Music Without a Keyboard Player

Adrian Worsfold; Submitted to The Inquirer (20121114)

It is said that to achieve best practice across an institution we should collaborate and share. So here is my offering regarding music provision when there is no keyboard player. I 'returned' to Unitarianism in 2010 to find a church during the service taking out and putting in CDs and finding the tracks for hymn tunes in a player. It made for inadequate worship.
The first thing I did on taking over was go behind a curtain and this was accompanied by making a CD in advance with all the music prepared. Using a domestic CD player wasn't loud nor positioned well enough and I oversaw the installation of a powerful system that integrated a double CD player and mixer with all the inputs (including microphones, radio) and outputs (including hearing loop) needed. Each week two identical CDs are prepared because there is a higher level of output for hymns than for incidental music, and it is clearer and quicker to move between CDs than alter the sliders, sometimes at speed. Plus one CD might be faulty. The player tells how much time is left on a track and can be set to play a single track and stop; it also starts a new track at the beginning of the sound and not the silent gap before (that I still build in for margins of error in case of using domestic CD players).
Behind the scenes the key to improving performance has been building a resource of hymns and other music for use in worship. Sources are bvery useful Unitarian choir CDs, that have been made with varying degrees of quality, but these days audio editing allows improvements to originals. There are choir recordings elsewhere that can fit Unitarian hymn books. There are websites that offer recordings of public domain hymn tunes which then can be edited for verse numbers and to, say, slow down and lower the range of notes. There are occasional good offerings (sometimes in videos). Then there are music samples available and, finally, software to compose from the hymn book with synthetic instrumental output.
There are two kinds of sound file that are relevant here. One is audio like the WAV file and MP3, where the sound is that of the real world but the computer does not 'know' what it is. The other is the music file where the minimum particle is the note that can join a synthetic instrument and has timing. This file, usually a MID, can transfer to displaying musical notation in a way that an audio file cannot, and its instruments and timing can be changed. It is easy to convert a music file of these notes to audio files, and thus on to an audio CD, but it is difficult for any software to 'listen' to an audio file and interpret it as notes.
As a result, I have now sourced and either audio or music edited a tune for every hymn in Hymns for Living and usually with the original as given. There are many from Sing Your Faith. A few hymns exist from other books. I have a website page that lists all these hymns and this is for the information of service takers.
Where they have been created as music files, or samples have been subjected to considerable editing, I leave a MID synthetic sample of the tune, a transferable XML file between music composing software and a PDF display of the sheet music usually with the hymn lyrics. (A PDF file is like a print out but sent to a file - thus always looks the same; an XML file uses what was extended from HTML to code and position everything musical).
This page accompanies another page where I have gathered together all the hymns' verses I have word processed.
The idea is that all this material is transferable. The uncompressed Hymns for Living files occupy four DVDs as storage WAVs ready to become audio files on CDs. Sing Your Faith needs much more in the way of transferring the music from the book via composing software.
There is also a webpage to extract titles and lyrics from the XML files - the XML coding allows this intervention whereas to extract text from a Music PDF file is to be left with all the right words but in the wrong order, although software exists to extract back the music.
Go to the Pluralist website, the Spiritual area and the hymns section. The material continues to build up. Service takers should consult this. Here is the background preparation for the weekly preparation and the church music system that lets us sing to some of the best played music in the world and offers an approach that integrates all the music within divine worship.


