Earlier this week, Wallander Instruments released NotePerformer 3, a major update to its plug-and-play sound library. The update is the first major update since the release of NotePerformer 2 in March 2017. Incredibly, the update is free for all existing users, and the price for new users continues to be $129 — the same price as when NotePerformer first burst onto the scene in nearly five years ago.
Since that first release, NotePerformer has been an easy way to achieve high-quality playback of orchestral scores directly through Sibelius, “reading” the music as human players would, using the written markings that exist on the score. A NotePerfomer user downloads and runs a simple installer that automatically configures NotePerformer to work with Sibelius — and only Sibelius, due to technical requirements, at least until this week.
Now, though, for the first time, NotePerformer 3 has opened its doors to Finale and Dorico users, and a $129 license permits a user to run NotePerformer in any or all of those notation programs that he or she may own.
However, NotePerformer support for Finale and Dorico comes with a caveat: It’s labeled “beta”, with good reason. There are a number of workarounds needed to use NotePerformer in those programs, with some limitations that are unresolved at the moment.
Because NotePerformer’s appeal is that, unlike with many sample libraries, no special knowledge of custom players, sequencers or separate loading of instruments is needed, NotePerformer still works best with Sibelius. Finale and Dorico users will have to adjust a number of settings in order to approach the same quality of sound that Sibelius users enjoy out-of-the-box.
New features in NotePerformer 3
Speaking of that quality of sound, NotePerformer 3 offers a bevy of impressive enhancements that will appeal to NotePerformer aficionados.
A promotional video of NotePerfomer 3 gives an overview:
Here’s a more detailed run-down of the new features:
Wallander calls this “a different approach to reverb,” targeting the sound of a medium-sized recording venue rather than a large recording hall, with stronger focus on early reflections and a less pronounced reverb tail, and can be supplemented with other reverb choices.
Arne Wallander told me that for him personally, this was “the most interesting new feature for Sibelius users. This is completely novel, not just to NotePerformer 3. In short, NotePerformer 3 time-warps the performance of phrases, and intelligently synchronizes the performance between different types of instruments, allowing them to perfectly tune-in to the beat of each other. It may sound like a small addition, but it makes for a huge impact. Apart from eliminating issues with uneven timing during melodies or series of different articulations, it achieves a level of tightness between different instruments that I’ve yet to hear in a sampled orchestra. If you double the trumpet with a timpani, it actually sounds like two well-rehearsed professionals playing in sync, rather than the mushy mess you normally get when stacking orchestral samples.”
Orchestral tuning per-instrument
Orchestral tuning via the MIDI CC (e.g. 440 Hz) can be set on a per-instrument basis, rather than as a global setting for the entire orchestra.
Delay-free switching between playback devices
Switching back and forth between General MIDI and NotePerformer, which previously resulted in a delay of variable length depending on a user’s computer, is now instantaneous in Sibelius. The same is true for adding or removing NotePerformer instances (or opening or closing scores) in Finale or Dorico.
Other playback improvements
- Improved interpretation of slow music
- Better humanization depending on context
- Better vibrato rules, especially during slurred lyrical phrases
- Better on/off bow handling in strings
- Glissando/portamento for strings and timpani no longer distorts the timbre
- Fixes for noise on soft attacks, trill, and electric guitar distortion
- Smaller installer size
- Automatic uninstaller
- Signed installer (removing the obstacles to installation on Mac and PC)
The NotePerformer web site has a full version history.
NotePerformer and Sibelius, with new plug-ins
For the first time, NotePerformer 3 includes a number of Sibelius plug-ins that help automate certain actions features and actions that previously required laborious manual editing, including:
- Resetting the mixer
- Overriding the default vibrato amount or speed
- Building woodwind or brass sections via “a2”, “a3”, etc.
