Good apps for musicians that don’t cost an arm and a leg are hard to come by on the Mac — perhaps owing to the fact that Apple provides a fine one with every computer in GarageBand. But there’s no one-size-fits-all music creation apps, since we all have different needs and use cases.
Tabular bridges the two core prongs of creating music. It’s a composition and notation app, suited to writing and editing music for multiple instruments with both tablature and the modern stave/staff format. But it’s also a MIDI reader and a practice tool, specifically geared toward — but not limited to only — guitarists and drummers.
Despite the name, Tabular is nothing like ChordMate — which we recently reviewed. It fills a different purpose in the guitarist’s arsenal, and I’d suggest would actually be a fantastic complement to that other app.
Tabular is rather more comparable to a stripped-down Guitar Pro or to the long-running Finale NotePad and Finale SongWriter — only more geared toward guitarists and people uncomfortable with standard notation (in the absence of accompanying tablature, at least).
Tabular’s composition tools pale in comparison to most professional suites, but they are intuitive and perfectly serviceable for whipping together quick ensemble arrangements — they’re more than you’re likely to ever need transcribing your favorite songs by ear. Most common division, measure, and note markings are present — although I was confused at the absence of crescendo/decrescendo (there’s only fade in/fade out and standard dynamics for indicating volume).
Learn by Osmosis
If you never learned to read sheet music, the dual setup of staff and tab could prove to be the best teacher you could hope for. Tabular shows both forms of notation in parallel, so you’re likely to learn what all those squiggles and scribbles mean with only the slightest effort.
If you’re completely clueless when it comes to music theory, pay close attention to the excellent tutorial — which walks you through not just the basics of using the app, but also the fundamental concepts you need to grasp before you can get anywhere.
There are seven exercise sets for guitarists to enjoy, covering scales, picking, warm-ups, and right and left-hand fingering. The built-in practice tools come in most handy here, allowing you to play along with virtual instruments and to speed up or slow down the tempo.
Tabular offers incremental speed ups on looping, along with logs, metronome, count in, and timed exercises — you might want to repeat an exercise for five minutes, to improve dexterity and endurance at the same time, for instance. I’m a big fan of these features, and I’ve added them to both my guitar and my violin practice regimen.
As for controls, most functions are better accomplished with simple mouse clicks or key combos. You place the cursor (with mouse or arrow keys) above the string you want the note to be played on, then press a number key corresponding to your desired fret number. If the number is in double digits, hold the key for the first digit then press the key for the second.
For stringed instruments without frets, think of your finger position for each semitone as a fret — so the A string on a violin will go from 0-4 with the notes A, A#, B, C, C#. Chords can be added one note at a time or via the chord chart button under Division Notations.
Percussion instruments have different notation input rules, with the characters o, x, and @ corresponding to on the head, muted, and on the rim, respectively.
It’s simple and intuitive, although I found myself wishing at times for the option to apply a note with mouse clicks or by entering the note name — rather than its position on the instrument.
Off the Beaten Track
Tabular supports custom tunings, and includes a number a common ones as presets. You can individually adjust the tuning and add or remove strings on notes in the track settings (either the Edit Track or New Track menu), with a cool mock fretboard to help you visualize things.
You can also add a capo, although I had trouble putting it higher on the instrument than is visible in the little graphic (my workaround is to tune the virtual strings according to the capo position on my physical guitar, which amounts to identical notation).
If you have an existing library of tabs, you could be in for a painful transition to Tabular. The app supports importing from Guitar Pro 5 and MIDI formats, but none of the common text-based tablature formats. You can export to five different formats, however — OpenTab, PDF, MIDI, Tabular, or ASCII (plain text) — as well as print directly from the app.
Be warned that the PDF export — or the print option — saves only the currently-selected track, so if you have a multi-track composition you’ll have to export multiple times to get the whole thing. ASCII exporting lets you choose which tracks to include, while the other formats preserve everything.
An iTunes-like library makes it easy to keep track of Tabular songs, allowing you to set Title, Artist, and Album metadata, and to organize everything into groups. The built-in search looks at this basic metadata only, which should be perfectly fine until you go to look for “that song with a mandolin” and can’t remember the name.
On a semi-related note, I find it strange that you can create songs with a keyboard shortcut, but both importing and creating a new group require use of the mouse. Tabular seems well thought-out and meticulously designed, so little interface niggles like this really stand out.
A Strong Contender
Tabular won’t replace Guitar Pro if you rely on the latter’s advanced features, but it offers a great alternative for people who are happy with basic library management and composition tools on top of a robust tablature reader.
I was impressed by its clean, easy-to-use interface — even though it does have a few rough spots — and by its excellent practice tools. For amateur and hobbyist guitarists, drummers, and guitar-centric songwriters/composers, this might be just the thing.