WHEN engineer and software designer Bill Florek of Tallmadge, Ohio, turned 40, his wife, Brenda, sought to widen his middle-age horizons by signing him up for a drumming course.
“She just came home one day about four years ago and told me I had ‘a lesson on Saturday’,” he said.
“When she told me it was a drumming lesson, I was sceptical. Brenda’s been piping for almost 20 years. I used to go with her and hear her play with various bands…we went to Scotland in 2000 and she played in the World Pipe Band Championships and it looked like a good time… but I’m an engineer and software developer; my background is mathematics more than music,” he said.
But he went along to the course.
“And I just loved it,” he said. “I was hooked immediately.”
Bill Florek went home from his first lesson to search the web for resources to help him learn as much as he could about pipe band drumming.
“I found one thing,” he said… “that there’s very little out there.” So he began writing his own resource.
Four years later, the outcome is a commercial product, Drum Note Pro 2.0, which reflects Bill Florek’s background in high tech, He holds patents as a designer for a number of electronic products; he has developed power supply and lighting circuits for high speed cameras on assembly lines, and electronic circuitry for applications from music to factory automation. He has written very large pieces of business software, and software that goes onto microchips. He is senior developer and analyst for Professional Receivables Control (PRC), a medical billing company that handles insurance and medical billing facilities for doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, radiology groups, surgeons and other clients.
“Naturally I felt what better way was there to not only learn about this particular style of music than to do the research on it and write a piece of software to deal with it,” he said.
“I began using little stick figures, working with some friends of mine who were in the same boat as me, just starting out with the 87th Cleveland Pipe Band’s grade 5 drum corps… mind you, I was 40 and they were about 12.”
It was fun, and the project soon evolved into a basic drum music writing programme. “It let you to take handwritten music and turn it into something legible,” said Bill Florek. “Something I really hated was, when I received a piece of music from my instructor, all I had was these scribbles all over a page and I couldn’t tell what was what.”
From the start, he took a different approach to the task.
“All of the music writing software out there that I could find uses fonts to generate their notes. All of my notes are generated using graphics — every note and embellishment, you name it, everything is done using primitive graphics: lines, circles, dots, rectangles, and uses some high-end mathematics to calculate sizes, meeting points, and so-on and stores all that information in a large database.
“So there are no text files out there. You can organise all your scores into score books so that if you want to keep last year’s medleys separate from this year’s medleys, you just create a new score book and keep them intact that way. They could even be the same score with a few minor changes but, because they’re in different books, they have no conflict.
“And they’re very compact that way. The average score, if you were to export it, will take up something like 25 kilobytes — but in a stored format in the database 25 kb will get you somewhere around 20-22 scores.
“It’s actually a relational database.”
But it also bothered the mathematically-minded Bill Florek that note values did not add up as they should.
“I believe it’s a problem with most writers who write their own scores — that they’re not 100 per cent musically correct,” he said.
So he incorporated an analysis tool into his programme that tells a user which bar or possibly note is off — and by how much on each measure — and gives hints for correcting it.
“I make it mathematically correct,” he said. “A 4/4, for example, has four beats to the bar and, in each of those four beats you generally have four quarter notes. I take it down to what I call ‘MIDI timing’ — a playback timing used with a MIDI-type output device that provides a finer resolution: 120 ‘ticks’ per beat, independent of the number of beats per minute.
“At that resolution, I can subdivide each note down to levels that very little other software achieves, unless you get up to the bigger, high-end orchestral software like Finale or Sibelius. Most other software simply counts the dots and cuts and pairs them up measure by measure. If you have equal amounts of both, you’re told it’s okay.
“But actually, if you’ve dotted an eighth note and cut a 16th note, for example, you’re off on your time — over, by about one and a half sixteenths.
“Drum Note takes not only the note values into account but also the timings and style you’re playing in. If you alter the style of music, where your dots and cuts are no longer equal to a 50 per cent timing — as in Scottish music where triplet timing is popular — Drum Note takes that into account and alters it accordingly so that, if you put dots and cuts within a triplet and outside of the triplet, it will still tell you how off you are.”
In the three years that the first version was around, Drum Note evolved from stick figures and print on a piece of paper, into what some people are telling Bill Florek is one of the best pieces of software created for drum music.
“I had many requests to expand it to allow, for example, multiple scores to be created on screen simultaneously — almost in an orchestral style format. The new version lets you open up as many editor windows as you’ll need,” he said. “Most folk are using one snare, two or three tenors and a bass, and you can create scores for each on screen at the same time and reference all of the scores against each other.
“Drum Note saves the scores for each instrument independently so each score is its own entity. That way, you’re not in an orchestral style of format where everything is locked down to having a particular number of instruments in the corps: you can print or work on each score separately.”
The new software also allows the embellishments of a full score to be selectively turned off, so that stepped exercises can be generated that lead from a simplified first practice version to the full final performance version, without needing to re-write the score.
Playback options let users hear how individual scores will sound, any combination of scores, or the full drum corps.
The programme uses MIDI sound: “whatever your sound card supports, that’s what the playback is,” said Bill Florek, “and, unless you have a very old laptop, any computer can play it back as long as it has a sound card.
“On the CD, with the application is a link to the Polyhedric Software website. They produced a free piece of software called MIDI-night Express, which lets you take MIDI files, and use sampled sounds. With it, you can record one tap of whatever you want to use as a playback instrument and it will play back the MIDI file using that sampled sound as a playback medium. You could create a Premier sound, a Pearl sound, and Andante sound…
“When I create the MIDI file, everything is based of taps: a single tap is exactly that, a flam is two taps with varying volumes and varying time delays between them, a buzzed roll is nothing more than multiple taps decaying in volume over time, and so on. Every pierce of noise I create is exactly a set of taps that are varied volume, duration and time. ”
Now the drum sergeant of his grade 5 band, Bill Florek is still improving his software, and is working on plug-ins to create orchestral style printouts with the different parts appearing one beneath the other. “That way, the lead tip has one page to look at instead of having to scan across five different sets of music.
“Another plug-in will let you lay down the structure of a score before you start composing it, and specify the format; an AABA type of play, for example, where you’re playing the first part twice and the second part once the first time through, but the second time through you go back to the first part.
“Many drum scores have repeating elements in them — the ending may be the same on all four parts if it’s a four-parted march — so, for example, you’ll be able to specify at the start that you want a 4/4 with four parts, four measures to each part and all repeated; they all have a pick-up note at the beginning of each part, let’s say, and the second and fourth measures of each part will be the same … then, when you then go in and start laying down the notes, as soon as you place anything in the second or fourth measures, since these need to be identical, it will fill in the duplicated measures, automatically generating them on down into all of the others.”
Further down the line will be software that will interpolate pipe and drum scores for integrated playback, and print piping scores…
Like Bill Florek’s hands-on work with his youthful drum corps, Drum Note is a work in progress.
And the corps is not doing too badly. The 87th Cleveland Pipe Band’s grade 5 band won the Canadian championships in June last year, and the grade 2 band won the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association’s title.