When you open StaffPad, you’re greeted with a collection of tiles that represent scores, as well as options for creating a new score from scratch or from a pre-exisitng template. Scores can be tagged and organized by collections, meaning that a score can be accessed from more than one collection. There’s a sound store, where you can purchase additional sounds that work within StaffPad — though the app comes with a nicely full-featured set already.
If you choose to create a new score from a blank score, you’ll be prompted to choose your instruments. This process will be very familiar to anyone already using Sibelius, Finale, or most other desktop notation programs. You choose instruments from groups and add them to your score, and StaffPad will automatically order them in conventional score order. You can then save your score as a template if you have a custom collection of instruments you write for on a regular basis (more on how to do that later).
Although you may be tempted to just create a new score and start writing, I highly recommend first watching at least the “Getting Started” tutorial video and trying the interactive tutorial. The four other tutorial videos are also well worth watching early on. StaffPad is extremely intuitive, but you’ll save some time and frustration by learning more about how it works before diving in too much.
Key to the way StaffPad works is its method of recognizing your scribbles. It looks at every individual stroke you make and then interprets what you wrote based on the relationship of each stroke to all of the others. David says that “it’s more efficient and accurate to take the position and temporal information from the pen, and then use musical context to decide what the music is trying to be. That way, you can do things that would totally confuse OCR. Because we know the order of the strokes and where they are in relation to the notes, we can say, OK, that’s a natural, that’s a sharp.”
Notes and rests
StaffPad works best when you write quick, unfussy strokes. Don’t be bothered filling in the blackness of a space to make a perfectly opaque, round notehead. A quick slanted line is what StaffPad wants for quarter notes and smaller; simple circles or ovals for half notes and whole notes.
There’s no need to select a bar or instrument before you begin writing; in this way StaffPad is completely natural. Customary swipe gestures to navigate and pinch-to-zoom gestures are just as you’d expect. You just write where you want, and the bar instantly becomes “active” — the staff lines turn red to indicate that StaffPad is monitoring your input. (To me, red is more of a warning color — perhaps I’d be more used to a Sibelius-style blue or purple to signify an active status — but that’s a minor quibble.)
Accidentals are also best drawn in the manner StaffPad recommends: One continuous stroke in the style of a lower-case “b” for a flat; two complementary “L” shaped strokes for a natural; four strokes to make a “#” for a sharp.
StaffPad is quite good at recognizing flags on notes to create unbeamed notes. You connect beams in an ordinary way, by drawing one or more lines connecting a set of notes with stems. StaffPad impressively recognizes note values as small as a 128th-note.
Half and whole rests are drawn simply as a single horizontal stroke on the third or fourth line from the bottom, respectively. An eighth-note rest is drawn like the numeral “7”, with additional strokes in the middle for smaller durations. Again, rest values as little as 128th notes are supported. Quarter rests are a bit of a curiosity: StaffPad prefers that you draw those shaped like an “S”, but I preferred to draw them more naturally, in the squiggle style. As long as I was fairly consistent, StaffPad recognized my quarter rests just fine.
Augmentation dots for notes and rests are drawn with a simple dot to the right of the note or rest.
Leger lines are simple, short horizontal lines above or below the staff; it is not necessary that the vertical space between the leger lines equals a space. The distance between the lines is irrelevant to StaffPad, as it merely counts the number of lines to calculate the note — although if you draw the lines too close together, you’ll make it more difficult to precisely draw in your intended note(s).
Chords are drawn by simply adding additional notes above or below the first note of the chord.
StaffPad will automatically add tuplets based on the context of the music and beam groupings, although you can draw in a numeral later, and StaffPad should recognize it, and bracket the notes when appropriate (such as over a group of quarter notes).
Ties and slurs are drawn in the usual manner, and StaffPad intelligently recognizes the difference between the two: a tie being an arc between two notes of the same pitch; a slur being an arc over two or more notes of different pitch.
Basic articulations are drawn as you might expect: staccatos as small dots, and marcatos as a inverted “v”, placed close to the notehead. Accents are drawn as “>”, and tenutos as horizontal lines as wide as the notehead. I found that StaffPad recognized staccatissimo articulations as well, as a short, vertical stroke placed near the notehead. In general, I found that reliably drawing articulations proved tricky, but I think an alternative way of placing them might be more effective (more on that later).
If a bar is active, you can drag its right barline to add additional space to write more notes. You don’t have to be constrained to the default width of the bar. StaffPad will re-space the bar correctly once you finish writing in the bar.
So far, all of that may sound like a rather dry primer on how to write music. Which, in a way, is precisely the point: yes, you will probably have to conform your writing style a bit to make StaffPad recognize what you wrote, but, as David said to me, “If you know how to write music, you’re already using the app.”
You might wonder how to erase something you’ve written: The Surface Pen includes an eraser button. Tap and hold the eraser button, and then use the pen to select or “paint” over any unwanted strokes to quickly erase them.