Tag: music notation software

Some Thoughts About Dorico The Morning After

Members of the Ensemble Perpetuo join composer/pianist Thomas Hewitt Jones for the premiere of his new work commissioned for the launch of the Dorico music notation software program in London.

I’ll admit to being something of a notational geek.  Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars sits on my bedside table.  I collect contemporary scores.  I used to use Finale, then switched to Sibelius in 2005 after moving to London.

I don’t know any of its members personally, but it felt like a personal affront when Avid cut the Sibelius team.  And it felt akin to my team (Arsenal) winning the Premiere League (…insert joke here if you get the reference…) when I heard Cubase had scooped them up to build a brand new notation program.  All this is to say that, when I headed down to the Bush Theatre on October 18 to get my first full-on look at the new software, I was really excited.  I’m cheering for this entire experiment.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way very quickly:

• Dorico looks fantastic. It reminds me of the layout of Adobe Software such as InDesign and Photoshop. I want it. It looks intuitive and sensible. It might give me fewer rage moments than Sibelius.

• Dorico is a piece of professional notation software. (Hopefully this is not a surprise.) However intuitive it might be, there are plenty of idiosyncrasies, and it would take anyone time to learn it, and to make it do the things that you want. (It will almost certainly still cause you some rage moments.)

If you want to understand the strengths (and weaknesses) of Dorico, begin with the team that built it.  At the preview event l attended last night, Daniel Spreadbury told us that, when they first gathered together, they started with three basic goals.  Here they are, with some initial thoughts on how they impacted the software:

1. To be able to compose directly into the software.

This is fundamental to many of the innovations Dorico has created, especially the emphasis on flexibility early in the engraving process. Thomas Hewitt Jones, whose new work Doric Overture was commissioned for and premiered at the beginning of the evening, highlighted “flows” (the initial engraving step in Dorico) as inspirational and important to him because it allowed him to create an idea directly within the software without worrying about the time signature/key signature/tempo/details of that idea, and also said that this flexibility meant he would compose the remainder of his current (music theater) project in it.

2. To have a graphical output that is as good as possible, and built from the heart of historical notation.

As I’ve already said, Dorico looks great. The “graphical clarity” and attention to detail from the team is really quite impressive.  The defaults look great and, wonderfully, there is a really deep emphasis on customizability.  We naturally only skimmed along the surface of the program during the event (and I haven’t had the chance to trial it), but even from the short presentation we had, Dorico looked incredibly deep and nuanced.  This is to a point where I would bet money that most, if not all, of the major publishers will be working from Dorico very soon after its official launch. [Ed note: UPDATE – An extremely detailed description of Dorico’s history and design was just posted on the independent Sibelius blog.]

3. Since they were working at Steinberg, home of Cubase they wanted a program that sounds as great as it looks. (“At its heart is an audio engine.”)

Dorico contains within itself a playback control panel that effectively looks like the sequencer you’re used to seeing in ProTools/Logic.  It has impressive audio support (VST Plugins, 32-bit floating-point resolution, more than 1,500 sounds, etc.).  There are really no two ways about this, this is a huge step forward for the playback and programming possibilities through a piece of notation software.

I think most of the people reading this site will come to this post with two questions:

• Should I (assuming you are now an experienced composer/performer/engraver familiar with Finale or Sibelius) spend the money and time inherent in making the switch to Dorico?

• Should I tell my new/young students to start with/move to it? (Or, if you’re not yet working with Finale/Sibelius, should you start with Dorico over these competitors?)

Obviously these questions are impossible to definitively answer without actually using the software.  Intuitively, though, I think the second question is fairly obvious.  Dorico looks to be a more modern program in how it interacts with sequencing, and while I’m not sure everyone is going to love everything about it, it’s definitely every bit as powerful as either Finale or Sibelius.  Let me put it this way: I highly doubt you’re going to find something you used to be able to do in Finale or Sibelius that you’re not going to be able to do in Dorico.

But what about the first question?  This is harder to answer, particularly because we didn’t really get to see Dorico go through its paces or answer any truly difficult notational questions.  The new commission by Hewitt-Jones was fun, but there is really no question it could have been engraved in Finale or Sibelius quite easily.  And it’s great that the software is so quick and fluid at entering the music of Chopin (and Beethoven, the printed example we saw), but I write music that looks like this:

A sample of music by Aaron Holloway-Nahum engraved using Sibelius

and The Riot Ensemble, from time to time, performs music that looks like this:

A sample of music by Evan Johnson, engraving method unknown.

Now I don’t think Evan Johnson did that in Sibelius, but I made my score there, and while it wasn’t without its annoyances, my personal decision is probably going to come down to the price, unless the program really saves me a ton of time in producing this.

Two other little points:

• I write all of my music by hand first, and only then enter it into an engraving software. So, when it comes to their priority of being able to compose directly into the software, I don’t do this and the many options that facilitate it don’t really speak to me.

