Posting by David in Mississippi, January 2016

Electronic Music Displays

For the entire history of the Big Band Charts Group, there has been discussion about how best to handle paper music.


We have had discussions on how best to print PDFs, how to tote the folders to and from rehearsals and gigs, how to tape paper parts, how to clean up paper parts, what are the best kinds of folders to buy and use, what kind of stand lights to use, how best to run electric cords to all the music stands, and many other discussions of this nature.


There is one solution that will take care of ALL of these discussions, with just one not quite so simple solution. Electronic Music Stands, or more accurately, storing and displaying the music for each player in a tablet computer that can sit on a music stand.


For people who have TONS of music to tote and track and repair and replace, this would be an ideal solution. With each tablet computer weighing between 2 and 3 pounds, carrying all the music for all the instruments would weigh less than 60 pounds, and could be easily packed into a single case. Better yet, have each musician be responsible for his or her own.


On this page is a discussion of the pros and cons of doing this, current as of early 2016.


There are many good reasons to use tablet computers instead of music folders. Among these reasons are


SOFTWARE. There is currently excellent software available for Apple, Microsoft, and Android operating systems. This software allows you to load thousands of PDF files into the computer and find any of them almost instantly. The software allows you to organize your uploaded files into play lists or set lists so that when playing through the list, each tune comes up in the proper order after the previous one. Additionally, this software allows the musicians to make their own annotations, such as highlighting repeats or “writing” on the music, even in color so it stands out, such as “Mike’s solo!” or circling a key change or adding a unique dynamic marking. Also, each good software package I have seen gives you the capability to display a full page per screen, two pages per screen (side by side), or half a page per screen, with a “page turn” moving from the top to the bottom half of the page, if you need that.


MEMORY CAPACITY. Even if you have a fairly small and non-expandable 32GB iPad, you can literally fit thousands of songs onto the machine. Most Android and Windows tablets have the capability to add an SD memory card for yet more storage.


NO MORE LOST MUSIC. It will be absolutely impossible for anyone to lose a part. Of course, they could lose the entire machine, but if you have your filing system set up properly, it is only a few minutes work to set up a new tablet with their entire folder.


NO MORE LIGHTING PROBLEMS. All tablet computers are lit from the inside. You don’t ever have to worry about buying, carrying, installing, hauling, or replacing bulbs and/or batteries in or running electric cables for stand lights again.


ADEQUATE BATTERY LIFE. A fully charged tablet computer will easily last through even a four or five hour gig. If you need more than that, there are always external battery/charger packs.


EASIER TO SEE! I say this from the standpoint of someone who used to have USAF Pilot’s eyes and is now closing in on 70 years old, and has trouble sometimes reading even well-lit paper music. I can attest that reading music on a computer display is easier than reading it on paper.


EXPANDABLE DISPLAY. If you need a closer look at something (usually during a rehearsal), you can zoom in the display with an “un-pinch.” (Put two fingers on the screen and move them apart.)


There are still a few good reasons NOT to do this. Some of them include

COST. While you can get some Android tablets for $200 or less, you will be condemned to use smaller screens.


If you have a band full of people less than 50 years old, all with good eyes, this is probably okay. However, I would strongly advise anyone to go with screens of 13” diagonal or larger if they can find them. There used to be a number of Android 13.3” tablets for $300 to $400, but they are hard to find these days. I am currently trying to decide between getting an iPad Pro (starts at about $800) and a Windows Surface Pro 4 (starts at about $900), both of which are just under 13” diagonal and will display an 8.5 x 11” PDF at only slightly smaller than full size. The iPad will not accept external memory; the Windows machine will. If you are looking to outfit your entire band with these tablets, you could be looking at a hit close to $20,000.

If you can find a 13.3” Android tablet for about $200, you could outfit your whole (big) band for less than $4,000. !!! CAUTION !!! If you are looking at 13.3” tablets, be certain the screen aspect ratio is 4:3 (close to square) and not 16:9 (oblong, like a wide-screen TV). Think of the difference between letter-sized paper and legal paper. Stay away from the legal paper-shaped screens. If you get the wrong aspect ratio, then PDF files will display as small as if they were on a smaller tablet, because they will only be as wide as the short side of the screen. These 4:3 ratio Android tablets are just about impossible to find.

Next, there is the cost of the foot pedals. These will run between $90 and $120 each, so you can add another $1,500 to $2,000 to the total cost.

Finally, there is the cost of the reading software itself. Even the most expensive software package is “only” $50, but if you multiply that for everyone in a big band, you’re looking at close to $1,000. Some other very good packages, such as UnReal Book for Apple IOS, are as low as $10, so your cost could be less than $200.


The bottom line on COST is that setting up each player could cost as little as $350 or it could be more than $1300.


Multiply this times the number of players in your band for the total cost to outfit the entire group with tablet computer displays.


SETTING UP THE BOOK. It will take a LOT of work initially to make sure you have all your music scanned, to separate all the parts by instrument, to load the required tunes onto the device and into the software, and to set up your play lists. However, once you have it all set up, it should be relatively little work to maintain it.

THE LEARNING CURVE. It will take quite a bit of learning, both for you to learn how to set it all up, and for each musician to learn how to use it, to build play lists, connect the foot pedal, etc. And face it – some of your musicians just aren’t computer people. It would be harder to get them to use a computer than it would be to pull a duck through a knothole backwards.


As of today, it would seem cost-prohibitive for most big bands to make the move to electronic music displays/ tablet computers.


However, it could still be done. One way would be for each musician to get his or her own. Another way would be to make sure you have your 501(c)(3) designation then apply for a grant to buy them. Another thought would be to mount a fund-raising drive and seek sponsors for the project.

Even so, I feel it is inevitable that all bands will eventually move in the direction of having electronic music displays instead of paper music. It just makes too much sense to do so, when you can afford it.


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