by Paul Kucharski
last update Feb. 2004
This review is intended to accomplish a few things. First and foremost I want it to be an information resource to guitar players who are looking for TAB software to use for their compositions. Secondly, I'd like to use it as a way to provide visibility to the great software vendors out there who are creating alternatives to the grossly inadequate ASCII TAB that permeates the web these days. As anyone who has ever tried to learn some music from ASCII TAB already knows, it provides no timing information. If you haven't already heard the piece of music, there is not enough information in ASCII TAB to figure out how to play it. These software packages will at least allow the author to convey the timing of the piece along with the fingering.
Here you will find my assessment of what I believe to be the best of the low cost packages on the market; all of which I have personally used. They are all Windows based software except for TablEdit which now offers a version for the Mac. All four share one common overriding and compelling feature:
.... they are low cost with superior functionality!
Which package is best for you of course depends upon what you are trying to accomplish. Each has their particular strengths, so you just need to decide which strengths match up best with your particular goals. For example, if standard notation is not important to you, you can focus on only the TAB features of these packages. Or, you may have an extensive set of ASCII TAB files you created and want to be able to import those files to avoid having to re-enter them all by hand, then this becomes a must have feature. If your goal is to generate MIDI output files rather than obtain printed documents, then focus on which generates the best MIDI and place less emphasis on print quality. Lastly, if you want very detailed control over the notation and are willing to accept a more complicated interface to get it, then you need to focus on the degree of edit ability they provide.
I personally have found good reasons to have any one of them as you'll see when you read the overviews. It's like looking in your toolbox for a wrench; an adjustable wrench could be made to work reasonably well for most bolts, but using a wrench specifically sized for that bolt makes the job considerably easier.
So, without further ado, here they are:
Unlike the overly expensive professional notation packages that implemented TAB as an afterthought (with most of these you enter everything in standard notation and the TAB is generated later), with the packages below you can enter the TAB directly and the standard notation is generated automatically (what a concept..eh Encore?). What's great about this is when you're working in new and unfamiliar open tunings. I find it a huge hindrance to have to know the fretboard well enough to mentally convert to standard notation before you can capture something in a new tuning.
With these packages you just tell them what tuning you are using, enter the TAB and the standard notation falls out as part of the process. Now, if you want, you can go back and edit the standard notation to suite your needs without ever having to figure out the whole fretboard first.
But also, there are many musicians who don't know standard notation and don't want to take the time to learn it. With these packages, you can simply ignore or turn off the standard notation and just work in a pure TAB environment. You get the best of both worlds and you don't have to climb that standard notation hill to get started.
I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say this package is just outstanding and it just gets better and better with every release. TablEdit is a fully featured TAB and Standard Notation package from France that is powerful and easy to use; a real bargain for $50. Because of the TAB is displayed, it's easy to see the different note duration's on a beat even if the standard notation is turned off. TablEdit accurately reflects these different duration's in the MIDI output so a fingerstyle piece that has independent bass and melody lines, will be accurately reproduced. Also, if you notate an embellishment like a bend, slide, or brush, the MIDI output will emulate the sound appropriately. The software also allows you to organize the playback with what it calls a "reading list" to take into account repeats, Codas, and playing instructions so that the MIDI is recorded exactly as it would be played....nice touches that makes the MIDI output one of its biggest strengths. Listen to my arrangement for Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" as produced by TablEdit. To get an idea of what a printout would look like, here's the Standard Notation and TAB (.pdf 91K) for "Over the Rainbow" as generated by TablEdit.
Floating toolbars are provided to facilitate selecting notes and duration's, dynamics, embellishments, and some of the more common operations like changing time signatures on a measure. I particularly like the fact that it can notate grace notes (which play back correctly in MIDI).
Another nice feature is the Chord Builder. This dialog box allows you to construct a chord by diagram and insert it into the notation. When the insert is complete, the chord diagram, TAB, and standard notation are all inserted. So you only need to define the chord once and you get all three entries together. The reverse is also true, as you enter TAB, the software is always searching for the correct chord in the background and when it finds a match in its library, the diagram is inserted automatically.
Along with the ability to import/export ASCII and MIDI files, if you have work done in "Buckett oTab" or Tabestry, it's able to open these files also.
Last but not least, because it comes from Europe, it supports multiple languages. This is something I'm sad to say is rarely done in American made software.
Did I mention I really like this package! I plan to do a lot more with this software in the near future. If you need standard notation with TAB and good MIDI output is important, this package should be your top choice. A demo is available so you can try it for yourself. If you do decide to buy it, please tell them you found out about it here.
Since the initial review of this package was written in 1998, TablEdit has add such an impressive list of new features it would take far too long to describe them all. So what I will do is just mention some of the additions I was elated to see.
a. A fretboard display which shows the tab on the fretboard
b. A full screen work space. Instead of the original single line scrolling edit system, the software takes advantage of the entire display screen (a great improvement).
c. Track window to help you see were you are in the overall notation and the ability to quickly move to a particular measure.
d. Multiple files open at once. This makes it possible to cut and paste between files.
e. They also now offer a free viewer program that allows anyone who downloads a TablEdit file to view, listen to, and print it without having to purchase the editor itself. To me this shows a tremendous commitment to the TablEdit user base.
This $50 Windows based package just keeps getting better and better. As of their latest release they now also display standard notation with the TAB. I use it primarily now for arranging music and every time a new version comes out, I continue to be amazed at how much better it gets.
