Playback is hardly an afterthought in StaffPad. As you might expect from his experience working on Cinematic Strings, David said, “I’ve programmed an entire library straight into the app, so you have the full orchestra as well as a few other things. It’s quite detailed with multiple dynamic layers and round-robins. I’ve recorded a lot of sounds, licensed from Sonic Implants, or SONiVOX, as they’re now known. So these are Boston Pops samples, completely re-programmed from scratch to fit nicely with notation.”
Simply tap the Play icon at the top of the screen to begin playback. You can tap the deck controls to move forward or back one bar at a time, or simply touch and hold the red playhead and slide it wherever you like. If you’ve made a selection, tapping Play will solo those bars, like in Sibelius (the difference being that StaffPad will stop playback one it reaches the end of the selection).
In a nice touch, once the playhead gets to the midpoint of the screen, the music scrolls while the playback line stays stationary. I had actually tweeted a question about this barely a week before I first learned of StaffPad; clearly I wasn’t the only one wondering!
Does anyone know if there's a notation program or DAW with the option for the playhead to remain fixed, and the music smoothly scrolls by?
— NYC Music Services (@nycmusicservice) February 17, 2015
David told me that playback is “meant to be very functional, so don’t hit play and expect to hear back a real orchestra.” Still, for a tablet app, I was very impressed by StaffPad’s default playback results. To my ear, they were at least as good as Sibelius 6 or 7’s default sounds, approaching (though not quite equaling) results achieved in Finale with Garritan Instruments and Human Playback, or in Sibelius with NotePerformer.
Here’s my orchestral arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” played by StaffPad (visit my site to compare it to the live version):
If you’ve placed dynamics in your score, you’ll see the expression overlay reflect those dynamics. But you can further customize playback by drawing lines and curves to subtly enhance your score. It’s an ingenious implementation and one I’d love to see in other notation products. (If you copy a bar with a custom expression layer, however, the expression data won’t be pasted to your destination bar).
Should you tire of your custom expressions and wish to reset the data to strictly reflect the written dynamics, simply touch and hold the staff (with the expression layer active) and select either Reset Expression for Bar or Reset Expression for Staff. You can also use the eraser to erase expression data.
As mentioned earlier, tapping the instrument name will bring up additional playback options on a per-instrument basis.
I noticed one bug in the build I worked with: Regardless of what value your metronome mark is set to equal, it always reads the number as if it were equal to a quarter note. In other words, eighth note = 100, quarter = 100 and half = 100 all play back as quarter = 100. Dotted rhythms appear to cause the markt o be ignored entirely. Hopefully that will get sorted out in a future update.
Of course, playing back your score won’t be half the fun if you can’t save it and share it; read on…
Saving, exporting, sharing, and printing
Saving and exporting your StaffPad file is done via the Export icon on the command bar. You can also add or delete additional instruments to/from your score, and switch on Transposing Score via the command bar. Unfortunately StaffPad does not currently support a truly keyless or “open” key signature.
While you can manually save your file at any time, StaffPad is constantly making versions of your file, so manually saving is mostly for the exceedingly paranoid (myself included). To access these versions, tap the Home icon to go to the Home screen, then tap and swipe down the tile of your desired StaffPad score. Tap the Versions icon to select an earlier version of your score. Cloud syncing is supported via OneDrive, if you’ve set that folder as your default.
MIDI and MusicXML export are supported, the latter essential for taking your StaffPad creations and polishing them in one of the more traditional desktop programs. Audio export is available via WAV and MP3, although I found that the built-in MP3 converter unacceptably degraded the audio (the “America the Beautiful” excerpt above was generated by exporting the WAV file and converting to MP3 in iTunes).
You can print your StaffPad score as a full score, a full score with all parts, or any individual part, by swiping in from the right edge and selecting the Devices charm. Choose Print and some basic options are available for you to choose from. Multirests currently don’t appear, but David said that they are one of the features currently in development, to appear only appear during printing, not on screen.
