Review: DORICO Notation Software: Was it worth the wait?

Steinberg Media packed their new Dorico music notation software release with enough exciting features and functionality to lure would-be users into giving their package a try. (UPDATED)

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Dorico product marketing manager Daniel Spreadbury discusses his company’s innovative music notation package. (Screen capture from YouTube video)

NORTH CANTON, Ohio, March 7, 2017 – Though the creators of Steinberg Media Technologies’ new Dorico music notation software may officially deny it, there was something unexpected about the apparently sudden release of the company’s potentially industry-shaking new software package. Dorico’s official blog was still busy discussing details of notation fonts, then suddenly – bang – there it was: the whole package was out there and available to the public.

Actually, Daniel Spreadbury—Dorico product marketing manager—and Steinberg may very well have dropped Dorico onto the market at just the right time. Many composers and musicians have been increasingly frustrated with their current notation packages—mainly Finale and Sibelius—while major software developers continue to defy the wishes of their loyal but disgruntled users. If Dorico’s sudden appearance felt like an abrupt release to some, it is nothing if not a complete and radically new way to approach music notation on the computer.

In all likelihood, many composers spend as much time with their notation software as they do with their families and significant others, learning in turn to channel their personal creative methodologies into an automated flow of related actions and routines through their software of choice. As such, there is something strangely disconcerting about attempting to approach something as natural as music notation in an entirely new way after having spent so many years working with another product.

The creators of Dorico surely knew that such long-term habits likely doomed in advance most new music software releases, quickly consigning newcomers to the field to instant second-class obscurity. So they packed their new release with a veritable plethora of exciting features and functionality to lure would-be users into giving their package a try.


Between the innovations offered by this pace-setting software and the growing customer frustration with the apparent stagnation of the two venerable competing packages, Dorico’s latest v. 1.0.30 release may have found a winning, perhaps a breakthrough formula.

(Dorico product marketing manager Daniel Spreadbury briefly discusses his company’s innovative music notation package in the following YouTube video.)

User Interface

Upon opening Dorico, the user is greeted with the “Steinberg Hub” window. Here, users can scroll among tabs demarcating recent projects and various standard instrumentation projects as well as a the option to choose a new project. (Figure 1, below.)

Figure 1.

Those familiar with Steinberg’s digital audio workspace (DAW) product Cubase will immediately recognize Dorico’s minimalist color scheme and no-nonsense pallet, family hallmarks that distinguish this design.

If the user elects to begin working with a blank slate, the main workspace of Dorico emerges, and the interface asks him or her to create either a solo part, a section, or an entire ensemble group. (Figure 2, below.)

Figure 2.

Regarding workflow concerns, Dorico will not allow you to port your existing package’s favorite set of shortcuts, so be forewarned: there is a learning curve involved in moving to this software.

The good news is that Dorico’s common-sense keyboard input controls seem designed to specifically allay this variety of new-user stress. For example, keyboard numbers represent note values, letter names match their notes, with 0/-/= providing natural, flat, and sharp keys. For example, to enter a quarter note F# in a new score or bar, the user needs merely double-click the space where the note will go, and press 6 = F or “quarter note- sharp – note name.”

Other easy entry commands: “R” will repeat a note, “S” will slur, and so forth. Pressing shift plus a letter will generally lead you to a common usage under a single letter mnemonic. More examples: “Shift-K” will change your key signature, “shift-M” your meter or time signature.

To input dynamics over a group of notes, a user would click and drag to highlight the group of notes, press “shift-D” for dynamics, and then type the appropriate command available in a pop-over menu. Typing “p<f>p” would give you an evenly spaced crescendo from piano (p) to forte (f) and back down to piano in the space of the highlighted notes. Pressing “shift T” and typing “6 = 72” in the resulting dialog box will give you a quarter note = 72 marking. Frankly, with this logical, easy-to-remember methodology, there couldn’t be a friendlier way for Dorico to coax time-hassled musicians to give them a try.

Another simple but welcome Dorico feature is its “insert” tool. This tool allows a composer to – for instance – change the rhythmic values of an entire section of music while Dorico rhythmically shifts what comes after that section in order to avoid gaps and keep metrical notation relationally correct. Therefore, if a user is working with a long string of 16th notes, wherein 8 notes in the middle of this phrase must now become eighth notes, Dorico will make the change while shifting the following notes over correctly.

