Composing in the DAW vs. Dorico

Alright Dorico fam, I’m gonna get a bit vulnerable here.

I am a composer for visual/interactive media. My process has pretty much always been writing into notation software, first Sibelius and now Dorico. I stay in Dorico pretty much through orchestration and then migrate to my DAW (Cubase) for the final programming/expression writing etc for mockups. I feel this process is important to my voice as a composer as I am very “cellular” in my composition and rely on the visual space of notation for orientation in my harmonic motion and counterpoint. I have also become very fast in Dorico, especially now with the transformation actions in 4.

I am currently doing an MFA program in music composition for media. My professors and some guest composers have indicated that, given the fast paced nature of the industry and deadlines, I should probably compose straight into the DAW. For some context however, all of the people who have suggested this to me are self-identified as being comparatively slower in notation software than the DAW (the opposite of me). Many of them also are not familiar with Dorico and its features for writing directly to picture and that it really is the most “DAW-y” of the notation softwares. Nonetheless, this feedback has got my wheels spinning in concern of ceding what I feel helps me create something unique to the demands of expediency and industry expectation. I would love to hear people’s thoughts on this.

What I feel like I need to do is create some sort of “proof of concept” I finally have a PC powerful enough (12core AMD, 128 GB of RAM) to run the BBCSO Dorico Template. What I am hoping to be able to do is do as much or as little as I desire within Dorico itself and then migrate to Cubase without a ton of lost time Perhaps even be able to create mock-ups with a satisfactory level of quality within Dorico for client approval/notes before I even have to move to Cubase.

Does anyone have any experience with migrating their BBCSO dorico template sessions, specifically with expression map and CC expression data to the Cubase Template? And/or doing CC expression writing in Dorico?

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I’ve spent some time with the ccs and different libraries, to learn and see whether I’m really into this or not… I’d suggest to wait some more weeks (one month? Two months?) to see what the latest version offers. Daniel Spreadbury has published a picture on Twitter of the “new” interface where different ccs are available (opened) at the same time, which would look familiar to whoever makes mock ups in DAWs (and that limitation is a PITA in our Dorico)… My 2 c.


Indeed. Can’t wait!


is this the aforementioned twitter image?

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One more thing, does MIDI export contain expression map info? I feel like it should, it’s just keyswitches, right?

Yes, that’s the image.

It is just keyswitches as far as I know. Perhaps you would be interested to try this:

You can sync dorico and your daw with it - very handy for the things that are easier to do in a daw (like volume automation, EQ, reverb, sound design).


It contains not only the key switches but also all MIDI controller data, including both the data that Dorico automatically creates to e.g. play dynamics or legato as needed, and any controller data that you add using the MIDI CC editor in the Key Editor.


If I want to have a 1 to 1 version of a Dorico project in Cubase,

  1. for each VST instrument used, I save a user preset specifically for this project using the respective plugin preset manager.

  2. With these presets I then create a Cubase project template for this project.

  3. I then export the Dorico project itself as a Midi file from Dorico as needed.

  4. In Cubase I import this midi file and save it as a temporary Cubase project file. (because of the tempo track, Cubase only imports it into new projects)

  5. I now create a new Cubase project with the same name from the template I created in step 2 and import ALL the tracks from the Cubase midi file I created in step 4. I move all imported midi track events to their VST instruments in one go.
    I remove all imported midi tracks.
    I save the project with the project name as a Cubsae project.

Since the tempo and time signature track as well as all CC data and VST settings are also adopted identically in this way (Cubase 12), it sounds exactly the same in Cubase as in Dorico. (or better - which is another topic.)

Addition (edited):

For pure music playback, this method does not require expression maps to be taken into account - the VST plugins are correctly controlled by the imported keys.

In addition, a valid display range for the notes can be set in the Cubase Score Editor in the notation settings (e.g. from C 0) and the keys can thus be hidden.
(Save this in the project template)

Unfortunately, Cubase does not yet have such a function that automatically converts midi key switches according to the X-maps. (This is in Studio One)


Thanks for all this v useful advice - as soon as I get some spare time I’ll try it. Sounds like lots of fun!

Great post @_derBertram - very useful info; thank you.!

