I’m new to this forum, but not to music typesetting, copying, engraving, etc. I’ve actually been at it for over 35 years, and of course after all of this time I’ve grown very opinionated as to what’s needed in one of these programs. Sound familiar? For sure! You veterans of these wars know that we all become this way after spending so much time in front of our monitors, especially if we work in a variety of styles for a variety of clients.
Along the way I’ve spent a bit of time with (early) Finale and (more recent) Sibelius. These apps seem to be the most popular among the users of this forum and unlike the majority of you I’ve very little practical experience with them and can’t begin to offer any constructive comments on their strengths and weaknesses.
I began my adventure with computer music setting in 1979 after having been burned by still another copyist, who did such a horrendous job on a large orchestral work on mine that the premier was nearly cancelled because the parts were so full of errors. I set out searching for some sort of solution to my problem, hoping there might some help available with one of the new “personal computers” that were beginning to come on the market. Research was not easy especially in an area that was considered so “exotic.” I don’t want to shock any of you, so please sit down & hold on to something before you read my next sentence: There was no Internet – at least in the sense of what we have today. I realize that this is hard to fathom, but alas, it’s true!
Around 1981 I came across an article in High Fidelity (one of the many music magazines of the day) about a small company in Vermont - New England Digital - that was working on a new synthesizer called a Synclavier. The sentence that grabbed me was something like “. . . you play anything you like on it’s keyboard, press a button and it will print it out.” A short time later I was in the car headed for Vermont.
What I saw and heard blew my mind. Sure enough, I sat at the keyboard of what was then known as the Synclavier II and played like crazy – all sorts of scales, chords, flourishes, etc. and hit “the button.” On the connected VT-100 terminal that was connected to the system, the 9-inch, green type on black background, screen came to life with a grand staff filled with notes, looking not even close to what I had just played. I looked at Bill, the person demonstrating the system. He smiled back and told me if I wanted it to look like real music I’d have to play accurately with a click track exactly what I wanted. After a few tries, I played a C major scale - 4 bars of quarter notes - and pushed the button again. Eureka, there it was! On the screen, exactly what that I had just played! What I was looking at was created by Version A of “Music Printing,” one of a group of interconnected programs that made up the heart of the Synclavier. At the time M.P. was still in an experimental state being worked on by 20-year old Dartmouth student, Alan Talbot.
Alan and I quickly became friends and for the next 2 years spent many hours on the phone talking about what was needed for serious music production. (At the time I was a Double Bassist and the Composer-in-Residence with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra). After a couple of years of intensive development, M.P. began to become quite usable, and when Apple and QMS brought out their first laser printers – around 1985 - it took a giant leap forward. However, the biggest problem for anyone wanting to acquire the system was $$$s. Those early lasers, with the ability to print on legal size paper, were in the area of $5,000.00, and getting into a Synclavier “budget” system was closer to $40,000 - and these were 1985 $$s!
Toward the end of the ‘80s, Music Printing was capable of producing beautiful output. Orchestras were dying to get their hands on M.P. but the cost of the propriety system that it ran on was beyond their means. Alan decided that he’d like to develop a new program not dependent on the Synclavier and in 1990 broke away to form Graphire Corporation, where he developed “Music Press” to run on the Mac. I stayed with Music Printing until 1995, all the time helping out with the development of “Graphire Music Press” (GMP). In 1996 I switched to GMP full time and it’s the system that I still use today.
So what have I learned in the 35 years that I’ve spent using these programs? Well, for one thing, serious music type setting apps are extremely “deep.” Anyone who uses one regularly knows that there’s no such thing as “easy-to-learn” or “quick-up-and-running” or fill in your own favorite fictitious phrase when it comes to these apps. Fluency in their use comes only after many, many hours of use, and even then there will inevitably be a host of things that require serious hoop jumping and work arounds to accomplish. And more importantly, after learning most of the tricks (no such thing as learning “all”) the last thing any one of us wants to do is switch to a new program. Just the thought of it sends pain up & down my body! Still, there comes a time . . . I’ve been quite happy with GMP for the past 20 years, even though there are a host of things that it either doesn’t do or, if it does, does it in a clunky way. There are bugs in the program that were never fixed (Graphire went out of business in 2000) and on & on. Still, it’s capable of producing stunning output, thanks in no small part to the gorgeous font that Alan designed. (A caveat though: Like a fine musical instrument, its performance will only be as good as the person “playing it.” Another related lesson that I’ve learned over the years is that most musicians – including myself – have no idea of what printed music should look like. But that’s a subject for another article.)
