More to Come

Sorry about the lack of updates on the music software overviews. Not only has work been very busy this last month, but I’ve also been helping with some family health issues. This means I’ve been out of the office a lot, which then means I’m working at the weird times I might usually update this blog (when not distracted by exercise, video games, or shiny objects).

I’ve started an overview of MuseScore. Hopefully, the next iteration won’t be released before I get done writing about the current one!

MusicEase

An open orchestral score.

An open orchestral score.

If NoteAbility Pro went to one extreme with its overly busy and cluttered interface, MusicEase goes to the other. Its interface is extremely minimal, and it approaches music notation differently from any of the other apps I’ve tried. I have to admit to some frustration at first, but things got better when I figured out how the program thinks. It’s an editor that doesn’t feature a great deal of customization, but it also means that you can create and edit scores with only a basic knowledge of music theory and notation.

From the site:

MusicEase possesses a large amount of music copyist knowledge. It automatically positions music-notational elements correctly for a large number of common music-notational tasks. This allows users to create good looking printed music without having been explicitly trained in the correct way to notate music.

First Impressions

A new document

A new document

I had that same feeling of, “What am I looking at?” the first time I launched MusicEase that I did when launching Noteability Pro. This time, the feeling was for opposite reasons. MusicEase launches with no palettes, a sparse toolbar, and a partial treble staff. That’s it. There’s no setup wizard and no template selector. MusicEase just wants you to get started. Unfortunately, when I clicked on the music staff, nothing happened. That gave me pause. In fact, I almost skipped reviewing this software entirely.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that MusicEase expected keyboard inputs, so I just started playing around, hitting random keys and seeing what happened. Some keys had expected results — the  key placing an a on the staff, for instance. Other things were more opaque — tapping 9 to input sixteenth notes for some reason. I kept closing it and coming back, and each time I was able to get more done. One time I might get a melody notated. Another time I might figure out how to add a slur or add a second voice. MusicEase also includes pretty extensive documentation and tutorials, and I spent a great deal of time with those. Eventually, my head began to wrap around what I was doing.

Usability & Features

The first major usability hurdle (at least, if you are used to more traditional notation software) comes in MusicEase’s total reliance on the keyboard for input. Here are some examples:

  • k = Key Signature
  • m = Meter (Time Signature)
  • r = Insert Rest
  • Alt-R = Insert Low Rest

This list goes on and on. Typing a letter that corresponds with a given pitch will make it appear on the score. Holding down the Shift key will make is an octave higher. Alt-Shift will make it an octave lower. Different numbers correspond with different note values. 1 is a whole note. 2 is a half note, and so forth. Your mouse is basically useless except to set where the cursor is if you want to modify one specific note or chord. Neither does the software accept MIDI input. This is QWERTY notation all the way.

MusicEase supports pretty much anything you would expect to see in standard notation and also supports tablature, guitar rhythmic notation, and handbell symbols. Bowing symbols seem to be absent, however. Also, for some reason, scores are limited to 40 pages — not that I’ve written anything 40 pages long; I just find it an odd constraint. You can also import and export MIDI and MusicXML files.

Output Quality

Since MusicEase is limited to MIDI playback, sound quality will be passable at best. Engraving output is pretty good, but I’ve seen better in other notation software. Still, if all you are doing is quickly arranging some music for a school band or orchestra or preparing a piece for congregational singing, Music Ease’s print quality is just fine, and, unlike other notation software, it’s hard to mess up.

An output example

An output example

Coda

Here’s the thing about MusicEase: it works. Once you wrap your head around notating through keyboard shortcuts, you can start composing fairly quickly. The trick is to lay aside what you already know about most composition programs, dive into the documentation, and go through the tutorials. I’m probably not going to make it part of my toolset, but I appreciate what MusicEase is trying to accomplish. If you’ve been frustrated with other notation software, you might want to give Music Ease a try.

MusicEase product page – Visit to learn more about MusicEase, download a trial version, or purchase the application.

MusicEase come in two flavors, a standard edition that costs $80 and a professional edition that costs $250. The professional version offers shape note notation, more note heads, more rhythms, more pages, grace notes, and other features.

