Hanukkah is half-over and still no holiday shopping guide for this year? It’s been a busy period around here, but better late than never. Whether you’re looking to spend a little of that gelt you received, treating yourself to an early Christmas present, shopping for your favorite music nerd, or simply, ahem, “accelerating year-end expenses” to please your accountant, here’s an eclectic but useful list of items that live on my shelf, in my studio or on my devices.
Some of these items were included in last year’s holiday guide (worth checking out on its own), but since nothing captures the holiday spirit like a good helping of seconds, I’ve included them here as well. The guide is hardly comprehensive or representative of everything that’s available, but the one thing all these items have in common is that I own them. So, without waiting until Boxing Day to come along — happy shopping!
Because nothing could be more delightful than curling up by the fire with a technical manual…
I led off last year’s guide with Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, and it’s at the top again with good reason. Approaching the five-year anniversary of its publication, it has become the definitive music notation reference of our time. My only quibbles have to do with its physical format: a hardcover book looks nice on the shelf, but a more practical format for reference would be binding that laid flat, and/or a digital version for easy portability (and easy theft, which is probably why it doesn’t exist). Daniel Spreadbury interviewed Elaine Gould for this blog upon the book’s release, and it’s still worth a read.
If the Gould is the heavyweight tome on the subject of music notation, then the Alfred Essential Dictionary of Music Notation is its ideal counterpart. Small and lightweight but chock-full of goodies, it’s the perfect quick reference on a surprisingly wide range of notation topics. With clear illustrations and practical descriptions, it’s the ideal gift for the budding composer who is looking to improve upon the beauty of their score. It’s presented alphabetically, so it’s not necessarily meant to be read in sequence. But that’s the nature of a dictionary, after all, isn’t it? Also in the “Essential” series are dictionaries of orchestration, and terminology — together, they are the three kings of pocket music references.
Price: $7 in paperback; $6 in Kindle format.
Regular blog readers know that I’ve been creating new editions of Aaron Copland’s masterworks over the last few years, including the Third Symphony and Appalachian Spring. To try to get inside the head of the late “dean of American composers,” nothing beats poring over every note of his scores — nothing, that is, except the aptly-titled The Complete Copland, by long-time Copland scholar and biographer Vivian Perlis along with Copland himself. Written largely in the first-person from the composer’s perspective, with interludes by Perlis, it’s full of insights, photos, score examples and much more. The book is actually the combination of two earlier books, Copland: 1900 Through 1942 and Copland: Since 1943, which have been updated with new material.
There is a bit of a theme to the next several books. We’re all hearing about the “gig economy,” a term new for many workers but long familiar to most musicians. Yet despite relying on gigs for a living, there are relatively few self-help books on the topic that are geared towards musicians — or at least those inclined to read a blog about notation software. Enter The Savvy Musician by David Cutler. It has a combination of practical advice and anecdotes specifically tailored toward music school graduates, including performers and composers. Some of the most well-known musicians were interviewed for this book. A second edition to the 2009 one is long overdue; social media was in its infancy just six years ago, and the advice for self-publishers to get a fax machine could be left on the cutting room floor. While platitudes abound, there are enough nuggets of worthwhile information at least from which to glean inspiration, if not a blueprint for success.
Speaking of success, the boldly titled Music, Money and Success is a less entertaining read than The Savvy Musician but incredibly more useful when it comes time for you to know exactly how rights, royalties, and licensing work in the music business. It goes deep into detail with practical examples on everything from cue sheets, touring budgets, contracts, royalty statements, statutory mechanical rates, video games, ringtones and much more. Written by industry veterans Jeffrey Brabec and Todd Brabec, it skews towards film, television, Broadway, and commercial recordings, so a notable shortcoming is a lack of meaningful information about the concert music business. But for the other genres, you’d be hard-pressed to find another book that is so comprehensive.
Price: $23 in paperback; $15 in Kindle format.
The Complete Guide to Film Scoring contains a good mix of technical detail about the craft of film scoring and its business side. With a number of interviews from notable film composers serving as helpful commentary to illustrate the process, the second edition of this book by Richard Davis is an excellent read. Its readability is also its shortcoming; you won’t find the deep level of detail you might find in other references, but, as befits a book published by the press arm of the Berklee College of Music, the historical context provided in the book’s early chapters help link the days of grand movie palaces and silent movies with today’s surround-sound blockbuster scores.
Mastering MuseScore is the long-awaited print guide to the popular free desktop software. Coinciding with the significant release of MuseScore 2, Marc Sabatella’s user-friendly guide is conducive to easy reading in a way that the official online help manual is not. The book is logically organized in five large sections that you can read in sequence or jump around if you prefer. The material is clearly and briskly organized, and many pages have insets which helpfully explain the reasoning behind a feature or action. Whether you’re trying MuseScore for the first time, or you’re a more experienced user looking to push the software further, purchasing the book is worth the investment. After all, the software is still free!
