Note: All this week, we’ll be publishing short posts from the 2017 NAMM Show in Anaheim, California. It’s a huge exhibition, so we’ll focus on what we try to do best: cover the field of music notation software and related technology.
This post is about Komp, an in-development music notation app for iOS, previewing at NAMM and scheduled to be released in the first quarter of 2017.
Seattle-based Semitone, led by founder Gene Ragan, is among the latest entrants in the increasingly diverse world of music notation apps with an app poised to launch in the next couple of months. Called Komp, it’s still in development, but it’s far enough along that it was ready for a demo at this year’s NAMM show, where they’re exhibiting at Booth 201C3.
I caught up with Gene at their booth yesterday and wanted to learn more about his background and the inspiration for Komp.
“I grew up in a large musical family and played trumpet and baritone horn,” Gene told me. “Much of my time in school revolved around playing in jazz band, orchestra, school musicals and pep band. The personal computer revolution was happening around me and I also spent a lot of time hacking on any computer I could get my hands on; Sinclair ZX-80s, Vic-20s, Apple IIs and more. Later on in college I learned to play guitar and also became fixated with analog synths and early samplers.”
Gene is no stranger to music notation software. “I was both VP of Engineering and then President of Passport Designs in the late 90s. I worked on Encore, which at one time was an intuitive and much-loved piece of software. It was always a bit frustrating to be tied to either a keyboard, mouse or some other type of MIDI input device. I really wanted to create a more natural way to create music notation.”
Later, while working at Apple, Gene saw a prototype of a certain touch-based device. “It was then,” he said, “that I thought the time had almost come for something like Komp. I actually didn’t think it would take another ten years for the iPad to evolve enough to fulfill the vision that I had for Komp.”
Komp’s code can actually be traced back to as early as 2005, but, as Gene explained to me, “It has been rewritten several times as the product has matured. The code dealing with notation input is a sophisticated machine learning system that would have crushed the first version of iOS, but the latest software and hardware is more than capable of handling it.”
Speaking of iOS, currently, Komp is exclusive to that platform, but the music notation engine and the notation recognition library are written in C++. “This,” Gene said, “will allow us to release on Android, Windows or any other platform that may arrive on the scene. I have a long history of developing multi-platform code and work very hard to make sure not to get painted into a technological corner.”
Komp’s purpose, Gene said, is “to be an extremely easy and intuitive way to get musical ideas into a notated form. It is not our intent to try and replace the traditional desktop music notation systems. We have worked very hard with our support of MusicXML to allow our users to move their creations into any of the other more comprehensive applications out there.”
I asked Gene how he would compare Komp to the other music handwriting recognition apps that have emerged in the last couple of years. “We are all similar,” he said, “in that we understand that musicians want a frictionless way to transfer their creative ideas into a computer using the input technique that they are used to; pen and paper. StaffPad, Touch Notation, NotateMe and the various apps that use the MyScript library all have my respect. StaffPad is especially a product of extreme quality. I actually bought a Surface just to use it.”
Komp is different, Gene said, in several respects. “The various apps have differing philosophies about figuring out what a user is doing. StaffPad and the MyScript apps all wait until the user has input a certain amount of notation and then signaled the application to process their input. The end result can be pretty surprising. When I was at Apple, I had weekly meetings with Steve Jobs and there were two things that he was passionate about: never surprise the user and do the right thing. If you wait until a user has entered a whole measure of notation and then try to process it, you are usually going to surprise the user. Even worse, you are going to have no practical way to communicate back to the user what has gone wrong.
“The MyScript apps will usually produce a bunch of randomly wrong notation,” Gene said. “StaffPad deserves credit for turning the measure from green to red, but still the user isn’t sure what they did wrong. There is no choice but to go back and erase the work that they have done. We instead interpret what the user has done a quickly as possible. This way the user can see their input turned into notation on the fly. Komp can also learn from the user. As part of the on-boarding experience, Komp can learn how the user write various notation items. This creates a pretty solid input experience.”
He demonstrated this feature, called “Training Camp,” to me as well as how to generally write music directly into Komp.
The Apple Pencil is not required to use Komp, but Gene said that “it most definitely improves the overall experience. When we launch, we will support the Apple Pencil and Bluetooth styli from Wacom, Jot and others.”
Gene had high praise for his team, who he called “small, but awesome.” Komp is just entering beta now. “We had hoped to be able to release for NAMM, but software is hard and music notation software is extremely hard! Komp 1.0 should be ready in March,” Gene predicted. He said that their plan was to offer Komp on a subscription model through Apple’s App Store.
If you’re attending NAMM and want to see more first-hand, they’ll be giving a demo of Komp in the group presentation area at Software.NAMM on Saturday, January 21 from 10:00 – 10:20 am.