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NoteAbility Pro

The splash screen

The splash screen

For better or worse, NoteAbility Pro is an application that wears all of its features on its sleeve. Here’s how Keith Hamel, professor at the University of British Columbia and NoteAbility Pro’s creator, describes it:

…It is easily the most sophisticated music notation software available on any platform. NoteAbility combines both musical intelligence and graphical flexibility in a direct and intuitive graphical user interface. Notate anything from simple melodies to complex avant garde orchestral music, play the score on your MIDI synthesizer or using Quicktime Musical Instruments and print a publishable copy of your score on any OS-X compatible printer.

It’s a notation app that does about anything you’d want, and all of that functionality is front and center when you launch it.

First Impressions

A blank document

A blank document

My initial reaction upon launching NoteAbility Pro was, “What on Earth am I looking at?” When you create a new score, NoteAbility Pro presents a wizard filled to the brim with options. They are good options, mind you, but it took a good thirty seconds for me to even discover how to get out of this box and into a score. Starting up a new score was a whole new adventure.

I understand the desire to minimize the effort behind discoverability when writing an app for non-technical individuals. You just want to sit down and get to work, not memorize dozens of keyboard commands and learn a new interface. NoteAbility Pro takes this to an extreme, however. Everything is front and center, and every feature is treated with equal importance in the interface. I find it completely overwhelming, but I also have to tell myself that this software is written by a professional composer and that it fits his workflow.

As far as I can tell, NoteAbility Pro is an OS X-only app, but, like the other applications I’ve looked at so far, it takes no advantage of recent OS X features.

Usability & Features

This is one feature-packed piece of software. That this is a tool written by a composer for his own needs and workflow really shows in how much minutia is displayed front-and-center. NoteAbility Pro gives you fine control over exactly how your score is going to look, from note spacing to beam thickness. Every inch of the layout is customizable,and every customization is one or two clicks away. (Except, surprisingly, shape notes.) The drawback is a very distracting and cluttered interface that may take some time time to decipher.

Another open score

An open score

You can view your score as single pages or in a multi-page view, but there doesn’t seem to be a scrolling view like Sibelius, Encore, and Finale offer. Notes can be input traditionally or as graphic items, allowing for a number of modern notation possibilities. You can also notate a number of alternative ways, even including gesture recognition. Scores can play back as standard MIDI files, and I also noticed the application supports Audio Units for higher quality playback. Additionally, NoteAbility Pro has an extensive online manual to help you get started.

I did not personally enjoy working in NoteAbility Pro. I found the interface more distracting than necessary, and I spent and undue amount of time trying to figure out how to turn off some of the visual feedback that I could have spent writing music. Whether or not you like this application will come down to whether you are the type of person who wants the interface to get as out of your way as possible or you like having all features right up front where you can easily get to them — even if you may never use them.

Output Quality

If you are willing to purchase an audio library, playback can be as good as you want it to be. Where NoteAbility really shines is in engraving output. Particularly if you are writing something with modern or avant-garde notation, you’re going to like NoteAbility Pro’s output.

Output of avant garde notation

Output of avant garde notation

Coda

I have to admit to being impressed that NoteAbility seems to be largely the product of one individual. Mr. Hamel has obviously put a great deal of love and time into building a tool that will help him be as productive as possible, and I think it’s great he’s sharing his work with the world. It may not be for me, but I’m sure there are many others who will embrace this application as a feature-packed alternative to Sibelius or Finale, and, at $225 CAD, it’s also less expensive than those tools.

NoteAbility Pro product page – Visit here to learn more about NoteAbility Pro, download a demo, or purchase the app.

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Encore 5

Encore 5

Encore 5

Encore was the first piece of composition software I ever owned. We had it in my high school music lab, and I somehow talked my dad into helping me pay for a student-discounted version (by mail-order no less) in the late 90s. Since then, Passport Software, the original developers were acquired by GVox, under whom Encore saw a number of under-the-hood improvements. These were released in Encore 5.0 in 2008, but development seems to have languished since then. As of August 2013, Passport Software has reacquired Encore, and it will be interesting to see what their plans are for the software.

