Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Xodo Docs is my music reader of choice on the Surface Pro 3

My list of needs when it comes to reading sheet music on a tablet:

  • Fast, clean PDF rendering
  • Good annotation tools with no separate edit mode, pick up the pen and draw
  • Bookmarks
  • Works with AirTurn pedal to turn pages (usually that just means accepting PgUP/PgDN or arrow keys)
  • Easy file switching
  • PDF manipulation - specifically the ability to rearrange pages
I started with Drawboard because it's one of the best PDF annotation apps in the Windows Store. Sadly, continuous view scrolls only a few pixels at a time with the foot pedal limiting me to single page view only. It worked well enough in practice so I gave it a go at a gig and it fell flat, big time.

Note - Drawboard is still one of the best PDF annotation apps in the Store, but they are specifically specializing towards the drafting market, making it less flexible for music reading.

In performance, with several large files open (our trio gigs out of several Last Resort volumes to cover standard wedding requests and I need to be able to switch between them quickly) rendering errors started to pop up where it would turn the page but leave a chunk of the old page up. No amount of turning back and forth would clear whatever spot got stuck and I was caught with part of a piece not visible in performance. Luckily, it was a section I knew well enough to get through without music.

I quickly switched off to Windows Reader for the rest of that gig and resumed my quest for a good Windows based reader. Windows Reader is actually a great reader. It's fast, keeps multiple files open at once in tabs, and works well with the pen - pick and write. It supports reading bookmarks, but can't create new ones, nor can you rearrange pages within a PDF with it. So, while it makes a fine reader, it wouldn't work as my only solution.

Yes, Music Reader still exists as a Windows program. Note - not a Windows Store app - a legit download an exe and install it program. It is not at all touch optimized. Annotation tools are weak and line rendering is poor. It's ugly. It costs a lot. Skip it.

Searching for a sheet music reader in the Windows store turns up nothing useful, so I dug through the many PDF annotation tools. I think I ended up with Xodo through the recommended apps section. I don't really remember. Unfortunately, the Windows App store is still just a mess in general.

Xodo won out. It does all the things I needed. It renders quickly without error. I can pick up the pen and it automatically starts writing in my preferred pen style. The pen button switches to erase. I can easily add bookmarks. A press of the Air Turn pedal scoots the page up enough in continuous view to be useful, so I don't have to turn a whole page at a time, but I can always have the next few lines of music visible.

The final important feature that means Xodo docs is all I need is the ability to rearrange individual pages within a PDF file. I love that the Pops orchestra provides PDF practice copies in advance of the first rehearsal so I never have to scan anything, but sometimes a few pages here and there will end up out of order in addition to the blank pages that get scanned in. Being able to remove blanks or title pages and rearrange the pages that end up out of order gets me the clean part I need to play the show straight off the tablet.

A note on tabbed file management: I actually prefer this greatly to the giant, flat list of bookmarks in ForScore. When I finally got around to cleaning my library, I had so many redundant bookmarks pointing to the same piece in different Pops binder PDFs because they do some of the same standards at every holiday (and big band) concert. When I'd build the setlist for the show, I had to scroll through my ridiculously big list of all my crap (teaching, trio gig books, several years worth of pops binders, and some random chord charts from church gigs) to find the pieces from that particular binder.

I'd much rather open trio books 1, 2, and 3 in a tab each and keep each turned to the page needed for the next song in the procession rather than scroll through my library to find "Wedding March." It's the equivalent of my trio-mates keeping each physical book open and just dropping the first one off the stand to get to the next piece in the procession when it's in another book.

I don't miss set lists at all. Pops PDFs come to us in alphabetical order and I bookmark the individual pieces, leaving me a short list of bookmarks from just that file. I can then reorder the bookmarks when the show order is decided Yes, it means I have to open the bookmarks list between each piece rather than the next one showing up automatically. But, I much prefer using my file browser to keep all my PDFs organized in nested folders. I don't miss the giant, flat list of all my stuff.

I appreciate the idea behind tags and metadata, but my file structure is already done and consistent no matter what app I'm trying to open things in. I have no interest in going back through my scanned collection to add tags.

Bonus points: Xodo has apps for Android, iOS, Windows, and a web app (including a chrome webapp and extension for those of you in chromebook programs). I've recently picked up a new toy and will be able to share my experiences with Xodo on Android soon as well.

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