You get the call to sub on a cover band gig Friday night with one of the hot groups in town. After you exuberantly say “yes” and tell all of your friends, panic sets in. There are no charts. You’re on your own to sort it out. You have less than 48 hours to learn 30 new songs and commit them to memory.
You run through your options. You can try one of the many tab sites but experience has taught you many tabs are inaccurate and you spend more time finding mistakes instead of learning the tunes.
The thought of going old school and figuring out the bass lines by ear sends shivers down your spine. You could do it, but not in two days. Learning songs by ear is a skill that can take years to develop. Transcribing bass lines is even more challenging because it’s almost impossible to decipher pitch at the lower ranges of the instrument. “Is that a low F# I’m hearing or is that a ‘BWAMPF?’”
What you need is something that bridges the gap between using your ear and reading a chart. Or better yet, one that does both.
Quick 8th Grade Science Lesson
Let’s take quick time out to better understand sound. Sound travels in waves. We hear these waves as vibrations and the number of vibrations per second is known as frequency. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch. The lower the frequency, the lower the pitch.
On the bass, the low B string vibrates at a frequency of about 31 cycles per second (or Hertz) and the E string at 41 Hz (Hertz). Depending on the configuration on your bass, you can top out at about 10,000 Hz. To put these frequencies in context, most people can hear between 20 Hz and 2,000 Hz, or about 10 octaves.
The challenge with transcribing bass lines is that we humans have a hard time differentiating pitch at lower frequencies. The range of 0 Hz to 20 Hz is known as the infrasonic range and the sound in that range is registered as beats instead of pitch. Think of the loud floor-vibrating “ooomph-ooomph” you hear at the clubs.
Factor in that bass lines can be buried in the mix of the song. If your speakers or headphones can’t handle the lower frequencies, you have a perfect scenario for pulling your hair out when trying to decipher bass lines.
Instead of completely relying on your ear or sorting out tabs to learn those new tunes for the gig, it’s time to let technology help you speed up — not replace — the process. One such tool that several professional bassists use is Capo.
A music transcribing application that was built by a musician to help other musicians learn songs, Capo (only available for Macs) takes a song from your iTunes library and analyzes it about as fast as it takes you to read this sentence. You are presented with a spectogram, or visual representation, of each sound in the song. Click on a note on the spectrogram and Capo plays the tone and generates tablature for 4-,5-, or 6-string bass as well as guitar, mandolin, ukelele and 5-string banjo. You can also loop sections, change pitch, and alter tempo without changing pitch.
“I use Capo first and foremost for slowing down parts of songs, melody lines and licks that I want to learn how to play,” said Will Lee, recording and performing bassist and singer. “It’s very much a professional tool for me. I find it an invaluable tool. The fact that you may set markers to focus in on just what part of a song you want to work on, and Capo remembers it as part of the library it keeps, makes this app the greatest of all! I rely heavily on Capo!”
As a music learning aid, Capo allows you to take a section of song that’s giving you fits, slow it down, loop it and use the spectogram to help you get your fingers and, more importantly, ear wrapped around what you’re hearing. You can even see where the original artist slides or bends notes and have Capo identify chords for 4-, 5- and 6-string bass.
What Capo Does
“Capo was built after I tried to learn music by ear, as prescribed by my guitar teacher,” said Chris Liscio, president of SuperMegaUltraGroovyInc. “I struggled with existing solutions. I was frustrated by how these cross-platform applications did not fit my expectations for performance, quality, and design. As a Mac developer, I felt that my mission was clear: I had to build the best tool for learning music by ear.”
Liscio’s first version of Capo in 2009 was similar to other music learning software. It slowed music without affecting pitch and allowed loops to be set for practice.
Capo 2.0 was introduced in August 2010 and introduced users to the sophisticated spectrogram display and tabbing feature. The software received an Apple Design Award for its interface design and features.
Last October, Capo 3.0 was launched with new features such as automatic chord detection and beat detection. The software also features a 10-band graphic EQ and a setting that allows you to explore different tuning and fingering options. A beat detection engine gives Capo a bar/beat display, plus a metronome count-in for practice. In addition, multiple regions can be named and snapped to the beat allowing them to loop in time with the recording.
Capo files can be shared with other Capo users via email, AirDrop, Messages, or by simply copying a file to another Mac.
On January 24, 2014, Capo was honored to be on placed on Apple’s list of 30 Amazing Apps to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Mac.
Bass and Capo 3
“I’ve used Capo in numerous ways,” said Kenneth Wright, bassist for John Legend. (Twitter: @KToThaDubya / Instagram: @NSFR). “The most important has been learning ‘live show’ music. Being able to slow down music for transition notes, as well as learning particular parts such as intros and outros, has been an incredible help to me.”
Wright uses Capo to help learn chords and foundation notes with original songs and the auto chord detection makes figuring out chord progressions faster when struggling with the fast-paced deadline of a touring musician.
“Honestly, all of the features that come with Capo are awesome. The note detection feature, coupled with the automatic chord detection can make us unstoppable as a bass player,” added Wright.
You can download a free trial version of Capo 3 at supermegaultragroovy.com/products/Capo/ or at the Mac App Store. The full version is available for $29.99.