Music and Technology: Arne Wallander’s ‘NotePerformer’

NotePerformer packaging, courtesy of vendor.
NotePerformer packaging, courtesy of vendor.

WASHINGTON, June 11, 2014 – It was not so long ago that older composers would deride their younger counterparts for indulging their newfound dependence on computer playback. Implied in this criticism was a suspicion that composers employing computer technology might be guilty of a lack of musicianship. The term “midiot” was even quietly bandied about to describe these upstarts.

To be fair, making musical judgments based on MIDI performances was a perilous thing, leading many an inexperienced composer into basic orchestration errors. Yet in the face of this prejudice, the field of instrument sampling and samples has continued to advance, feeding a hungry film and media sector looking for ever more realistic mock-ups prior to orchestral recording; or, in lower budget productions, serving as backgrounds or soundtracks in and of themselves.

Composers are now arriving in an era where they can hear the sounds of a real orchestra play back their material with increasing levels of realism and musicality. What historical composer would not have killed for such a tool? Would Stravinsky have traded in his clunky upright for a modern scoring machine?

One thing that clearly prevents more composers from pursuing their own desktop orchestras is the strange disconnect which continues to exist between notation software and sample packages. One can indeed integrate professional quality samples into a notation environment. But the set-up time and additional hassle involved discourage many a potential customer.

Perhaps it is the strange academic bias against MIDI that explains the current disconnect between the playback in notation software – which even the older generation now begrudgingly employs – and professional grade samples packages. It seems that makers of notation software continue to believe composers are satisfied with second-rate playback, while makers of samples don’t seem to realize that there is a large, untapped market available.

Mr. Arne Wallander’s revolutionary “NotePerformer” products jumps ably into this gap, delivering a very affordable (MSRP: $129.00) product that claims to deliver more musical and balanced playback in Sibelius Notation Software. NotePerformer uses its own sample library, installing quickly and automatically integrating as a playback configuration file.

We tested NotePerformer with Sibelius 6 and 7.5, receiving good results in both platforms.

After an easy download and installation, NotePerformer must be added as its own playback configuration setting in Sibelius. At this point the software takes over, automatically assigning instruments to their score indications. There are no mixer settings to play with, as things generally set themselves. Already NotePerformer is impressive with regard to its ease of use.

We began our testing by opening older completed scores such as piano concertos on the computer to see if NotePerformer could live up to its promise: immediate, clean and musical playback. The results were for the most part very pleasing, with dynamics playing back at an accuracy far higher than what either Sibelius or Finale can typically achieve with their own sound sets. In addition, musical markings and special techniques were rendered without a hitch.

String techniques such as pizzicati or touch fourth harmonics in the entire section played back beautifully, while individual instruments moved smoothly between disparate techniques such as legato (“smooth” or “connected”) and marcato (“accented”) techniques. The ensemble balance was very nice, requiring only the occasional mixer adjustment to achieve desired results.

During playback, we encountered the occasional hanging note or unwanted cluster “echo,” most notably in sections of fast music with very rapid passagework. Often these were caused by a hanging tie (such as after an l.v., or “let vibrate” marking), though sometimes they simply emerged out of an apparent overwhelming of the playback system. Mr. Arne Wallander himself graciously offered to look in to this undesirable result, assuring me that it was a very rare occurrence.

Another criticism might regard universality of balance in this package. While orchestra and chamber music played well out of the box, wind ensemble scores needed far more tweaking to achieve desired results.

We opened a second and very ambitious piano concerto score from another living composer, and achieved bug-free results. In this more romantic and traditional scoring, we needed to significantly alter mixer level settings in order to get the proper balance between sections, as piercing high winds or more muscular brass sections proved underwhelming.

Conversely the harp setting needed to be raised, along with those of several percussion instruments. Despite the need for these adjustments, however, it did not take long to achieve good musical results.

The quality of the samples themselves – which include round-robin programming – was surprisingly strong considering the low price of this product, and certainly outpaced the quality of Sibelius instruments by a far margin.

There was also a variance in playback quality that will hopefully be addressed in future software upgrades. For instance, the legato strings were lovely, while repeated marcato notes quickly sounded choppy and lifeless.

In general fast string passages were less satisfying and even bordered on Quicktime quality at times, though this is balanced by the inclusion of less common sampled techniques such as cello and bass harmonics. The brass elements had a beautiful tone, but also lacked the meat and muscle for ears accustomed to American players.

Despite these critiques, the majority of the sounds and the performances generated from them proved shockingly good for the price of this package. Furthermore, the intuitive balance of this software leads us to highly suggest its purchase by and for student composers and those studying orchestration, as it really allows one to begin to “hear” the results of a composition or orchestration without too much specialist sequencing knowledge beforehand.

Where other sample packages require countless painful hours of tweaking and balancing, Wallander’s NotePerformer simply sings on its own, and in a manner that’s faithful to authentic chamber and orchestral balance and sound. Ultimately it is a tool that will allow composers to create music and effective mock-ups at a fraction of the time that it would take to do so with other orchestral sample packages.

NotePerformer is a fascinating and beautifully wrought first effort, and certainly deserves the serious support of the Sibelius community. With the appearance of this package, we can firmly declare the reasons against MIDI-bias to be effectively dead, and wish Wallander Instruments continued success in bridging the gap that other companies have so strangely ignored.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

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