When a soloist and an accompanying pianist rehearse for a recital, typically a great deal of care goes into each note, phrase, and nuance. Tempos, dynamics and balance are all carefully prepared, and the players may even coordinate their wardrobes in advance. But even if the soloist has memorized her music, the matter of turning pages for the accompanist is often an afterthought until moments before the players take the stage, when the colleague in closest proximity is cajoled into serving as the page turner with promises of eternal appreciation (and more convincingly, free beer).
Page turning, though, is not a trivial matter. The page turner can get lost in an unfamiliar score; an ill-timed turn can wreak havoc; the pages are noisy; reaching across a large score is awkward; and on and on. At least once I’ve seen a page turner on autopilot take a bow at the end of the concert alongside the performers.
From a music preparation standpoint, page turns are a telltale sign that separate pros from amateurs. Finding a good page turn in music, while maintaining readability, proper layout and note spacing can be a challenge.
AirTurn, Inc., a Colorado-based company that specializes in hands-free wireless page turning devices, has spent a great deal of time and investment contemplating these issues, and how to improve them through technology. Their products include a range of foot pedals, handheld remotes, holders, stands, and accessories, all designed to address the seemingly perfunctory but critical need for pages to appear at the exact time needed by the user, without interruption of the task at hand.
The company sent me their integrated 2-switch foot pedal product to evaluate. The pre-assembled unit includes the BT-105 Bluetooth transceiver on a pedal board, two ATFS-2 pedals, and a mini-USB charging cable. It retails for $120 in the US and can be ordered directly from AirTurn’s online store, or from retailers like Amazon, Guitar Center, Sweetwater, and others. A 4-pedal unit is also available for $160. Read on for more details and further impressions.
Specs and setup
The product itself is relatively small: total dimensions are 3.75” W x 7” L x 0.75” H. The unit weighs about 9 ounces, and grips the floor securely with eight small feet glued onto the underside of the pedal board.
I tested the BT-105 with a third-generation iPad running iOS 7.1.1. Pairing the unit with the iPad was easy: I turned on the BT-105 by pressing its small red power switch, then navigated to the Bluetooth page in the iPad’s Settings app. Once the iPad discovered the AirTurn after a few seconds, it appeared under the “Devices” list. Tapping on it completed the pairing process. The printed manual included with the BT-105 describes how to reset the pairing and how to troubleshoot any problems.
Once paired, the LED on the AirTurn unit will blink. The unit will remain powered on until either manually switched off, or it will automatically turn off three minutes after the host computer/tablet is turned off. If the unit is turned on while it is charging, the LED on the device will indicate the status of the charge with a solid color of green, yellow or red. The company says that the BT-105 should last 100 hours on a full charge, and that the battery should last 3-5 years with about 1500 recharge cycles, although I did not test those claims.
Using the BT-105
There are many apps that are compatible with AirTurn’s products — so many, in fact, that it’s hard to know where to start. AirTurn has an exhaustive guide for iPad, iPhone/iTouch, and Android users, and there is a page that attempts to make recommendations based on your self-described characteristics and needs. I did not have a chance to try or even peruse the vast majority of the apps, so I worked with what I already had installed on my iPad: Hal Leonard’s Sheet Music Direct, Avid’s Scorch (soon to be rebranded “Sibelius | Reader”), and MakeMusic’s Finale SongBook. (Although I did not have a chance to try it, AirTurn’s Dave Tamkin recommended the $13 OnSong for iOS as a full-featured app geared especially for bands and worship musicians; it manages collections of chord charts, lyrics sheets, and set lists, and it can support a wide variety of file types.)
Using the BT-105 with each of these apps was simple in principle. You depress the right pedal to turn a page forward, and the left pedal to turn a page back. For me, pressing a foot pedal to turn a page was actually not as easy as I thought it would be. It’s not that the AirTurn unit didn’t work well — it did — but for my entire life, turning a page has been done with my hands by physically touching a page, clicking with a mouse, or swiping on a tablet. Foot tapping, in my mind and muscle memory, corresponded to rhythm-keeping or to using the sustain pedal. So new pathways in my brain had to be paved to equate foot motion with page turning. It took some time, but with practice I eventually got the hang of it.
Technically, the BT-105 is just an external Bluetooth keyboard, as far as the iPad is concerned. If, in the middle of your rehearsal, you want to dash off an e-mail or reply to a text, you’ll find that the on-screen virtual keyboard has been disabled. To toggle the virtual keyboard, you must quickly press the power switch on the BT-105.
The mechanism of the BT-105 is completely silent. There are no moving parts; the plastic hinge senses when you’ve pressed your foot to the pedal, and there is a “debounce filter” to prevent multiple page turns. This worked well, but some trial and error time should be budgeted for as you learn exactly how sensitive the unit is, and what degree of pressure you can apply to get consistent results.
Ideally you’d use the BT-105 while completely seated or completely standing, and in those cases it is naturally positioned on the floor. I brought it along to try it out during a rehearsal that I was conducting, but realized that it would be difficult to use while sitting on a high stool where my feet didn’t quite reach the floor.
Making the jump to digital sheet music
The responsiveness of the iPad software and hardware is another variable. When using Sheet Music Direct to view PDFs that I had scanned, it sometimes took a full two seconds for the page to completely render in the app. PDFs created directly from a notation program loaded faster, but still not as instantaneously as I might have expected. The same issue happened occasionally with Sibelius files that I viewed in Scorch. Sometimes the page loaded right away, and sometimes it took more time than I would have liked. Viewing Finale files in SongBook worked the best for me, and I liked the animation of one page moving to the next, but the SongBook app has still not been updated for Retina devices, making readability a challenge.
To be clear, as far as I could tell, the delays were all on the iPad side; the AirTurn unit was communicating instantly with the iPad. And to be fair, my iPad is two years old, and I didn’t try other apps which may have worked better for PDFs. But since no other app besides Scorch can read native Sibelius files (and likewise for MakeMusic’s Finale SongBook), if you plan on using those file types on your iPad with an AirTurn unit, it’s a relevant factor.
The other major factor is the entire notion of reading music in a rehearsal or performance setting on a screen that is only about 65% of the size of a sheet of 9” x 12” paper (a standard size for printed music), to say nothing of the differences between annotating a digital file and marking up paper with pencil. AirTurn’s co-founder, pianist Hugh Sung, has devoted an incredible amount of thought and energy to trying to solve these problems, and has written a 366-page book on the subject called From Paper to Pixels, which is available on AirTurn’s web site for $20 (paperback) or $10 (e-book). I’d suggest that the e-book version be included for free with any AirTurn purchase, as any loss of sales from the e-book could likely be offset by greater adoption of the company’s products.
When using the AirTurn BT-105 in a gig where you would be reading familiar melodies, chord symbols and lyrics, it is the ideal device to be paired with a music app on a tablet, since the display size is less of a limitation than it would be for reading detailed music notation. With respect to the latter, the AirTurn BT-105 is a product that is just slightly ahead of its time. It does its job given the limitations of the third-party technology with which it must work.
Of course, technology is constantly evolving, and rumors of a 13-inch iPad Pro are swirling, so it’s only a matter of time before a usable screen size emerges on a tablet that’s comparable to a full-size sheet of music paper. The speed of the OS and usability of the apps will also eventually improve to make reading music and turning pages more natural than it is now. When those improvements appear in time, AirTurn’s products will be at the ready.