As promised about a month ago, StaffPad Ltd. has released a new update today to its flagship StaffPad music handwriting app. Completely redesigned for Windows 10, StaffPad is a free update for existing users, and $70 for new users.
As before, it’s only available for Windows pen-and-touchscreen devices, and its release coincides with the availability of Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book, and continues to be compatible with older devices like the Surface Pro 3 and the Surface 3.
StaffPad lead designer and founder David William Hearn talked about the changes from Windows 8 to Windows 10 that led to significant redesigns in the latest StaffPad update. “Instead of just adding workarounds for these changes, we decided to take the time to go deep and reimagine StaffPad exclusively for Windows 10,” David said. “We redesigned the user interface, to fit with the new Windows 10 look and feel. We now take advantage of new APIs and features that weren’t available to us previously, and of course we added some additional features and capabilities to the app as well.”
David also said in a blog post today that “StaffPad will now be a Windows 10 exclusive app moving forward. We’ve always got our eyes on the future, and the app is so different on Windows 10 that it really only makes sense to move forward and continually improve and enhance the app on Windows 10. The Windows 8 version will still run and function, but will be feature frozen.”
Having worked with the new update for several weeks, I can report that the fundamentals of StaffPad haven’t changed. If you already use StaffPad, the learning curve will be slight. Whether you’re an existing or potential user, though, you’ll want to know about the new features that improve StaffPad and continue to make it the most visionary music notation app currently available for any platform.
A few disclosures before we continue on:
- StaffPad Ltd. hired me to write their new help documentation, available online.
- Microsoft provided me with the Surface Pro 3 that I used to evaluate StaffPad.
- This article was not sponsored or vetted by StaffPad or Microsoft, although in some cases I did repurpose the same example images used for the StaffPad help documentation.
With that said, let’s explore some of the new things in StaffPad for Windows 10.
The home screen
StaffPad’s new home screen offers an easier layout with proper menu items on the top and side of the screen. A nice visual refresh: the background reflects the weather and time of day in your location (as you can see, it was a nice day in New York when I wrote this).
The top menu makes it easier to browse through your scores, templates, and collections, download additional instruments from the StaffPad store, and access the tutorials and help documentation. From the side menu you can search your scores by title, create a new score, import music files (like MIDI or MusicXML) and access the app’s settings.
From any score icon you can go through its previous versions, delete it, add it to collections, edit its details, and share it (albeit in a somewhat limited way at the moment).
Overall, getting around the home screen is more pleasant in this new update.
Visual improvements on the main screen and toolbars
Upon opening a new or existing score in StaffPad, you’ll notice several subtle differences that, when taken together, add up to a notable break from its Windows 8 counterpart.
All StaffPad menu items are now contained at the top of the screen in a primary toolbar and secondary command menus. Previously, some items were found at the top, some at the bottom, and some when swiping in from the right side (these were known as “charms”; these have thankfully been done away with in Windows 10 in favor of the Action Center).
Toggling between the toolbar (which appears in black) and the command bar (in a greyish-blue) is done via the chevron that appears at the top left corner of the screen.
Selecting whole bars of music is still done via double-touching the screen with your finger; this will cause the toolbar to become a command bar with selection-specific functions like Delete, Cut, Copy, Paste, Select All, Add Bars, Remove Bars, Reverse Stems, and Transpose.
Once you get accustomed to these changes, it makes much more sense to have all of these items organized in this way. All of the circular outlines have been removed, which leads to a less cluttered experience when working with the music.
A slightly different text font and brighter textured background round out the changes to the main writing screen.
Handwritten dynamics recognition
It’s now possible to write in text dynamics and have StaffPad recognize them. While you can still place them by typing them in as before, it’s more natural to write them in without having to switch modes to insert text.
StaffPad recognizes the following dynamics:
- All terraced dynamics from pppp to ffff
- Sforzando dynamics such as sfz and sffz
- Rinforzando dynamics such as rf and rfz
- Subito dynamics such as sp, sf, sfp, and sfpp
From its earliest days, StaffPad recognized handwritten hairpins, and this continues to be the case; they can also be applied as symbols.
One drawback of StaffPad until now was the inability to make a partial bar selection. You could select a single note and drag it up or down, or you could double-touch on an entire bar and expand your selection in whole-bar increments. But if you wanted to select a few notes and work with them, you were out of luck.
StaffPad addresses this shortcoming with a new ability to lasso-select notes and dynamics. To do so, you hold the right-click button on the pen and encircle the notes or text you wish to select. The notes can be part of a bar or they can straddle a barline.
Once you’ve made a lasso selection, the notes turn blue and the selection is frozen. You can drag the notes up or down, or copy them to another bar in the same or different instrument by tapping in the destination bar. You can even paste lassoed selections into another voice, similar to the Paste into Voice feature in Sibelius.
This method also makes it easy to quickly apply dynamics to several staves at once.
To clear the selection, you double-tap in a blank area of the score.
Colors in drawing mode
If you’re feeling especially artistic (or more practically if you want to color-code your sketches), StaffPad now offers a few colors in drawing mode, for sketches that you don’t want to be recognized as music.
