Making Old New Again: Our Process
Many people have been asking about our process for converting old texts into pristine modern digital editions, so I am going to take a few minutes and lay out the step by step process we go through for each digital edition we create at qPress. Most of the books we modernize were originally published in the 20th century, and with the advent of acid free paper and advanced printing techniques, the original volumes hold up very well and require little preservation. Those books that were published in the 19th century, they are a totally different story. Let’s take the image above as an example (Alexandre Petit’s Seize Grande Etudes) and dive into how we breathe new life into centuries old trumpet methods.
Why We Do It.
There are three key reasons why we go to the trouble of digitally editing old trumpet methods and etude books. They include managing the size of the original volume, the deterioration of the paper the book was printed on, and the integrity of the black ink as it sits on the paper after more than a century on the shelf. We take control of each of these three areas during the digitization process. Here is why we do it:
- Size: Most old editions of sheet music are on very oversized paper. The smallest volumes are 9 x 12 but more often then not they are 11 x 13. This oversized paper is too big to be scanned by a regular sized scanner, does not print very well onto 8.5 x 11 consumer grade printers, and can make for massive file sizes when transferred to tablets and cell phones for study on the go. To remedy this we resize every document to a ratio that matches consumer A4 sized printers and will make a comfortably sized file for digital transfer. All the while maintaining a pleasing margin for easy reading.
- Paper (background colour): After more than a century in a vault the original paper of a 19th century book turns brown or yellow, starts to crack and crumble, and can become discoloured around the edge. Many publishers will make a colour copy to avoid the hassle of dealing with the degradation, but we do not consider that to be the best practice. If we sell you a brown page with black ink on it, it will look awful when you print it on your black and white printer and take up all of your storage space on your digital devices. Instead, we painstakingly clean every inch of the original, like in the example above, to make a perfect contrast between the black music and the paper it is printed on.
- Ink quality: Over time the ink begins to fade on all books. You have probably seen this before on your older music books when the note heads start to turn grey and the paper begins to show underneath them. We digitally enhance all of the blacks to increase contrast and readability.
How We Do It: Size
The size part of the equation includes scanning and resizing. The resizing part, that is easy, but so many ebook publishers do not take this into account and it leaves customers in a lurch when it is time to format and print. First we scan the book, obviously. For books that are up to 12″ tall, then can be scanned in portrait mode and move onto step two right away. For anything larger it requires scanning the book in landscape and turning the book 180 degrees for each page, keeping the spine always pointing in the same direction. This keeps the integrity of the margin and keeps everything as straight as possible. In the end you get a book that has every other page needing to be rotated the opposite way. That is when you open Adobe Acrobat Pro. We set up a batch rotate for the even and odd pages separately then set up a crop to control the margins. Once everything is right side up, we save the document and export it into the size we want. We use 8.5 x 11 as the ratio, check the margins for readability, and save our book so we can move on to stage two: clean up.
How We Do It: Clean Up
For anyone who has ever scanned a document, dealing with the digital file can be a hassle. The edges tend to have shadows, especially when dealing with a thick book, the background colour from the original makes patterns that hamper readability, and the edges of the paper are always visible in the scan. You can see all of these problems in the example photo above. The background is almost completely grey from the yellowing of the original paper, the folded edges are showing on the left, and dirt from the scan head makes speckles everywhere. To deal with all of these problems you need two things: time, and software.
When it comes to time, we can’t help you there, but for software you can go with a program like Photoshop, or you can use something like Photoline. To do the edits in Photoshop you will need to export the whole PDF as a set of images, which can be done in Acrobat, then edit each in PS, then compile them back into a PDF in Acrobat when you are done. If you use something like Photoline you can edit the pdf as one file, but you need to save often as it will max out your memory and crash after you make edits to a few dozen pages. This type of editing is a two stage process per page, kind of like throwing a grenade to make a big impact, then getting out your scalpel to do the detail work. Here is how we do it:
- Background: This refers to the grey areas in the photo above. You want to use some kind of algorithm to get rid of all of it. You can do this with filters in Photoshop or Photoline. Even though I called this a grenade, you do still want to be careful. If you take away too much, the note heads get very grey and readability suffers. If you don’t do enough, reading the notes through the noise is even worse. You want to choose a filter that will remove a pixles of a certain size. 1px to 2px is usually enough, and if you go up to 3px, all but the strongest note stems will be deleted. We remove as much as we can with this brute force method, then take out the scalpel to do the rest.
- Edges, speckles, folds: These need to be removed by hand. Using either program you can use an eraser tool, set its size appropriately, and move around your zoomed page image while you sweep away the artifacts. You can get carried away doing this, but anything smaller than 2 or 3 pixels won’t show up on a print or a tablet screen, so you learn how much needs to go. Go around the edges first, then between the staffs, then between the lines of the staff, each time with a smaller brush to get where you need to go.
- Straightening: This might seem obvious but it is extremely important. Each page needs to be straightened using a grid to check all margins, titles, and staff lines. Some of the oldest books have irreconcilable axis. The titles are aligned with each other, and the staffs with themselves, but never with each other. If it is seriously off we make new layers and straighter each individually. That is not always the case, but it is worth the effort when a book is severely out of line.
How We Do It: Black Ink
The ink quality issue is an interesting one. I have played from so many books with faded ink that I don’t even notice it anymore. That is, I didn’t notice until I started using qPress editions with enhanced blacks. It is done in the exact same way that you remove the background, you can do it using a filter. A quality filter will remove or combine pixels of a certain size based on your settings. When you set the background filter to remove the grey speckles you are telling the program to remove anything that is smaller than a certain size. You can do the same thing in reverse to preserve the blacks and that is exactly what we do. You can set a large pixel size and watch the blacks on the page increase in contrast right before your eyes.
There are three side effects of this action, one is good, two are bad. The good is the quality of the notes and stems. They jump out from the background and print very well on consumer printers. Bad effect #1 is that it will enhance any speckles left on the page, so you may need to get out the eraser and go again. Bad effect #2 is when things get very frustrating. When you were enhancing those blacks, the white spaces between all of your sixteenth notes have now closed up because they were smaller than your filter pixel size setting. You have a page of giant black stripes! This is where you decide how bad you want it. In the example above I painstakingly added white lines between every sixteenth note. I matched the angle to the stems so perfectly you would never notice unless I mentioned it. A very big job, yes, but when you see the before and after like that it is totally worth it. Want to see it up close? Here it is original size.
How Long Does This Take Anyways?
Every book is different, that is for sure. Some just need to have their pages straightened and edge shadow removed. Others need to have full pages of text retyped, all the backgrounds removed, markings erased, all pages de-skewed, and blacks enhanced. The worse specimens can take 20 minutes per page, so you can do the math on the total time obligation for full length methods. Is it worth it? I think so. If a book has stood the test of time and is a part of our rich history as trumpeters it deserves to be preserved to the best of our ability to usher in a new generation of musicians to learn from its teachings.
Have any questions? Ask in the comments, I am happy to elaborate. When you play trumpet for a living, who doesn’t want to talk to shop?
Timothy Quinlan, Founder | qPress