For more information, see:
- This post from February 5, 2020 about the first release on iPad and the complete rebuild for Windows 10.
- This post from November 10, 2015 about StaffPad for Windows 10, the updated version of the app, with new features.
- This post from April 7, 2016 with new features.
StaffPad is, quite simply, the most fun, innovative, and groundbreaking music notation software available today. The app is available exclusively from the Windows Store for $70. The only platform on which StaffPad is currently available, for reasons that we’ll soon explore in detail, is pen-and-touch based Windows 8 tablets like the Surface Pro.
With that in mind, let’s watch the 2-minute promotional video for StaffPad:
Watching the video may conjure up a sense of déjà vu, but let’s not dwell on that too much…
A brief history of music handwriting apps
…OK, maybe just a little, for some brief history: In early 2013, a start-up called ThinkMusic caused a sensation by releasing a promotional video for an iOS app that recognized handwritten music. The video was later discovered to be a series of screenshots from Sibelius and GoodReader, and was ultimately used as a fundraising tool for an app that never materialized. Nevertheless, the buzz demonstrated the intense interest in such a product, if one ever were developed.
Then in October 2013, Neuratron introduced a beta version of NotateMe, a new music handwriting app for iOS and Android devices, with an official 1.0 release two months later. Having years of experience with music recognition technology via its PhotoScore desktop software, Neuratron was naturally positioned to enter the mobile space with a related product. Since then, Neuratron has released version 2 of NotateMe and has integrated PhotoScore directly into the mobile app, via an in-app purchase.
If you use NotateMe, you are aware of its strengths and its shortcomings. Writing something naturally and seeing it instantly converted into typeset notation is nothing short of magical — when it works. It can be disorienting, though, to see your scribbles interpreted by NotateMe in real-time when the interpreted result is not what you intended. Because a split-screen is required — you write music in one staff and it appears, somewhat disconnected from what you entered, above your entry — you can only view a relatively small portion of your music at a time. The non-native interface is, to me, visually unappealing compared to many modern apps. However, with practice, NotateMe is a useful tool for jotting down brief musical ideas and sharing them with yourself or others for later use, thanks to its built-in MIDI and MusicXML support, especially if the only tool you have with you at the time is your smartphone.
The beginnings of StaffPad
During this entire time, and even well before the ThinkMusic video appeared, composer, orchestrator and programmer David William Hearn was thinking a lot about musical notation and its relationship to the digital, mobile world. (You can read a longer interview with David on this blog.) David is no stranger to the world of music technology; indeed, he’s done some high-profile work in music for film, TV, advertising, and the stage, including working as music editor and programmer on the film adaptation of Les Misérables — a particularly challenging task, given the nature of that film’s live recording process. He’s also one half of the team behind the Cinematic Strings sample library for Kontakt.
With all this technological know-how, though, David said he was concerned about the growing remove between the creative inspiration and the technical skills needed to compose music digitally. “I worked in sequencers and had to buy Sibelius because I was doing string arrangements for pop records,” David told me. “But my focus was on sequencers, and it seemed that the two lived in very different worlds. You were expected to write into a sequencer and then lay it out and finish the job in Sibelius, if it was ever going to be played by real musicians. That killed productivity and inspiration for me. As much as I contribute to it with Cinematic Strings, I really dislike the act of getting up in the morning and switching on the computer, opening up Cubase, having some iLok error to deal with, creating MIDI tracks, loading in samples, buying new sounds… it’s not a musical process, it’s a technological process.”
So David set about thinking of a way to bridge the gap, and the music handwriting app was born. “The actual moment of ‘let’s do this’ came whilst I was sat in Air Studios with orchestrator Nicholas Dodd,” David said. “He’s probably one of the top orchestrators in the world. There had been some crisis on the film session we were at, and whilst we were having lunch chatting about how we could solve those kinds of issues, I floated the idea that I’d been having about making a notation app that’s designed around pen. Nicholas lit up in a way that you rarely see, and flooded the room with enthusiasm. That was the moment that I realized that, if it was done right, the app could be useful to true professionals — but also be simple enough for the casual musician, teacher, student to enjoy.”
