Features in context, and those yet to come
I have mainly been singing Dorico’s praises so far, but it’s no secret that Dorico 1.0 is lacking a few things one has come to expect in a professional notation program. So… about those missing features.
I’ve thought about what would be an appropriate way to address this. It occurred to me that, with the situation being as singular as I described it in the introduction, it cannot be discussed without acknowledging the extraordinary amount of all kinds of expectations that have mounted during the last four years.
The expectations game
When Philip contacted me about writing this post, to give me some kind of idea what was needed he sent me a link to his review of StaffPad. Re-reading it, there was one sentence that stuck out:
StaffPad is quite good at recognizing flags on notes to create unbeamed notes.
“Quite good”. Mind you, that is meant as an endorsement. The program with the main selling point of reliably recognizing handwritten notation will correctly identify one of the most basic use cases… most of the time. But: it was a huge leap forward to something a lot of people desperately wished for, so everyone could agree that StaffPad was a game changer, even though it does not deliver entirely without fault on what it is setting out to do. (For the record: StaffPad is a deeply innovative and wonderfully designed software. Buy it if you haven’t already.)
The expectations game worked in favor of StaffPad: groundbreaking software at last achieves a single task, given up on by many people, having been burned before. But will probably make things more difficult for Dorico: groundbreaking software sets out to develop a unified field theory of music notation, with people cheering on a trusted team to make possible everything they have demanded in vain from their current tools for years — on top of what they can do right now, of course.
So first, let’s officially bring down a few notches the main expectation which many of us have been gleefully pushing ever-upwards (Daniel has had to remind us that he and his colleagues “aren’t curing cancer”).
Contrary to understandable and long-nurtured wishful thinking, this initial version of a highly complex software tool, aiming to set multiple new standards in an obscure field with numerous diverse user profiles, is not, indeed, perfect in every way. Let me repeat that: not perfect. There is still room for further development.
What you won’t find (yet) in Dorico
Besides perfection, however, a more difficult problem is that Dorico is still incomplete in ways that will leave users more often than not with superb, yet unpublishable scores. That is because much of the currently unavailable functionality is scattered all over different aspects of notation, and many common use cases are affected at some point or another.
Let’s try to take stock:
- There are no chord symbols yet, something everyone knows already. A subgroup of those caring about this will further be disheartened by learning that slash notation and jazz articulations are not offered in the initial release. [UPDATE: there is a small assortment of slashed note heads, but this hardly counts as fully implemented slash notation.]
- Volta brackets (first, second endings, etc.) are not covered at this time (to avoid confusion: repeat barlines are impeccably implemented). There are a lot of otherwise quite undemanding scores out there which cannot be engraved correctly in Dorico today because of this.
- The overall very comprehensive Playing Techniques omit the entirety of piano pedaling. So if you are a highbrow composer that has been inwardly scoffing at all the people panicking over pedestrian chord symbols: Karma’s a pitch!
- Engravers and copyists have to swallow the fact that, for the time being, they cannot create cues in any way.
- Educators will have to do without fingerings for a while; from all the things listed so far, these are the only ones that are currently fakeable to some extent, but that is hardly a selling point.
- Doing a lot of musical editing work, this reviewer in particular misses a convenient feature to annotate scores. (Then again, this is possible in Sibelius but not Finale.)
- Brace yourself:
there is currently no way to transpose (again for clarification: this means local transposition as an editing feature; transposing instruments are working just as they should). A basic way to, for example, transpose a selected passage up or down a major third can’t be found in Dorico 1.0.[UPDATE: the 1.0.10 update has introduced a sophisticated transposition feature.]
- Also not yet implemented: some pet peeve of yours that didn’t even occur to me to check.
It should be noted, though, that thinking of Dorico as a program with a lack of features gives a wrong idea of what its development status is. Steinberg’s marketing is very eager to point out that many features are going to be added soon, and this should not be dismissed as mere window dressing. (If you look at the screenshots released in the last months by Steinberg and study them closely, you will quickly find a number of tantalizing UI elements that are omitted from the 1.0 release.)
The good news here is that the developers consistently value rock-solid implementation over instant gratification. This gives reasonable cause to assume that Dorico will not find itself anytime soon in the kind of plateau situation that Sibelius and Finale are facing. The reason for any widely demanded feature not being included yet is, in all probability, not so much that the developers haven’t gotten around to it, but that it currently is still only “quite good” and not “insanely great” — to borrow from another technological pioneer. (That same pioneer didn’t include something as rudimentary as copy and paste in the first iPhone, and it still ended up turning out pretty well in the end.)
