This Renaissance musician
appears to to be hiding an iPhone
on the table under the little book.
Getting Ready to Bring the Magic
Websites and Smart phone Apps for Bards and Musicians
By Gael Stirler
(August, 2011) The fire is crackling merrily in the fire pit and all the people sitting around are wearing cloaks and medieval attire. You chat about the fun you've had during the day when the conversation lulls. "Sing us a song," someone begs and others chime in, "yes, yes, a song." You pull your guitar from a battered leather case and begin to strum, slowly at first, then faster as you play the first few chords of an old ballad. You sing of battles lost and won, heroes and lovers, castles and crowns. As your song draws to a close another sings an Irish love song full of homesickness and regret. The next singer lifts the mood with a bawdy song which is followed by a drinking song and everyone joins in. The evening becomes transcendent for you and your circle of friends. Time and space dissolve and you feel magically transported to another time when our ancient ancestors entertained each other with songs and tales all night long.
But, like all magic, the spells that bards weave take practice and research to achieve. Here are some websites, smart phone apps, and tablet tools that you may find helpful if you're a bard or want to be one. Since I own an Android phone, the apps mentioned are available through the Android Market but they are probably also available for iPhones through iTunes.
Researching and Learning New Songs
If you are looking for traditional, Irish and Early music on the computer, you'll find lots more renaissance music at these two websites. Chivalry.com* sells albums of early music, traditional, Irish, and pirate songs, much of it by Renaissance faire performers. This site is connected to Cantaria.com. which has a huge database of songs, sheet music, and audio files. You can print the songs to make yourself a songbook or copy them to files that your can carry with you in your phone.
Songbooks and Teleprompters in one
It is best to memorize your repertoire but until you can, smart phones and tablets can help. Every bard knows that carrying all of your favorite songs around in a large ring binder is awkward and distracting. Holding a flashlight to read the words can interfer with playing an instrument, too. With eSong Book by jvdaleo you can put all of your songs on a smart phone and the the words scroll just like a teleprompter. With the tap of a finger you can reset the font size and the speed of the scroll. You can arrange your songs in sets and add notes to the beginning of each song if you like. If you are concerned about the glow, you can set the background to black with white letters and it is barely detectable to the audience. Using eSong Book takes some preparation. You will need to edit the songs to one measure per line and save them as text files before transferring them to your phone. Then import each song into eSong and it is ready for scrolling.
Lyric Search by Cocolyrics has lyrics for many songs formatted for viewing on a small screen. You can search by artist or words in the title or anywhere in the song. At the end of the song there is a menu that allows you to bookmark it and keep it in your favorites folder within the program. The the type is clear and easy to read but there isn't a function for editing the text or copying to another app at present.
Guitar Tapp by 8:45 tools, is similar to Lyric Search but geared towards anyone learning how to play the songs on the guitar. Chords and/or tablatures are included with each song, but for lyrics, you might only get one verse plus the chorus. If you need to see diagrams of the chords you can go to the menu and choose "Show chords" and they will be displayed at the bottom of the screen. The app can transpose the songs into different keys. Like Lyric Search you can add songs from their database to a list of favorites for future reference but you can't add your own songs. My favorite feature is how you can choose "Find on Youtube" from the "More" menu, then listen to it as you play along. Unfortunately, the text is only displayed in Courier but you can change the size and style to white text on a black background from the "Settings" menu and colorize the chords so they stand out. I recommend that you choose the setting to automatically store all of your favorites on your phone so that you always have access to your music even if you are camping in an area where there is no signal. I was pleased to find that you can edit songs and save them. For $1.99, it is a great app for learning new songs.
Tuning and Playing
Tuner-gString Free is a chromatic tuner for your guitar. It uses the phone's built-in microphone to "listen" when you pluck a string then it displays the note on a meter. The needle indicates if it is sharp or flat. Stand alone devices like this cost $7 to $28 so this free app really is a great value.
Carry a Guitar in your Pocket
Do you ever want to play when you don't have an instrument? You can always have a guitar in your pocket with the right apps. Guitar: Solo Lite by Coding Caveman is the free version of Solo but it still is a lot of fun to use. You can create a set of chords for each song you like to play, then load the set and the screen will display each chord as a button floating over the guitar strings. You "play" the guitar by touching the strings to pluck or you can strum them. You can also set it to strum each time you press a chord button which is handy for one handed playing. It sounds just like you're playing a guitar though on some phones the sound might lag, which is annoying. My Guitar by by Borce Trajkovski has action that is more like a real guitar. The left side of the screen is the neck of the guitar where you "hold down" the strings with your fingers. The right side is for strumming and plucking. This only works on phones with multi-touch capabilities. It is fun to play but not very practical for real musicians because of its small size. For an all-in-one program, Guitar Robot combines the the action of My Guitar with a tuner, a metronome, and chord charts.
I find that for writing songs, I like a cleaner approach. Chordbot Lite by Contrasonic lets you create chord progressions, define how many beats each chord should be played, and the song's tempo. Then it will "play" your chord progression on a piano or guitar, with rhythm accompaniment in a variety of styles just like a synthesizer. This program is a lot of fun to use. For more serious songwriting see my article on MuseScore from January, 2011.
Finally, Eternal Flame is a campfire on an endless loop with authentic crackling sounds to get you in the mood for fireside singing. Enjoy.
* not affiliated with Chivalry Sports or Renstore.com.
About the Author
Gael Stirler is the owner of Renstore.com and has been a member of the SCA for more than 25 years. She is a guitar-pickin, folk-singin' bard, calligrapher, illuminator, pottery artist, costumer, and writer. She is a Companion of the Order of the Laurel and is known as Mistress Dairine Mor o' Uhgin in the SCA. She is the writer of "The Lusty Young Maids of An Tir," "You're always welcome at Our Camp," and "The Queen of Summer."