This is an amazing time to be a guitarist. Knowledge isn’t locked away in some ivory tower, available only to the select few. With a little effort, you can find what you’re looking for. This also goes for pulling apart existing material for transcribing or just learning a new song. You don’t have to rely on published transcriptions anymore. With some practice, patience and a little help you can pick apart any tune with the right tools. While your reverse-engineering skills may not be as good as what you get from a tablature book, it’s a great skill to build and the process is rewarding on its own.
We’re going to look at three applications to help you deconstruct any song. These apps are referred to, somewhat awkwardly, as “slower-downer” apps. The basic idea is to slow a song down without changing the pitch (something tape could never do) so that you can decode particularly quick passages. They also support bookmarking sections and looping over them to practice those tricky parts. They also provide various ways of pulling the guitar out of an otherwise murky mix to get help identifying individual notes.
The first of these is an app I started using several years ago called Capo. It first appeared on the Mac and has since been ported to iOS. Capo does all the basic things you hope for: pitch & speed adjustment, looping, bookmarking and EQ.
On the Mac, Capo has an innovative “spectrum analysis” graph that is laid out over a virtual piano roll. The idea is that once you identify the note, you “draw” it on the piano roll and the guitar tablature at the bottom updates accordingly. Capo is smart enough to understand how the guitar is tuned so that you can move notes up and down strings to change how the notes are fingered.
Capo can also help you identify chords and their names. As the tune is going along, you can hit the “K” key and Capo will insert its best guess as to the appropriate chord. While Capo supports a fairly sophisticated set of chords, I found this feature seems to get it right about 50% of the time. Your mileage may vary.
Capo also has an equalizer built in to help you isolate guitar parts in a mix. Not only do you get a multi-band graphic equalizer, but it also comes with some very effective presets.
Note that the iOS version doesn’t have the spectrum analysis or chord-detection tools. It’s primarily a tool for looping, and adjusting tempo & pitch.
On iOS, Capo integrates with your iPod music library so that you can import any tune you already have. On the Mac, you simply drag any compatible sound file onto the target window.
A few months ago a new challenger came on the block, named Anytune. It supports the same basics as Capo, but has a much more powerful looping mechanism. It also has much broader support for importing and exporting. At first blush, the interface can look a little overwhelming:
To get oriented, tap the “?” button in the upper-right and little bubble will appear describing each section of the interface. The controls I find myself using the most are the buttons in the toolbar in the middle of the screen. These control looping in the app.
You can set basic section markers anywhere in the tune by tapping the button just above the play button. You can name sections either from a provided list (like “Verse” or “Chorus”) or you can enter your own custom name. This is fast and easy enough enough that when I start a new project in Anytune, I can mark and name sections in real-time as I listen to the song the first time through.
Anytune also supports ad-hoc A/B sections for looping. But it also has a special kind of bookmark that acts like a pre-set A/B loop you can select at any time. This is very handy for breaking down those intricate guitar solos into bite-sized phrases. You can tackle each piece on its own, then reset your A/B markers to work on larger portions.
Once you have an A/B section set, you can fine-tune the “in” and “out” points with the roller-wheel on the right side of the toolbar. This will let you dial in a nice loop that falls squarely on the beat so that looping doesn’t feel weird by falling on some odd number of beats. It’s amazing how much adjusting this to sound right helps your ear with picking out bits.
One of Anytune’s cooler tricks is the “step-trainer” which lets you mark a section for a number of repeats, ramping up the tempo on each iteration. This is a fantastic way to really nail those tricky, technical bits.
Like Capo, Anytune has an EQ section for isolating particular sounds. It also comes with a number of presets like “Enhance Distortion Guitar”. You can also save your own EQ presets for use in other songs.
Anytune also lets you import music from more than just your local iTunes library. There is also wi-fi syncing and Dropbox integration. The word on the street is that Anytune is also working on Audiobus integration which means you could bring in audio from all sorts of sources. (I’m very excited about this).
Currently Anytune is only available on iOS, but they are apparently working on a desktop version too. The basic app is free with several advanced features unlocked with in-app purchase. I went straight to the Anytune Pro+ purchase which gives you all the additional goodies.
So far, I’ve focused on the Apple side of things (sorry folks, I haven’t run a copy of Windows in over a decade). But a new entry appeared on my radar a couple of weeks ago that works on both Mac and Windows, called Riffstation. It has a lot in common with the other two apps in that it is primarily an app to slow-down and retune music to pick it apart. But Riffstation also comes with a couple of twists of its own.
Unlike Capo or Anytune, Riffstation has a very advanced beat-detection system. So instead of looking at waveforms and guessing where the beats fall, selecting a range in Riffstation automatically falls on beat boundaries. Frankly, this is pretty mind-blowing.
Riffstation also has an automatic chord-detection algorithm built into it. When you import a song into Riffstation, part of its initial analysis is figuring out the chords for the guitar parts. You can see them listed by name and also look at the fingering Riffstation has guessed (which isn’t always correct). As you play the tune Riffstation will show the current chord and as well as the next one coming. Pretty slick
The third feature that sets Riffstation apart is its ability to isolate guitar parts. In addition to EQ settings, Riffstation also has the ability to narrow the stereo field. Since modern records typically spread the band out, you can search around in the stereo field and find the exact spot where the solo is and cut out anything else to either side. Then with EQ, you can filter out the bass and the wash of crash cymbals to fully isolate the guitar part.
This also means that you can do the reverse and effectively subtract the guitar part from the original track so you can play along with the band as if you were the primary guitarist. This is a great second step to go through after you have a guitar part down. In this mode you can really hear your playing in isolation without the safety net of the original guitar track and figure out what still needs work.
Riffstation also has the ability to let you piece together riffs from your favorites bands like some kind of DJ with a Marshall stack. Admittedly, I don’t find this feature particularly interesting so I haven’t played with it a lot.
Frankly the isolation features of Riffstation are really its killer feature and, in my opinion, worth the price alone. It simply does what no other tool does (that I know of).
I’ve been a long-time fan of Capo since I first started using it a few years ago. But, for my money, it’s really been surpassed by Anytune. I’ve never really taken advantage of the piano-roll feature and it’s looping isn’t nearly as sophisticated as Anytune. However Anytune has a much steeper learning-curve than Capo. Want proof? Anytune has a PDF user guide you can download, Capo doesn’t need one.
Riffstation does a couple of things that Anytune cannot, namely the isolation and beat detection. However I find Riffstation’s looping controls clunky to work with. Also, there’s no ability to mark sections like the other two apps, so when I return to Riffstation I have to sift through the tune to find that section I looped in the last session. Currently, I use Anytune as my primary tool and switch over to Riffstation for those really tricky parts that I can’t otherwise figure out in Anytune.
These apps are all pretty amazing. With this technology I’ve been able to figure out tunes that have eluded me for years. Not only has this been satisfying for the sense of accomplishment, but it’s also allowed to get some new ideas by really pulling apart the licks and phrasing from some of my favorite players.
Reverse-engineering tunes is a skill and an art of its own. Transcribing (i.e. writing down the actual musical notes) takes that to a whole other level. I think most of us are somewhat daunted at the prospect of figuring songs out ourselves, but all these tools can be a good help to start getting better at it.