Price: $35; $20 in Kindle format.
Finally, the book that still sets the standard for music notation software references is the Sibelius Reference. Printed copies used to come with the boxed software in earlier days, but now a PDF is all that’s included. While it’s still incredibly useful, and indeed often preferable to have an annotated digital version of the reference handy (don’t forget, you can put it on your tablet), sometimes there’s just nothing like the old-school book you can place on the shelf. Fortunately, Avid still sells the 7.5 version, which is good enough for users of version 8 as well. Remember, when all else fails, “RTFM” is always good advice.
Apps and software
I’ll leave it to others to make the distinction between apps and software; the line is getting blurrier all the time.
The breakout app (or software, if you will) of the past year is StaffPad, the music scoring app that works on Windows pen-and-touch devices like the Surface Pro. Its handwriting recognition capabilities caused a sensation when it was first announced in March. Last month’s rewrite for Windows 10 added more groundbreaking features like the voice-activated composer assistant, and a slick demo presentation by Microsoft has garnered more than 16 million views. If you already own a Surface and you’re reading this blog, you probably already own StaffPad. The biggest hurdle to its widespread adoption is its Windows-only limitation—essential, inventor and developer David William Hearn says, so as not to compromise the experience. But with the new iPad Pro and Pencil now a reality, the drumbeat of requests for an iOS version will surely grow louder.
Last year at this time, I wrote that “the only viable music handwriting app available at the moment is NotateMe.” While that’s clearly no longer the case, it does have the distinct advantage of working on iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. NotateMe 3, released in June, offers the option to write music directly into the score, as opposed to the separate handwriting area required of earlier versions, making it much more usable on smaller devices. Like StaffPad, NotateMe imports and exports MusicXML so you can use your spontaneous creations in other programs.
Price: $40; PhotoScore in-app upgrade is $30; a free version, limited to a single-staff, is available for iOS and Android.
Around the same time that NotateMe was released, Neuratron unveiled PhotoScore Ultimate 8, its latest version of the venerable music scanning and recognition software for Mac and Windows PCs. Integrated into the software is a desktop version of NotateMe—thus the new desktop product is officially known as PhotoScore & NotateMe Ultimate. The desktop version of NotateMe is really only practical on pen-and-touch devices, but in that experience it pales in comparison to StaffPad. PhotoScore, though, is peerless when it comes to the fiendishly difficult task of recognizing scanned music. It still has room for improvement, but as long as you don’t expect miracles, it can pay for itself many times over.
Price: $249; upgrade from previous versions for $99.
Less than a month after StaffPad came out to great fanfare, Kawai quietly released Touch Notation for iOS. Less a handwriting app and more accurately a gesture-based app, it requires you to be very specific in the ways that musical notes and symbols can be drawn. It’s remarkably full-featured, including robust support for chord symbols and playback, with additional fonts and sound sets available as modest in-app upgrades. It also has very detailed help documentation and video help guides. I thought Touch Notation was quite promising when it was announced in April, and I still do, although aside from a fix to resolve a specific crashing bug, the app hasn’t been updated further. For the price, though, it’s worth checking it out to see if you can find a way to make it a useful tool; you can always export your work as MusicXML and MIDI to work on it further.
Real estate can be a wise investment — screen real estate, in particular. Duet Display, an app developed by engineers who used to work at Apple, turns your iPad into a second screen for your laptop with a a lag-free connection to your Mac or Windows PC via your iPad’s 30-pin or Lightning cable and USB. Duet installs itself as a menu bar icon on your desktop, and you have various options to set the resolution and frame rate. It’s become essential for me while traveling so I don’t have to endlessly shuffle things around on a single display, and it’s trouble-free. The free desktop companion app from the developer’s site is required.
Of all the updates to desktop scoring programs this year, MuseScore 2 was the most significant. While not quite achieving parity with the commercial programs Sibelius and Finale, MuseScore is nevertheless more than adequate for a large number of users, and is constantly improving thanks to its collaborative and supportive community. MuseScore 2 introduced features such as dynamically linked parts, a continuous or “scroll” view, guitar tab, re-pitching, and filters, all of which help make the program more usable and comfortable if you’re migrating from another program. CEO Thomas Bonte said that the publication of the aforementioned Behind Bars had an impact on development, with a number of engraving improvements making their way into the latest version. There is also a MuseScore mobile app for iOS which displays and plays scores.