• I also don’t expect (or even want) my engraving software to play this back to me.In all my roles (composer, conductor, teacher) I’m a bit reticent about this move toward smarter and “better-sounding” software, because it hasn’t ever captured anything of the performance reality in new (contemporary classical) music, plus it can (and does) make a lot of composers lazy and a lot of performers lives a lot harder.  I’m involved in seeing and performing a lot of new scores each year with The Riot Ensemble, and without wanting to labor the point, we can tell really quickly when a composer is relying on the computer playback or notation engines.

So, I guess the summary is: be excited.  This is a really good-looking piece of software that has a lot of promise.  Do try it, and then you’ll have to see if it works for you.  I certainly will do this, and if NewMusicBox will have me, I’ll be back with further thoughts once I have!

Interview with Daniel Spreadbury of Dorico

The moment we’ve been waiting for is finally here. Three years ago Daniel Spreadbury and the Sibelius team left Avid, and shortly thereafter work began on a new scoring application for Steinberg, the German company behind Cubase, among other music products.

Last week at a conference in Helsinki the product was announced. It’s called Dorico, named after a Roman music engraver, and will be released in the fourth quarter of 2016. There will be a cross-grade discount (€299) available to qualifying Finale and Sibelius users for a short time after launch.

Hopes for Dorico are high in the field, following a few difficult releases in the other major commercial applications. We were thrilled to be able to ask Daniel Spreadbury a few questions during this busy week about his work in open source and web standards, some of Dorico’s most exciting features for composers, and how Dorico users will benefit from the larger Steinberg ecosystem.

KC: What Dorico features do you think will make composers want to become Dorico users?
DS: Dorico takes a fundamentally different approach to how it thinks about music than existing scoring programs; its music model is much closer to the way that a sequencer or DAW thinks about music in MIDI terms. In a sequencer, a single MIDI note can give rise to a variety of different appearances in the sequencer’s integrated score view, based on the display quantization in use: it might appear as a single note, or as a sequence of tied notes. As the music is edited, the notation is effectively recreated on the fly. Scoring programs don’t tend to work that way: instead, once a note is created, it becomes a rather concrete thing. For example, if you create a quarter note on the last eighth of a 4/4 bar, the scoring program will correctly interpret that as two tied eighth notes either side of the barline. But if you cut and paste that music such that those notes both end up in the same bar, those tied notes won’t be recombined into a single quarter note again.

So firstly Dorico does think about music more like the way a sequencer does, and as you edit the score, the music will be renotated to the simplest and clearest rhythmic notation. However, it wouldn’t be any good if Dorico decided to combine those two tied eighth notes into a quarter note if they ended up, say, crossing the third beat of a 4/4 bar, because as every good music theory student knows, in time signatures with a half-bar, unless you have an established syncopated pattern going, you should always show the beat at the half-bar, so in that case that quarter note should remain as two tied eighth notes. In a nutshell, this is what Dorico does: it has a deep algorithmic understanding of the way rhythm and meter works, so it’s able to produce clear and unambiguous rhythmic notation in any situation.

Add to this that Dorico also provides tools to allow notes to be lengthened or shortened, and for music to be inserted in the middle of an existing voice, all of which keeps the music notated clearly at every point, and this is hopefully a big improvement for composers. Composers who would like to be able to do some composing directly into software and who would prefer to work in notation rather than MIDI from the start will find Dorico a much more welcoming and accommodating environment for their work than other scoring software. Our philosophy is that the user should not be penalised for changing his or her mind at any stage in the compositional process.

KC: You’ve made major contributions to open source and web standards projects for music notation. How does that work relate to Dorico, and what might be possible in the future?
DS: We have been working on the SMuFL standard for music fonts since a few months after we joined Steinberg, and SMuFL is now being developed under the auspices of the W3C’s Music Notation Community Group, which is also now the steward of the MusicXML format widely used by hundreds of music notation applications. As one of the three co-chairs of the group, I’m hoping that we will be able to build upon the strong foundations of both SMuFL and MusicXML to enrich the way music notation is encoded and to open up new possibilities for interactive applications, digital music distribution and consumption, while hopefully making it easier for software developers to handle this stuff.

As for how this relates to Dorico, a lot of the W3C work is forward-looking, so it’s not yet possible to draw too many conclusions about exactly how this will impact the software. In the short to medium term, we aim to have great support for SMuFL, and good support for import and export of MusicXML. In the longer term, we’re excited to see where the community takes the work on standardising the representation of music notation.

As an aside, I’ve been thrilled to see how Bravura, the reference font for SMuFL and Dorico’s default music font, which we released under the Open Font License a couple of years ago, has taken off: it’s now being used in a variety of music applications both on the desktop and the web, and it’s also starting to be used for publications by some of the biggest publishing houses, which is a great endorsement for the aesthetics and practicalities that have gone into Bravura, and I’m excited to see what people can do with Bravura when they get to use it in Dorico, which it was initially designed for.

