Banjo Learning Freeware and Shareware
March 11, 2015 - So much time has passed that many of the titles listed here are no longer available or will not work with contemporary versions of Windows. I will edit the page as I have time to remove dead links but I will leave the descriptions of the programs as Paul wrote them. -WF
Here is a listing of software I feel is of value to the banjo player. There is generally a fuller description at the download site. Almost all of these are for Windows machines, generally W9x/Me or NT/2000. Some will run on W3.1, and one is a DOS program.
The links on this page have been updated and may point to newer versions than Paul mentions here. I've left his commentary intact, but understand that it might not apply today.
WinAmp 2.xx with Pacemaker or CHRONOTRON II and the Loop Master plug-ins are freeware programs to slow down and repeat stereo .mp3 tracks while still maintaining the pitch at the original key. The system requirements are a fast 486 or (optimally) a Pentium or better, running Windows 9x, ME/XP, 2000/ NT 4.
September 29, 2019 - Today's reality is different. WinAmp 5.8 has no plugins. Chronotron is no longer free; see the Microsoft Store for the free trial or buy for $30. The price may be worth it, as the author continues to actively develop Chronotron.
April 28, 2008 - Although the link above says "WinAmp 2.xx, the current version is 5 and I could not find an older version at the site. WinAmp 5 requires Windows 2000 as a minimum; no more Win9x.
In response to difficulties encountered by some users, I'll mention these three plug ins above not compatible with WinAmp 3.x, don't bother to try. Use WinAmp v. 2.x.
April 28, 2008 - Nullsoft claims that WinAmp 5 is compatible with version 2 plug-ins.
I have suggested using Pacemaker as a change from the previously directed Chronotron because I have had an instance of playback quality problems reported to me by a Chronotron user. He found Pacemaker to be "....MUCH better!!" HOWEVER: Chronotron II reportedly much improved version compatible with WinAmp 2.x. Additionally, there is now a WinAmp 3.x plug in called Chronotron 3.0 and/or Windows Media Player 9/10. Programmer's page and description here. For W98, Me, XP. Worth trying.
If you are already using Chronotron (I) it and are happy, Great! Chronotron has a display face that matches WinAmp, if this is important to you. Both Pacemaker and Chronotron will slow or speed up a tune by any ratio up to 2 to 1. You can use them to slow recordings to play along with, or speed up a tune if your are a Philistine: imagine playing FMB along with Earl at 316 bpm in 2/2!!
You can use these to take apart those nifty licks. The Loop Master plug in allows you to select a section on the mp3 and play it over and over, without having to recue. Technology has made it a lot easier to transcribe banjo breaks from the recording and being able to hear and transcribe is part of being a complete banjo player. When I started to play the banjo in the 1964 my friends told me up front that I was going to have to slow 33 RPM records down to 16 and transcribe my own lessons. It was just the way it was, teachers were rare and tab was virtually nonexistent. If you are a tab addict, this is a path to breaking the habit and learning to hear better.
There are now three versions available, a 2.2 MB full one and a 500 KB Lite version. All will work for our purposes. There is finally a good WinAmp documentation file too.
CAVEAT #1: It does not slow a CD in real time. You cannot just install WinAmp/Pacemaker and slow down tunes from the CD. You need what is called a CD ripper to convert the .cda file on the CD to an .mp3 file on your hard drive. The reason is that first the information must be on your hard drive so that the computer can process it at a different number of bits per second from the source file. The CD player just spews it out at a fixed 22 Kbps per channel. You need to get that information into a file in your computer first, where it can be accessed at the rate you choose. If it is half speed, that will be 11kbps/ channel.
Second, the full fidelity format is pretty storage intense (uses a lot of storage/memory), so the mp3 (actually MPEG-1 level 3 for the record) compression format was devised. This compresses a .wav file by about ten to one by removing stuff that most people don't hear anyway.
The parameters of the compression are variable, the idea is you play with them for maximum compression and still have the quality acceptable to you. You could leave the settings at the defaults, too. Going from a 40MB file to a 4MB file is still a great gain.
CAVEAT #2: I suggest NOT making it your default player when the option is offered during the installation. WinAmp then grabs things and alters Registry settings which can be difficult to undo when you select it as the default player on your system. There is additionally a small concern that WinAmp has been known to sabotage other playbacks (such as MusEdit, below) in some PC's, including mine. If this happens, then you know where to look to straighten things out.
Chronotron is no longer free.
Windows Media Player has a speed control feature, available at least since version 9. Select "Enhancements" from the View menu and then choose "Play Speed Settings." Banjo breaks come through very clearly at half speed.
Paul knew about this feature but could not use it because versions of Windows Media Player that included it were not available for Windows 95/98. In any case, he preferred WinAmp.
CDex 1.10. This ripper program will convert full CD tracks or a specified time slice of a CD track (like a lick) to .mp3 (or .wav). It is rated for use with W9x and Pentium. Since some of the first Pentiums were rated at 60 MHz, a fast 486 (which were rated at up to 100 MHz) might work too. Thus the system requirements seem similar to the WinAmp/Pacemaker combination above. This is the smallest effective freeware ripper I've found, 630 kb download.