Sibelius also saw an update this year, though its scale was much more modest. The biggest change, aside from introducing a new subscription and licensing model, was the addition of support for Windows pen-and-touch devices. More engraving improvements are being promised, but as 2015 comes to an end, Sibelius 8.0.1 is looking like the version that will close out the year. A ray of hope for more significant updates for 2016 is seen with the opening of an office in Montréal dedicated solely to Sibelius development. Of course, Sibelius is still immensely powerful and flexible, and if you want to upgrade to 7.5.1, the last version under the old licensing model, stock is still available last we checked.
Price: Varies based on license.
After more than a decade of yearly paid upgrades, MakeMusic got off the annual treadmill and released 2014.5, a free upgrade that was more like a hefty maintenance update. Finale 2014.5 fixed more than 100 bugs, some of which were long-standing and some of which were newly introduced in 2014. Performance results are mixed, with some users reporting noticeable improvements while others experiencing slower performance than 2014 or 2012, with results apparently dependent on the type of file and operating system. Along with Sibelius, Finale is an extremely powerful desktop scoring program, and many thousands of people rely upon it daily for their work and education. As is also the case with Sibelius, the notation community awaits what the new development team can do in their first full year in a new environment (Boulder, Colorado). A 64-bit version is promised for next year.
Price: Free for 2014 users; $149 from a previous version or from a competitor crossgrade; $600 retail; $350 academic/theological. Update: Until Dec. 31, 2015, MakeMusic has a promotion to offer $99 upgrades (from previous versions of Finale) and $149 trade-ups (from SongWriter, PrintMusic, and Allegro).
Hardware and accessories
In last year’s holiday guide I wrote about the Xkey 25-key mobile keyboard controller, a lightweight MIDI keyboard made by CME. It’s a terrific product, but having only two octaves available was somewhat limiting. That’s why the Xkey 37-key Mobile Keyboard Controller was such a welcome addition to the lineup this year. It’s interesting how the addition of just one octave can make a world of difference, though. When using the Xkey 37 for step-time entry, you can cover nearly the entire range of most instruments without needing to switch back and forth using the octave key. And when playing in real-time, you can actually play a reasonable amount of two-handed music comfortably. It won’t replace a weighted piano, but for what it does, it’s an impressive device. The free Xkey Plus app for PC, Mac, and iOS isn’t necessary to use the keyboard, but it adds advanced options.
Price: $200 for the 37-key model; $100 for the 25-key model.
I have to admit that before becoming aware of StaffPad this year, it had been a long time since I used a Windows PC for anything significant. The introduction of StaffPad led me to purchase a Surface Pro 3 in order to try it out; later Microsoft provided me with an updated model. Windows 8 wasn’t exactly easy to get a handle on, but with Windows 10 providing a polished experience, I find myself using the Surface more and more. On short trips where I want the convenience of a tablet but I might need to occasionally open a file in Finale or Sibelius, it’s a tough call; do I bring my MacBook Pro and and iPad, or just the Surface? More often, the Surface is the right choice. More power-hungry users will want to take a look at the new Surface Pro 4 and the inventive Surface Book, the latter of which gets generally positive reviews and could really be a true laptop replacement. After trying it out in October, I did splurge for the new Surface Pen; it feels a lot better to write with and I like having the eraser in the traditional position on the top of the stylus.
Price: $800 and up depending on configuration.
In last year’s guide I recommended the Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball. I bought another one this year, not as a replacement, but to have a dedicated one for travel, so I figure I’m entitled to include it in this year’s guide! It has the form factor of a regular mouse, but because it’s a trackball, it’s stationary, so wrist fatigue is alleviated. The thumb operates the trackball, and there are four configurable buttons plus a click wheel. Unfortunately, that click-wheel has notches and doesn’t support side-to-side scrolling, so I’ve learned to hold down the Shift key when flying horizontally through scores. The other major drawback is that there is only a right-handed version; many other trackballs can be used ambidextrously. It gets great battery life and connects to Logitech’s “unifying” wireless USB receiver.
Like I did with the trackball, I grew tired of swiping my Logitech K750 wireless solar keyboard every time I took a road trip, so I bought a second one this year. It nicely complements the trackball and XKey. Apple doesn’t make a wireless keyboard with a numeric keypad, which is essential for working with Sibelius and Finale. The Logitech model is solar-powered, and while the solar panels take up a bit of space, it’s nice to never have to re-charge it or use batteries. The keyboard connects via the same unifying receiver as the trackball, so only one USB port is taken for the two devices.
Price: $60 for the Mac version; $50 for the PC version.
I hope Santa will shimmy down your chimney with a few of these items or whatever else you wish for this holiday season. Enjoy!