The Bombing Brain Blog

The Story of Setlists Part 3 – Why Setlists Doesn’t Scroll Text

I remember one time listening to Billy Sheehan explain why he doesn’t use active pickups on any of his basses. He said that batteries are a variable, and his goal was to eliminate as many variables as possible when he is performing. The more things you have in the chain of your setup, the more likely that one of them will go wrong, and the more time you’ll have to spend diagnosing what went wrong when you’re on stage. If your bass doesn’t have a battery, you’ll never suffer from a dead battery.

This is why Setlists doesn’t have text scrolling.

Before we made Setlists, I used Teleprompt+ on stage for my lyric prompting needs. I’d set up my lyrics as scripts, choose the correct one for the next song, and press play. And almost immediately, no matter how carefully I set up my script with the proper spacing, font size, and speed, the lyrics would be out of sync with my playing. Why? Let’s look at just a few of the possible reasons.

Drummers are human beings. As such, they don’t have internal metronomes that make them play in perfect tempo every time. Some drummers are better than others, but no one is perfect. Most, I’ll tell you from experience, play faster when they get nervous. You know when people tend to get nervous? On stage. You know when they don’t? When they’re practicing at home. So the tempo you set in the rehearsal room and the one you actually play on stage are likely to be two different numbers.

Now, some of you are saying, “We don’t have a drummer.” Or “We play to a click track.” Fair enough. If you don’t have a drummer, but you still have a human being (including yourself) setting the tempo, see the last point. For those of you on a click track, let’s do this experiment. You have an iPad on stage prompting your lyrics. You have an iPod or some sort of other device playing your click track, usually controlled by a different person. The click track starts, you press the song title in Setlists a few seconds later. Or worse, you pressed it earlier. Now what happens? The lyrics are rolling off screen before you can read them. You try and adjust by scrolling the text back a bit. But you swipe too far, and now the lyrics are behind. You adjust again. Meanwhile, your audience is watching a person play with his or her iPad instead of watching you sing them a song.

Songs aren’t like speeches. There isn’t a constant pace of words throughout the length of a song. You may have a verse, then an 8-bar bridge that has no vocal. You have guitar solos. Instrumental interludes. Intros and outtros. Do you pause the scrolling and wait for the song to catch up with you? Or do you try and insert just the right amount of blank space between the lines for each song, painstakingly for each and every one of the three hundred songs in your lyric book, trying to get them all precisely timed?

A lot of times when singing, you don’t need to actually read all the lyrics. You just need a memory jog of the first line or two of a verse. If you’re one of these folks, then you want to advance to the next verse a bit before it happens, scan the first few lines, and then put your focus back on the audience. You can’t do this easily when the text is always moving. And when the text scrolling is out of pace with your song, it gets even harder to find that first line of the next verse.

The bottom line is that scrolling is a terrible way to read lyrics while singing. It’s perfect for giving a speech, but it’s no way to sing. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll end up touching your iPad more if you set autoscroll than if you advance the text manually.

There’s a reason members of symphony orchestras still turn their own pages when playing as they have been for hundreds of years. It’s the only thing that works 100% of the time.

So how do we solve this problem? We do what the pros do. We set our lyrics up like cue cards, showing the current part of the song only. When the next part of the song comes, we advance to that block of text. And so on. The singer only sees exactly what he or she needs in the moment. The text is literally no longer a moving target.

If you have footpedals, such as the awesome AirTurn BT–105, you can move to the next verse or chorus with your feet. Perfect. If you don’t happen to have the luxury of wireless pedals, you can have an off-stage tech with another iPad advance the lyrics for you. Set up a Jam Session, and he or she can be your personal cue card controller.

If you don’t have the luxury of an off-stage tech, either, well then you can advance the text yourself with a simple swipe. Is that ideal? No. But it’s a known quantity. You know that with one swipe a few times per song, your lyrics are going to be exactly right every time. No variables. As opposed to scrolling, which adds a giant, unpredictable variable to your performance and grabs far more of the attention you want to be giving to your music and your audience.

We are looking into options for the auto page turning in Setlists, and we hope to find something eventually that might help those who really, really want automatic advancement of lyrics. But we’re very sure that scrolling is not the answer.

Of course, if you think I’m nuts and you’d still rather scroll your lyrics, you can always try our Teleprompt+, which was designed for public speaking, and is thus brilliant at scrolling text.

We’ll have more to say about the design of Setlists in our next installment. In the meantime, if you want to purchase Setlists, or you just want to learn more about all of its features, visit the Setlists web site.