David then built a non-functioning prototype, but needed some serious coding help. “When I started looking around for freelance developers that I could hire to help me build this vision,” David said, “I thought, well, I should first look to see if anyone’s done it already. At that time, nobody had, at all. But there was a page on Google Code that Matthew Tesch had started. It was basically an outline of something he wanted to do, but hadn’t started yet.”
A collaboration was born. “Matt’s been brilliant. He’s the coding genius that makes it all happen. The recognition is all Matt’s work,” David said. “He works for Carnegie Mellon University programming search and rescue robots! We’ve been working on this together for the past three years.”
Those three years of work have finally seen the light of day today. I’ve been working with an advance build of StaffPad for a few weeks now, so let’s take a detailed look at it.
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.
Getting into the StaffPad workflow
The real magic of StaffPad starts to become evident as you begin to move from bar to bar. All you need to do to move to any other bar is to simply start writing in it. You don’t need to finish writing in one bar; StaffPad won’t automatically fill the bar with rests. You don’t need to write in contiguous bars or select another bar to prime it. It is so natural, it’s almost jarring if you’re accustomed to selecting an empty frame in Finale or selecting a bar and pressing N for notes before starting in Sibelius.
As you do this, StaffPad renders the bar in engraved notation; StaffPad uses the Bravura font. It automatically respaces the music and corrects stem direction. You can also tap outside the active bar at any time for StaffPad to render it. This workflow was crucially important to David: “I didn’t think you should do either constant recognition — which is what NotateMe tries to do — or recognition after you’ve written your whole score,” David said. “I thought the recognition should happen one bar at a time; that will keep it fast and predictable. If StaffPad gets something wrong, you don’t mind correcting one bar at a time, but you don’t want to go through a whole score and try and fix all of the mistakes.”
Indeed, StaffPad won’t be perfect 100% of the time. If it can’t recognize something you wrote in the bar, it will render what it can, but it will leave the unrecognized strokes unchanged, and turn the staff lines in that bar orange. This signifies a “pending” bar.
About pending bars, David explains that StaffPad “will ask you what each unrecognized stroke is. You can report it, ignore it, or tell it what it is, and the app will learn your style. Train it well! This, conceptually, is key. Sometimes you might be writing graphic notation, and not have StaffPad try and apply recognition to it. This is really the first time you can write completely what you want and be experimental. That’s where this could really get handy: when you’re not trying to write conventional notation.”
In the latest build I worked with, I found pending bars to be a mixed bag. StaffPad will try to guess at your intended stroke and present you with a few limited options. If none of those are correct, StaffPad will offer you the entire library of strokes from which to choose, remove, report or ignore. Even when I methodically went through and identified each stroke, sometimes StaffPad would still keep the bar pending, and nothing would change. The concept is good, though, and hopefully in time StaffPad will both get better at recognizing strokes and simplify the process by which one identifies those which are unrecognized.
In any event, I heeded David’s advice to not let a pending bar interrupt my workflow. The genius of the concept is that you can move right along and get back to a pending bar later; your unrecognized ink strokes will be saved, and even printed (more on that in a bit).
Once notes are rendered, you can do some pretty amazing things with them. You can erase them just like you do your ink strokes, and you can even erase the individual components of the rendered notation. For instance, tapping on a beam of eighth notes while holding the eraser button will turn those notes into unbeamed (flagged) notes; erase the flags to turn the notes into quarter notes. If you erase a stem on a half note, it will turn the note into a whole note. You can even tap-erase secondary beams between notes to break the secondary beams.
Likewise, you can always go back to a rendered bar and add or modify the notation by drawing in more strokes. If you tap on a note, it gets colored blue. You’ll hear its pitch and you can drag it up or down to change it. Drag a note left or right to temporarily add space for, say, additional notes or accidentals.
You can tie notes between bars or slur over many bars with the greatest of ease. Slurs will snap to the nearest notehead, much as they do in Sibelius or Finale. Indeed, if you want to extend or contract an existing slur, just drag its left or right handle (the handles appear once the pen is in close proximity to the slur). To reposition or flip a slur, drag its middle handle.
StaffPad supports up to four voices, like Sibelius and Finale. Tap on the voice number at the top left-hand corner of the screen to specify the current voice. Stem directions will automatically adjust once the bar is rendered.