First Impressions

Opening Encore filled me with nostalgia. I don’t think anything cosmetic has changed about this software since the 1990s (expect for the obvious thing where it’s running on OS X). I even remember the included sample files. Unfortunately, this means there are no Mac OS X features here. iCloud support? Nope. Versions? Nada. Documents don’t even support QuickLook. This is firmly a piece of software from yesteryear. At least the built-in midi keyboard sounds better than I remember.

The application looks surprisingly similar to Finale. Floating palettes for note input, tiny icons made for monitors of a bygone era, single page score navigation — all very familiar to someone who’s worked in notation software for years but will look dated to newcomers. This adherence to the past even extends to Passport Software’s website, which looks much like it did fifteen years ago.

Usability & Features

Encore is fairly easy to use. It has many of the same interface quirks that Finale PrintMusic has, but the default zoom is better. Launching the application simply opens a new document with piano staves present. You can then add or subtract instruments. Alternatively, selecting to create a new document opens up a simple wizard that can get you started with a number of predefined ensembles. After that, everything is point and click input. You can also bring up an onscreen keyboard, which maps some of the notes to your computer keyboard.

New document wizard

New document wizard

Encore handles every piece of notation I threw at it and has quite a few advanced features. As long as you are writing a traditionally notated piece of music, Encore will be able to keep up. It’s the little omissions that add up. There seems to be no support for undo history. You can’t view pages side-by-side. However, Encore allows for a scrolling layout like Sibelius and Finale, and it even seems to handle the scrolling layout better than Finale PrintMusic. There are also no linked parts, something I didn’t miss until it wasn’t there.

Output Quality

A layout nightmare.

A layout nightmare.

This is where Encore really suffers when compared to other proprietary notation tools. I had multiple instances of overlapping systems, crowded notes, and other elements simply appearing in the wrong place. Complicating this, clicking on and dragging elements is a hit-or-miss affair. Encore gives you no indication that you’ve successfully selected an object before you start moving the cursor around, and, at times, I found myself repositioning the wrong thing. (I found later you can set control points to visible, which alleviates this problem to an extent.)

Playback was a mixed bag. Percussion instruments and the piano sounded pretty good, but most other instruments did not. On the up side, Encore does support VST, so you could potentially bring your own sound libraries. Since I don’t have any laying around, I couldn’t test this functionality, but that goes a long way in allowing for better playback.

The Future?

I can’t help but wonder where Passport Music goes from here. Obviously, Encore needs some love — from its user interface all the way down to its layout engine. Things have been fairly quiet since Passport brought Encore back under its wings, but that may just be a sign of hard work. It may be that the next release of Encore will knock my hypothetical socks off. It may take full advantage of OS X technologies, have a completely redesigned UI, produce amazing-looking scores, and feature a wonderful sound library. As it is right now, though, I can’t recommend it at $400. There are better and less expensive alternatives.

Update: Richard Hotchkiss, the president of Passport Music Software, has replied below and is offering Encore at a steep discount — $129. At that price, it might be worth investing in, especially if you think of it as an investment toward Encore’s future.

Still, I’m going to be keeping my eye on Passport Software, and I’m eager to see where they take the software that introduced me to the world of music composition.

Encore product page – Go here to learn more about Encore’s features, download a trial version, or purchase the application.

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Finale PrintMusic and SongWriter

An open score

An open score

Finale was producing high quality scores before most of its competition was even around. It’s the MGM Studios of composition software, responsible for some amazing advances in its medium, but are its best years behind it now? As MGM has been eclipsed by other movie studios during recent years, is the same true for Finale? Perhaps that’s too big of a question for this post. Instead, let’s just take a look at MakeMusic’s more modest offerings — PrintMusic and SongWriter.

First, Some History

finale1

Coda Music Software released Finale 1.0 in 1988, and it has gained a large following among professionals over the years. Finale was among the first composition solutions to let composers fine-tune their scores and to feature high quality sound samples in playback, and it’s still considered the best solution for score writing by many professional composers. It’s the tool all other notation software gets compared to, and for good reason. Finale produces quality scores and affords composers great freedom in writing — whether they are like me and writing hymns in four-part harmony or are evoking modern masters like Corigliano in their compositions.