(edit:- am now also intrigued by that TXL Timecode plugin posted above as well…)

Hey! Just wanted to chime in on the speed side of things, as I’ve also been a notation software first person in the past…
I think if you want to have an effective career in film composing, you need to learn to compose quickly straight into daw. The simple reason is that when you’re in the trenches of a TV show or a feature with a thight deadline (or if you’re doing several projects at once) you have to be able to do 2-3 cues a day to be able to catch deadlines. When you have all themes and musical language established for a show you should be able to write a 2-3 min scene in 2-3 hours, ready to be reviewed, orchestrated (read: music prep - the mockup is already complete for review) and recorded.
Or, if you only want to do shorts, or features with longer timelines you’ll be fine. But for TV the deadlines are cutthroat, and you don’t have time to migrate your midi from one platform to another, re-assign instruments, add more instruments, audio and finish up you mockup. I usually only have time to do a piano sketch and then orchestrate/mockup that straight in Cubase.
Sometimes we also bring in stems and audio from other sessions and accross cues and use as base for a new scene, or recordings of soloists etc being repurposed.
I think just consider what your end goals are - what content you want to work on, and what kind of music you want to write. Just things to consider - especially since you’re a student, so you have time to experiment and develop your skills!
(In addition, if you want to have any chance at assisting film composers, proficiancy and speediness in a DAW is essential)


John Williams works at the piano and writes out a sketch with paper and pencil, he seems to be doing OK.

Forget what everybody says, they’re just going off their experience and if that’s all we did nothing would ever change (a condition a large segment of the population seems to want). In the old days that was somewhat true (except for the best like JW), and I think a side effect is that it encourages composers to write bad music. How many ostinatos have you heard in media music? How much media music sounds more like sound design than music? Seems to be all that Hans Zimmer does these days. Or what about the Epic sound? That word should be banned - you know, big drums, piled on synth with a screeching orchestra so thick it just tires you out. Why is this what we have to listen to? Because it’s easy to type into a DAW.

A DAW is a composing tool, but not a good one in my opinion, it’s meant for digital performers, not analog performers (pianists/violinists/etc) and certainly not composers. The medium is MIDI which is a derivative end product of music.


Just to add to _derBertram’s post, I use Vienna Ensemble Pro, and save all the VST data there. It makes the initial import to Cubase easier.

I’m working through a media composition course too, as it happens. The last project got too big for my PC to play back in real time, so I was having to export audio frequently, and then later export and re-export MIDI to cubase to get fine detail working. So it is easy to get held up going that way.

Some tips to writing under a crunch

  • While you’re building up your career, keep a Zibaldone - a notebook of ideas. Start with a list of moods or categories that movies/games (whatever you are working in) fall into. Fight, Love, Anger, Surprise etc. If in movies write another list of character types, Adventurer, Goofball, Parent, Tough Guy etc. Then start collecting ideas related to these topics. In a crunch you can fallback to these ideas.
  • Divide and Conquer. Create a Dorico template with a score containing sketch instruments in addition to your full score. First collect your ideas at the piano or whatever with paper. Nothing beats paper for noodling around. Once you have a basket of ideas, pick the best ones and lay them out in a block diagram of your piece. Then put that into the sketch. Finally transfer the sketch to the main score and orchestrate. The idea here is to not use the computer for working out ideas, but implementing them, which it is best for.
  • Use NotePerformer for the sketch instruments (winds, strings, etc), and your library of choice for the main score. Don’t mess around with a big iron library while blocking out
  • Consider using the sketch score for your initial mockup tracks
  • Wait until printing out the MIDI for transfer to DAW (for final mixing) until the last minute. Really - the Dorico mixer is excellent and will get you far. Don’t do the final print until you are sure you are done with the notes. If Dorico ever has a Nuendo transfer plugin you won’t need to do this but until then you don’t want to transfer too early
  • Just use the DAW for final mixing, MIDI tweaking and such.

Another tip I forgot to mention - do most of your humanizing in Dorico. I believe Dorico will actually help you write not only better music, but write it faster. One reason is that Dorico does so much of the MIDI heavy lifting for you - take advantage of that! Along with Note Performer for sketching.

Using NP helps you avoid humanizing too early. But once the score is pretty settled and orchestrated, then just three things will give you really good results - subtle rubato, CC your phrases and played note durations. The new Key Editor is your friend here. Just work on the phrasing of main lines, give breaths and so forth by shortening the notes. And of course by this point you’ve already used all your articulations appropriately. You shouldn’t have to delay notes unless you want to for emphasis.

Likewise a little tempo work - very little - helps a lot. Don’t depend on the random quantization IMO, I basically ignore that.

