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.
This device goes part of the way, however Bluetooth I see as a weakness, in that it can randomly lose connectivity even at close range. Sleep mode would also have to be disabled within the app running the display. It’s good they’ve taken measures to prevent the device sliding across the floor, a constant bugbear with portable electronic sustain pedals like the M-Audio one pictured.
I’ve dreamed for years of having an iPad orchestra, where my conductor score displays on an A3 iPad, and the players on A4 or B4 iPads, such that all players and the conductor score autoscroll when the conductor calls out a rehearsal cue and this to match with video if recording a movie score. I would also like players to be able to view in situ playback of what they’ve just recorded in sync with the movie, as I usually invite players in at the end of a session to have a quick listen and that becomes very crowded in the control room.
This gadget is quite pricey too, and I think would sell better for, say, £30 – then you can shrug your shoulders less arthritically if it’s not 100%.
Great gadget. Thanks for posting. A little overpriced.
I agree that the weakness of Bluetooth is the loss of connectivity – this has happened to me twice in performance, once with near disastrous results.
I have switched to the BiLiPro Page Turner pedals ($50) which, with the included USB cable, connects directly to an iPad via Apple’s iPad Camera Connection kit. The design of the pedals makes them easier to find with the foot and they also light up which makes them easy to see under the piano. The BiLiPro have worked flawlessly for me so far.
Finally, after experimenting with various music reader programs, I’ve settled on “forScore” ($7 from the App Store) which turns pages almost instantaneously and also allows for half-page turns. I’ve had no problems with PDFs that I’ve scanned and loaded into the program via Dropbox or iTunes.
I have a BT-105 and really like it. One thing to be aware of – Airturn sells an iOS framework that works with iOS to interface to provide virtual keyboard, popover and modal view control:
However, not all developers are interested in implementing (read: pay for) something that will improve user experience. iPad developers like iGigBook have written their own frameworks which require crazy workarounds for certain operations, such as requiring the user to turn the BT-105 off temporarily to access the keyboard to do a song search, for instance.
I wish that developers such as iGigBook that currently claim Airturn “compatibility” would actually offer full implementation of the Airturn SDK. Nothing ruins user experience more than a few frustrating minutes on a rehearsal or gig trying to get your iPad’s keyboard to show on screen so you can find a song quickly.
On their end, if Airturn could afford to do so, it would be great to see them step up and offer their SDK to developers in a more compelling / affordable way, so everyone using an Airturn product has the same experience.
As Welby mentions above, forScore is an example of an iPad app that fully supports the Airturn SDK, and everyone I’ve talked to recommends it highly.
The only caveat for new customers who own an older iPad, is you won’t be able to run forScore, which currently require iOS7 or later.
Good points Robert:
I too use the BT-105, and really like it.
And like Philip, I had a bit of a learning curve when I first started using it. When I play live, I’m usually the Music Director and Bassist…and often also a BG Vocalist, so I have a lot going on, including conducting cues and cutoffs. Turning pages with Scorch is a bit slow, and in the early builds of Scorch it was extremely slow.
Early on I started using “Deep Dish GigBook”
GigBook is an excellent PDF reader, with almost instantaneous page turns. It also allows markup, using your finger or a stylus.
I was also an early tester of the Bili Footime page turner, but did not like the wired setup with the USB cable and the required iPad Photo/USB adapter. I keep moving too close to the iPad and the USB cable – which stuck out several inches – would touch my Bass or Guitar strings.
For me, the BT-105 has been the ticket.
Every once in a while, you might need to re-pair the Bluetooth connection, but that’s no big deal.
The battery lasts a long time, and I always have a backup battery charger in my gig bag anyway.
I am the developer of iGigBook and we do not claim to be compatible with Air Turn. You don’t see anywhere on our website or anywhere on our support forum where we make that claim. iGigBook does support turning pages backwards and forwards by the use of the up and down arrow keys of a bluetooth keyboard. The Airturn pedal emulates a keyboard and when paired with your device that’s what your device thinks it is which is also why it doesn’t display the soft keyboard. And yes, we haven’t purchased their “SDK. Why? It should be free because the use of it by a developer benefits them in a huge way. Because of this we created our own hands free page turning solution in the form of a free app called iGigBook Pager. This app allows you to use an iPhone or an iPod as a hand free page turning device, which is great if you own an iPhone or an iPod because you don’t have to spend any additional money and get an additional benefit from your device.
I looked for the iGigBook Pager for my iPhone, and it is not FREE like you said. It now costs $.99
I have been using both the Air Turn and the Page Flip Cicada, and so far preferred the 4 pedal Air Turn. While usually two pedals are good enough for paging forward/backward, I have found it invaluable to also be able to immediately skip to the next song. Typically due to running out of time and getting the call to leave a few songs out.
So, the way I use it is two pedals for page up, page down, one for skip to next song and one for starting/stopping the metronome (for count off). This was very easy to set up on my Samsung Tab (running the excellent Fakebook app BTW, http://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.skrivarna.fakebook.android ).
Another thing: when will there be good pedals using Bluetooth LE?
The Airturn page turner does not work with Sheet Music Direct on an iPad running iOS 9. This is a sheet music direct problem and they seem in no rush to fix it. I have invested a lot of money in music from these guys and am not sure what to do now!
The air turner B105 do not work with the Ipad IOs9 en Goodreader. A lot of money for nothing. The stores sells and say everthing works.
Such a shame!!!!!!!!!!!
My issue was eventually traced to a problem with my ap (Sheet Music Direct) running ios9. The BT105 does work with the ipad in ios9 on other apps. Something to try is whether you can the page turner to work in ‘Notes’ where you should be able to make the cursor go up and down the lines of a note.