Issues Around CDs for Music

Submitted for publication in the Hull Church bimonthly Calendar

With no one to play the piano or organ, churchpeople have to sing to CDs. Two CDs for Hymns for Living mean only 51 hymns from which to choose. There is also a cassette tape of low quality adding a few more usable hymns and then some more on a tape recorded locally.
Thanks to a website offering public domain organ music for hymns, I have been able to expand the choice considerably. I'm afraid that having a building society account alone, I do not have the type of card to purchase the copyright music also played.
CDs played on hi fi equipment or in the car use audio files, one per music track. CDs played in computers can play as audio CDs or they are data CDs with different data files on them. With the development of compressed MP3s, computers and some portable players can use the same music files. Basically, an MP3 player is a memory stick that plays music held in compressed format.
MP3s vary in quality according to the degree of compression. The argument must be to compress by as little percentage as possible to preserve the quality of the sound and yet still get the benefits of less storage space for each track. One problem these days is young people compensating for over-compressed MP3s by turning up the volume, and thus setting themselves up later for tinnitus or hearing loss or both as the body gets older.
Organ music downloaded has to be in .MP3 form or other compressed format, otherwise it would be far too large. The standard uncompressed format is a .WAV file, for which every bit of data needs storing and is time based. This is equivalent to a .BMP image file, for which every little pixel is recorded for data. A compressed file either looks for or forces similarities, and these similarities allow a file to be much smaller. Overdo this to a picture, and the image looks 'blocky', like over-compressed .JPG images; overdo it to sound and it gets rougher and more basic.
Nevertheless, as soon as I get the .MP3, I convert it to a .WAV form, because editing an .MP3 over and again loses quality progressively.
Looking at a sound file on a display shows peaks and troughs in sound on left and right tracks. You can actually see the verses of hymns. Where there are too many verses for a Unitarian hymn, I can cut them out. Where I need to add a verse, I might take verse two and make it also verse four. A rule of thumb when editing like this is to leave the last verse as the last verse, as this is where the organist is coming to a climax of the hymn.
When I export the result out from the software, I label it with HL if Hymns for Living or SF for Sing Your Faith, then the hymn number in three digits, e.g. 010, and then the tune name. The tune name is vital because that tells me what is transferrable to other hymns. The metrical indexes of hymns plus listening to them set against words shows what can be used for any particular hymn if the original set tune is unavailable.
An audio CD track is uncompressed, and therefore an uncompressed .WAV  file as edited informs just how much it will take up a CD. A CD usually takes about an hour and ten minutes or 700 megabytes. In my view, a CD should never be completely filled up. Some stereos are sensitive and picky about what they will play.
As well as expanding choice, I have also been editing the quality of available music. The fact is that of the two Hymns for Living CDs, the collection of 21 Hymns is very hissy and of low quality mono. I have been able to remove the hiss at a setting that does not have the byproduct of 'metalising' the organ too much. The voices come through better as a result. The 30 hymns We Will Sing for Them CD is a much better quality stereo recording, but unfortunately the last track of the church's CD is ruined and jumps, and the two before it are not much better. Strangely, the CD is larger than it should be capacity-wise. That prevented standard copying, but I have been able to make an 'image' of the CD. The last track took some ten times its play length to copy for it to be restored as playable, unfortunately with many clicks. It's the trade off when recovering a damaged track.
When used in church, these tracks are played individually, and because a CD won't respond to the singers in the room the CD track has to dominate by volume. But each Hymns for Living CD was recorded as a whole and the volume levels are set across the whole CD: this means that some tracks play softer than others, which is not good even for softer hymns when they have to take the lead for people to sing. I have been able to normalise the tracks, that is have each hymn peak at the same maximum level of volume without loss of quality. This means that a volume level can be set on a CD player and the result is always the same: the loudest part of one hymn becomes the same as the loudest part of another hymn. There is less variation across the Sing Your Faith CDs.
There is also a CD of the Lord's Prayer by Marie Penn. I understand it had origins on a tape. It gives a ticking sound that I simply cannot remove or improve, unless I make a different electronic composition. They can be used, however.
There are two cassette tapes of hymns, one from Harris Manchester College in 1998 and one from Marie Penn. There are a number of problems with tapes. There is the inevitable hiss from the narrow tape, audible pre-echoes (the tape imprints its magnetism on the next loop around the spool), frequent drop-out of sound as the tape surface decays (with deposits made on to tape playing heads, affecting the pick-up of other tapes played), and stretching of the tape as it wraps around the spool under tension (which affects organ music badly as organ music needs to hold notes steady). Someone may have been a bit heavy handed at Harris Manchester College with the switches too, clunking away each time on its choir's last breath per hymn.
These tape tracks need putting on to CDs: once on CD the tracks can be found quickly. Also, once they are on a CD, the sound is digital, which allows endless uncompressed editing.
However, a tape produces analogue not digital sound, that is like waves through air rather than binary bits. Such a tape sound has to be 'captured' within a computer. The task then is to line in the sound from a CD player that is then a signal inside the computer. The sound card reproduces that sound, and a computer program then lays that sound to build up a .WAV file digitally. Once it is caught then the improvements can begin.
Sometimes the software detects silences and makes breaks in files automatically, producing tracks, but for hymns this may not work. So it means sitting and listening and both playing tapes and manipulating the computer.
Nevertheless, when done, there will be an archive of hymn tunes usable by the church until that new person joins who can play the piano, organ or both.
It disappointed me that the sound system for the microphone, despite having phono inputs, will not cope with a CD player that has phono outputs. Even if two amplifiers are involved at each end, they should be able to compress the peak levels and operate together normally. All that happens is a horrible noise despite the correct wiring. The music, like microphone sound, should come through the main high speakers, including at the same time. Having to use any portable CD player separately involves a loss of impact. Organ music especially through the high speakers would give a more authentic around the space of the church, but a quality hi fi set with its own separated speakers of good wattage can do the same.


Adrian Worsfold