Feb '11

Slow downer softwares

Have you ever heard something about slow downer softwares? Are you wondering what they are, and if they could be useful for you? Or are you already using one of them, and want to know something more? This article has the goal to explain what so called  slow downer softwares are, why and how they should be used, and provide a panoramic of which products are around.

What are slow downer softwares?

I would define them simply in this way:

specialized software programs able to manipulate digital audio files

I know, it’s a nerd definition but I have to demonstrate to mummy and daddy that sending me to school wasn’t a waste of money, ok? 😉

Back to the point, a brief introduction is necessary. This kind of programs appeared when technology evolved enough to permit the usage of digital techniques for storing audio information into files, with all the advantages that it brought: the possibility of writing them into digital supports like CDs and DVDs, that are more capable, rugged and reliable compared to magnetic cassettes and vinyl records; can be stored into the memories that are present into compact electronic portable devices like mobile phones, MP3 players, etc.; the possibility of being transmitted via networks; can be played by digital devices like computers. But another big advantage is that they can be elaborated using digital signal processing techniques, and this is extremely interesting for the musical field and even others.

Why is the possibility of elaborate audio files so interesting for music? Because imagine that an audio file contains a song: its tempo and pitch can be changed, and we will see later how useful it is. These concepts started to be implemented into programs for PC and MAC computers, the most diffused and user friendly architectures at that time. Tempo and pitch independent change is the basic feature that every slow downer software program has, but their complexity has grown in time and nowadays they often implement many other useful features like:

  • programming of loops for repeated playing of parts
  • equalization
  • reduction of vocal parts in songs
  • cut and paste of parts
  • file format conversion

Moreover, recently a few programs have been developed even for some portable devices.

How can slow downer softwares be useful for musicians?

Musicians are the most common group of users of this kind of programs, basically for practice purposes or performance settings. Let me give you some examples.

Independently from the instrument that you play, you need to practice on it in order to improve your skills. The boring (but necessary 🙁 ) way is studying on scores or tabs, the fun way is trying to learn the parts of your favorite songs. Thinking about guitar, bass or keyboards for example, when these parts are complex or fast played you face two problems. In case that the part is complex, firstly you must understand it, ideally every single note, in order to learn; in case that the part is fast played (listen to a song from MotĂśrhead for example 🙂 ), as soon as you have learned it probably in the beginning your skills aren’t enough to play it at the original tempo, you must practice at a slower one and than increase it gradually until you reach the original one. Because almost any song can be found in a digital audio format file nowadays, both of these problems can be solved using the tempo change feature of a slow downer software program. Moreover, in both cases you want to listen to the specific part again and again, and a way for avoiding to command every time a reverse action on your player is using the repeated loop playing feature.

Another example: imagine that you are a member of a cover or tribute band or group, it means that you play someone else’s music. When you decide to add a new song to your repertory, the first doubt that arises is if vocal parts can be sung at the original pitch or not. In case that a male vocal part should be sung by a female and vice versa, another doubt arises regarding how would be the final effect. This doubts should better be clarified before starting studying the instrumental parts, because if you discover later when you play all together that vocal parts are outside of your vocalists’ possibilities or that you don’t like the result, you would have wasted time for nothing. What can help you is the pitch change feature of a slow downer software program. I suggest to proceed like this: at first, your vocalist/s should try their parts alone on the original song, and if they are not comfortable with the original song’s pitch, they should look for the right one for them changing it up or down usually semitone by semitone. Once they have found the right pitch for them, they communicate it to the others band’s members, and now it’s their turn to verify if the instrumental parts can still be played or have an acceptable effect. This is necessary especially for strings instruments like guitar and bass, because a change in the pitch moves their parts in another position on the neck, and often happens that they finish outside of the instrument limits or produce a sonority that is different from the original.

The reduction of vocal parts can be useful for vocalists in case that they want to sing on the original song alone, or to create an almost instrumental version that should help to understand, learn or transcribe instrumental parts. The cut and paste of parts feature is helpful in case that you want to create medleys of songs and listen to the effect produced when they are played as a whole. Finally, the tempo change feature can be useful for music transcription or tabbing activities.

Examples of programs

There are several programs that you can find and purchase (in case that they are not free ones) on Internet, written for PC, MAC, IPod™, IPhone™ and IPad™ architectures and for Windows™, Linux™, Mac, IPod™, IPhone™ and IPad™ Operating Systems.  You can take a look at this list on Hitsquad Musician Network to have an idea. The following is a reference list to some of them, maybe the most common ones, with their Internet site’s links for your convenience:

I’m planning to try and compare some of them and publish the results in a future article, so if you have any experience with them your comments are welcome.

Other ways of usage

Even if musicians are the principal users of these programs, they are not the only ones:

Dance studios can appreciate the possibility of slowing down the music for learning purposes, allowing the students to follow it more easily.

Disc Jockeys use loops when they want to speak for a long period, and playing a song with a slow downer program with the loop feature makes it easy to do.

Playing music in a karaoke show with a slow downer program gives the possibility to change tempo and pitch of songs in order to adapt them to the person that wants to sing.

Language translators can find extremely useful the possibility of changing the speed of an audio track: slowing it down in case they need to better understand words, or speeding it up in case that the audio has been spoken slowly. The same circumstances can be identified in an audio transcription activity, that could be done by a journalist that had previously recorded an interview, or a student that had recorded a lesson at University.

IPod™, IPhone™, IPad™, Windows™, Linux™, Amazing Slow Downer™, Song Surgeon™, mTrax™, AudioSnail™, Pitch Switch™ are trademarks of their respective owners.

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