Finally, you’ll notice a pen icon at the top of the screen. Tap this to turn on a drawing mode, where you can freely write in blue ink on the score. Toggle the visibility of this layer on or off by tapping the eye icon.
Adding instruments, text, clefs, barlines, time and key signatures
As you get more into the details of working with StaffPad, the importance of the pen and its relationship to touch becomes even more evident. The palm-rejection technology is excellent; you can rest your hand comfortably on the screen and write in a natural way. The pen is generally for writing and erasing music; your fingers are for moving the canvas, selecting bars and using the menus. There is some overlap — for instance, you can select most menu items with the pen as well as your finger — but each tool, as it were, does what it does best.
If you touch and hold your finger on the screen, you’ll bring up a contextual menu. On the Surface Pen, the button above the eraser button is a “right-click” button, and so if you tap on the screen while holding this button, you’ll get the customary contextual menu as well.
Touching and holding your finger — or “right-clicking” with the pen — just about anywhere on the screen will bring up a contextual menu with at least two options: Insert Text and Instruments. Selecting Instruments will show the same window seen when creating a new score, and so you can easily add or remove instruments in the same manner.
If you’ve touched above a bar, the Windows keyboard appears, and you can type in technique text or tempo text. Simply typing in a number will tell StaffPad that you’re entering a metronome mark, and it will give you choices to select from (although dotted rhythms appear to have been omitted from the default options). Same with the most common Italian tempo terms: StaffPad recognizes “Allegro” and “Moderato”, for instance, and will automatically place these at the top of the system. If you type other technique-type text, such as “pizz.” or “arco”, StaffPad will place these on the top of the staff you had tapped on, in roman non-italic text.
Touching below a bar works the same way, except that StaffPad will interpret this as expression text. Start typing a dynamic like “p” or “mf” and you can instantly select it. Type other text, like “espressivo” and it will appear in the appropriate spot, in italics.
You will start to notice that StaffPad does an admirable job of collision avoidance and automatic spacing. While not at the level of a sophisticated desktop program, it nevertheless is more than adequate to keep your score perfectly neat and legible. As David told me, “I initially thought we were going to keep things very simple and just say that this is a very basic front end for Sibelius or Finale. But as you can see, the output is pretty good on its own. I wouldn’t necessarily put this output down in front of the LSO, but for the majority of cases, it should be just fine.”
If you tap and hold in a bar, you’ll see a few more contextual options: Change Clef, Change Time Signature and Change Key Signature.
These are all relatively self-explanatory, with perhaps one or two details: although changing the clef will change the position of the notes on the staff, changing the time signature will not re-flow the music, and changing the key signature will not transpose the music. This, said David, is by design: “The key difference between this and Sibelius is that it doesn’t try and auto-complete things for you. If you change the time signature, it won’t re-flow the music. That’s not to say we won’t have that eventually. But when you’re working on paper, you may be writing along, and then, in your head, you may have done a time signature change, and you just want to erase a note to fix it. That’s really easy to do in StaffPad. The assumption is that, musically, the user knows what he or she is doing.”
Still, StaffPad offers a bit of assistance: under-filled bars will be colored grey, and over-filled bars will be colored red, to help you identify those bars that don’t conform to the time signature. What you do with them is up to you.
If you touch and hold directly on a barline, you’ll see the Change Barline option in the contextual menu. Familiar options are available: double barlines, repeats, and final. Be aware that selecting a final barline is final in the true sense of the word: StaffPad will erase everything in your score afterwards.
Touching a staff name is pretty interesting (you don’t need to hold). Here, you’ll be able to change both the full name and short name of the instrument, exclude it from printing, and adjust some playback options (oh yes, we will get to playback).
Working with symbols and other musical elements
There are certain elements of music notation that are easier to enter digitally in StaffPad. These are found in the symbols palette, which can be accessed by tapping or touching the symbols icon on the top of the screen (to me, it resembles a snowman).
The basic concept is that you select the symbol by touching or tapping it, and then you place it in the score by using the pen, although the exact method differs a little in each case.
Trills, octave lines, hairpins and pedal lines are placed by selecting the the tile, tapping with the pen where the item should be placed, and then, if necessary, dragging the item to the right to extend it as far as you like. If, after you’ve placed the object, you find you would like to extend it further or contract it, first, deselect the tile in the symbols palette, then extend or contract it in the same way you do with slurs. Changing between a whole-step and half-step trill is accomplished by selecting the “trill-to” note with the pen and dragging it left or right.