- Changing the pipe organ registration
- Setting orchestral tuning
I asked Arne Wallander about this. He said:
The plug-ins for Sibelius weren’t originally planned. But when I realized how convenient the FinaleScripts were, I decided to take the concept to Sibelius as well. It makes using the power-user features so much easier. In particular, the pipe organ registration is now handled simply by ticking a few checkboxes of the stops you want. Before this, I couldn’t even remember what CCs did what myself, but I constantly had to check the user’s guide if I wanted to access e.g. “a2”. This is much better. The Reset Mixer plug-in is also very useful.
The a2, a3, plug-in basically does what it says. It creates a MIDI command in the score which corresponds to e.g. writing the technique “a2”, meaning that single notes are performed by as many unison players as you specify. So in the case of a2, that’s two. And if you write chords, they divide appropriately over the notes in the chord. The reason why there’s a special command is because this family of techniques is not a part of the Sibelius dictionary. Theoretically you could create your own staff text entries in Play > Interpretation > Dictionary with the appropriate names “a2”, “a3”, “solo”, etc. and hard-code them to set these CC values directly from the score when used as technique text, which would be even more elegant.
About NotePerformer 3, Sibelius senior product manager Sam Butler told me:
NotePerformer has come a long way since I first heard the WIVI instruments, its early ancestor. The NotePerformer 3 improvements are another leap forward for the sounds and score interpretation. Sibelius and NotePerformer are a great match, and anyone needing a convincing mockup of their scores should look no further. The combination of years of seamless integration of NotePerformer into Sibelius’s advanced playback engine, continues to set it apart.
NotePerformer and Finale, with questions for Arne Wallander
The challenges of using NotePerformer and Finale are well-documented in the NotePerformer User’s Guide. I decided to ask Arne Wallander directly about this, who was completely forthcoming about the state of development.
Q: What were some of the challenges getting NotePerformer to work with Finale?
A: Some of the major challenges were “solved” by the inclusion of FinaleScripts, such as being able to detect a wider range of articulations more reliably.
Q: How did you get around the “deal-breaker” issues you previously encountered?
A: These “deal-breaker” issues weren’t at all worked around, but they’re still there, such as the fact that there’s a 1-second delay at all times — even when entering notes with the mouse or using your MIDI keyboard. The playback line is always one second ahead in the score during playback, which is quite annoying. If you mix NotePerformer with other sounds in Finale, they’re going to be one second out of sync. I ultimately decided to release the Finale version “as is”, passing the baton to MakeMusic, in case they want to improve on this in a future version of Finale, in which case NotePerformer should be ready for it.
Q: How did you arrive at your solutions for using FinaleScript?
A: Most things work fine without running the articulation/expression FinaleScripts. NotePerformer does all it can to detect articulations using regular Finale Human Playback (HP), in the spirit of the built-in sounds. But there’s only so much you can do with HP. The scripts are for situations where HP isn’t able to detect the right articulation, or the case where NotePerformer supports articulations not defined in HP — such as some of the mutes, and a2/a3 functionality. You always need to run the “basic configuration” script, however, to generate a custom playback style which maintains predictable note lengths and doesn’t humanize the performance, because there’s no way to easily turn off humanization in Finale. Turning off the playback style entirely also turns off ordinary playback elements such as tremolos, trills and hairpins.
Q: If someone sets up a NotePerformer score with NotePerformer expressions using FinaleScript, they can then save those expressions as a library or in a template, correct? So that they don’t need to run your scripts on every score?
A: I can only assume that you can create a template for new scores with the right settings. I’m not that well-versed in Finale operation yet, except for under-the-hood playback features. NotePerformer simply assigns a particular CC change to an expression text in the library, corresponding to an articulation switch in NotePerformer. It’s not a unique approach in any way, except the fact that we include a plug-in which does the configuration for you. You only need to do it once for an expression (or articulation) and it applies to all entries of that expression in that score.
Q: Your user guide doesn’t mention it explicitly, but I assume ReWire does not work in Finale for the same reasons as in Sibelius (no latency compensation)?
A: It will with all certainty *not* work with NotePerformer, because Finale doesn’t latency compensate even without ReWire. Improper latency compensation over ReWire was always the issue with ReWire and NotePerformer in Sibelius. If MakeMusic were to implement latency compensation in the future, and they’re up to speed, maybe they can make ReWire sync correctly as well.