Expression Maps and Playback Mode

Upon Dorico’s initial release, there were grumbles of concern among users, as a number of common sense features, such as immediate note playback, were not present.

As I researched these concerns relating to the supposed omissions and bugs in Dorico’s original release, I took a look at the Steinberg boards where regular users were having extended conversations with Daniel Spreadbury and members of his staff about this earlier software release.

Slightly over a month later, it appeared that a majority of the posters’ most significant concerns were addressed in the massive 10GB 1.1 update. This mega-improvement release added numerous features including immediate note playback response, easier instrument changes, more virtual studio technology (VST) expression maps, a new transposition menu, a group interval creator (as in, adding a perfect fifth to an entire stream of notes) and a staff spacing tool.

A major function of the expression maps also allows users to build a bridge between the way a particular third party software instrument maps different articulations and techniques – such a violin moving from “arco” to “non-vib” to “pizz” – and the way in which Dorico handles them. With the advent of the expression map in Dorico, the unpleasant days given over to entering annoying and unwieldy-appearing key switch notes into traditional scores are now over.

The company’s new upgrade is smaller than its previous one, but it is similarly feature-packed and notably improves efficiency.

One could only wish that companies creating music software would be as open and available to user observations and suggestions as Steinberg has been with Dorico. Thus far, Daniel Spreadbury’s team and their new benefactor, Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH—a wholly-owned Yamaha subsidiary since 2005—have delivered in an honest and almost self-effacing way. Clearly, with the introduction of Dorico’s first two updates, the Dorico team is demonstrating that they are here to work for and with their new community, applying user feedback as promptly as possible to generate meaningful and powerful product improvements.

One remaining major shortfall, which was not addressed in the first Dorico update, is the package’s inability to create custom playing techniques. For example, in order to create playing techniques in the expression map, certain techniques must be named. So if my scores typically specify “norm.” to indicate a normal style of playing – and if I want to map this to the standard bowed technique of my favorite string patch – the technique I want currently does not exist. Therefore it cannot be employed without adding an annoying keyswitch note.

Encouragingly, Daniel Spreadbury has directly spoken of adding this ability to a future update, however, so we have no reason not to take him at his word, given the robust nature of Dorico’s initial updates.

Playback

The new “play” view in Dorico ports a portion of the Cubase piano roll view into the world of notation software, with its playback engine being based on the Cubase engine as well. (Figures 3 and 4 below.)

Figure 3.
Figure 4.

Currently this is the view in which users can assign software instruments and affect the length of individual notes without changing the actual notation so as to, for instance, create better legato passages in string parts. Clearly, this is still a skeleton system. But the promise remains for future versions to include options such as velocity modification and other MIDI control changes.

We should encourage Dorico’s developers to energetically pursue this area of control, as it would achieve the long-held dream of a full “in the box” single software solution for many composers.

For many Sibelius users, the indispensable Wallander Note Performer plugin has become a valuable, time-saving and musically inspirational part of their creative process. While a NotePerformer plugin does not currently exist for Dorico, an email to Mr. Wallander and his response confirmed his openness to making such a port. Only time will tell.

Conclusion

It is up to each individual user to decide if the robust and exciting new Dorico software is for them, as ultimately such decisions come down to how one’s individual creative methods mesh with a given software package.

Yet despite a few missteps along the way, Dorico may indeed represent the powerful new frontier of 21st century notation software options, which means that every serious composer and arranger should be open to giving them a shot. With their extended free trial and generous crossgrade options packaged together with an expansive new software architecture just begging to be fully adopted and employed, Steinberg may very well have released a great new notation package with genuine staying power.

Additional product information: Dorico music scoring software is currently available via Steinberg reseller asknetAG’s online store for a retail list price of US$559.99, without VAT tax and with free shipping from the Eurozone. Additionally, “crossgrade” deals from other popular competitor’s packages such as Sibelius or Finale are available via this link. Dorico is also available via Amazon Prime at slightly higher prices, although the available version number is not currently listed or referenced on the site. According to information on the asknetAG link, the current release of Dorico will run on PCs under Windows 10 and on Macintosh computers under MacOS 10.11 and 10.12, aka El Capitan and Sierra.

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