What is important for any individual user of course depends much on the type of music that he/she is working with. These apps tend to be used by everyone, from those who work on large orchestra and/or opera scores to those doing simple lead sheets. Here is a (incomplete) list of necessities that I think would be helpful to almost anyone using them:
1: Lose the mouse. There are some operations for which the mouse is very valuable and the best option. Things like grabbing a big section and making a global adjustment, making fine adjustments to the shape of slurs, ties and other similar objects come immediately to mind. However, going up to the menu bar and searching through nested folders for some item that’s little used by most, but frequently by others, is not one of them. Grabbing different tools from floating palates & the like is also not one. There are a slew of operations that fit into this category. (This is not to say that memorizing a key combination should be the only way to access menus, tools, etc. The mouse would probably still be a better option for casual users of the app.)
Almost everything should be accessible by key combinations from the keyboard. While most contemporary apps probably make provision for this at least in a limited way, I would like to suggest to the programmers and authors they consider the following:
If you are choosing “hot keys” or “short cuts” or whatever you call them, please make sure that they can be turned off both individually and collectively. Not only make a provision for users to select their own key combinations, but make it easy to implement. Don’t torture us by making us jump through all sorts of hoops to customize our working environment. It would also be helpful if provisions were made on two levels:
1: At the program or system level, where we can put changes and items that we know we’ll be using frequently.
2: At the file level, where we can put temporary operations for some unusual circumstances. For instance, we’d like to use F1 (a prime location) to get to some unusual command just for this particular piece we’re working on. We might never use it again, but if we want to return later to edit the current file, it’ll be there! The point is: Do it right the first time, not as an added on kluge that might cause all sorts of problems down the road.
Being able to turn short cuts off both collectively and individually also allows us to set up multiple operations with a third-party macro program such as Quickeys, Keyboard Maestro, etc.
“Location is everything” as they say in the real estate business. The same applies to computer keyboards. A frequently used short cut that requires two hands – roughly anything east of the Y key for the left hand – will become a chore (thus discouraging) to use. So many programs use command/- [minus sign] to reduce and command/= [equals or plus] to enlarge, as default shortcuts, a two hand operation (Both Apple and Adobe, to name just two, are guilty of this). Anyone out there work in Logic or Photoshop where you frequently need to adjust the enlargement within a window? Luckily both allow us to make a quick change (via Quickeys) to Control/z and Control/x, making them a 2-finger operation. The moral: Where your short-cuts sit on the keyboard can make the difference between a quick, easy, painless session and one akin to something more like water-boarding. But the trick is to let us users to decide their locations. Yours will certainly be different than mine.
2: A built-in Sequencer. When I was using the Synclavier, “Music Printing” the app had very well thought-out connection to the system’s sequencer. It’s been 30 years and by now we should have something better. Of course in some ways we certainly do. But in the case of “playing it in and seeing what you just played in correct, standard notation” we’ve lagged far behind. What was the secret that allowed me to play in almost ALL – over 90%, not just a small fraction - of the music into the sequencer, push “the button,” and after just a tiny bit of editing, observe a perfect transcription of what I had just entered? Attention programmers: A couple of adjustable file level settings will be extremely helpful here. This was the Synclavier way of doing it. After 35 years there surely are better ways to be found:
A: “Note Resolution 1.” This where you first tell the program what the shortest note value in your entire piece is. For instance, it could be 1/32 note. (It could just as easily be 1/8 note or 1/132 note or higher if you’d like to be fancy about it).
B: “Note Resolution 2.” You specify the start note resolution, i.e. of the first, or first few measures of the tracks, you’ll be working with.
