Good portable music composition tools?
October 31, 2006 7:45 AM   Subscribe

What are some good portable music composition tools? I'm mostly looking for stuff that would work on a handheld electronic device, but anything that'd fit in a pocket or small bag is fair game.

Usually I just jot down phrases in a moleskine or other handy paper. And then I rarely revisit them. Lately I've been dropping the phrases into Reason on my laoptop, and that seems to get me looking at them again more frequently, but it's a bit cumbersome without a keyboard, and plus, even a laptop is something you don't want to lug everywhere. Hence the interest in handheld devices. However, I'm also interested in non-electronic tips, and I wouldn't mind hearing about software that can run on a laptop if it's extra good at the musical sketchup process and not one of the biggies that everybody knows about (Reason, Logic, DP, etc).
posted by weston to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ableton Live may be considered a biggy, but this video from Telefon Tel Aviv about how they use it on the go was one of the things that sold me on it. Runs very well on my MBP.
posted by Remy at 8:00 AM on October 31, 2006

Check and look for the stuff that's being done with the PSP. IIRC there's a sequencer, drum machine, and many other things already made for it.

Ableton is the most wonderful music making program, ever. Really. But it would probably suck on any currently available really portable device.

Personally, I'm waiting for the PMP craze to bring something like a pocket-sized windows PC (OQO style) down the pipe.
posted by fake at 8:27 AM on October 31, 2006

You say you already use a moleskine. Do you use their music notebook? IANAComposer, but I imagine that it might make things easier to have the staff already written for you, and perhaps having a notebook dedicated specifically to musical stuff would help keep your ideas easily accessible and fresh in your mind. It's certainly more portable than a laptop.
posted by vytae at 8:33 AM on October 31, 2006

I'm a composer and in terms of music note books I don't go anywhere without one of these. I buy a few every time that I go to the UK but that's because I've been too lazy to source anything similar in the US. They used to have a fairly plain cover and I hate the apple bullshit on the new covers but they are very useful notebooks to carry around. I give them as gifts to friends here in the US. Maybe you can find something similar this side of the pond...
posted by ob at 9:31 AM on October 31, 2006

Yamaha used to make these little handheld general MIDI sequencers/workstations with built-in sounds and a built-in keyboard. I've never used one, but they look cool: the QY10, and the QY20.

Ableton Live is great software (I'm a convert from SonicFoundry/Sony Acid) and you have the option of using your computer keyboard as a piano keyboard. So you might want to look into some small, ultralight laptops.
posted by wheat at 10:06 AM on October 31, 2006

The Yamaha boxes have been superseded by the QY70 and now the QY100. Going smaller still would be the old (QY70-era) Roland PMA-5, which is PalmPilot sized. However, if you're going to go Palm, then you might as well get a cheap Zire 21 or something and pick up a copy of Bhajis Loops.
posted by rhizome at 10:21 AM on October 31, 2006

Little Sound DJ is de rigueur for chiptunes musicians, and runs on the very portable and cheap original Game Boy. I've never used it myself, but it seems pretty straigforward sequencing, as long as you don't mind a really tiny UI. It's primarily used for its distinctive sound rather than an easy to use phrase sketching device, but it sure is portable.
posted by Durhey at 12:15 PM on October 31, 2006

Re: Ableton Live: I got the limited copy (Live 4 Lite or something) with the Mbox I bought two years ago. I have to say I like the concept, but I just felt like there was nothing there for MIDI. Has the software moved along, or is MIDI support just better in the full version?

rhizome: Bhajis Loops looks very much along the lines I was originally thinking. Anyone know of other stuff like that? Anything j2me like?

fake: createdigitalmusic looks awesome! The PSP stuff I can find there doesn't look quite so far along -- is there anything in particular you could point me to?

vytae: no, I didn't know Moleskine made those! I'd definitely pick up something like that.

wheat: I'd forgotten about those, but I now remember seeing the Yamaha QY's years ago and thinking those'd be neat. A dedicated handheld tool would be interesting.
posted by weston at 12:36 PM on October 31, 2006

There's nothing electronic (yet) that will let you notate music as fast and as flexibly as pencil & paper. But here are suggestions in both directions:

1) Hand notation: pre-printed music paper is expensive and inflexible, so it's both cheaper and more efficient to print your own. Use any music notation software (I use Sibelius, but shareware or freeware would do the trick for this purpose). Print blank pages, either without clefs for general sketches, or with clefs and the right staff systems if you're working on a particular piece (e.g., if I'm working on a string quartet, I print paper with 4-staff systems and the 4 appropriate clefs & instrument names).

2) Bhajis Loops is head and shoulders above anything else available for a mobile device. It will even handle mixes/collages of short WAV files, up the memory limits of your handheld. I know musicians who've bought Palm devices solely to use BL.
posted by allterrainbrain at 2:10 PM on October 31, 2006

pre-printed music paper is expensive and inflexible, so it's both cheaper and more efficient to print your own. Use any music notation software (I use Sibelius, but shareware or freeware would do the trick for this purpose). has a free customizable staff paper generator (in the utilities dropdown menu).
posted by ludwig_van at 5:59 PM on October 31, 2006

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