Dorico Review (from a Sibelius escapee)

Backstory

Brief backstory: My first foray into music notation software was with Sibelius back in 1993. Up until a couple of years ago, it and Finale were the only options. However, there was a schism that took place (the nature of which is not mine to tell) and as a result several of the people on the original programming team were fired. Sibelius continued on, but there was a great deal of dissent over various aspects of the program (including where it was going and future development).

In the middle of all this, several members of the original programming team decided to launch their own notation software with the goal recovering the original intent of Sibelius. The programming team vanished off the radar for a while although they were working furiously the whole time behind the scenes. After some suitable teasers, the first version of Dorico was released.

The team made it clear that it was still a work in progress and there were several features that still needed to be refined before they would consider it ready for production purposes. About every six months there were updates which slowly began to eliminate the major issues with the new program.

As a Sibelius user, I hesitated to jump ship for several reasons. I was used to Sibelius; since I had been working with it for a long time the interface and design made sense to me because I had been there from the early days. And when I did my first project with Sibelius, I rarely had to read the manual to make it work. It was a very intuitive and easy to use program. And that drew in a lot of people who hadn’t considered using notation software.

However, I still hesitated. The main reason was the add-on Note Performer (by Wallander Instruments). Note Performer is an incredible program that actually makes the notation software play the music as though it were a real orchestra, complete with acoustics and atmosphere. Of course, no software replicates a symphony orchestra perfectly but Note Performer comes the closest to perfection.

And then, Note Performer was suddenly available for Dorico. (And Finale). And at the same time, Dorico began offering a cross-grade price that was very reasonable. So I took the plunge and became acquainted with Dorico.

Dorico organizes its interface into distinct phases of the traditional workflow – each part of it emphasizes a different part of the workflow. It is summarized as:

Setup (Setting up the score)

Writing (Creating the music)

Engraving (Making sure the printed product looks good)

Playing (Electronic playback)

Printing

The setup window is where you choose your instruments and define your instrumental parts. You can also at this point choose the title, subtitle, and copyright information although you can easily add it later. When everything is set up to your satisfaction, you continue to the write tab.

However – this does not mean you cannot go back and make changes (as often happens). Each activity is for certain things but you do not have to follow it in any particular order.

The Writing window is where you do all the composing. Here you are not really concerned with presentation (how many staves, ossias, dynamic placement, etc) but writing. You normally would want to right in Galley view which lists all the staves equally (not unlike panorama mode in Sibelius) but if you want to double-check, you can switch to Page view which shows how the printed score will look.

The Engraving window is where you can do things like re-aligning the dynamics, moving things out of the way to avoid collision, formatting the staves, making sure that the printed page will look good. Most of it is handled automatically but there are always things that need to be adjusted. Interestingly, you cannot do any destructive editing in Engrave mode. You can’t delete anything. For that kind of editing you have to go to Write mode.

The Play window shows the sounds graphically in a “piano roll” format. It is more complicated than it appears. By double-clicking on a sound you can add midi-messages and add unusual changes to dynamic interpretation (and many other items). It is also here you choose your playback engine. Dorico comes with the Halion Sonic Orchestra which is a very good and usable product. (I still prefer Note Performer).

The Print window is where you create the final printed product. You can export it as a pdf or print it. (Is it possible to add title pages etc? Yes). You can also export the music as xml (for interchange with other programs), audio files (mp3 or wav), and several other options.

Most (if not all) of the things you can do in Finale and Sibelius can be done in Dorico (and the list grows larger every day). The only absolutely impossible item is creating a video of the playback – but this actually could be done in other ways and for most it is a “nice to have” option but not a showstopper. Note Performer can do most of what it does in Sibelius but there a few quirks involved. Luckily the documentation with Note Performer alerts you to these and how to fix them. The only glaring omission is glissando playback: a chromatic glissando can be done but not a “sliding” glissando. (They are working on it).

Dorico is best used with only the typewriter keyboard but a fair amount of speed can be obtained with a mouse and midi keyboard or a mixture of all three. A dedicated graphics and sound card is a good idea (and it works the same way in Sieblius).