Example: The fastest note in your symphony is 1/64th note. You set Note Resolution 1 to 1/64 or 64, however your program is set to receive that information. Now the first few bars consist of a bunch of quarter, eighth and 16th notes. So you set the resolution to 1/16 (or 16) and off you go. If you’ve played fairly accurately you should see all of the notes the way they should look. (Note, this will take a bit of practice, but not THAT much because you’ll be playing the music in at a slower tempo – see “Click Track Setting” below) OK, now what happens when you come to a measure with some faster – 1/32 or 1/64 notes? You change the resolution for ONLY those measures to 1/64. Then when you’re past them you can go back to 1/8 or 1/16. A skillful programmer can figure out how to get this into the app so the change can be done quickly (via a short-cut!) on the fly. Using this technique you will rarely see those dotted 1/32nd notes or the stray 1/64th rests or all of the other on-screen garbage that creeps into the file when trying to “play it in.” It means that if you have to play a series of eighth notes, and have your Resolution 2 set to 8th notes, you can play staccato 8ths or 16ths or 32nds and still wind up with 8th notes on the staff. You can also increase the speed of the sequencer to as fast as you can comfortably play the notes (real time)
C: “Click Track Setting.” It goes without saying that in order to play the music in and have it transcribed accurately we must play with a click. It also means that unless we have the keyboard chops of Glenn Gould, we need to play it in at a slower tempo, and realistically at a MUCH slower tempo. But what happens when we slow things down to a really slow tempo so those of us without blazing chops can manage those 32nd & 64th notes? Disaster! Have you ever tried playing a run of 32nd notes, with perhaps a couple of weird tuplets & rests thrown in, with a click track running at quarter note equals 30 or so? Not a good prospect. Here’s where the adjustable Click Track Setting comes in to save the day.
Let’s say our piece starts out in 4/4. We set our Click Track to quarter note (or 4). Perhaps the beginning of the piece is easy for us to play, but suddenly in bar 5 all hell breaks loose & there are a bunch of faster notes, or complicated tuplets that there’s no way we can perform accurately even if we slow the sequencer way down. Remember, once the click gets TOO slow we’re getting into the other kind of no man’s land. The solution to this situation is to change the Click from 4 (quarter note) to 8 or even 16 if necessary, again, like Note Resolution changes, only for the measures that are necessary.
Of course there ARE limits to how complicated the music can become before “playing it in” becomes either a real macho statement or totally impractical. At moments like this to save one’s sanity it becomes more logical to switch to step time input for a few bars. (But if you have the time and/or the chops you’ll find that some pretty complicated fare can be played into a sequencer using click adjustment)
Whew, describing this whole “Note Resolution” and “Click Track Setting” is more complicated that actually doing it. After all, it’s just a couple of settings that the user has to manage.
3: Playback. The ability to play a file, using the indicated instrumentation, at the correct tempo, observing dynamics, crescendos, ritards and a host of other indications is great. Or is it?
This is a tricky issue. It goes to what we’re trying to accomplish with the app. For instance, if I’m working on a big orchestra score, I don’t need to hear it played with multiple gigabytes of mediocre sampled instruments. Yes, I’d like to be able to play back the file at the sequencer speed of my choosing, but a simple piano or even sine wave sound is all I really require for proofing the file. I don’t need for crescendos or other indications to be followed. However, by providing all of the goodies that many expect today – goodies that have absolutely nothing to do with the look of the music – the programmers have to write all of this stuff in, which makes the program bloated, which doesn’t help in reaching program’s main objective, a beautiful printed score, or book or part or lead sheet. It also has an (negative) effect in how the user interface is written. Are we all guilty of demanding 2 programs within 1 – the more sophisticated sequencer AND the equally endowed engraving app? Food for thought maybe?
While there are many more related issues ripe for inclusion, this little article is getting a bit wordy and I apologize if I’m stating obvious things to some and uninteresting ones to others. However the prospect of a new music-typesetting program in development is very exciting to me and much too tempting to resist commenting on.