The final thing is dynamics - BBCSO in particular is sensitive to this - horns will blat typically without some CC touchups. Work your CC lines in the Key Editor - I just use straight lines, no wind performer (I’m one) plays in anything but a straight line (or rarely). Write out some straight lines to follow the contour of your important phrases.

Done, with this you shouldn’t have to do much MIDI work in the DAW. And if you incorporate electronic instruments or the like, I’d consider just adding those in the DAW and doing it there.


Hey Dan,
These are my opinions - but I do have some experience by now, and wanted to give some advice to the OP, so he can make more informed desicions for workflow.
John Williams is doing OK, but he is also the last of the old guard to be using paper and pen. An important aspect of this is that he doesn’t have to provide 99% finished demos of his music - mainly because… I guess - he’s John Willimas!
Most, if not all recently established composers will work to DAW directly for the reson of demos alone, and for the time available to create those demos.

I never ment to say it’s impossible, but I’m saying it will most likely take more time to do notation → DAW → notation, rather than composing straight in DAW. Time constraints is a big part of the business. And when you have several years of looking at piano roll arrangements, you can read it just like notation, what’s the difference then?
I tried to establish a real sense of the dealines on a day to day basis, and then it’s up to each composer make her/his own decisions about what skills to work on and where to put your energy. But I doubt you will be able to craft demos to the quality required using only Dorico. And how will you add in, edit and mix the soloist recordings? And what if you have a rewrite in the middle, and you already transferred to DAW? Or if you re-conform to a new edit? In those scenarios - efficiancy in the DAW for composing and arranging is essential.

All that aside, a lot of composers will start in notation during the idea/development phase of a project. Developing the themes, structures, harmony and musical language. Then you can take your carefully crafted, notated ideas/sketches and write furiously fast to a bunch of scenes directly in DAW.

Again, I’m speaking from the perspective of a busy film and tv composer. These are my observations if someone was to puruse that field of work. In the end we all find our own way of working.

And to insunuate the DAW is the source of “bad music”, and a tool not suited for composers might be a little narrow minded. Maybe our difference of opinion here is that you think the medium is MIDI, while I think the medium is sound.
Midi and notation are just tools to communicate the intended sounds we want from a performer. And while I can agree some of Zimmer’s latest can be overly sound designed - sound design, synths and other non-midi/non-notated audio elements are becoming important parts of modern music. We can either embrace that, or cling to the past. (the past will certainly have it’s audence as well - so doesn’t have to be a bad thing - just make your concious choice.)

But I hope we can agree on this:
In the end it’s the strenght of idea and intention that will make great music - not the tools we are using.


He, like many other ‘big time’ film composers, also has a team of orchestrators and copyists working for him…


I didn’t insinuate it encourages bad music, I said it does in my opinion. But I didn’t say it wasn’t a tool for composers, in my workflow above it has a clear place. I use Nuendo for all the mixing and MIDI work. Otherwise yes it’s definitely a narrow minded opinion - without the implication of not being open (I composed in the DAW before Dorico 4.5). I maintain restrictions are good for the creative process, hence the divide and conquer approach which narrows what you do at every step.

Anyhow friendly discussion, thanks for not getting upset - I figured this would make some people unhappy.

I’d say it’s the craft that makes good music (it’s luck and magic that makes great music), but otherwise good discussion and of course - whatever! If DAW works for people then go for it, but it’s encouraging to me to see somebody who finally wants to use the primacy of notation for composing, there should be a lot more of that.

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Well I certainly didn’t intended to start such a spirited debate.

@andreasaaser I definitely honor your lived experience of working in the world of TV and tight deadlines. I certainly agree that when I find myself as an assistant composer, I will have to have quick and effective DAW skills. Luckily I do feel confident in that regard since I did technical support for Pro Tools for 3 years and my first undergrad was in audio engineering.

At the same time, as I’m sure both you and @DanMcL would agree, I’m the only person who lives inside my brain and knows what methods produce which outcomes. The next few months of this program are a good opportunity for me to “battle test” my ideal workflow with Dorico and Cubase and see if it really does show promise. I believe that with Dorico continuing to position itself as the bridge between notation and the DAW, it could be achieved, especially with incorporating Dan’s workflow suggestions. It’s also possible that doing work in the key editor will help bootstrap my brain into being a better reader of a Piano Roll.

Thanks everyone for taking the time to reply!