StaffPad now supports both swing playback and ordinary straight playback, both within the same score. As you might expect, to play your score in swing style you create a tempo mark such as “Swing” or “Swung”. To switch to straight eighths, write “Straight”.
To go along with swing playback, there are a few new symbols: doits, falls, scoops and plops. These are applied via the Symbols palette. A symbol is toggled, i.e., between a doit or a fall, by dragging the symbol up or down.
Jazz musicians will be excited about the updates to swing playback and the new symbols, but will be disappointed to learn that chord symbols have not yet made their way into the latest StaffPad update.
Copy and paste into other programs
You can now paste a selection directly into other applications, like OneNote or an e-mail. StaffPad will paste the selection as an image — perfect for quickly sharing an idea or demonstrating a passage of music, without needing to take the intermediate step of exporting a graphics file or making a screenshot of the score. A similarly useful feature is present in Sibelius.
Features since v.1.0
Of course, this latest update includes all the features cumulatively introduced since StaffPad was released in March. If you haven’t kept up with those since our initial review, there have been quite a few:
- Instrument re-ordering
- Custom time signature support
- Multirest support for printed scores
- Dotted notes for metronome marks
- Repeat endings such as 1., 2., 3., …
- More symbols: mordents, turns, open, harmonic, mute, up/down bow
- Improved way of modifying symbol variants by dragging them up or down with the pen
- Many fixes and performance enhancements
Voice-activated composer assistant
On the far right of the aforementioned toolbar you may have noticed the outline of a human figure. More than just mere decoration, this friendly icon is StaffPad’s new composer assistant. The assistant won’t fetch you a coffee or write a three-part fugue, but it will make a lot of repetitive musical tasks easier by responding to your voice (in English only).
Tap it, and the assistant will begin listening.
Start speaking to tell StaffPad what you want to do. The assistant will transcribe your speech (along with some temporary garbage to help it infer context).
If the assistant successfully understands your command, it will say “Done!” and apply the command to your score. If not, you’ll see “Sorry, I didn’t get that.”
You can ask the assistant to do things like add instruments to your score; set the tempo, time signature or key signature; change barlines and clefs; play, print and share the score; and ask for help. More examples are on the StaffPad help site.
While using the assistant, I experienced some misfires — sometimes StaffPad gave me wacky time signatures when I wanted a tempo mark, and it had trouble distinguishing between things like “B major” and “D major”. More than once, though, Siri has dialed the wrong number in my contacts or sent me to an incorrect address, so I’m willing to cut StaffPad some slack for inventing another breakthrough in music scoring software.
If the composer assistant eventually improves, no longer will you have to think “what tool do I press” or “where is the menu item located” to execute what are fundamentally straightforward and mundane tasks. You’ll just think it, say it — and it will appear in your score.
As I mentioned earlier, StaffPad hired me to write online help documentation, fully updated for the new version. Many users had been requesting a manual of sorts, which is how this guide came to be. It’s worth reading whether you’re new to StaffPad or not. It’s organized into several categories and it scales well on desktop or mobile devices.
For now, the tutorial videos included in StaffPad remain based on the earlier Windows 8 version, although there are plans to eventually update them.
StaffPad for Windows 10 is significantly faster when it comes to score loading and performance. These improvements are even more noticeable on the new Surface Pro 4, which I had a chance to try out during Microsoft’s New York event in early October. Its larger, higher-res, thinner screen, with faster processing and storage options seem tailor-made for StaffPad; the new Surface Pro 4 pen (which can be used with Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3) feels much more natural, with its pencil-like design and eraser at the top.
Another Microsoft improvement that StaffPad users will appreciate is the ability (finally) to print to PDF natively in Windows 10. To do so in StaffPad, you simply select Print from the secondary command bar and choose Microsoft Print to PDF as your printer. The print dialog itself is also more user-friendly.
Although sharing a PDF directly from within StaffPad via the Share icon isn’t supported quite yet, making PDFs and sharing them the “old-fashioned” way via e-mail or a service like Dropbox is still a better experience on Windows 10 than it was on Windows 8.
A lot is packed into this latest version of StaffPad, having come just seven months after it was first released. Clearly the Windows 10 update cost StaffPad’s developers a great deal of time in order to retool the app to comply with all of the OS’s changes and design an experience that wasn’t compromised. With Microsoft’s newest OS and devices garnering good notices, it was the right decision to spend the time and effort to make StaffPad fully take advantage of all Windows 10 has to offer.
StaffPad still has a few growing pains. Occasionally a crash, stuttered playback or other wonky behavior will detract from the app’s generally polished experience. But with the app still in its relative infancy, I think the developers are setting a good balance among pushing rapid innovation with groundbreaking features, adding the common features you’d expect from a music writing program, and fixing bugs.
Of course, if StaffPad or a similarly impressive app were to find its way onto the iPad Pro with its new Apple Pencil, we might see music handwriting apps move from a niche product to a mass-market tool. iOS and Windows 10 are substantially different creatures, and for all the clamoring for StaffPad to be ported to iOS, it no doubt would be an enormous task, with no guarantee that the result wouldn’t be compromised.
There are lots of encouraging signs out there in the music notation world these days, coming from new and familiar corners alike. StaffPad is in a class of its own when it comes to music creation, and its future is bright.