Glissando and portamento lines are quickly placed by selecting the appropriate tile and simply tapping between the two notes. StaffPad intelligently snaps the line between the two notes, adds extra space if accidentals are present, moves the line up or down if you move the notes, and adds multiple lines for chords. (Take note, Sibelius and Finale.)
A single note tremolo is placed by selecting the appropriate tile and “painting” the notes with the pen from left to right. Dragging the pen up on up-stemmed notes, or down on down-stemmed notes, will add more strokes, up to three. It’s really cool!
If you know how to place a glissando, and you know how to place a single-note tremolo, then you know how to place an alternating tremolo between two notes: just select the tile, tap between the two notes, and drag the pen up or down to add more strokes.
Arpeggios work much as they do in Sibelius or Finale: you select the arpeggio, tap the chord, and StaffPad snaps to the correct span of the chord. StaffPad offers the regular arpeggio as well as versions with the up and down arrows.
Grace notes and “X” noteheads are achieved by selecting the tile and then tapping on the note to change it. For grace notes, this means that you will temporarily over-fill the bar. StaffPad easily converted both single grace notes and beamed grace notes, and you can erase or add beams to grace notes in the same way you can with ordinary notes. However, I didn’t see a way to change a grace note or an “X” note back into a regular note, other than deleting and re-entering the note, although David said that this will be fixed in an update to the app.
Fermatas are placed by selecting the fermata tile and tapping on the note. StaffPad intelligently places the fermata not only on the note, but on all other notes on the same beat, on the theory that if one instrument is holding, everyone else is too.
Finally, rehearsal marks are placed in the same way, by tapping on the tile and then tapping in the bar. StaffPad automatically centers the rehearsal mark on the barline above the top staff in the score, regardless of which instrument you’ve tapped on. Rehearsal marks automatically sequence when they are added or deleted. By default, rehearsal marks appear in the “A, B, C…” sequence style, but you can change it to measure numbers by touching and holding any rehearsal mark and selecting Switch Rehearsal Mark Style. About this method, David said that “eventually, this will be how we simplify the symbols palette down, and expand it without complicating it: there will be no need for separate tiles for up/down arpeggios, different styles of gliss lines, etc.”
Of course, all of these items can be erased with the pen, using the eraser button.
I found using the symbols palette very intuitive. At the modest risk of the palette becoming too crowded, I would like to see articulations added to it at some point. Especially when adding repeated staccato dots or accents, painting them in in the same way that is done for tremolos would be very convenient.
Selecting, copying, transposing, adding and deleting bars
This is where the pen-and-touch approach starts to bear more fruit. Because StaffPad knows that tapping using your finger is different than tapping using your pen, it frees up your fingers to select and manipulate music without it being interpreted as note and symbol entry.
Selecting a bar is done by double-tapping on it with your finger. The bar and notes become colored blue, and a contextual command bar appears at the bottom of the screen. To expand a selection, single-tap on any bar above, below, to the left or right of the first bar you selected and all the bars between your initial and subsequent selection will be selected. Double-tap again, anywhere on the score, to deselect.
Double-tapping on a clef will select the entire staff (only a single tap on the clef is necessary if a bar is already selected).
The contextual command bar offers the familiar Cut, Copy, and Paste, along with Select All, with some nice visual aids: Copied source material turns yellow, and the bars representing cut source material turn red, until you’ve made a new selection and pasted the source into your destination. Like other programs, you only need to select the first bar of your destination.
If you’ve made a selection, you’ll notice a handle in the bottom right-corner of the bar. Selecting the handle with the pen and dragging it to the right or down repeats the material into the adjacent bar(s), kind of like pressing R for “repeat” in Sibelius. I found that this only worked up to the edge of the screen and I was unable to drag further; it would have been nice if the score kept moving once my pen reached the edge.
Tapping Delete will delete any of the music within the selection, leaving empty bars in their place, while Remove Bars will actually remove that bar (or “measure stack,” to borrow a Finale term) from the entire score. If you are familiar with inserting columns in an Excel spreadsheet, Add Bars works the same way: select as many bars as you wish to insert into your score and tap Add Bars to add the equal number of bars prior to your selection.
