Note: This post about the first Dorico release, 1.0, is from October 2016. Read about the updates to Dorico since then:
This post was updated on December 8, 2016 to account for the changes made in the 1.0.10 update, and also for clarity and accuracy.
Today marks the release of Dorico, a new proprietary music notation application from Steinberg. If you have enthusiastically awaited the program for months now and your mind is already made up: Go ahead, skip this review and purchase Dorico right away; feel free to come back here while you wait for the eight gigabytes of the sound library to download.
In most professional fields, the arrival of a new software tool — for a reviewer — is generally an occasion to perform a routine task of measuring up the new against the not-just-as-new-anymore, comparing the product to a number of similar competitors. True innovation is often incremental and limited to only a handful of the many components of a modern software package.
With commercial music notation software, this is a bit different: for more than two decades, the market has been dominated by exactly two products. Both of them, Avid’s Sibelius and MakeMusic’s Finale, are powerful tools with an impressive record of innovative features, but they also cannot hide their age. Rooted in an era when software engineering had just started to find ways out of the Software Crisis, today they are mature to the point of a terminally arrested development, one could say.
So when a new player enters the market — for months now credibly promising not only to match, but to surpass the status quo — it creates an enormous amount of expectation, especially in our narrow and opinionated niche. That is why an in-depth review of Dorico, like the software itself, cannot be approached in quite the usual way. Instead of merely discussing what we can produce with Dorico, we must also explore the philosophy behind its design.
A few notes before we begin:
- In order to write this detailed review, my fellow contributors to this article and I were allowed to use various pre-release builds of Dorico over the past several months.
- I have used Dorico on a Microsoft Surface 3 Pro running Windows 8.1, with an additional monitor attached.
- The examples contained herein have been created for the sole purpose of illustrating this review. They are intended for demonstration purposes only and are not suited for any other use.
We’ll start by recapitulating the four-year journey to today’s release; if you prefer to jump directly to the review: this way, please.
The road to Dorico
It’s worth reviewing how Dorico has come to be.
In July 2012, Avid, the maker of Sibelius, announced a corporate restructuring in which its consumer audio and video product lines were sold to other companies, with the intention of focusing the company on its media enterprise and post & professional customers, and to improve operating performance. At that same time, Avid also announced plans to lay off a number of its employees.
With Sibelius not having been mentioned in the press release, concern in the user community grew about the fate of the Sibelius team and the future of the product itself. It was soon learned that the London-based Sibelius developers were to be terminated. Avid affirmed that it was keeping Sibelius as part of the company with two letters to the user community: one with an initial statement and another acknowledging the deep level of concern that users were expressing.
A pressure group was formed which unsuccessfully tried to influence Avid’s decisions, and the founders of Sibelius, Ben and Jonathan Finn, made twice-rebuffed offers to buy back Sibelius from Avid. Over the summer and fall of 2012, Avid transitioned Sibelius development and began terminating staff, concluding with the closure of the Finsbury Park office in October 2012. (It was at that time that Daniel Spreadbury passed the stewardship of this blog, an independent venture, to Philip Rothman.)
Prior to their departure, the remaining members of the London-based development team issued Sibelius 7.1.3, which was the last update to Sibelius 7. Shortly after their last days at Avid, most of that team was hired by Steinberg in November 2012 to create a new music notation and scoring program — unnamed at the time.
A few months later, in February 2013, Daniel started a new blog, Making Notes, regularly updating the community about the new software and the team’s progress at Steinberg. An early result of their work was the development in May 2013 of a new open standard for music fonts: Standard Music Font Layout (SMuFL), and the creation of its flagship font, Bravura.
Fast-forward three years and many development diaries along the way, and we arrived in May 2016 at the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association annual conference in Helsinki, Finland, where, in the first public presentation of the software, the Dorico name was officially announced, along with the news that the software would become available for purchase in the fourth quarter of 2016.
In short order, we were invited behind the scenes to learn more about the scoring team’s efforts and plans, as the inevitable release date approached.
And so, in time, the heartbreaking scene of the vacant Sibelius office has given way to a thriving, bustling environment from which Dorico has finally emerged.
Dorico is organized around five modes, which Daniel described last year: Setup, Write, Engrave, Play, and Print, which he says are “roughly divided up according to the different phases of working on a given project. In each mode, collapsible panels down the left- and right-hand sides of the screen, and in most cases also along the bottom too, show the main interface elements for creating and editing your music.”
