Music in free software

As a member of two a cappella vocal ensembles, I have been searching for several free software projects to fit some of my musical needs.

The first need is a way to print out scores of vocal music. My director often re-arranges pieces, especially old hymns, and trying to read the hand-written manuscript and sight-read is very difficult. Additionally, after copies are made into copies of copies, the quality of the page decreases dramatically. I would like a soft-copy of the vocal music for reprinting at any time, and for long-term storage.

The second need is a way to edit audio. We had someone record a past program, and it’s time that we make a few changes to the recording, specifically in the areas of volume. The recording volume level was extremely low, and at certain times (such as the applause at the end of a piece) the volume increased a lot relative to the actual song. I needed to boost the sound up and do some normalizing.

We don’t have a huge budget for just about anything. In fact, our choir and quintet rely on mostly volunteers from within the group to take care of some of the PR and other issues. When it comes to things like technology, besides a nice practice keyboard, and a good sound system for the quintet, there isn’t much money left around for anything. Therefore, the “free” in free software isn’t just about the “free as in speech”. Although philosophically the “free as in speech” part is great long-term, the price point is what really sells people.

Take (for example) my first need stated above. I need a good notation printing program. I looked around, and ended up finding Lilypond, which is basically a notation conversion program. You create a specially-formatted text file, and lilypond will convert it into PDF, PostScript, and even MIDI. I showed my director and another tenor and they were quite impressed. Then I told them it was free. They were blown away. You have a program that creates professional scores. And it’s all free!

Again, I looked for an audio-editing program, and settled on Audacity. With Audacity, you can import sounds (WAV, MP3, OGG, etc) and perform your changes (volume, tempo, pitch, etc.) and either save your project for later, or export individual tracks as WAV, MP3, OGG, etc. The multiple track part will come in handy when we secure a nice TASCAM DP-01FX/CD for audio recording. With its dual mic input, we could re-record several songs and have multiple tracks for different parts, mixing the blend even further.

Free software is great because of the access to the source code. But for smaller groups with practically no budget, it helps to have software that doesn’t hit the wallet too hard!


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.