Transpose Selection works as you would expect; select the interval and direction, and StaffPad helpfully tells you the number of semitones you’ll be transposing the music. Transposing by key is currently not possible in StaffPad.
Reverse Stems is a rather rudimentary way of “swapping” voices. If you have written music in voice 1 that is lower than the music in voice 2, tapping Reverse Stems will point the stems as if you’d swapped the voices, although the voice assignments remain intact. Perhaps an actual “swap voices” feature will be forthcoming eventually.
Rounding out this contextual command bar are Undo and Redo; Export; and Home. These appear in the main command bar as well.
Playback is hardly an afterthought in StaffPad. As you might expect from his experience working on Cinematic Strings, David said, “I’ve programmed an entire library straight into the app, so you have the full orchestra as well as a few other things. It’s quite detailed with multiple dynamic layers and round-robins. I’ve recorded a lot of sounds, licensed from Sonic Implants, or SONiVOX, as they’re now known. So these are Boston Pops samples, completely re-programmed from scratch to fit nicely with notation.”
Simply tap the Play icon at the top of the screen to begin playback. You can tap the deck controls to move forward or back one bar at a time, or simply touch and hold the red playhead and slide it wherever you like. If you’ve made a selection, tapping Play will solo those bars, like in Sibelius (the difference being that StaffPad will stop playback one it reaches the end of the selection).
In a nice touch, once the playhead gets to the midpoint of the screen, the music scrolls while the playback line stays stationary. I had actually tweeted a question about this barely a week before I first learned of StaffPad; clearly I wasn’t the only one wondering!
Does anyone know if there's a notation program or DAW with the option for the playhead to remain fixed, and the music smoothly scrolls by?
— NYC Music Services (@nycmusicservice) February 17, 2015
David told me that playback is “meant to be very functional, so don’t hit play and expect to hear back a real orchestra.” Still, for a tablet app, I was very impressed by StaffPad’s default playback results. To my ear, they were at least as good as Sibelius 6 or 7’s default sounds, approaching (though not quite equaling) results achieved in Finale with Garritan Instruments and Human Playback, or in Sibelius with NotePerformer.
Here’s my orchestral arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” played by StaffPad (visit my site to compare it to the live version):
If you’ve placed dynamics in your score, you’ll see the expression overlay reflect those dynamics. But you can further customize playback by drawing lines and curves to subtly enhance your score. It’s an ingenious implementation and one I’d love to see in other notation products. (If you copy a bar with a custom expression layer, however, the expression data won’t be pasted to your destination bar).
Should you tire of your custom expressions and wish to reset the data to strictly reflect the written dynamics, simply touch and hold the staff (with the expression layer active) and select either Reset Expression for Bar or Reset Expression for Staff. You can also use the eraser to erase expression data.
As mentioned earlier, tapping the instrument name will bring up additional playback options on a per-instrument basis.
I noticed one bug in the build I worked with: Regardless of what value your metronome mark is set to equal, it always reads the number as if it were equal to a quarter note. In other words, eighth note = 100, quarter = 100 and half = 100 all play back as quarter = 100. Dotted rhythms appear to cause the markt o be ignored entirely. Hopefully that will get sorted out in a future update.
Of course, playing back your score won’t be half the fun if you can’t save it and share it; read on…
Saving, exporting, sharing, and printing
Saving and exporting your StaffPad file is done via the Export icon on the command bar. You can also add or delete additional instruments to/from your score, and switch on Transposing Score via the command bar. Unfortunately StaffPad does not currently support a truly keyless or “open” key signature.
While you can manually save your file at any time, StaffPad is constantly making versions of your file, so manually saving is mostly for the exceedingly paranoid (myself included). To access these versions, tap the Home icon to go to the Home screen, then tap and swipe down the tile of your desired StaffPad score. Tap the Versions icon to select an earlier version of your score. Cloud syncing is supported via OneDrive, if you’ve set that folder as your default.
MIDI and MusicXML export are supported, the latter essential for taking your StaffPad creations and polishing them in one of the more traditional desktop programs. Audio export is available via WAV and MP3, although I found that the built-in MP3 converter unacceptably degraded the audio (the “America the Beautiful” excerpt above was generated by exporting the WAV file and converting to MP3 in iTunes).
