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Daniel Spreadbury discusses new ‘Dorico’ music notation software

Written By | Jul 22, 2016

CHICAGO, July 21, 2016 — We are pleased to bring you this exclusive interview with that mystery man of music notation, Daniel Spreadbury, former lead designer for the “Sibelius” music notation package. He has been teasing us with screen shots of Steinberg Media Technologies’ upcoming “Dorico” (pronounced “DO-ri-co”) package for about two years now—which certainly makes sense, as he is now Steinberg’s designer and marketing manager for the company’s long-awaited new music notation product.

Music notation software designer and marketer Daniel Spreadbury. (Image via Mr. Spreadbury's Facebook page)

Music notation software designer and marketer Daniel Spreadbury. (Image via Mr. Spreadbury’s Facebook page)

The questions we posed to Daniel in this extensive two-part interview were largely taken from several public and private conversations this writer had with composers from across the United States. All are skillful professionals and educators working in various genres and musical worlds. Their concerns represent what many composers are thinking – and in some cases fearing – regarding the potential migration process from notation software they currently use.

Mark Nowakowski: Welcome, Daniel, and thank you for your time today.

Daniel Spreadbury: It’s my pleasure, Mark.

MN: I think a lot of music tech watchers were caught off guard by the announcement of the imminent release of Dorico. We’ve seen number of posts on the exhaustive development of just the musical fonts, and were figuring that you were at least a year or two out from release. Was the outward appearance of glacial progress followed by a sudden announcement a scenario by design? Did the pace of production simply pick up at a certain point? Or is speculation like this essentially an inaccurate observation not matched by the reality of the product development cycle?

DS: I think it’s an inaccurate observation. I’ve been blogging about our progress since a couple of weeks after our talented development team first starting building the low-level architecture of the application back at the start of 2013. A huge amount of time and effort went into the foundations upon which the application now stands, and it took a few months before we had even the most rudimentary of notation displaying. The first display only handled rhythms rather than pitches, for example. To get from there to where we are today in three years is pretty astonishing, but we still have a long way to go.

The first version of Dorico will have a lot of depth in the core functional areas, but it will inevitably be missing features in many areas when compared to its more mature competition. Our philosophy is to only add a feature when we can do it justice. We want to make sure that, as far as possible, nothing in Dorico is half-baked.

Read also: More news on soon-to-be-released ‘Dorico’ music notation software

MN: Between 1998 and 2000, a number of frustrated Finale users migrated to a slick new program called Sibelius. Now this once vaunted package seems to be lingering in some kind of development limbo, while many nervous Sibelius users seem ready to follow the former Sib development team into the brave new world of Dorico. Which new key features do you think might convince composers to migrate to your package, and will there be any effective software plugins in place to help users convert their many folders of scores to the new format?

DS: Converting scores from existing scoring applications to Dorico will be possible by way of MusicXML. Composers will need to be realistic about the fidelity of importing a completed project from another program, however. Different applications take different approaches to MusicXML export, and MusicXML itself cannot always fully describe exactly what somebody has done in a specific application in a way that allows it to be translated properly.

If you have a project that is complete, or nearly complete, in another program, my advice would be to keep it there: although Dorico’s default engraving is superior to that of its competitors, there would still be a considerable amount of work required to re-create all of the tweaks that have been painstakingly performed already. If, however, you have a project for which you have not yet performed layout tweaks, or where the revisions are likely to be substantial in any case, that would be a good candidate for importing into Dorico via MusicXML, and you would hopefully then benefit from some of the time-saving features Dorico includes.

Realistically, Dorico will not have every feature that Finale and Sibelius have. Although we are very proud of the breadth and depth of what we have managed to achieve in the three-plus years we’ve been working on Dorico, we are going up against two very mature applications with decades of development behind them. So there will certainly be specific kinds of music that Dorico will not be able to handle in its very first version – I’m thinking especially of things like guitar tab, or certain kinds of early music, or complex percussion writing, and so on – and that will inevitably mean that some users will not be able to get their work done in Dorico right at the outset. We will absolutely address these areas as soon as we can.

As I have already said, our philosophy is not to add a feature to Dorico until we can do it justice. But I hope that people will look at the things we have built and see that they are a strong indication of our aspirations and what we want Dorico to become. The release of the first version is really the beginning of the journey, not the arrival at the final destination.

I think that users of existing programs will find the flexibility of input and editing really powerful and that it will enable working with scoring software in a fundamentally different way, with much more freedom. The way that the application separates out the different phases of working in order to put the different features at your fingertips at the right time, keeping the rest out of the way, is also a big shift and a big advantage. And I believe that the attention we are giving to the nitty-gritty details of music engraving will also be transformative, as the music you produce with Dorico will simply look better, more quickly.

MN: Many users lead mobile lifestyles and move freely between desktop and laptop computers. Will each copy of Dorico require a separate license, or will it – like certain other current non-notation software packages – allow multiple installs per license?

DS: Dorico will use Steinberg’s Soft-eLicenser technology, which locks the software to a single machine. Users will also receive a hardware USB-eLicenser that allows them to move their Dorico license, either temporarily or permanently, to another machine. You can find out more specifics about Dorico’s licensing on our forum.