First Impressions and OS X Integration

Finale was Adobe-late to the transition to OS X. In fact, I think Adobe came out with OS X native versions of their applications nearly a full year before MakeMusic released a native version of Finale. When they did so, Finale took little advantage of OS X technologies, and the application still feels out-of-place. The software takes no advantage of OS X features like Spaces, Versions, or iCloud. It doesn’t even auto-save, which means I need to exercise those cmd-s muscles that have all but atrophied in recent years. It does, however, support QuickLook.

Even the application workspace feels like something from Mac OS 9. Instead of the interface and document being in a self-contained window, Finale is a document window surrounded by individually floating palettes. With the exception of an image editor or two, I can’t think of any Mac applications that still use this setup. It makes the application look old. On the other hand, if you’ve used Finale in the past, there is no learning curve involved in newer versions, and that’s definitely worthwhile to a number of musicians I know. They know how to use Finale, and they feel comfortable in knowing they won’t have to learns something new.

Overall Usability

The launch window

The launch window

Getting started on a new score is a familiar experience. Launch the wizard, choose and customize an ensemble, select time and key signatures, then finish. Finale set the pattern for how to set up a score. They still follow it, and so do most others. It simply works. Unfortunately, after you get done setting up your score, the user experience goes downhill.

In order to maximize your document area, Finale’s toolbar icons are ridiculously small. They are nearly unusable on an HD monitor, and the same is true when opening a new document. The default zoom for notation is very small, making it easy to click on incorrect lines and spaces. Fortunately, enlarging the document window and increasing the zoom fixes this, but Finale never remembers this for new documents. (As an aside, it also kept throwing me off that you can only resize a window from the bottom corner — just like a Mac OS 9 application.)

One pleasant surprise is that you can accomplish a great deal through contextual menus. Adding repeats, switching time signatures, transposing notes or passages — these and more features are quickly accessible with a double-tap on the trackpad (or right-click if you use a mouse). You can even switch notation styles this way, but I found no easy way to apply shape notes to an already complete score. For that, I had to open the shape note template, set the score up to match what I was working on, and then copy-and paste. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it was a bit convoluted.

Features and Quality

Fortunately, once you get past the interface quirks, Finale is capable of great things. It’s a full-featured notation solution for all but the most advanced users. Like Sibelius First, I did not feel the limitations placed on Finale PrintMusic, but the constraints on SongWriter are definitely more noticeable. Here are some of the differences I found:

  • PrintMusic can import scanned files. SongWriter cannot.
  • PrintMusic supports up to 24 staves. SongWriter supports up to 8.
  • PrintMusic has more available music fonts, including shape notes.
  • PrintMusic supports non-traditional staves of 1-5 lines. SongWriter only supports 5-line staves.
  • PrintMusic has better-quality playback than SongWriter and supports external sound libraries.
Scrolling view

Scrolling view

Like Sibelius, you can view your scores as one continuous scrolling page, but I found this view problematic in Finale. Notes and lyrics ran into each other, and I found it easier to simply stay in a more traditional view. That’s Finale in a nutshell actually — it’s a program that does what it does very well as long as you are okay working in the past. If you are the type of person who longs for the old Office 2000 toolbar, then you will appreciate Finale’s adherence to tradition.

I can’t criticize Finale’s output at all. I noticed better quality sound when playing my music back than I did using Sibelius 7 First, and printed scores look very good. You can tweak layout to your heart’s content, but you’re seldom going to need to. Finale is very good at placing notes, symbols, lines, and lyrics exactly where they should go. As much as I may want to criticize toolbars, I can find no fault with Finale’s engraving quality. It set the standard for proprietary music notation for a reason.

Coda

I have the misfortune of being a musician with a background in graphic design — specifically user interface design. This automatically makes me critical of how an application looks and functions. When composing, I want good results, but I also want to work in an environment that is well designed. Finale PrintMusic gives me the first but lacks the second, so I’m going to keep looking.  The selection of notation software for the Mac keeps growing, and there are some interesting alternatives left to explore. That said, if you are set on choosing between the big two in music notation, Finale PrintMusic is a better overall value than Sibelius 7 First. It simply has more features for the same price.

Product pages to explore more features and download trial versions:

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