Transcribing popular music is largely a behind-the-scenes affair. While not completely anonymous—I usually get a byline—the artists whose intellectual property I render into sheet music receive the praise and credit for their art and really, that's the way it should be and I'm fine with that. Occasionally, however, I do receive correspondence from a reader or musician whom I don't know, and I'm always humbled when it happens.
Last week, I was surprised to receive an email from Ben Frankis, a student at the Academy of Contemporary Music in England. He's finishing up his studies in Guitar there and is writing a thesis on transcribing, a pursuit he's entertaining as a source of income. As part of his research, he asked if I would answer some questions about transcribing and how I go about it. His questions are, I feel, good ones for anyone who is seriously considering doing work as a professional transcriber; so I asked for his permission to post the questions and answers here and he consented. Here are his questions and my answers:
Ben Frankis: Have you received formal music training, if so what?
David Stocker: The first formal training I received was in a Classical Guitar class I took in 7th Grade. After I moved to Central Virginia with my family in '89, I was mostly self-taught. By 'self taught', I mean that I spent hours upon hours in my room learning by ear (I didn't realize it at the time, but these would prove to be my formative years—learning by rote the songs and techniques of my favorite guitarists). In my Senior Year at High School, I took a Music Theory class (the only formal music class I took between Middle School and College). Throughout High School and College, I played in bands in the Richmond area.
After High School, I began studies at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Music, where I eventually earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Classical Guitar Performance. In that time, I also studied Piano, Jazz Guitar, Music Theory and Music History (as well as Philosophy and Religion). I graduated in 1998.
After VCU, I spent about 18 mo. at Arizona State University studying Music Education. Ultimately, I settled on music publishing and discontinued my studies.
BF: How did you start to transcribe professionally?
DS: In the Spring of 2001, while I was teaching private guitar lessons, I started emailing editors of guitar magazines, inquiring about working as a freelance transcriber. I had always been able to learn recorded music by careful listening and experimentation, and so was confident in my ability to do it for work. After sending in samples of transcriptions and getting some feedback from editors, I began to receive assignments from publishers.
BF: Do you use any software or tools to help you work out a piece of music and/or to notate it, if so what?
DS: I use a program called Transcribe! to assist in the work of transcribing. The program allows you to slow down recordings, isolate right or left channels, loop sections of the recording and has a number of other useful features. Most of my transcriptions are hand-written. When I do engravings, I use Finale, Sibelius or LilyPond depending on the client. I recommend LilyPond to clients, especially for Classical music engravings because of the high quality output it produces.
BF: Do you have a set process when transcribing?
DS: When I start on a transcription, the first thing I do is load the sound file in Transcribe! Then, I listen to the entire track 2 times through. On the third pass, I start adding markers and text blocks to the transcription file. The markers help me to navigate through different sections of the song quickly. I use the text blocks to label sections and add details about what is happening with the music, like what instruments are playing and when they come in, their orientation in the stereo image, etc.
BF: To what extent should a guitarist be stylistically and technically proficient if they want to work as a professional transcriber?
DS: It's important to know the range of the guitar and be familiar with the various tunings modern guitarists are using. I'd estimate that about 1/2 to 2/3 of all the music I transcribe is in some derivative of standard tuning. The rest is in something else, mostly Drop D, but there are several others that pop up now and then—open tunings, DADGAD or what have you. Open tunings are especially prominent in styles where there is a lot of slide playing like in Blues or American Country music.
A working knowledge of various guitar techniques—picking styles, harmonics, fingerstyle, capo usage, etc.—is essential. It's also good to have experience with the various effects and signal processors in wide usage today. A good grasp of Music Theory is also important. Most of the music I transcribe is in traditional "guitar keys" like A, E and D minor or C, G, A, D or E major. Occasionally you get something less common like B major or G minor, so it's good to be flexible and to be able to think in all keys. Having some knowledge of modern studio recording techniques is a plus.
As for styles, the most important thing is to approach new music with the mind of a beginner and not to assume too much from the outset. It's critical that you can identify and reproduce the sounds you hear on a recording. Usually, the technical aspects of a given style are readily apparent, but that's not always the case. Nailing down techniques in a style that you're unfamiliar with often means doing some research, which usually means watching video of live performances.
BF: What do you consider to be the most important skills required in transcribing?
DS: Being able to cut through effects and draw out the notes. Listening for tone differences and being able to identify by sound what kind of instrument someone is playing and what kinds of effects they're using. Fluency with music notation and terminology. And of course, technical proficiency on the instrument you're transcribing for.
BF: What advice do you have for someone pursuing a career as a professional transcriber?
DS: Learn to play a lot of music by listening to it. Strive to emulate your favorite players and styles, but also, don't be afraid of trying something new now and then. Become a proficient sight-reader.
BF: Why do think you have been able to have a successful career transcribing?
DS: I've been successful because I don't let go of a transcription until I know I've done everything I can to make it the best that I possibly can. My process is under a continual process of refinement. I like to try new things and I've learned to keep what works and shed what doesn't. I also have a policy of total honesty with my clients with regard to deadlines and my own capabilities. Potential employers appreciate when you're honest with them, even when sometimes you just want to tell them what they want to hear in order to get the job. In a real work environment, where there are real deadlines, it's important to be realistic about work quality and time frames, so that the ones who are depending on you can in turn be depended upon.