Making music the new way: electronic set list

Making music the new way: electronic set list

For 25 years now, give or take, I’ve played music on Labor Day weekend with good friends. It’s a party to celebrate the end of summer. Most of these musicians, men and women, are really good – all of them except me play music for money now and then. I’m at best a mediocre rhythm guitarist, and I can sing a lick, but when this started, I was in the band because I had the sound system and a house in the country with no neighbors to irritate.

The gig moved into town several years ago, and one of the fun parts of planning it is compiling a set list. I like the challenge: Balance the songs among all the musicians, keep up a tempo that will keep the audience interested, and include songs that are fun to play. One of the practical tasks I’ve always disliked is finding a way to keep the sheet music for the set list all together, switching from one song to the next. I’ve used a clipboard, with paper clips to keep each set separate from the next, and that works, but you have to plan for the wind and have some way of keeping the papers on a music stand. If you have a metal music stand, the magnet from an old hard drive can be your friend; very strong magnets, but it’s tough to make quick changes.

I found a true geek solution this year. I used a Fujitsu tablet PC, with Microsoft OneNote installed, and made a notebook for the show. I already had a Word document for each song and so each page of the notebook was one song; the tabs on the side of OneNote let me arrange them in order.  Want to move a song from the first set to the third? Drag the tab to the third set. No problem. Drop a couple songs because one of the guest bands is doing those? Piece of cake.

Some of the musicians wanted to add new songs this year, and had brought copies of the lyrics/chords to practice. You can either scan or transcribe those and, with a tablet PC, use the stylus to add chords to the lyric sheet. You can make notes to yourself about tempo or who’s going to take a lead on a particular song.

You can do this in a free alternative to OneNote, Evernote, which is pretty good software in its own right. Both will sync online, so you can put the material together on a tablet PC and sync it to, say, an Android tablet or, presumably, an iPad (I tested OneNote with an Android tablet and can vouch for that one), or even your phone. I can see some usefulness in being able to sync, especially as tablets of all kinds become more ubiquitous.

I was a little concerned about battery life. We played Sunday night, outdoors, at Mike N Molly’s, and it was chilly – and nothing will shorten a battery’s life like cold. But I had an extended-life battery that gives me six or seven hours of life indoors, and I shut the tablet off during the middle set when I didn’t need to keep track of things. When I restarted for the third set, I still had nearly three hours of battery life left. (I wasn’t really worried; I had another battery charged and ready to go. Department of Redundancy Department.)

I had another backup: a clipboard with the lyrics and chords for each set list, arranged in order. But I didn’t need it. One bandmate didn’t bring a set list along; he borrowed mine.

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