As mentioned earlier, unrecognized ink strokes will be included in the printouts that StaffPad generates.
Final details, thoughts, price and availability
This is a full-fledged notation-based composition app, no bones about it. In my opinion, it’s the first seriously usable one made for tablet PCs, handwriting recognition or otherwise. “Seriously usable” is an understatement; it’s mind-blowingly awesome, a few of its debut quirks notwithstanding.
A brief wish list of features for the next versions or updates:
- Chord symbols and lyrics — David says that these items are “absolutely the next things on the list.”
- Cross-staff support
- Keyless/”open” key signature support
- Being able to lock an active bar — sometimes when drawing too high above or too low below the staff, the active bar turned inactive
- Refining the symbols palette and including an option to “paint” articulations
- Better support for portrait mode — the music doesn’t reflow across multiple systems, so you’re currently left with a narrow strip of music if your score only has a handful of instruments
No doubt the app would have broader market appeal if it weren’t only for Windows. “StaffPad was designed to handle full orchestral scores with a pen,” David said, when asked about that. “One of the reasons I didn’t make StaffPad for the iPad in the end, was, although it makes business sense since everyone has an iPad, the design concessions were just too great. For example, you’d have to have a drawing mode, a navigation mode, or split the screen, which means that you wouldn’t have much room for your music; you don’t get the palm rejection. It makes the market much smaller, but it’s the only way I could design it how I really saw it to be.”
After working with StaffPad, I appreciated David’s uncompromising approach to the app in this way, at least for the time being. Not only is the pen essential, but the Surface Pro’s larger canvas compared to the iPad is a huge benefit. Given Microsoft’s enthusiastic support of StaffPad, don’t expect an iOS or Android version anytime soon, not to mention, David said that “from a technical perspective, it would be a major rebuild job. I’m open to the idea though – but only if the device is right and doesn’t compromise the experience!” Perhaps we can look to the early days of Sibelius as a guide; although the Surface is hardly the exact analog to the Acorn, had Sibelius not been developed for Windows and Macs, it would not have been much more than a footnote in the history of music notation software.
On the other hand, Microsoft is clearly hopeful that StaffPad will help sell a lot more Surfaces, and they may be onto something there. I demonstrated the app to a prominent composer who doesn’t currently own a tablet. After seeing StaffPad, she said she was more likely to get a Surface because of it. Of course, if you already own a Surface Pro, buying StaffPad is a no-brainer, unless you don’t want to endure your iPad-using friends constantly clamoring to borrow your tablet.
On StaffPad’s target users, David said: “The idea from day one was not to try and compete with Sibelius and Finale, which are amazing at what they do. We wanted to do something different, to try and make it not just for composers, orchestrators and arrangers, but also just for musicians. I actually think that’s one of the least-represented demographics: your cello teacher, your flute teacher, musicians in general, who don’t have the time to learn, or the money to buy high-end packages like Sibelius or Finale. But they might just want to scribble something down during their lessons.”
Regarding hardware: “The best experience on the app is had on any of the Surface Pro 3s. It will work on the earlier Surface Pros, but the Surface Pro 3 has the bigger screen and better experience.”
Price: StaffPad is available today at introductory price of $50. It will rise to $70 at some point in the future. [As of April 4, the introductory pricing has ended, and the regular price is $70.] Updates will happen automatically, and you can install StaffPad on up to 5 PCs. According to David, “for example, I can start on my Surface, and finish the score on my Wacom.”
StaffPad’s arrival onto the scene today has refreshingly jolted the field of music notation software. It’s exciting to envision what the future holds. For now, we’ll end with yours truly using StaffPad to write out a few notes of a familiar piece:
Updated April 1 with the above video. (No, it’s not an April Fools’ joke!)
Updated April 5 with correct pricing information.
For more information, see this post from November 10, 2015 about StaffPad for Windows 10, the updated version of the app, with new features.