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One of the privileges of my job at Chamberlain Music is the access I’m afforded to products before they’re released. By far the most exciting of these to date landed on my desk last week – the ‘next generation’ notation software developed by the team that built Sibelius. I’ve been experimenting with Dorico ever since and went to last night’s launch at Bush Hall to watch Daniel Spreadbury demonstrate its capabilities.
I’ve been anticipating this release for some time and have now been let off the leash to share my thoughts in my capacity as an experienced typesetter and unapologetic die-hard fan of Sibelius.
But first, if you haven’t been keeping up with the development blog or want to see some specific features, you can’t do much better than to watch the recording from last night:
A bit of history
As a professional typesetter, I’ve been using Sibelius for several hours every day for more than a decade. I know that programme inside out and find that with the occasional workaround, it can handle anything I throw at it. Of course, I often need to use other software to complete jobs, and there are countless things that could be added or improved, but its progress has slowed to a standstill since Avid dropped the development team in 2012.
The speed with which Sibelius changed the music world from the mid-90s onwards caused inevitable problems with its build structure. Features were bolted on and workflow became unpredictable and unmusical. For people like me who learned to write music with a paper and pen, this didn’t cause much of a problem because we knew how we wanted the finished page to look, and had witnessed enough of the software’s progress to know how its workflows got to that outcome, and how to take advantage of its quirks.
But young musicians these days are more likely to be the other way round, thinking about composition as they’ve grown to expect Sibelius to process it, and limiting their creativity based on the limits of their computer savviness, or worse, using their knowledge of the software to avoid engaging with the actual musical content.
One of the primary goals of the team when they first dreamed up Dorico was to make it as easy as possible to write what you want without feeling like the software is getting in your way. While Sibelius and others are more than adequate for typing up existing scores, it’s difficult to compose straight onto the screen. Dorico definitely looks like it’ll make this much easier with features such as edit-friendly tuplets, support for complex compound time signatures and custom key signatures, useful popovers and shortcuts, intelligent dotted rhythm processing, and ‘insert mode’.
Straight away I was awestruck by the clean and compact controls. Dorico has been designed to be useable on a single screen with a minimal laptop keyboard, but if you have a more exotic setup it’ll expand nicely. All of the options windows can be kept open (on another monitor if you like) and adjusted as you work.
I decided to jump straight in with a blank score and chose a big complex page of Enescu’s first symphony as a test project which I hoped would push the software. I also purposely didn’t read the tooltips in order to test its intuitiveness.
After a few frustrating hours I was struggling to get anything to appear as I wanted it to and my enthusiasm was fading fast. I ended up talking at length to Daniel Spreadbury himself about my difficulties. He was extremely friendly and calm in the face of my barrage of complaints and talked me through various features with succinct explanations of the reasons and processes behind them.
The clean and intuitive interface.
Just 24 hours later I was inputting music quite fluently, and really starting to appreciate the rethought workflows. The problems I had at the start, I realised, were due to my preconceptions and muscle memory – of course, I'd read all the sound bytes about the ambitious reinvention of notation software, but I had underestimated the scale of the improvements. It’s not just a ‘better version’ of things that have come before, but a completely new approach.
It’s worth mentioning at this point just how refreshing the attitude of Daniel and his team is. They’re determined not to rush any feature and they welcome ideas and reports from users. You’ll be pleased to hear that the humour and clarity with which they wrote the Sibelius manual is also still there in abundance.
Illustrated option windows.
A few disclaimers
I ought to say that it’s not perfect out of the box. There are inevitably a few teething troubles and minor bugs, and it's very slow at the moment, but as the development team has repeatedly stressed, these things will be fixed in free updates over the coming months. I can confirm that Dorico is already stable and comprehensive enough to typeset the vast majority of your music.
It’s been well publicised that chord symbols are not yet implemented, and when asked about this yesterday (though he hesitated to guarantee it) Daniel said it is their intention to include them among the free updates. Another big feature expected to be among these updates is the proper integration of the PLAY mode. At the moment you can play back projects with the included HALion sample libraries, but the engine doesn’t pick up different playing techniques yet (e.g. pizzicato vs arco), and there’s no sound on note input or tempo and dynamic maps in the sequencer.
During the Q&A yesterday, Daniel let the cat out of the bag regarding an extremely exciting method of part reduction that is already well developed and he expects will be added soon. Though he couldn’t go into much detail, he implied that this would make for one click conductor scores or vocal scores. Other more niche features discussed included bulk lyric import, and a proper system for scripting extensions (using Lua), though he was careful to emphasise that the prioritisation of any additional features will be subject to the initial reactions of the majority of the public after release.
What to look out for
If like me you’re used to another piece of software and have been looking forward to trying out Dorico, the best advice I can give you is to forget everything you know and approach it with a completely open mind. Watch the videos, read the tooltips and prepare yourself for the learning curve. A lot of the revolutionary ideas might not dawn on you immediately, but give it a few days and stick at it!
Grace notes before barlines with one click.
The most impressive thing I’ve discovered so far is the graphical quality of the output. Every tiny detail of layout can be adjusted using the plethora of options dialogues (all simple and illustrated!), but the default options and automations already look flawless. It’s nothing short of miraculous. And the Bravura font is stunning!
Thanks to the flows (a term chosen specifically for its ambiguity) it’s extremely easy to customise your page layouts and part extraction meaning that you will never again have to ‘tidy up’ your score or use any other software for extra additions and post-processing. Indeed, the instrumental parts for last night’s premiere of Thomas Hewitt-Jones’ DoricOVERTURE, a piece he was commissioned to write using BETA versions of the software, were completely untouched before printing.
There are a couple of input features that have not been especially trumpeted to date which ought to get a special mention here too. Just off the top of my head, cross staff slurs, optional automatic combining of coincident rests in different voices, and the option to move grace notes before a barline made me jump for joy!
I’ve read in several places that Dorico shouldn’t be compared to Sibelius, as the time and resources spent on the latter are naturally going to have resulted in a more complete programme. But actually, I think it’s a healthy comparison to make and one that will be discussed whether Steinberg like it or not.
In my opinion (and I can barely believe i'm writing this), even at this early stage, Sibelius is dwarfed by the sheer ambition of Dorico. It’s already almost as feature rich where note input is concerned, and the engraving system and project setup options put it in a different class altogether. It’s difficult to express the brilliance and revolutionary potential of this new release without regurgitating the phrases you’ll already have read in the marketing material, but Dorico is everything that was promised and more.
It’s easy to start working on your current Sibelius and Finale projects with Dorico straight away as it imports musicXML files. You’d be mad not to give it a try, especially considering the cheap cross grade price. It’s worth getting used to it now because within a year or two it’ll be the industry standard.
As with all Steinberg software, each licence works for one computer at a time and can be moved between machines with a dongle. There was talk of getting rid of the dongle altogether at last night’s launch, but this is obviously not a decision that the Dorico developers can make themselves.
There are also discounts for bulk orders of the academic edition (new or crossgrade licences) available from our education site. This software is identical to the full version but you must be eligible (see details in the product descriptions) for the lower price: