Transcribing used to fill me with dread. It took too long and I’d always get stuck. When I was in college I’d hear stories about the guys who could transcribe big band charts in an hour while watching TV. I couldn’t even write in all the notes in an hour. Maybe I just didn’t have the ear for it. I hated it.
A few years ago I got asked to do a whole slew of transcriptions for a salsa band. I needed the money. But I was far from confident.
Have a system that covers everything, and just follow your system. Do not over-think it.
- Load up the tune in your audio player of choice. I use Transcribe!, but there are many others. The features you need are marking sections, creating repeats, and slowing down the track.
- Mark all the sections and repeats. The easiest place to start. Transfer your markings over to Finale or Sibelius. Now you’ve got a template.
- Start Transcribing One Instrument at a Time. Start with the bass, then do the lead voices for each section, then the piano chords, then the section voicings. Don’t start with the piano or an entire section. It’s too much to do all at once, and mistakes made here compound later. The lead lines are easy to hear, and often spell out the harmony for you.
- Check Your Assumptions. The most common problem is assuming the harmony is going somewhere it actually isn’t. Take breaks. Don’t rush through it.
- Print and Play Along. Always print your parts out and play along with the recording. Minor mistakes become extremely obvious when printed, and I’ve caught many “cut and paste” errors this way.
Using this system has made transcribing has gone from a chore to being…
fun, pleasant, worry-free … much less daunting.