Q: Regarding the NotePerformer mixer, does the user need to set any particular settings in the Finale mixer in order for it to work best?
A: NotePerformer doesn’t respond to the Finale mixer at all. It’s completely cut off from any level of control. NotePerformer only goes by the volume, pan and reverb settings in the internal mixer. The reason for this is: with Sibelius, only the internal mixer settings are saved with scores, but not plug-in settings. In Finale, however, the plug-in settings are saved with the score. So it’s natural to use only the internal mixer in Sibelius, but a plug-in specific mixer in Finale (or Dorico) to retain the same level of functionality as in Sibelius. Neither of these ways is “better” to me. The Finale approach may be more 3rd party plug-in friendly in general, and more in line of a DAW. But the Sibelius approach reduces loading time and overall complexity for the end-user, and makes going between scores a no-delay operation, because the scores share the same playback configuration.
Q: What improvements would you like to see so that Finale works better with NotePerformer (other than those already mentioned in the Users Guide)?
A: Setting things up in Finale, on a per-score basis, is a bit more cumbersome than it is in Sibelius or Dorico. But when things are in place, Finale playback works very nicely and pretty much on par with NotePerformer in Sibelius. So I’d like to see improvements in the overall user experience and integration. Theoretically, everything that is now done by hand with FinaleScripts could be done transparently by Finale, as a NotePerformer-specific hard-wired implementation. It would also be great if Human Playback was extended to detect a full set of articulations which weren’t limited to only certain instruments. For example, there’s no reason why only brass can do marcato. And the current scheme of detecting note articulations (accent, staccato etc.) in Finale’s Human Playback is also somewhat limited or even flawed. It goes by the playback settings of the note, i.e. any articulation producing a “50%” length decrease will generate the staccato HP event, regardless of whether it’s visually a dot or a tenuto line. While this may make sense, there are situations where note accents have no playback settings, or the wrong settings, e.g. due to user intervention or error. Some articulations cannot be detected with this scheme, e.g. tenuto. For lack of a better way to do it, NotePerformer’s “tenuto” Finalescript now uses a special implementation where the velocity of the note is set to 1, and this is interpreted by NotePerformer as a tenuto, and vice versa — a note velocity of 127 means it’s an accent. This method is not pretty, and it’s very much a workaround, but at least it’s a workaround for detecting these articulations.
Q: Did you receive a lot of requests to make NotePerformer work with Finale?
A: We’ve obviously had a lot of Finale requests during the years. Although much more so the first year or two after NotePerformer was released. It seems most people gave up on the idea of NotePerformer in Finale just in time for the actual release!
I asked Mark Adler, MakeMusic’s director of production and senior editor for his comments on NotePerformer. He replied:
A few months ago, Arne asked us if we would beta test his new Finale version of NotePerformer. As I was quite familiar and a fan of his NotePerformer plug-in for Sibelius, I was very interested to see how it was implemented in Finale. From the first time I hit the play button in Finale, I was impressed by the quality of playback and have continued to be impressed. Arne’s years of experience fine-tuning his plug-in and sample library, will well serve Finale users that are looking for additional playback options.
There are a few obvious sync issues, one in which the playback cursor is one second ahead of the audio output, and another in which the sound on note entry is delayed by one second. We’ve looked into both issues on our side and will be addressing both in future versions of Finale.
NotePerformer and Dorico, with questions for Arne Wallander
NotePerformer is much easier to setup in Dorico than in Finale, and there are no issues with latency. But it still has a number of teething pains. Again, questions for, and answers from Arne Wallander.
Q: What were the key developments in Dorico 2 that allowed you to make NotePerformer work?
