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Producer Jon Lee on paperless score-plotting

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

Photograph of interviewee, record producer, Jon Lee
Record producer, Jon Lee

During recording sessions, the producer makes detailed notes on the music score, marking what went well and what didn’t, for each take. The notes are vital in knowing when all of the music is successfully recorded. In post-production, when re-listening to the takes, the producer uses the notes again to help them mark up, or ‘plot’ the score for the audio editor.

The audio editor cuts the takes together to create a realisation of the producer’s 1st edit plot. After that, audio proofs and plotted scores are passed back and forth between producer and editor (with soloists and conductors also having their say), with further edit stages produced until everyone is happy.

Until recently, the record producer's session notes and edit plots were marked onto traditional paper music scores. We relied on the postal service to deliver scores between producer and audio editor. This added time and cost to each project; time for scores to travel, and the cost of using special delivery to ensure that the vital document wasn’t lost in the post.

For us, all this has changed as we have transitioned to using paperless scores. We recently sat down with digital score-plotting trailblazer and regular BMP producer, Jon Lee, to ask him about the experience.

What first made you decide to look into paperless score plotting?

JL: Originally, it was a conversation I had with Ken and Will from BMP at a hotel we were staying in during a multi-day recording session. We were chatting about more efficient ways to work, and I think it was Will’s idea actually. He had been looking into different ways technology could be used in the process of recording and in post-production to speed up the creation of a first edit. At that point, it just seemed such an obvious idea because recently we’d been feeling frustrated with the time it took to get scores back and forth between the producer and editors.

So I think that was the first time I’d thought about it. It just seemed to me that it had the potential to make such a big difference to the speed and ease of the plotting and editing process. We'd already attempted scanning plotted scores in, to be more agile, but that definitely had its flaws. I’d plot something, scan it in, BMP would print it out, do the edit and make any required notes on the scores and then post it back. It was a very cumbersome process and the image quality degraded at every print/scan cycle so it was only something we’d do if the project deadline was particularly tight. It wasn’t something we enjoyed having to do. It also wasted a huge amount of paper, which wasn’t something we relished as we were very conscious of our environmental impact.

We were starting to be sent the original scores for many of our projects in PDF form anyway (rather than being sent a package of printed scores) so it seemed that working digitally was a much more sensible way of operating.

What has been the most major impact of switching to plotting on an iPad and how has it helped your work?

JL: Speed and convenience actually. I find it a lot quicker both in terms of making notes during the sessions, as well as in the act of plotting (leaving aside the ease of transferring scores between people for the moment). I find that making the actual marks is just faster. The times that I do have to go back to paper, I find it quite cumbersome. I also find that the Apple pencil moves quicker on the screen so you can make even really brief marks quite quickly, I guess it’s due to the decrease in friction and no need to worry about the amount of pressure I’m using. Obviously that’s a subconscious thing but I’ve found I’m definitely quicker at plotting with an Apple Pencil on an iPad than I am with a normal pen/pencil and a paper score. It also means there’s no need for Tipp-Ex to make corrections to penned-in plots.

I also find navigating around within a piece is quicker, because you can scroll quite quickly through a piece rather than having to turn pages. Finding a specific piece is also quicker, particularly in large projects with lots of individual pieces, because all the scores are in an alphabetised folder and you can always use the search bar to find a specific composer name etc.

Working digitally is certainly faster in terms of the impact on scheduling, thanks to the way you can share plots between producer and editor via DropBox. It means that the editor can be working on the 1st edit of one piece while I’m still marking up the first plot of a later piece from the same recording session, rather than the old system where we’d all wait until we’d completely finish a plot/edit stage before putting everything back in the post so we weren’t wasting money on stamps. It means that I’ve been able to work to tight deadlines that would otherwise have been near impossible.

Record producer session notes and edit plots on a digital score, using an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

Is there anything you miss about paper plotting?

JL: No. I think it might be different for bigger scores; orchestral scores might be a bit tricky but it’s definitely fine for chamber and choral music. I've very successfully plotted choral music with organ and brass ensemble but I’ve not tried it for orchestral though I intend to give it a go on an upcoming session. The thing about the 12.9” iPad Pro is that it is not far from A4 size but if you've got an A3 sized orchestral store that might be harder to keep on the iPad.

Other than that I’d struggle to point out any downsides and there’s nothing I miss from paper plotting, in fact I much prefer plotting on the iPad. It’s just such a time saver. It completely removes the need to take scores to a post office or scan in or print out or whichever one of these functions you’d normally end up doing.

Another bonus is that if you've got fiddly marks to make and there are lots of things already on the score you can zoom in and find a space!

In addition, during the pandemic, it’s been great not having to rely on the post office and the post. It's made the times we've been able to record during lockdowns and whatever else so easy, in terms of dealing with the post-production work remotely and not having to interact or break any rules. On top of that, it’s just so quick, I simply can’t emphasise enough how much quicker it’s made the post-production process.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to make the switch to paperless score plotting?

JL: The only thing that took time really, was investigating the app that was going to work with the plotting. There may well be other good options on the market now, but when I was originally looking, there was only one I could find that fully fit the bill in terms of features and ease of use, which was PDF Expert.

It’s worth pointing out that the quality of your tablet is important. I’ve seen from my own experience that the cheaper/lesser tablets (things like the Surface Pro) are not as quick with the graphic updates whereas the iPad is, and that can have a real effect on the plotting process.

I’d definitely advise getting the largest iPad screen available so its dimensions are as similar as possible to a paper score and don’t forget that you’ll need to buy an Apple Pencil too. I’d also say that you need to pair your score marking app with Dropbox or similar so it’s easy for everyone to collaborate.

Other than that, my advice would be to make sure everyone who will be interacting with your plots are working the same way; I think it only works if the editing team and the producer are all working on digital copies of the scores. For the first project in which I plotted digitally, the editors didn't have iPads but instead used low cost USB graphics tablets paired with Xodo PDF and a vertical monitor on a PC. That meant the editors could try out the “fully digital score” way of working without needing to make a large investment into iPads. It was an alright interim solution because the editors generally have far fewer markings to make and, while I know the graphics tablets took some getting used to (and even then weren’t as fast as jotting things down on paper scores), it meant they could easily see all of my markings and note down little comments and adjustments as required. It has to be said, it’s been perfect now we’ve got the whole team working on iPads: the editors are finding commenting back just as easy as it was on paper. If you can get the whole team working on iPads from the start, you’ll find it a much smoother transition away from paper.

I'm not sure there’s much more advice than that, other than give it a go, because it's so easy. Don't be scared of it!

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