In my lifetime as a composer, I have seen and been part of the transition from fountain pen and flexible plastic templates on onion skin vellum, to the earliest music notation software, to the latest tablet-and-pen based systems. I have seen notation software come and go, and watched and learned as writing and recording and editing began to merge together. I have used early MIDI samples that sounded like tinny approximations of real-world instruments, and the latest digital samples that sounded indistinguishable from real musicians playing their axes.
For years, my dream has been to sit at the piano and write music using a stylus and digital “paper,” where my quick, sloppy musical penmanship would be quickly and seamlessly realized on the page as perfectly rendered notation. We’re not there yet, but thanks to the Surface Pro 3 and some currently available software, my dream is inching closer to reality.
But let’s face it: writing music using notation is an extremely old-school approach to composition. The vast majority of professional composers–including those that write for videogames and other media–compose by playing parts on a keyboard, layering together their score line by line using some sort of DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like ProTools or Logic, combined with high-end sample libraries for playback. If, at some point, live musicians are required to play the music, a MIDI version of the score is then moved into notation software, where it is edited for performance.
For years, the two competing notation software packages have been Sibelius (now licensed and owned by Avid) and MakeMusic’s Finale. Sibelius–which has very recently moved to a yearly subscription model–and Finale each have similar feature sets, some quirks, and very vocal adherents and detractors and the main difference is in UI. Both programs are expensive, but each company offers a stripped down version aimed at students and beginners, and of course each also offers free demos to play with.
Over the years, other companies have tried to dethrone the two major players with limited success. Notion 5 from PreSonus is relatively inexpensive but its sample library reflects its budget price. The web-based notation software Noteflight doesn’t require any installation and works from just about every device.
Although pricey, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 has done a good job of making the case for a tablet PC that can replace notebook or desktop computing. With an i7 processor and a decently large SSD, the Surface Pro can handle most Windows-based productivity software with ease (it’s not a good gaming machine, however). Its 12 inch display is crisp and big enough for most tasks, and the detachable typecover and pen are both excellent.
One of the main reasons I bought a Surface Pro 3 was to use an application called StaffPad, a music handwriting program that seemed to offer exactly what I’d been hoping for. Does it work? Yes. Does it turn my fantasy into reality? Sadly, no. Using StaffPad most effectively means, essentially, practicing a very specific form of musical calligraphy that the software will reliably understand. Stray even a little, and StaffPad returns errors, wrong notation, or empty space. I will continue to learn StaffPad’s exacting gestures, but for now, it’s better used for quick sketches than large projects.
Sibelius’ most recent edition offers limited but useful support for the Surface Pro 3. While you can’t yet enter notes using handwriting recognition, you can make editorial marks, notes, and comments on a score using the pen, which is actually a cool feature, and of course you can write music using keyboard shortcuts, a USB mouse, or the stylus as a mouse stand-in. Unfortunately, although Finale 2015 runs on the Surface, it does not include any touch-optimized features.
I have no doubt that in the very near future, tablet/digital paper technology will produce large-format, lightweight sheets of flexible musical manuscript paper and that my decades-long wish will be filled. It’s not there yet, but it will be.
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