In assessing how debilitating any missing features might really be, it can be deceptive to simply make a comparison with what one is used to. Consider, for example, that in Dorico
there is not yet a dedicated feature to tweak vertical staff spacing on a case-by-case basis. That means users are for now completely at the mercy of the program’s justification algorithms — a scary thought if we were talking about working in Sibelius or Finale. [UPDATE: the 1.0.10 update has introduced the ability to vertically move staves freely and with ease.]
This, however, is a wrong equivalency: as long as Dorico is given minimally reasonable space for laying out the music, its collision avoidance on the staff level is faultless. While an ability to override staff spacing manually will certainly be added at some point, its absence right now is certainly not a deal-breaker. The program once more “does automatically what you would have done anyway”.
Dorico’s performance has room for improvement
Given the amount of sophistication of Dorico’s separate features, it should come only as a mild surprise that sometimes they are not yet comfortably under the user’s control in this initial release. Content selection might be the most obvious example: at times — to me at least — it does behave in ways that are not completely predictable, and so I spend two or three approaches on a selection that feels as it should be easy to make.
My impression here is that the problem is not a clumsy implementation of selection itself (even though some semi-advanced standard selection features are, wait for it… not yet implemented [UPDATE: the 1.0.10 update has brought first improvements here]); rather, processing selections in Dorico is an advanced multi-dimensional task, where all the intricacies disregarded in competing programs have to be considered.
Fortunately, with the fundamental software architecture being focused on modular processing, improvement in this area is not so much dependent on any inherent technical limits, but on the software engineers getting around to refine the current algorithms. There is no reason to doubt that this will happen eventually.
Outside of particular features, it cannot be ignored that there are also some broader technical issues. While the occasional bug or crash is not too big a deal (especially as bug fix updates are to be expected soon),
the speed of the program regarding certain edits is a letdown [UPDATE: these problems in particular have been addressed in the 1.0.10 update to the point that they are hardly noticeable any more, if at all]. Personally I am ready to accept this for the time being, in order to experience the kind of quality bought by these obviously laborious operations.
As with the issues concerning selections, I hope that the developers’ assurances of large untapped potential in optimizing the current code will prove true rather sooner than later.
One of Dorico’s more peculiar quirks right now is that edits of pitch will be executed (and redrawn) subsequently for each selected note. This is quaint to watch the first few times, but it will slow down bulk edits considerably. [UPDATE: this is not an issue anymore after the 1.0.10 update]
Another area where response lag gets seriously in the way of a smooth user experience is Setup mode: Complex changes to the Player/Flow/Layout triangle require patient users, as the program will go about redrawing the whole project the moment a checkbox is clicked. While this is happening, users are free to continue clicking on checkboxes, each time triggering new high-level edits that have to be queued in.
To add further confusion, checkboxes will be updated before the corresponding edit has been completed, resulting in an increasing discrepancy between the state of the checkboxes and the actual output (I guess you have to see it to share my annoyance). To Dorico’s credit, all lagging edits will be correctly executed in the end. Still, Jakob Nielsen woud not be impressed. It has been stated that these speed issues are a transitional situation, but as is the nature of such announcements, no time frame has been declared [UPDATE: while sorting out a large number of complex edits in Setup still seems to be not correctly in sync with the UI, the substantial speed improvements of update 1.0.10 mitigate this problem greatly].
The most important “hidden feature”: the team
There is one special feature of Dorico that I’d like to review here for its double peculiarity of being a unique selling point and also being largely invisible: the development team.
Obviously they are the most qualified group for their job, considering their previous engagement. But on top of that, they have an extraordinary track record of engaging with their customers and going out of their way to actually listen to feature requests, to discuss issues openly and to base improvements closely on user feedback.
If you are a longtime Sibelius user, you might remember a time when you could go to that software’s support forum, make a suggestion for further development, and to then after a while often see that your voice made an actual difference. For three months now, as I have had the opportunity to work with various pre-release builds of Dorico, I had the inspiring experience that this is at last possible again.
If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, the Dorico team will establish the same kind of exceptionally close relationship to its product’s user base as it had when they were responsible for making another program “the world’s best-selling scorewriter”. Don’t take my word for it; hop onto their public forum to contribute to the discussion.