A: NotePerformer was initially going to support Dorico 1.2, using a relatively cumbersome scheme where sounds where assigned manually through a vast library of VST Expression Maps. But luckily there were people at Steinberg who took great interest in making NP work better with Dorico, despite the fact that they were pressed on time for their own release [for Dorico 2]. This eventually led to some great improvements and the addition of the customizable Playback Template, and it eventually grew mature enough that we decided to officially support Dorico only from version 2. This was probably for the better; since Dorico 2 was also given a new scheme for note playback lengths, NotePerformer couldn’t possibly support these two Dorico versions at the same time, or at least playback would greatly suffer.
Q: Regarding the NotePerformer mixer, does the user need to set any particular settings in the Dorico mixer in order for it to work best?
A: As opposed to the Finale mixer, which is a MIDI-mixer, Dorico features only an audio mixer. These correspond to the green-colored sliders in the fully expanded Sibelius mixer. So the Dorico mixer can only be used to set the audio volume of each NotePerformer device, and would typically be left untouched in the case of NotePerformer. The Dorico mixer is much more useful for a sample library with a monotimbral sample player, i.e. a virtual instrument where you create a separate plug-in instance and audio track for every instrument in your score, rather than using multiple MIDI channels in a single instance. You could, of course, use the Dorico mixer for putting your own supplementary reverb or other effects on the Master Bus, on top of NotePerformer, if you wanted that.
Q: The known issues are well-documented in the Users Guide. Anything else users should be aware of?
A: We’ve tried to cover all known issues in the documentation, and will continuously update the web site Quick Start guide (which is similar to the documentation) if new issues arise. For the time being, articulation-handling in general isn’t fully mature in Dorico. You may have issues with certain articulations not triggering, or not ending when you expect them to. Actual articulation-selection is out of our control, and something that can be expected to mature in a future version of Dorico. But in general, if you’re getting the wrong articulation, try and see if you can trigger that articulation in an empty score. If you can, you’re probably looking at something related to Dorico rather than NotePerformer.
Q: What improvements would you like to see so that Dorico works better with NotePerformer (other than those already mentioned in the Users Guide)?
A: The most crucial aspect, from the perspective of NotePerformer, is for Dorico to provide bulletproof articulation selection, and to support multiple articulations at once. You can tell that Dorico has prepared for combined articulations in the VST Expressions dialog, by allowing you to use different exclusion groups for articulations, which NotePerformer also does. But it seems that all articulations are currently treated as if they’re in the same exclusion group even when they’re not. Which means if you put an accent under a slur, you’ll only get an accent. If you put a slur on a muted brass instrument, you’re (probably) not going to get both the mute and the slur in playback.
Q: Did you receive a lot of requests to make NotePerformer work with Dorico?
A: We’ve had *tons* of requests for NotePerformer in Dorico. I’m guessing that’s partly because so many Dorico users are also Sibelius users, or existing NotePerformer users. Which is only natural, as these programs share a common history of sorts. But it’s also because Finale’s built-in playback using Garritan’s sounds is more mature than Dorico’s playback, giving Finale users less incentive to replace the built-in sounds with another playback solution.
Steinberg product marketing manager Daniel Spreadbury had this to say about NotePerformer and Dorico:
NotePerformer is a remarkable virtual instrument, and nothing comes close to it in terms of ease of use, considering the nuance and detail of the musical interpretation it produces automatically, and with much lighter demands on computer resources than larger sample libraries. For many composers and arrangers who want a “set and forget” experience, NotePerformer is ideal.
We’re very excited to have been able to work with Arne Wallander over the last few months to bring Dorico and NotePerformer closer together. I can’t comment on what it must have taken for Arne to get NotePerformer working with Dorico, but for our part, there was quite a bit of infrastructural work involved in taking the mechanism that Dorico used to select patches and assign appropriate VST Expression Maps for HALion Sonic SE and generalising it so that it could work with NotePerformer, which takes a completely different approach to loading sounds and handling VST Expression Maps. Having been talking to Arne about getting NotePerformer working with Dorico for a couple of years, it was great to work with him over the last few months to bring the two products closer together.
