Device in tune with guitarists

 

The i-Tab straps on to the end of a guitar and scrolls through the lyrics and chords of a song, writes RONAN McGREEVY

IT IS another hard day at the offices of i-Tab in Maynooth, Co Kildare. At one PC NUIM music student Stevie Darragh is sitting with a guitar trying to figure out the chords for Nirvana’s About a Girl. At another PC fellow Maynooth student Marion Stack is working on the chords of Robbie Williams’ Angels.

A third i-Tab worker, Podge Byrne, grabs a guitar and breaks into an acoustic version of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, which he intends to put on YouTube.

There are guitars and guitar magazines lying around everywhere, along with a notice on the door to remember to asterisk swear words in song lyrics.

These unprepossessing offices, which open on to the street and do not even have a sign outside, are the nerve centre of a company that, in the space of two years, has developed from a eureka-moment idea to a reality coming to a music store near you.

In essence, the i-Tab is guitar karaoke. The device, which features a five-inch screen, is strapped on to the end of a guitar and scrolls through the lyrics and guitar chords in time with the recorded version of the song.

It is a potential lifesaver for anyone who brings a guitar to a party with good intentions, only to suffer a dose of stage fright and forget the chords or lyrics – or both – of a song.

It is such a good idea that one wonders why no one had thought of it before. “That’s what we thought too,” says i-Tab chief executive and founder Andy Hirst, who conceived of the idea when he was bundling up sheets of guitar tabs to take to a party.

He had the idea patented. Then he and one of the firm’s directors, Tony Saliwonczwk, went to Musikmesse, the world’s largest music trade fair, in Frankfurt last April to have a look around and ensure there was nothing similar on the market. There wasn’t.

“It just doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody to put guitar tabs into a portable device that would sit on the end of the guitar,” Hirst says.

The patent is pending and the first units for the US, UK and Australian markets will be shipped from China today. At home, the i-Tab will be available within the next two weeks at the X Music superstore near the Red Cow Roundabout for €149. The target is to sell 100,000 devices in the first year.

The patent extends not only to the i-Tab but to the concept of scrolling lyrics and chords on a portable device. Fortunately, the proliferation of guitar apps on the Apple platform are not really competition. The screen is too small, it does not fit on the end of a guitar and it does not scroll in time to the music.

The i-Tab is attracting a lot of interest in the music world, in particular from music publishers.

The rise of the internet has not only hit the profits of record companies but also those of music publishers. A proliferation of websites offering tabs and piano music for free has sprung up. Almost all such sites are illegal, in breach of copyright and provide no revenue for publishing houses. “The [music publishers] were having their content ripped off and they have not had a viable digital platform. I can provide somebody with a viable digital platform by streaming content through us. It is not too late for them to make money for it because they own the rights,” says Hirst.

I-Tab has signed licencing deals with all the major publishing companies, including the biggest of all: Hal Leonard, Faber and Alfred Music Publishing. The i-Tab library will contain 27,000 songs – “everything from the birth of rock’n’roll”, according to Hirst.

I-Tab players will be able to download music from the internet at a cost of 15 cent a tab and a portion of the revenues will go to the publishing houses and the artists.

Having thought of the idea in summer 2008, Hirst put up €15,000 of his own money and that of a friend’s to spec a device for the product, which was sourced in China.

After returning from Musikmesse in April last year with the realisation that he had an idea that could work, Hirst put a business together, got in touch with small investors and developed the software in conjunction with Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

They made their deadline of launching the product at NAMM, the biggest music trade show in the US, in January.

“This whole business has been set up, product developed, trade shows done and brought to market for in and around €300,000 – and €100,000 of that came from Enterprise Ireland,” Hirst says proudly.

“I don’t believe in this whole concept of running around out there telling your investor you are going to make them millions selling large slices of equity for insane amounts of money and sticking a big noose around your neck.

“We have 15 or 16 people working here, things are done on a tight basis, we don’t have flashy premises, we don’t have company cars, we do things in a sane and sensible way.”

Hirst is right about the absence of flashy premises, which in these straitened times seem like a virtue, but the company does not lack ambition and is hoping to attract investors to take the i-Tab to another level.

A pro i-Tab device is being developed in conjunction with DIT and will be released later this year with full tablature, transposition and an external mike which will follow the player rather than the other way around. I-Tabs will also be developed for pianos, marching bands and traditional Irish instruments.

“I have a board of directors who don’t know about music, and they say, ‘that’s nice’. I tell somebody who is into music and they tell me that I’m going to melt their brain,” says Hirst.

PRACTICE SESSION DOES THE I-TAB DO THE JOB FOR GUITAR PLAYERS?

HOW MANY roads must a man walk down before he learns to play Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Windusing the i-Tab?

The song has four chords and it could hardly be simpler. On songs that are nothing but chords, the i-Tab passes its first test.

Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cryis another four-chord classic where the timing and chord placement is spot-on. Ditto Redemption Song,but the absence of tablature as opposed to chords means you will have to learn the distinctive bass-note intro yourself.

Likewise, U2’s Onehas all the chords in the right places, but it doesn’t sound like the recorded version unless you learn separately the hammer on notes which the Edge uses.

The chiming melody in Tracy Chapman’s Fast Carsis also absent, though the chords are correct.

Oasis’s Wonderwall, the song loved by earnest buskers everywhere, is correct, but the chord placings are absent. Guitarists will have to familiarise themselves with unusual chords such as Cadd9, G5F# and A7sus4 before attempting the song.

The Who’s Pinball Wizardis another song with tricky chord shapes, but the i-Tab version is correct. This is not an easy song to play and will require practice before attempting to impress your friends at a party.

The versions of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfactionand Brown Sugarare crude if broadly correct. You will have to learn Keith Richards’ famous intro to Brown Sugarelsewhere.

I-Tab has succeeded where iTunes has failed in getting The Beatles’ music on board from the start. Eight Days a Weekand Drive My Carare present and correct.

Verdict: A great idea as an aide-memoire to playing, though not a substitute for practice, practice, practice. Will come into its own when tablature is included.