Capo 3 Makes Learning Your Favourite Songs Easier

This probably isn’t the first mention of Capo 3 you’ve seen. It’s probably not the first review you’ve seen. But this might be the first review you’ve seen from a guitarist with over a decade of experience with the instrument. I wanted to take my time to make sure that Capo 3 was adequately tested and given a legitimate and fair review from a gigging musician.

Capo has been around for a couple years now, and it’s a well-known and critically-acclaimed tool for learning music. Capo 3 comes with some new features, including automatic beat and chord detection — huge promises that should make guitarists both excited and wary. After all, most of us will know that the promise of an app that can essentially tab a song for us is an intoxicating, and maybe impossible, dream. Read on to find out whether or not Capo 3 does what it claims.

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Picky Design

Capo has always been a good-looking and easy-to-use Mac app. With Capo 3, some minor adjustments to an already-strong foundation make it even better. The app fits in really well the rest of OS X, and it hasn’t adopted anything foolish — there’s no linen or ugly faux textures.

I love the design, which looks professional without losing a playful sense of charm.

I love the design, which looks professional without losing a playful sense of charm.

The app looks professional, like the workhorse it is, but also playful. It’s one of those apps that’s just a joy to tinker with. The animations are precise, but fun, and messing with songs is great. (Adding a song is easy — either open it from the file menu or just click and drag from the finder.) A friend of mine was over, and she doesn’t play guitar, but she was keenly interested in the app after she realized it could change the pitch. (She wanted to hear Justin Timberlake’s voice an octave lower. That was interesting.)

Overall though, what makes the app work is that it doesn’t take long to learn how to use it. It’s simple and intuitive despite its power. Most apps meant for musicians are frankly pretty hideous, so I don’t think I could give it a finer compliment.

Mapping a Song

Let’s spend some time talking about what actually matters — whether or not Cpao 3 accomplishes what it sets out to do. Capo’s goal, when all is said and done, isn’t to automatically reveal the chords of any and every song to you. But it does want to make it easier to hear and learn the music. It wants to help you learn. I’ve used a lot of music apps that say they do this, and rarely are they being honest. Capo’s a bit of a different story.

With "Shuffle Your Feet," Capo didn't detect any chords.

With “Shuffle Your Feet,” Capo didn’t detect any chords.

First, let’s talk a little bit about chord detection. This is a new feature to Capo 3, and one that seems a little too good to be true. It sort of is, in some ways. Most songs are never as simple as “just” a few guitar chords, and since the app doesn’t analyze arpeggios and build chords based on root notes, sometimes you’ll feel robbed. For example, I imported Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Shuffle Your Feet”. The app didn’t reveal many chords, but when I slowed it down, I realized that the guitar parts are actually picked throughout. There isn’t a single chord in the song, but the thick production is deceiving.

Some tracks fared better, but songs usually aren’t simple. That’s why the app’s other features are so important to note. The spectogram, as it’s called, is seriously cool. You can see notes and solos in it, but if you click and drag over them with your mouse, you’ll reveal the tab. After demoing a few tracks, I don’t want to say it’s always accurate. And neither does SuperMegaUltraGroovy, the developer. In fact, they warn you that distorted notes — particularly common in rock solos, of course — could make it more difficult for the app to accurately “read” notes.

I love how you can tab out selections just by clicking and swiping over them.

I love how you can tab out selections just by clicking and swiping over them.

In my professional studio experience, there’s no real way to counteract any of these problems. Distortion is very problematic for any technology. When one of my bands, a hard rock group, was recording in a professional studio, we had some difficulty with my vocals. Given the genre, I barked a lot of the lyrics and really didn’t sing much — think James Hetfield without the whiskey drawl. All musicians use autocorrect, even if it’s just to make sure layered vocal tracks all sound alike, but the autocorrect couldn’t detect the pitch of my voice because of distortion. This was about four years ago — a lifetime in technology — but I haven’t heard anything from any friends to suggest that this problem has been solved. With that in mind, I’m pretty impressed with Capo 3’s solo transcription. Often, it only has to be transposed about an octave — which is very easy to do in-app. So Capo is detecting the proper note, but displaying it an octave too low or high — still very impressive.

Slowing down a song with a complicated intro, like "The Once and Future Carpenter," helps make learning a piece easier.

Slowing down a song with a complicated intro, like “The Once and Future Carpenter,” helps make learning a piece easier.

What’s really impressive to me, though, is the way that the app handles pitch and speed. You can raise or lower the pitch, or speed up or slow down a song. When you slow down a song, the pitch is unaffected. That’s really incredible. Traditionally speaking, slowing down a song also lowers its pitch. Speeding it up raises the pitch. With Capo, this doesn’t happen.

Adjusting pitch doesn’t affect the speed of the song either. So if a song is tuned a half-step lower than standard and you don’t want to adjust your guitar, it’s not hard to quickly fix that in the app without affecting the rest of the song. It’s jaw-dropping, and single-handedly worth the price of entry.

Making adjustments to some areas, even creating and looping regions, is very easy.

Making adjustments to some areas, even creating and looping regions, is very easy.

The app also detects a ton of other things — tempo, time signature, etc. You can change everything, and that’s part of the fun of the app. It doesn’t take long to make adjustments, and that’s when you start to learn. When you slow down the song and make change chords and fix up a tab, the app becomes really useful. This is an app for self-taught people. They’ll learn from it.

When you’re done mapping out a song, you can save your transcription and always keep it on hand. You can share it via Airdrop or email, or whatever’s easiest for you really. And yes, that means it’s easy to collaborate with other people who have Capo 3 and really get into a track. It’s fantastic.

Music to My Ears

An app like this is never going to be perfect. I don’t think any machine can ever be as finely tuned as the human ear. We can hear the smallest imperfections. Expecting an app like Capo 3 to perfectly transcribe a song is a mistake — but what it does do is pretty incredible. The way it teaches music is important. I don’t think musicians learn from anything other than playing music and really learning how to listen to it properly, and Capo allows them to do that at their own pace.

When I was younger and taking guitar lessons, I used to bring my favourite CDs in from my collection and ask my guitar teacher to help me figure it out. He liked doing that because he couldn’t teach me theory; I understood it before the lesson was over and then he felt like he was wasting my money. But teaching me to analyze and really learn music by studying my favourite musicians was something I used to pay a lot of money for on a weekly basis. Capo 3 does it for me, and it’s only $30. If you’re a guitarist, I can’t think of money better spent.


Summary

Capo 3 isn't perfect and doesn't always 100% deliver on its promises, but I'm not sure it could. As it is, I think it's an incredible and highly valuable app for any learning musician.

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