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Can E-ink Displays meet Musician’s Needs?

Sep 22, 2018

The success of Amazon’s Kindle for e-books has led sheet music readers to ask themselves whether E-ink readers are better for reading music than an iPad’s LCD screen. Kindle offers a very comfortable screen with absolutely no reflections, but is this relevant when it comes to reading sheet music?

E-ink Screens are not Better for the Eyes

Before we start analyzing whether E-Ink displays are a good solution for musicians, we first want to address a recurring question related to LCD screens: whether or not they have damaging effects on the eyes. As explained in one of our previous articles, the reflections and backlighting system of the iPad’s LCD screen cause absolutely no damage to the eyes. Still, many musicians hail Kindle’s E-Ink screen as the best solution for reading music owing to the absence of backlighting, which gives it a similar feel to reading off paper. However, sticking to a paper-like screen means sticking to a lot of limitations that come when reading off paper.

E-Ink Readers do not display Colors

The first obvious limitation is that E-Ink readers do not display colors, only grayscales. While this might not be a problem for displaying parts (which are usually black and white), this is a real issue when it comes to annotations. Annotations convey musical meaning to a part and therefore must be very easy to read. To that end, many musicians have developed a color code for their annotations over the years. So while they wouldn’t have to change their habits when switching from paper to the iPad Pro, they would have to find a different working system if they were to switch to a Kindle-like screen.

A Slow Refresh Rate and Delayed Display

The second issue with E-Ink readers is their refresh rate. Changing the state of the particles used in an E-Ink display takes a lot more time than on a LCD screen, meaning that a Kindle simply cannot attain the same refresh rate than a LCD screen. This affects users’ musical experience in two ways. First, when turning pages, the next page will take more time to load, which can be an issue when performing a fast-paced piece (not to mention the inconvenient “negative image effect” that occurs when refreshing the display). On the other hand, the iPad Pro’s refresh rate is extremely fast, at 120Hz (most modern-day devices, such as TVs, usually have a refresh rate of 60Hz to 80Hz).

Another advantage of using an iPad Pro is the Apple Pencil, which gives users a much more realistic and fluid writing experience (with an industry-best, 20-millisecond latency) than a regular, capacitive stylus. For example, the Apple Pencil adjusts line thickness based on the angle of the pencil or the pressure that is applied to the screen, which is something that cannot be achieved with a regular stylus. As of today, there are no equivalents to the Apple Pencil for devices that use E-Ink technology.

It also adapts to the movements of objects on the display, ensuring a real-time page turn with absolutely no delay and no problems when playing at faster tempos.

The second pitfall of the E-Ink display slow refresh rate becomes apparent when annotating scores. Annotations appear on the screen with a delay, which creates an unnatural feeling and might disrupt users’ creative process altogether.

The LED Problem

Without a back-lighting solution, E-Ink device users have to rely on small LED lights attached to their music stand when rehearsing or performing in a concert hall. Almost every musician has experienced an issue with this system at some point in their career, whether it’s a LED light running out of battery or a broken LED bulb. The iPad Pro’s backlit screen reduces the risk of lighting issues and provides a more secure performing experience.

To make matters worse, LED lights don’t adapt to ambient lighting, making score reading challenging even with LED lights. iPads, on the other hand, automatically adjust to ambient lighting thanks to the True Tone feature developed by Apple, which adapts the white point of the display to the ambient lighting ensuring the best color balance in any given situation. It’s also worth taking into account that stage managers spend a lot of time setting up LED lights for each of the orchestral musicians. Using iPads therefore makes the stage set up faster and more efficient.

Finally, LED lights can interfere with the video recording of live performances. In 2016, during the 50th edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival, french artist Woodkid made a much-acclaimed performance in part thanks to its amazing scenography, which was shot using extensive close-ups (the video can be found on YouTube). The LED lights take up about one third of the frame in several of these close-ups, unfortunately reducing their aesthetic quality (through no fault of the videographer – the LED lamps are placed above the music stands making them very hard to avoid). Had the musicians used iPad Pros instead of music stands, the cameraman could have easily captured the perfect frame every single time.



Aurélia Azoulay