If you're still notating in ASCII TAB, you'll never go back after using this package for an hour (and it imports ASCII Tab and MIDI, so you won't even loose your work!). This package excels in ease of use. I've used this package for many months and have yet to look at the help files... it's very intuitive ... I can whole-heartedly recommend it.
It's best feature has always been a very powerful chord wizard. You can include these diagrams into your Tab, but this isn't what's so special about this feature. After you enter your TAB on a particular beat, just double click on any of the notes and the chord wizard pops up. The first thing it does is analyze the notes entered on that beat and attempts to identify the chord (it automatically takes into account what tuning you are using also).
First of all, if you don't know what chord you just entered, it'll tell you what it thinks it is and all it's alternate names. Second, if you want to explore other possible fingerings, it'll provide a bunch of diagrams for all the other chord positions and voicings for that chord all the way up the fretboard. Let's say you discover that you can finger the same chord much easier on the 5th fret, just select the alternate diagram and then go back to change the TAB to reflect your new fingering. This is a great resource for composing or arranging! I wonder how I ever got along without it.
Another useful feature is its ability to optimize fingerings. Suppose you found this great MIDI tune and you want to figure out how to play it. Set up Guitar Pro for your best guess at a tuning and then import the file. Then tell Guitar Pro to optimize the fingering. If that tuning doesn't appear to suit the music, change the tuning and import the file again. You can keep doing this until you find a tuning that works best.
But even if you don't notate your own music, it's worth getting just to be able to view the very extensive library of TAB files they offer on their web site. They recently did an excellent job at reorganizing this library and now it's far easier to find that tune you were dying to learn!
And last but not least, because it comes from Europe, it supports multiple languages...this is something I'm sad to say is rarely done in American made software.
A Demo is available for download, so you can try before you buy. If you do decide to buy it, please tell them you found out about it here
MusEdit is a Windows based TAB and Standard Notation package. As its name implies, this package can best be called a Music Editor; like a word processor for music. You have total control over everything entered on the page. If detailed and accurate standard notation is important to you, this software's greatest strength is the degree of control you have over the notation. Also, if you want to be able to notate things like lyrics or piano scores along with the guitar parts, this software was specifically designed to deal with complicated multi-line scores.
They are now on version 3.7 and many new features have been added since this original review. One of more powerful features that has always set this package apart from the others is the ability to create complicated scores with multiple instruments.
But what I find most valuable is just being able to construct and combine a melody line in standard notation with lyrics, and then add the guitar accompaniment in standard notation, Tab, and chord diagrams. This is something currently impossible in the other packages right now. If you write songs and want to transcribe the whole thing to sheet music, this is the package you want to consider.
One of the features that is also found in TablEdit and GuitarPro that is very useful, is the ability to translate TAB fingerings to different tunings. The tuning translation is also done intelligently in that it attempts to keep the fingerings as close to the original fret positions as possible.
What else is cool is its ability to take a piano score with treble and bass clefs and translate it to TAB. This has always been a difficult exercise because many of the bass notes on a piano score can't be played on a guitar. But with MusEdit, you can tell it to shift bass notes up an octave on translation. Usually that will get the notes into the guitar's range and then you can play with the arrangement from there. This makes it a lot easier to arrange a piece written for piano and adapt it for guitar.
Another strong point of this package is the quality of the output. Take a look at their examples page to see what kind of notation you can create.
MusEdit also has a small but growing library of user submitted TAB files you can download as well. Many of these are very well done!
I would have to say from a feature standpoint, it is on par with the much more expensive notation packages like Encore or Finale but only costs $79 - including a very extensive and well written manual.
Check out the demo version for yourself.
Feb. 2004 update:
StringWalker is apparently being replaced with a new software called Django, that provides better support for multiple instrument scores and notation, as well as full-page input. But it does not appear to be available yet. The last update to this software was in 2001.
Here is another contender for the low cost Standard Notation and TAB packages. I haven't used this package as extensively as the others yet, but what I can tell you is that it is a full featured TAB and standard notation package on par with any of the packages described here. I believe that this package would appeal particularly to those who are notating classical or baroque music for lute or classical guitar. The reason I say this is that it has the unique ability to notate TAB in 3 different styles: Italian, French, and Modern. This feature would be highly desirable to those who are notating older classical pieces because they can give the notation the look appropriate for the period in which the music originated. The demo page has a couple of great example screen shots that illustrate this pretty well.
One of the strong points of this package is the versatility it has for notating different kinds of instruments since it can notate for instruments with as many as 16 strings and up to 24 frets. It also allows for notation in 5 different clefs to support a wide variety of instrument notation. So if you have a tune written for a lute, cittern or bandora, look no futher, here is a package made just for you!
Another important feature is that it has full multimedia support with the ability to both play the notation back in MIDI and to export it to a file. Of course, the big advantage of this is that you can hear how it suppose to sound as well as be able to create MIDI files of your work. You can also import MIDI files, so if you find a classical piece you really want to learn, just import it and take a look at the TAB that the software generates. Last, but not least, it has the ability to transpose a piece to different keys or different tunings; extremely useful when arranging music for different instruments.
They also offer a library of Stringwalker TAB files, currently numbering around 120. Many of these are compositions for the lute or classical guitar.
You can download a demo and try it for yourself. If you like it, registration is $60 which includes ALL future upgrades.