MN: Major companies like Adobe and Avid are moving towards subscription-
based and online hosted services. This often greatly distresses the many users who benefit immensely from paying a one-time fee to own the software, as it allows them to assemble their digital toolkit at a financially advantageous pace. Concurrently many composers and songwriters would frankly be financially stressed (if not financially decimated) if they suddenly had to start paying monthly fees for all of the essential tools they have accumulated over the years. Will Dorico remain a stand-alone local hosted application, or are there plans to either fully or partially go with the subscription option in the future?

DS: In common with Steinberg’s other products, Dorico will use simple, one-off pricing and will not be sold under a subscription model for the foreseeable future. Steinberg surveyed its customers on this issue a couple of years ago, and the feedback we received was resoundingly against moving to a subscription plan. Of course things could change in the future, but as far as we can see for now, the plan is that we will release Dorico at a particular price, you will be free to choose whether or not to buy a license, and when we later issue paid updates that add new features, you will be free to choose whether or not to buy that update; and if you do skip an update, you will not be penalized if you decide to buy another update at some point in the future.

PR photo for one of Dorico's numerous available tools.

PR photo for one of Dorico’s numerous available tools.

MN: Sibelius users have recently been treated to the beautiful third party Wallander “Note Performer” plugin offering great sound and musical playback in a very inexpensive package. Will Dorico work with a company like Wallander or bring its own intuitive playback to the fore?

DS: As the inventor of the VST technology upon which all virtual instruments and effects are based, Steinberg also has some pretty wonderful instruments in its portfolio. Dorico itself will come with HALion Sonic SE, and the complete HALion Symphonic Orchestra, which is perhaps showing its age now in comparison to some of the newer and bigger kids on the orchestral sample library block; but it has some great sounds and will work in Dorico seamlessly. Dorico will also support all third party VST 3 – and some VST 2 – plug-ins, so if Wallander and other third party developers want to develop instruments for use with Dorico, we’d be delighted to work with them to make sure they work as well as possible.

MN: This column is very concerned with the integration of third party software instruments for serious composers, an area which the current notation packages address awkwardly at best. Will Dorico offer new and more musically intuitive options to improve workflow with third party instruments?

DS: The basic approach we are taking towards integration with third-party virtual instruments is to provide as much direct control as possible to the user, both over choice of sounds and over the nuances of how those sounds are handled by the software. In our former lives working on another well-known scoring program, I think we probably tried to make the software handle too much in both these dimensions, to the point that the system ended up fearsomely complex for the new user and frustratingly indirect for the experienced user. Having to serve both these types of users with the same software is certainly a balancing act.

Cubase includes a technology called VST Expression Maps, which provides a means of mapping between markings and instructions that you can create; for example, in Cubase’s Score Editor for things like changing between arco and pizz. [pizzicato], or playing a half-step or whole-step trill, and so on, to the specific capabilities of a particular virtual instrument or sound library.

The change in playing technique can trigger a keyswitch, or a change in a MIDI controller value, or a program change (i.e., choosing a different sound), or even a completely different instrument, in more or less any combination. This fulfills the same basic role as the sound set XML file does in Sibelius, but with a more focused set of supported techniques, and [with] none of the complicated sound substitution and fallback behavior that makes Sibelius’s handling of virtual instruments hard to predict and impossible to fully set up for a complex library without an enormous investment of time in building a sound set file. [That’s] something which probably only a handful of people in the world have been able to do successfully.

So Dorico’s approach is to build upon the VST Expression Maps technology that is already included in Cubase, expanding the repertoire of playing techniques beyond the two dozen or so that Cubase supports to allow a bit more flexibility in handling the more detailed sample libraries.

Given the scope of what needs to be built, it’s quite likely that the first version of Dorico will not deliver the complete solution in this area. But the vision is that in Dorico’s dedicated Play mode you will be able to set up these expression map parameters using a simple user interface.

The basic workflow will be to load a plug-in into the VST rack, then load each patch into each slot or channel in the plug-in, making sure that each channel in the plug-in is routed to a separate output so that you have proper flexibility over balancing and mixing in Dorico’s mixer. Then you tell Dorico which instrument sound is provided by each channel in your plug-in, including which alternative playing techniques are available by way of switches within that patch, e.g., by way of keyswitches or MIDI controller changes. This allows Dorico to understand which playing techniques belonging to which instrument sounds are provided by each channel of each plug-in. Each of these individual destinations is known as an “end point.”

When you then start adding players and instruments to your project, Dorico can automatically assign each new instrument to the most appropriate end point, and you will be able to save your expression map setup plus rack full of VST plug-ins and their loaded sounds as a kind of playback template you can re-use in other projects.

Altogether this will hopefully make the act of assigning sounds to third party virtual instruments much more direct than in other programs and much more in keeping with the established workflows that experienced users are already familiar with from their sequencer or DAW.

As for bringing these virtual instruments to life through adding expression and nuance to playback, over time I’m sure we will be able to implement algorithms that add human expression to playback. But in the immediate future our focus is going to be on providing direct control over the MIDI data that is sent to the plug-ins by way of editing continuous controllers and note onsets, offsets, and velocities in much the same way you can in Cubase, albeit more limited.

NEXT: Audio engine, onboard sounds, inputs, key combos and the future of music notation software.

Mark Nowakowski

Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He holds five degrees in various music concentrations