KC: How will Dorico users be able to benefit from the broader Steinberg ecosystem?
DS: In the first instance, the inclusion of Steinberg’s world-class audio engine as used by Cubase and Nuendo is an obvious advantage. You’ll be able to use any VST 3-compatible virtual instruments and effects in Dorico – and certain VST 2-compatible plug-ins, too, since we know there are widely-used plug-ins that have not yet been updated to the new VST 3 standard. Our vision for Dorico’s playback features is that you will have the most direct control over how your music is realised by virtual instruments of any scoring software, and we’re doing that by borrowing some of the idioms more commonly found in Cubase, such as showing the music in a piano roll view, and allowing graphical editing of real-time controller data.

Over time, we hope to build powerful workflows that allow you to move projects between Dorico and Cubase with ease, since especially in the field of music for media it is not uncommon for a project to start in the sequencer and end in the scoring program if there is a live session to record, or indeed to start in the scoring program and end in the sequencer if a mock-up or virtual realisation needs to be produced.

Steinberg also makes some great virtual instruments of its own, with some new and exciting things coming up in the near future, and the UR series of audio interfaces has both top-notch build quality, audio quality, and solid drivers, too.

KC: NewMusicBox is a new music publication. Are there extended techniques that Dorico will handle particularly well, for instance microtonality, aleatoric notation, or unmeasured music?

DS: The first version of Dorico will not have every possible contemporary composition technique covered, but I hope that what it will demonstrate is that we are willing to tackle some of these areas. Dorico is the first GUI-based scoring software to truly support writing in open meter: in fact, when you start writing in an empty project, by default you get no time signature, and so Dorico doesn’t put in any barlines. You can go back and add a time signature at any time, and soon you’ll be able to simply insert barlines wherever you like to divide up a passage of unmetered music. You can also create a system break anywhere you like – even in the middle of a set of nested tuplets, if need be!

We have pretty good support for microtonality too: although the user interface is not yet finished, our engine has support for tuning systems with arbitrary equal divisions of the octave, so you can easily work with 24-EDO quartertones, 53-EDO Turkish maqam music, or set up your own 72-EDO system. You will be able to define your own system of accidentals, including specifying the number of EDOs that a given accidental should raise or lower the unmodified written pitch, and set up custom key or mode signatures that use those accidentals in any combination. We’re not yet sure exactly how playback of these kinds of microtones will be handled, but the semantics and the graphics will be there from the start.

Dorico also has support for many of the different conventions employed through the last century for accidental duration rules – so if you want accidentals to apply only to the note on which they are first written, and show naturals on all unmodified notes, or not repeat accidentals if the same pitch is immediately repeated, and so on, Dorico has all of that covered.

We don’t have great support for arbitrary graphical notations in the first release. There is so much complexity to producing really beautiful conventional music notation that we haven’t yet been able to focus on the kinds of convention-busting notations that have been used through the latter half of the 20th century and into the new century, but hopefully we will be able to build on our foundations in this area as the application matures. I think it’s worth saying that Dorico’s focus is on music that can still largely be written using conventional staff notation (and eventually tablature) rather than completely arbitrary graphics. I think other software will provide better tools for scores whose requirements barely include any conventional elements at all.

KC: Lastly, is there a way to apply to beta test Dorico?

DS: We are not quite ready to start beta testing Dorico just yet. We have already been inundated with literally hundreds of requests from prospective users from all sorts of musical fields who are interested in helping to iron the kinks out of the first version of our software, and that is incredibly encouraging. We will certainly not be able to accommodate everybody who has expressed an interest, and might even end up with some kind of a lottery system. If I haven’t managed to dissuade your readers from expressing an interest altogether, then of course they are free to get in touch with me, either via the new Dorico forum on the Steinberg web site, or via the Making Notes blog.

*Updated 5/24 at Spreadbury’s request to clarify his orginal comment

Notation Software Alternatives

LilyPond logo featuring a drawing of a lilypond superimposed on a measure of two stave music notation

Might LilyPond be a viable alternative to Finale or Sibelius? Some composers think so.

Since posting Bill Holab’s “To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade? A Notation Software Update” just prior to the Independence Day holiday weekend, there’s been a steady flow of comments from our readers. While many commenters were directly focused on the immediate topic of yay or nay vis-à-vis Sibelius 8, others have passionately advocated for alternative music notation software programs. James Harkins’s remarks about LilyPond caught our attention in particular:

I’ve used LilyPond for my own scores for the last five years or so, and I can say confidently that the amount of manual tweaking that it takes to get a “good enough” result is a small fraction of what I used to have to do in Finale. Many composers will be put off by its text input, but what you get for it is automated layout that’s 95% of the way there (instead of 70%). Whether you take to LilyPond or not depends, I think, on cognitive style. If you feel like, “Don’t bore me with a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo — when do I get to put some notes on screen?” — LilyPond won’t be for you. If, instead, you feel, “I can’t stand making the same adjustment by hand 10,000 times — isn’t there some system that could just get it right?” — you might prefer LP. … Oh, and LP is free/libre software, fully open-source. No licensing drama.

What music notation software works best for you and why?