If you are using a reasonably recent PC so that you are not counting every byte of HD space, the stable version on the CDex site is CDex v1.51 and includes a player and some other features. It is also a little larger (1.0 MB download), and if you are going to be using WinAmp/Pacemaker you don't need the extra capability except perhaps as a check after the music segment is compressed to .mp3. Choose depending of your HD space available.
A really small ripper really small is WavToMP3.exe (BladEnc 0.91), a DOS application distributed under GPL. 140kb. Being DOS literate is not a requirement to run or use this program. You need only drop a wav file onto the BladEnc app(icon) and it enables the program which converts wav to mp3 automatically... it can be downloaded here.
April 28, 2008 - The "here" link above still works but there is nothing to download on the page.
MusicMatchJukebox. The standard version is freeware, a fairly long download at around 5MB. A full featured player, it will convert CD's to .mp3 pretty quickly, but is much bigger than CDex 1.10. It is more processor intensive, asking for a processor of 166 MHz or greater.
Overall mp3 information is at mp3.com
There is now a beginning collection of .mp3 sound files on the Banjo Newsletter website, presented in an informal manner. These are of current tabs by the original artists as well as a telling piece of an interview with Don Reno circa 1976.
Met32. A metronome (or a different external source like ChordPlay below or the original recordings) is a necessity to a banjo player. Period. An immaculate sense of where the beat is comes with listening and learning. Met32 is a freeware metronome program with 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4 (2/2) time choices, with audio and a visual cue. Choice of click, stick, etc. Fairly large, 3.75 MB installed. PC or Macintosh, freeware.
I am unable to find a link to the version of Met32 mentioned here or for ChordPlay.
Metronome - A very small freeware metronome with the sound generated by *.wav files. You could insert your own sounds if you wish instead of stick, click, cowbell, etc. Useful if you have an older machine with limited hard disc storage. About 500 KB, not counting registry. Freeware.
Da Metronome - Really tiny, simple, loud. You can put *.wav files into the folder too. 50KB installed. W9x, Freeware.
Simple Metronome. A DOS program that is small, important if you are very short of disc space. 325KB in FAT 16, less on hard drives smaller than 500MB. Freeware.
I am unable to find Simple Metronome for DOS. For two other free metronomes, see EchoView Pro and TinyPiano or Google for "free metronome."
MusEdit - The music notation editor I use. I feel it is the best value overall and I have worked with the programmer to make it *5 string friendly*. It writes tab for banjo as well as many other instruments, notation, has a host of symbols and produces very professional looking scores. It has tremendous control over the final printed page, the entire program is the best combination tablature/notation program at any price based on ease of use and quality of the printed page. This is assuredly true for the 5 string banjo at about a fifth of the price Encore and Finale. It also does some things these two will not do, like translating piano scores to guitar/banjo. MusEdit has MIDI playback for checking scores and very limited MIDI input capability, some swing playback. But for real useful banjo playback with swing, see TablEdit below.
The banjo tab even supports separate fifth string capoing, including Tom Nechville's system which goes all the way back to the nut. The updates are often and free. PC, shareware, free demo that does it all except save files. I expect you'll prefer viewing the tabs in MusEdit with the free ME Viewer or the Demo rather than the *.gif provided. The MusEdit program is shareware. The MusEdit Viewer is like watching the Ferrari wail by, you get to enjoy it without the effort.
March 2015 - Sadly, MusEdit is no longer developed or supported and the Web site has been gone for two years. It may be available via download from freeware sites like CNET, but as always exercise caution when using such downloads. I recommend TablEdit instead (see below). Although TablEdit cannot import MusEdit files directly, if you own MuseEdit you can have it export file formats that TablEdit can import. -WF
Paul has two pages on the site about MusEdit and the MusEdit Viewer.
TablEdit - The OTHER notation editor I use. For most people, and especially for learning, TablEdit seems to be the best choice. Why? Easier entry of notes, and especially better MIDI playback with variable swing. It will import files from the obsolete, unsupported and still buggy TabRite. TabRite was good in it's day, yet times have changed, and the updated version that was promised has not materialized. There are still many TabRite tunes posted on the web. Stuff gets posted and never removed. TablEdit does not yet support multiple fonts in the document, and some other things that are ME's strong points for printed pages, yet for learning tunes it excels, and there are a lot of TablEdit tabs (including stolen ones transcribed from things like Guitar Pro or MusEdit, with arranger credit claimed) out there. There is a free viewer available, as well as a demo program which will save up to 16 measures, and view any length tab.
TABPerfect - A full featured tab writing including the custom font that has been used by Banjo Newsletter and Acutab for years. It is a Macintosh application and runs on Mac OS 6.7+. It has been run on G3 with no problems. Tab only, no MIDI. Freeware.
TABPerfect is no longer available. However, the popular TablEdit is available for Macintosh.
Spectrogram - Developed to study birdcalls, this gives a 3 dimensional picture of a *.wav file, with frequency on the vertical axis, time on the horizontal and volume shown by the color of the trace. The cursor reads out the point on the graph it is resting on. Freeware.
Frequency Analyzer - A real time frequency analyzer for use with a microphone, with a graphical display. Freeware.
Paul subscribed to Completely Free Software (and so do I). If you have an intense interest in free software, this is a good but ironically paid subscription service. Caveat: the ratings of the software are not as trustworthy as they should be. Take "5 Doves" with a grain of salt.
Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH
Edited 29 Sep 2019 by WF