The modes have been covered before, but a summary is in order.
Setup mode is the first thing you’ll encounter in Dorico, but it’s also accessible at any time by clicking the top part of the display (as are the other modes) or by keyboard shortcut (in this case, Command-1 on Mac or Ctrl+1 on PC).
In Setup mode, you first create the player and then add to it, for example, a Flute and a Piccolo. A player can be a single person or a section (e.g. for a violin or choir section).
The key concepts of Setup mode are:
- Players: humans holding one or more instruments
- Instruments: flute, oboe, guitar, piano, etc.
- Flows: self-contained spans of music, such as a song, movement, piece, act or number
- Layouts: contain the music for one or more players, from one or more flows
More on Setup mode, Flows, and Layouts in a bit.
Inputting music in Dorico is done via the mouse, computer keyboard, or MIDI input. It relies only on keys found on laptop keyboards, without a need for a numeric keypad.
Shortcuts are a mix of ergonomic and mnemonic shortcuts. The idea is that the items are organized in distinct groups on the computer keyboard. These elements are also contained in the Write mode (Command-2 on Mac or Ctrl+2 on PC) on the left side of the window:
- The letters A through G input notes
- The numbers 1 through 9 specify note duration (e.g., 5 is an eighth note, 6 is a quarter note, 7 is a half note)
- 0 represents a natural; – is a flat; = is a sharp
- The most common articulations are placed using the keys [ ] \ ‘
- Tuplets are placed using the semi-colon
- Grace notes use the slash key
- Augmentation dots use the period
- Rests use the comma
- Q is for chords
- I is for insert
- T is for ties
Clefs, key and time signatures, tempo markings, dynamics, ornaments, tremolos, barlines, fermatas, playing techniques, rehearsal marks, text, and lyrics are found at the right side of the window in Write mode.
While in Write mode, you can switch between Page View and Galley View via a toggle at the bottom right of the display. Zoom controls are found there as well, as are options for viewing your music in spreads or single pages, both vertically and horizontally. Also here: you can switch between a marquee and a hand-grabbing tool; holding down Shift and dragging the background will temporarily put you in hand-grabbing mode.
This is quite possibly Dorico’s raîson d’etre. Engrave mode (Command-3 on Mac or Ctrl+3 on PC) is devoted to refining the look of your score. Nothing can be created in this mode. The idea behind separating the phases of work is that it can be too easy to make an unintended musical edit while changing the finer visual details of a score.
Details of the score’s components can be selected independently in Engrave mode. When pressed with the Alt modifier, the arrow keys move the elements at a micro level. With further addition of Ctrl (PC) or Command (Mac) the arrow keys will move by a greater (but still relatively small) amount.
From the Pages panel on the right-hand side, you control the layout of your music. Here you can insert pages, change the page numbering, swap pages, and more.
Immediately below that are the Master Pages options, powerful tools for organizing a template of sorts for your document. You can have different master pages, for instance, for the first page of a score and subsequent pages; these can then be organized into Master Page Sets.
To the left are options for creating Frames. Music, text, and graphics are all part of frames, and the frames can be created or organized in any way, on any page. For conventional music layouts, it will be rather obvious where frames for common items like the title, composer, and music go.
The power behind frames begins to become evident when they are paired with flows. Because a flow can be any length of music — even a short snippet — it can be placed on a page at any place, making it trivial compared to other programs to create things like worksheets and other seemingly disconnected sections of music.
You’ll find various options to format frames and systems here. The staff size of each system in Dorico can be set independently.
Properties, accessible at the bottom of the screen, are an important part of this mode when making fine adjustments; we’ll cover them more later.
Play mode (Command-4 on Mac or Ctrl+4 on PC) is where you can edit your mix, load VST instruments, and more. We’ll go into detail later.
The last of the five modes, Print mode (Command-5 on Mac or Ctrl+5 on PC) is where you’ll finish your project. Select a layout on the left side of the screen to see it in the print preview.
The layouts selected in this panel will be printed when you click Printer in the Destinations panel, or exported as graphics — including PDF, PNG, SVG, and TIFF formats — if you click Graphics. True monochrome output is supported. Annotations and view options can be optionally shown, similar to what is available in Sibelius, for those working in a publishing environment.
You can change the number of copies you need and expand the layout to see its page size and its number of pages, as Daniel demonstrates in this video:
Dorico can impose booklets and 2-ups, and can make use of a duplexing printer if one is available.