Made with Dorico: Fanfare for a New Era of American Spaceflight

Just sharing a bit of a “success story” with Dorico here!


Although I followed the development of Dorico closely and even briefly participated in the beta, I spent most of the 2010s in a long phase of life where I couldn’t do much composing: graduate studies in theology, very young children, and a full-time job just didn’t leave much over. In 2020, though, I had some time and mental space, and had a piece I wanted to compose. I also knew there was zero chance I was going to go back to Sibelius or start learning Finale; Dorico was the only option.

I picked it up—starting on v3; v3.5 came out while I was working on the piece—and managed to sketch out a fanfare using nothing but Dorico and the bundled Halion samples over the course of May 2020. If anyone is curious, I documented my experience on my website. I have to say: while there definitely was a learning curve, it was pretty straightforward and combination of the manual and YouTube videos and this forum knocked out every issue I had in short order. Despite being basically totally new to Dorico, I went from hand-jotted sketches on paper staves to a 2:20 fanfare for full orchestra in the span of a week of work days (though not consecutive!). I was impressed!

I intended then to publish a blog post summarizing my thoughts on it… but never got around to it!

This is what it said (click to expand)

This week of working on the fanfare gave me my first opportunity to put it through its paces. This isn’t a review so much as it is just a set of disparate reflections collected over the course of the week as I used the app in earnest for the first time.

  • It is in general a real delight to use the app. Things are designed very thoughtfully, and there are a ton of delightful little touches. The keyboard shortcuts just makes sense. [Though I realized over the course of the afternoon just how deeply I internalized a few of the Sibelius shortcuts: despite not having scored anything with Sibelius in the last 8 years, I kept trying to use its shortcuts for note manipulation!] More than once, I hit a keystroke expecting it to do a particular things—like doing 2 to switch to Write mode—and it just did exactly what I expected.

  • I remain bothered by non-native user interfaces. Dorico’s UI is built in Qt, which has a compatibility layer for building a UI with native-ish widgets. It’s pretty good, but at every turn, it’s apparent [at least to people like me, who are (over?)sensitive to platform UI patterns.] that you’re dealing with a cross-platform UI, not a native UI. Now, to be clear, the Dorico team has done a great job making the app feel Mac-like. It makes appropriate use of the menu bar as many cross-platform apps do not. It does the right thing with keyboard shortcuts throughout, both in big-picture things like correctly using , for launching the settings view and in much smaller details like using I to launch the project info view. I cannot express how grateful I am that the Dorico team put such care into making this as Mac-like as they can. And I understand why they chose Qt: as cross-platform UI frameworks go, it’s pretty easily the best choice, especially if you want something that performs well and looks (close to) native. But native it is not, and native it does not feel.

  • I had to change my own mindset, in a good way, when working with Dorico, about how I built out a sequence of music. Sibelius approaches every note as having a position in a bar. Dorico treats the notes and their lengths themselves as more fundamental, with bars things you can layer on top as you please later. This is actually wonderful for the kind of work I was doing: I change the time signature at will in the fanfare to get the effect I want. It took some adjustment, though. Unlike in Sibelius where I would just rework bars, in Dorico I needed to actually just work with the music—changing lengths of notes, pulling them together or adding space between them, and so on. This is actually much closer to how I work with pencil and paper, and it’s genuinely great! …it just took a bit to get used to having a tool that operates the way that, frankly, of course it should.

  • It can be a bit slow on some operations—especially saving the project. This is not really a surprise, as it’s doing an enormous amount of work. It also never really got in my way. (It’s mostly that I have long, deep-seated habits around saving my files regularly from having lost work too many times in the mid-2000’s, so I save my files obsessively.) Still, the performance on my late-2015 5k iMac with 64 GB RAM and a 4GHz quad-core i7 is just okay; I really can’t imagine trying to run this on a laptop.

  • Being able to score as though for actual players vs. just staves is just wonderful. In Sibelius, I was constantly fighting with this.

  • No surprise: this would be a massively better experience with even a relatively small MIDI keyboard—both for direct input (which Dorico supports out of the box!) and just for less bouncing back and forth between my piano and the computer. That’s not really specific to Dorico—the same thing goes for all notation software—but I definitely felt it keenly over the course of this week.

  • Far and away the worst part of the experience is the arcane and awful licensing setup Steinberg uses: eLicenser. While I’m symathetic to Steinberg’s desire to avoid piracy, the quality of their licensing software is utterly awful. This is the one area where the experience Sibelius of 8 years ago was light years ahead. You just… entered an activation key in Sibelius itself, and that was it.

Notably, many of the complaints there have been significantly addressed since then. The new licenser system is way better, and Dorico 4 is significantly faster than 3 was on the kinds of large orchestral scores I tend to work with. Mac laptops today not only don’t break a sweat but thoroughly outperform the desktop I was using in 2020. Also I bought a MIDI keyboard, and that was also a good move. :joy: Qt is still the non-native interface that it is, but Dorico 4 was nonetheless a significant UI improvement, and I totally understand the tradeoffs there: a team this size just could not ship as much and as fast as it does while targeting Mac, Windows, and iPad.

Over the course of the rest of 2020 and early 2021, I picked up some better samples and did a mock-up with them, but I remained a bit frustrated: I have no doubt that if I spent another full week or more actually just playing into Logic (rather than using Dorico’s MIDI export as the starting point) I could get to something that sounded pretty good, but… a real orchestra is a real orchestra. So when I learned last spring that you can actually hire orchestras, I decided to do that.

That meant diving back into the project and doing both revisions and also actually getting my head around more of the Engrave mode. I was, again, incredibly impressed: putting together a full score and players’ parts I was proud of took far, far less time than it had when I did this with Sibelius in the past, and the results were substantially better. I did a bit of manual casting off here and there; I made tweaks to the condensing (but mostly found that what Dorico generated “out of the box” was already very good); I tweaked headings and the like to more thoroughly match up to what the good folks over at Scoring Notes recommended, but that, too, was a pretty minimal set of changes. I cannot imagine having tried to do this—on evenings and weekends in bits of time carved out from my day job and my family life—without Dorico’s understanding of the relationship between instruments and players, its understanding of the relationship between parts and score, and its automatic condensing feature. I made it work back in the day with Sibelius and revisions were a nightmare. Not so with Dorico; I just made the changes and everything updated appropriately.

Long story short: the experience of working on this, from initial composition through revisions and recording, was fantastic.

If you’re at all curious, feel free to download the project Fanfare for a New Era of American Spaceflight.dorico (1.6 MB) and check it out—that’s the version that the orchestra actually played! I also used DistroKid to publish it myself to a whole host of services for streaming and purchase, and put up the video of the recording session on YouTube as well:

(If anyone cares enough to read even more details about the experience, it’s all on my website.)

Thanks to the Dorico team for making a piece of software that is a genuine delight to work with and which really did make this whole project far easier and better than previous such works had been for me. (Spoilers: I have since then been working on something 10× the scale of this fanfare, and it has been fantastic for that too, a few bumps with big sample libraries aside.) Happy Easter!

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Great job, Chris! I really enjoyed listening to your fanfare, and I’m delighted to know that you enjoyed using Dorico to write it.

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Congratulations, Chris! I enjoyed and liked very much your story and listened to you fanfare (at the moment just with headphones, but I will do it with proper equipment).

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Awesome share. Thanks and many congratulations!

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This is very very cool and inspirational. For some reason I never thought about that idea but it makes perfect sense! Thanks for posting about the process.

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