I’ve been a guitarist for about 12 years now. As many guitarists who started polishing their chops during the digital age will agree, we spend a lot of time on guitar tablature websites learning how to play songs. Unfortunately, tab sites (much like lyrics sites) are plagued with pop-ups, banners, ads, and just about every other “worst thing on the Internet.”
Songsterr breathes new life into the quest to learn music on the Internet. In addition to a well-designed website that’s free of the blight found elsewhere, they’ve also developed an iPad app, proving once again that the iPad is taking the things we’re used to and changing the way we do them. No longer will aspiring guitarists sit in an uncomfortable, armed desk chair and carefully pluck their strings while trying not to hit the desk with their guitar. Songsterr for iPad lets you take your guitar rehearsal anywhere (where there’s Wi-Fi). So, how does it perform?
There have been a few articles published here on the AppStorm network recently regarding interface design. One particular trend that we’ve discussed is the Tweetie/Twitter design, and while Songsterr doesn’t exactly fall into the same category as other apps who’ve borrowed the design, they’ve chosen to do so anyway.
When the app launches you’ll notice 3 areas of the screen: the sidebar, the list of items, and the empty content space bearing the Songsterr logo. Once you select a tab to view, it will fill this empty space.
The sidebar, which is always visible, shows three icons that will help you locate a tab to begin learning. The top icon is the “Most Viewed” icon, and its function is self explanatory. Below that is the “Tags” button, allowing you to search tabs by genre. And finally, the “Search” button lets you search for a specific song title or artist.
Tapping on a song from the list will fill that previously empty space with a guitar tab. If you swipe left, the music will overtake the list, which is most appropriate since the tab is formatted to that width.
With a tab sheet visible, there are additional controls on the right side of the screen, depending on whether you’re using the free version, or decided to splurge for the Plus version (more on that later).
A typical sheet of guitar tab.
Now, I didn’t search the entire database, but Songsterr claims to have over 70,000 songs in its library. And according to my research, a lot of the relatively obscure artists I listen to are in there. There were only a few songs I looked for that were absent, which has always been an issue when searching for tabs on the Internet.
After choosing a guitar tab from which to play, and swiping to make it fill the screen, it’s easy to read while playing if your iPad is within a reasonable distance. Handily, the tab also includes rhythm notation, a luxury not often afforded typical user-contributed, Courier New style guitar tabs. In fact, most tabs have a lot of notation that resembles traditional sheet music, like time signatures, rests, slides and slurs, numbered measures, and tempo.
First one to figure out what song this is wins. (Hint: it isn't Viva La Vida)
As I mentioned above, you have a few controls available to you while viewing a tab, depending on the version. The button that is present regardless of version is the “Select Track” button. Most of the tabs in Songsterr’s library have music available for more than just the guitar track.
Often, there are multiple guitar parts, bass tab, and drum notation, and occasionally auxiliary instruments like flute or trumpet (I’ve found the more popular songs to be more likely to have more instrument tracks available). Tapping the “Select Track” button and then on another instrument will show you the notation for that instrument.
Viva La Vida in all of its instrumentally complex glory.
Drum notation. Snow, because the drum part for that Coldplay song is boring.
By now, you may have noticed that green playhead at the top of each piece of music. This is where the other two buttons on the right come in. If you decided to go for it and buy Songsterr Plus, you have the ability to play (bottom button) a midi rendition of the song notated in front of you. Tapping the middle button toggles between full-speed and half-speed for those particularly tricky riffs.
There are two things that would’ve noticeably made this app better. The first, which is less important, pertains to the audio functionality. As it stands, there is no way to play more than just the current instrument track. I know from experience that learning a part often requires understanding how it fits with the other parts, and the ability to play some or all parts simultaneously could be handy.
The second thing, which would increase usability by leaps and bounds, is an autoscroll feature. Many tab websites have this feature, and being able to select a scroll speed and then play along without having to touch the iPad would very convenient.
I haven’t done considerable research in the area of sheet music apps, but I don’t remember seeing one with as much style as Songsterr. If such an app could be developed, I don’t think that a scenario in which members of a symphony orchestra are tapping iPads on their music stands is too far-fetched.
I loved Songsterr, and while many apps come and go to make room for new ones, this one will definitely be sticking around for a while. It is certainly interesting to watch as iPad developers push the boundaries of what we do with our iPads on a daily basis.