There aren’t really any particular caveats in using NotePerformer with Dorico: Dorico doesn’t yet handle some combinations of playing techniques completely correctly, including things like trills, but that is a general limitation [in Dorico] rather than anything that would apply specifically to NotePerformer. Existing NotePerformer users who have used it with other music notation software know what to expect, and if there are NotePerformer users who have been clinging to their old copies of Sibelius because they couldn’t use their favorite instrument with Dorico, now’s the perfect time to make the jump. Dorico users who haven’t yet experienced NotePerformer before should give it a close look, as I have yet to meet a single person who has bought NotePerformer and has regretted their purchase.
I haven’t had time to test NotePerformer with a wide variety of compositions, so if you don’t yet own NotePerformer I would encourage you to download the 30-day free trial and see if it suits your musical styles and tastes.
As has been the case since day 1 of its release, though, when playing back most conventionally notated compositions, I find that NotePerfomer far exceeds Sibelius’s default and bloated Sibelius Sounds library, and usually trumps much more expensive and sophisticated libraries as well — especially when you account for the amount of adjusting one has to do in those libraries compared to NotePerformer.
As remarkable as NotePerformer is, though, it’s still a machine. While a listener might be fooled for a few moments when comparing NotePerformer to live musicians, all but the most undiscerning listeners will easily spot the differences. Despite the notable progress made on slow and legato music, NotePerformer still does best on bigger and brassier sections; it’s great fun hearing certain pieces played with NotePerfomer’s full power.
As an example, here’s an extended excerpt of Aaron Copland’s suite from Billy The Kid that I engraved in Sibelius and played back using NotePerformer’s default settings. I reset the mixer settings to NotePerformer’s recommended levels using the plug-in, but I did not take time to insert the a2 MIDI messages. So what you hear is essentially what is marked in the score and should give you a reasonable sense of what to expect.
If you followed along in the score, you surely noticed places where, in a live context, a solo or soli would be brought out, balance adjusted, interpretation refined, and the like. Keep in mind, you can make all of these adjustments in your score using hidden markings and/or MIDI messages, but that would be at odds with NotePerformer’s raison d’être, especially when using Sibelius.
As far as a playback quality is concerned in the beta supported programs (Finale and Dorico), Finale playback is more complete than Dorico. Finale intrinsically supports a wider range of articulations in playback, and it readily supports combinations of articulations (such as slurs + accents). Plus, it has FinaleScript, which can be used to access “hidden” techniques in NotePerformer such as a2. These are all features which are currently missing from Dorico. However, Finale takes some setting up, and you will need to run a few FinaleScripts on a score-by-score basis. When properly set up, Finale playback approaches that of Sibelius, although the latency issues on note entry and playback could be frustrating for some users.
For $129, having an orchestra summoned at will that sounds as good as it does without any such tweaking is the bargain of all time. I use NotePerformer as the default playback device in Sibelius 100% of the time. It’s unquestionably the very next thing that anyone buying Sibelius should purchase next, and, if one does so, the Sibelius Sounds are usually unnecessary. It still feels so revolutionary that I can’t believe it’s nearly been five years since I first installed it. We don’t give star ratings here at Scoring Notes, but let me simply say this: If you’re a Sibelius user, buy NotePerformer — full stop.
The fact that this update is free for existing users — and that you get Finale and Dorico support as well — makes the update an easy call — get it. You have nothing to lose, and if the improvements aren’t to your liking, Wallander makes previous versions available. Reverting is as easy as downloading the installer to the version of your choice, running it, and restarting your notation software.
For Finale and Dorico users, the recommendation is more equivocal. At the price point, you might find it worth it to have NotePerformer in your arsenal of tools and available to you for certain projects. At the very least, download the 30-day free trial and test it out on a variety of scores and see if the technical limitations are workarounds are surmountable enough for you to continue to use it. The “beta” characterization of support for these programs is accurate, and we’ll see if the hurdles mentioned by Wallander and the makers of the respective software will be ironed out in due course. If so, and NotePerformer becomes as easy to use in Finale and as complete in Dorico as it is in Sibelius, it will be exciting indeed.
Full information about NotePerformer 3 is available at the official NotePerformer web site.