Prices, availability, specs
Pricing for the boxed edition will be 579 € including VAT, or $579.99 for US customers, for a full professional license. Educational pricing for qualifying teachers and students will be 349 € including VAT ($349.99 USD), and a crossgrade offer for qualifying Sibelius, Finale, and Notion users will be available for 299 € including VAT ($299.99 USD) for a limited time — until March 31, 2017.
A download-only version is available as well; if you’re willing to purchase Dorico that way, you’ll save $20 from the prices listed above. The reason for this is that you will have to buy a USB eLicenser separately if you want to transfer to it your Soft-eLicenser at some point. It’s included with the box but it will cost you $28 if you purchase it separately.
What’s that about an eLicenser? Right now, you’re only allowed to use Dorico on one computer at a time. When you activate Dorico with an activation code, it will lock Dorico to a single computer. If you want to move your Dorico license from the Soft-eLicenser to the USB-eLicenser, Dorico will only run if the USB-eLicenser is plugged into a USB port on that computer.
It’s a clunky way to manage software licenses in 2016. Daniel Spreadbury said:
Steinberg is always reviewing its licensing technologies in the light of changing customer and business needs, and looking to the future we plan to introduce new capabilities to our eLicenser system that will address the needs of customers to run the software on their computers without the use of the USB-eLicenser while still protecting both their and Steinberg’s investment in our software.
Also check the OS requirements: Mac OS X 10.11, El Capitan or macOS Sierra, or 64-bit Windows 10. Steinberg’s policy is generally to support only the latest operating systems, although users running earlier versions of Mac OS X and 64-bit Windows systems may be able to run Dorico as well.
If you want to try a demo for free before purchasing,
you’re out of luck — but not for long. Steinberg will make a 30-day demo of Dorico available in about a month. [UPDATE: A 30-day free trial is now available]
So, should you buy it?
After reading above about some of the features not yet in Dorico, you might wonder if buying now will make you have to pay again once those features are implemented. Thankfully, that’s not the case — here’s what’s been promised, directly from Steinberg:
Dorico will receive a number of updates in the coming months that will be free to existing users, adding new functionality. Some of the functionality that is planned to be added in these updates includes*:
- Chord symbols
- Repeat ending (1st, 2nd time or volta) lines
- Jazz articulations
- Rhythm slashes
- More flexible unpitched percussion notation
- Improvements to playback and support for third-party virtual instruments
* Please note that the list of features that will be added in free updates to Dorico is subject to change.
While the asterisk is noted, we think that Steinberg will make good on all these items without requiring users to pony up again.
So if you’ve saved up your funds and you’ve been eagerly awaiting this release — and, let’s face it, you have been — buy Dorico. Dive in wholeheartedly. Explore its features, its quirks, its myriad notation and engraving options. Understand the philosophy behind its design, and try to not be constrained by your familiarity with how other notation software works.
But don’t expect perfection, and certainly don’t delete the other programs from your computer anytime soon. It’s a 1.0 release, after all, and you’ll undoubtedly find bugs, problems, and occasional head-scratching frustration. If you work with these expectations in mind, it will help you put this new era of desktop notation software in perspective.
Steinberg is in it for the long haul, and we hope their competitors are, too. As much as Sibelius in its heyday spurred on competition with Finale, improving both platforms, we hope that Dorico will do the same for Sibelius and Finale, not to mention the other music notation products available to users today. To know the history of the Dorico team is to know that their fire is lit as much by a healthy dose of professional rivalry as it is by their undoubted passion for music notation — and that will benefit users in the end.
When it comes to the future, we’re reminded of what Sibelius co-founder Ben Finn told us last year when we interviewed him:
It is extraordinary that this niche and difficult task keeps being attempted by people. As far as the newer programs, I must say that I’m not fully up to date on all of them, but I surmise that when Steinberg comes out with their new program, having three really strong programs in the market will be more than enough, and will make it pretty much impossible for anyone else to enter the market with a professional program. Though it may not make it impossible for someone to survive in the market with an app that does lots of useful stuff but is not comprehensive.
But in terms of comprehensive professional-quality music notation, I can’t see how you could ever have more than three. Because you have to make money, and you have to pay staff. You can’t do that unless you have market share and are making some serious money. You can produce a simple program for not very much money, and either give it away or sell it for not very much, and maybe you can make a living from that. You can’t, however, create a program that requires a team of ten or twenty people just to develop it over many years. That costs millions of dollars, and that’s got to come from somewhere.
Indeed, the money has to come from somewhere. Today Steinberg will begin to tell how the market rewards their notable investment in the future of professional music scoring software. We don’t think they — or you — will be disappointed.