Caveats

Transfering Sibelius or Finale files to/from Dorico involve use of the music xml protocol. This is not a foolproof process (and the blame cannot be laid on any one piece of software) and it does not always work as expected. (For example, some dynamics will convert just fine, others won’t). When exporting a Sibelius file (from Sibelius) a good idea is to switch the main font to Norfolk (since that is compliant with music xml) and to format it uncompressed. This will not absolutely guarantee good results but it seems to make things easier.

Second, go through and delete all of your cues. Trust me. And if you have instrumental parts attached to the score, delete them too. Bringing them along for the ride is not a good idea. (However, if you are not certain about exporting, save a standard copy and then a second copy without the parts and cues, in Sibelius. That way if the export tanks you still have an original to work with.

Some things that usually go wrong:

1 = Tempo Markings: Metronome marks do not always make the conversion.

2 = Dynamics: Polydynamics (such as ffp) do not always make the conversion because some of those glyphs do not exist in music xml.

3 = Information found on the backstage section of Sibelius may or may not export.

4 = Unusual notation disasters = Sometimes, you wind up with a score that seems to “insert” an extra 16th or 64th note rest in a bar – which completely throws the rest of the staff off by whatever note the rest is. It has an interesting effect where tremolo is involved. Part of the issue is that copying and pasting is very precise and if you point the mouse in the wrong section it will paste anyway.

So why does this happen?

One of the problems has to do with corrupted files. Several files I have go back to my 1992 days and it is inevitable that some corruption will set in. The trouble is that corruption may not be visible (or fixable) and the more corruption there is, the worse the results. You should plan on spending some time cleaning up an imported file.

Another problem is that music xml does not recognize all symbols and/or glyphs. Most of this can be resolved by using the Norfolk font…but not always. Careful proofreading is required.

In some cases (not a lot), you may find it easier to just transcribe the music manually. Once you get it done you don’t have to worry about it but it is an alternative you should keep in mind.

Playback/Noteperformer

If you are going to use Note Performer (which I highly recommend), reading the instructions provided by Note Performer are mandatory: if you don’t you will have a miserable time.

Dorico does not approach playback the same way as Sibelius does – which sometimes causes problems with third party software like Note Performer. Dynamics may be interpreted to extremes; some normal expression markings could have unexpected results. You will have no problem if you read the documentation. Once you make the suggested modifications you should have no trouble.

An unusual aspect of Dorico is that it will play back every single instrument without choking on the playback. The more instruments you have in Sibelius the less likely you can do a playback from the score (you can still export it and play it that way). I haven’t run into that with Dorico.

However, if you are working with a lot of instruments, it is a good idea to switch the playback template to “silence.” That frees up a lot of computer memory. Also only using “Page View” when absolutely necessary helps too. “Page View” has some serious screen drawing going on in the background that can sometimes slow things down. If it ever seems to be getting too slow, usually just quitting and re-opening clears up the problem.

Support

Support is awesome. There is no other way to describe it. Most of the problems can be answered on the Dorico forum – and if any bugs are discovered they are fixed. The programmers regularly present and there are plenty of other people who can help out as well. I have resolved all of my issues this way.

Training

Tutorials are available on YouTube, the Dorico site, and sometimes through the forum. The manuals are unusually well written and very well organized. It is easy to find things.

Should you crossgrade?

There are a few things that Dorico does not do – although the number of items keeps shrinking. They are:

1 – No video export

2 – No retrograde or inversion tools (although this can be done easily by hand)

3 – “Ties” are handled very differently (not impossibly but difficult).

Those are the only ones I’ve noticed so far but other people might have run into more.

Keep in mind that there is a learning curve involved in all new software products (try Photoshop sometime). A friend of mine who tried Sibelius after using Finale got so frustrated she switched back to Finale. The experience will always be different with different people.

In any case, there is a trial version available which should help you with your decision if you decide to investigate the option.

Ultimately, I think this software deserves at least a chance before rejecting it. I have no regrets about buying it and I still have a copy of Sibelius just in case – but I’m using it less and less. And many of the issues I have are being resolved with each new release. At least check it out.