You can print your StaffPad score as a full score, a full score with all parts, or any individual part, by swiping in from the right edge and selecting the Devices charm. Choose Print and some basic options are available for you to choose from. Multirests currently don’t appear, but David said that they are one of the features currently in development, to appear only appear during printing, not on screen.
As mentioned earlier, unrecognized ink strokes will be included in the printouts that StaffPad generates.
Final details, thoughts, price and availability
This is a full-fledged notation-based composition app, no bones about it. In my opinion, it’s the first seriously usable one made for tablet PCs, handwriting recognition or otherwise. “Seriously usable” is an understatement; it’s mind-blowingly awesome, a few of its debut quirks notwithstanding.
A brief wish list of features for the next versions or updates:
- Chord symbols and lyrics — David says that these items are “absolutely the next things on the list.”
- Cross-staff support
- Keyless/”open” key signature support
- Being able to lock an active bar — sometimes when drawing too high above or too low below the staff, the active bar turned inactive
- Refining the symbols palette and including an option to “paint” articulations
- Better support for portrait mode — the music doesn’t reflow across multiple systems, so you’re currently left with a narrow strip of music if your score only has a handful of instruments
No doubt the app would have broader market appeal if it weren’t only for Windows. “StaffPad was designed to handle full orchestral scores with a pen,” David said, when asked about that. “One of the reasons I didn’t make StaffPad for the iPad in the end, was, although it makes business sense since everyone has an iPad, the design concessions were just too great. For example, you’d have to have a drawing mode, a navigation mode, or split the screen, which means that you wouldn’t have much room for your music; you don’t get the palm rejection. It makes the market much smaller, but it’s the only way I could design it how I really saw it to be.”
After working with StaffPad, I appreciated David’s uncompromising approach to the app in this way, at least for the time being. Not only is the pen essential, but the Surface Pro’s larger canvas compared to the iPad is a huge benefit. Given Microsoft’s enthusiastic support of StaffPad, don’t expect an iOS or Android version anytime soon, not to mention, David said that “from a technical perspective, it would be a major rebuild job. I’m open to the idea though – but only if the device is right and doesn’t compromise the experience!” Perhaps we can look to the early days of Sibelius as a guide; although the Surface is hardly the exact analog to the Acorn, had Sibelius not been developed for Windows and Macs, it would not have been much more than a footnote in the history of music notation software.
On the other hand, Microsoft is clearly hopeful that StaffPad will help sell a lot more Surfaces, and they may be onto something there. I demonstrated the app to a prominent composer who doesn’t currently own a tablet. After seeing StaffPad, she said she was more likely to get a Surface because of it. Of course, if you already own a Surface Pro, buying StaffPad is a no-brainer, unless you don’t want to endure your iPad-using friends constantly clamoring to borrow your tablet.
On StaffPad’s target users, David said: “The idea from day one was not to try and compete with Sibelius and Finale, which are amazing at what they do. We wanted to do something different, to try and make it not just for composers, orchestrators and arrangers, but also just for musicians. I actually think that’s one of the least-represented demographics: your cello teacher, your flute teacher, musicians in general, who don’t have the time to learn, or the money to buy high-end packages like Sibelius or Finale. But they might just want to scribble something down during their lessons.”
Regarding hardware: “The best experience on the app is had on any of the Surface Pro 3s. It will work on the earlier Surface Pros, but the Surface Pro 3 has the bigger screen and better experience.”
Price: StaffPad is available today at introductory price of $50. It will rise to $70 at some point in the future. [As of April 4, the introductory pricing has ended, and the regular price is $70.] Updates will happen automatically, and you can install StaffPad on up to 5 PCs. According to David, “for example, I can start on my Surface, and finish the score on my Wacom.”
StaffPad’s arrival onto the scene today has refreshingly jolted the field of music notation software. It’s exciting to envision what the future holds. For now, we’ll end with yours truly using StaffPad to write out a few notes of a familiar piece:
Updated April 1 with the above video. (No, it’s not an April Fools’ joke!)
Updated April 5 with correct pricing information.
For more information, see this post from November 10, 2015 about StaffPad for Windows 10, the updated version of the app, with new features.