that the iPad has more than one function).  If you are a gigging musician that needs some of the MIDI data connected to your scores, unrealBook is the way to go (forScore doesn’t have this yet).  Admittedly, for my use in music education, those MIDI features are not very important.

There are a number of other PDF music readers, such as DeepDish Gigbook (recently updated for annotation), Music Reader PDF, Piascore, Perform, Scorecerer, and iGigBook amongst others.  As always, do some ressearch (Google or your favorite browser) and compare features (and reviews) between these apps and buy what works best for your setting.  In general, free doesn’t always mean “good.”  There are other apps that are not PDF based, such as SeeScore (MusicXML), Avid Scorch for iPad (Sibelius Scorch), and Tonara, to name a few.  I don’t plan to run a comparison of all these apps, as forScore and unrealBook are by far the best in the class.

Do you have an Android or WebOS tablet?  If you do, you don’t have a single offering in this category for your tablets, and there are more than twenty music reading options for iOS (Note: I’m a TouchPad owner who has both WebOS and Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” running on that device).  If you have a Kindle Fire, your device is probably too small to see a choral score–meaning that instrumental scores are out of the question.  Yes, PDF readers (in general) will work, but these apps (forScore and unrealBook) offer music-specific options that will make your life better as a musician.  If you are an iPad user, be thankful for the options we have (not to mention the accessories we have).

I’ve attached a PDF of a comparison of the features of forScore and unrealBook as of December 31st, 2011 (publicly released versions):

A comparison of forScore and unrealBook, December 2011

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