If you subscribe to the time-honored tradition of learning a piece of music by ear but you don't have perfect pitch, Transcribe (Mac/Win shareware, $40) from Seventh String Software can give you a real leg up on the process. Transcribe performs three basic functions: it displays a spectral analysis of a selected bit of audio — a chord, for example — overlaid on a piano keyboard; it provides DSP functions for picking an individual instrument out of a mix; and it offers independent time-stretching and pitch-shifting functions. Transcribe's purpose is to help you transcribe or learn from an audio clip by playing along and deconstructing chords.
You start the process by loading a sound file; the program supports WAV, AIFF, and MP3 formats. Once you've opened the file, you can change its speed, place markers in it, and transpose it as you would in any sample editor. The recommended procedure is to place section, measure, and beat markers in the portion of the sound file that you want to analyze. Although markers have no effect in Transcribe's performance, they help you find your way around the file. As the file is looping, you can quickly tap them in on the computer's S, M, and B keys.
Transcribe offers two tools for improving its spectral analysis: control of the mix (Transcribe always analyzes a mono mix of the sound file) and equalization. In particular, the Stereo Mix dialog lets you balance the two sides of a stereo file and invert or delay one channel. You can often use those controls to focus in on the instrument you're trying to analyze. For example, if a vocal is mixed in the center of a stereo file, you can reduce or eliminate it by inverting one channel.
If you've used pitch-recognition software, you know that pitch analysis is a difficult technical task, especially when dealing with polyphonic material. With Transcribe, you still need to use your ears and brain, but its visual and DSP aids make the task much easier. Transcribe doesn't generate MIDI or score files, but it is a great aid in scoring by hand or with your favorite notation software. If you like to learn by playing along with audio examples, Transcribe is a must-have download.
For jazz-oriented musicians, the Seventh String Web site (www.seventhstring.demon.co.uk) also offers a free, searchable index of more than 40 jazz Fake Books as well as an interesting selection of big-band charts.