REVIEW: Capo Transcription Software for Macintosh

Capo excels at providing tools to help learn songs by ear!

Learning songs by ear and transcribing has always been a rewarding challenge. Back in the day of vinyl records and tape recorders, “challenge” may have been an understatement, but with today’s computer technology, nailing that tricky lick has never been easier.

Capo is software by founder Chris Liscio of SuperMegaUltraGroovy who sought to improve these methods. His dissatisfaction with existing choices on the market motivated him to come up with his own. Designed to “reverse engineer rock and roll”, Capo offers a number of tools within its interface to significantly ease and improve the process.

THE INTERFACE

Upon launching Capo, a welcome screen with five choices for “quick start” instructional videos pops up. Like many of us, I’m not one to dig into manuals – I just wanna get to the good stuff; but I found this a welcome and thoughtful feature, easily digestible, and it actually sped up my orientation with the program.

The interface is clean and professional. The main window represents music as a spectogram which displays pulses and lines vertically along the frequency range and horizontally along the time-line. It’s a bit abstract and kind of looks like a lie detector test but serves as a reasonable guide for actually seeing the music in addition to hearing it.

With the cursor in the main window, adjustments for speed and pitch as well as elapsed time are indicated. TAB-formatted lines run along the bottom of the track. With the cursor in this section, preferences for formatting the TAB are revealed (instrument, tuning, capo adjustments). Additional visible features include volume, scaling the graphic display, transport controls, a grid for defining a loop section, buttons for dropping markers, and an effects button which opens a window for controlling equalization, pan, and voice reduction. Menu items expand on a number of these features.

REVERSE ENGINEERING SOME GOOD OL’ ROCK ‘N ROLL

I decided to dig into the guts of “Walk Away” by the James Gang. After loading the mp3, I hit the play button to listen and watch the time cursor scroll along the display. Analyzing the spectogram took a little getting used to, but I started to get a feel for it. I let the song flow along until I got to the solo. While still playing, I clicked ‘M’ on my keyboard to set a marker for the beginning of the solo and one for the end. I then double-clicked in the loop grid between the markers to define the loop region – easy peasy. Speed adjustments can be set in 1% increments from 25% to 150%. There are also predefined settings for quick adjustments. I know from previous experience that maintaining audio quality and pitch while slowing tempo can really muck up the sound. Capo handles this with excellence.

Joe Walsh tuned his guitar down 1/2 step for the recording. Rather than going to that trouble (call me lazy), I simply increased the pitch in Capo one notch and was able to follow along in the same fretboard position (which makes all the difference for this tune). By holding modifier keys, this can be refined to 1 cent increments (100 cents = 1 semitone). This is valuable in being able to adjust to recordings that are slightly off standard pitch.

In order to help isolate the guitar, I opened the effects window. The lead is panned right so I clicked on ‘mono’ and shifted the mix in that direction. That brought the guitar front and center – outstanding. By tweaking the 10-band equalizer I was able to make it really pop. Voice reduction is the third option in the effects section. By dragging a width-adjustable window back and forth within a larger window representing the tonal range, that section of frequencies is reduced. This wasn’t necessary in learning the solo, but I tested it with vocal parts in other areas and it was quite effective. These tools alone are all you should ever need to help transcribing songs, but wait! There’s more.

One of the purposes of the spectogram is to help locate notes and easily document them in TAB form. This is done by identifying them on the spectogram and click-dragging along their length. After releasing the mouse, they show up on the tablature below as a suggestion of where they might be played on the fretboard. Sounds easy, right? Not so much. The spectogram is a somewhat abstract analysis of the whole track which is affected by how it’s mixed, other instruments, articulations such as bends and vibrato, and more. Depending on the track itself, this may be easy and save you time, or may drive you nuts trying to figure out which pulse or line on the graph relates to what you’re going after. The solo to “Walk Away” is pretty simple but for the life of me, I couldn’t parse it out using this method.

Another significant tool filling out the package is the chord marker. As the song plays along, dropping one of these at the push of a button automatically generates what Capo thinks the chord is. In the case of this song, it worked pretty well but wasn’t 100% accurate. Double-clicking on markers allows editing to set the correct chord name. Like the spectogram, I would rely more on my ear than Capo’s, but it does serve a purpose in helping to lay out chord structure.

THE FINAL WRAP

Capo excels at providing tools to help learn songs by ear. Additional features like the spectogram with transcribing assistance and automatic chord detection are there for additional assistance, but I found them too difficult to use compared to simply listening and transcribing by hand. Features I would like to see in upcoming versions include custom labeling for markers, the ability to save different loop sections and settings within the same project, and printing jam notes that could be used as reference at practice or on stage.

Capo is also available as an app for the iPhone 3GS and later, 32GB 3rd-generation iPod Touches and later, and the iPad. iOS 4.0 is a minimum system requirement. Pricing is $19.99.

PROS: Excellent audio tools. Clean, easy to use interface. Helpful intro guides.

CONS: Spectogram data difficult to translate (depending on the track). Cannot customize markers. No ability to print. Can only save one group of settings per song.

Price – $49 direct from website (free trial available)

Dan Coplan is senior staff writer at SMG. Dan is a Los Angeles based cinematographer and self-admitting guitar junkie. Email: dancoplan@sharemyguitar.com

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