A newcomer’s quest: Scoring apps for drum notation on a budget

Opinion

I have a past life in music. In the late 1990s, I produced one of the first online fanzines and wrote for several street press magazines in London and Melbourne. In the middle of that, I also played in bands in the UK and Australia, playing guitar and, latterly, drums. And then I stopped. My musical creative spark had run out. Fast forward to about 2021, and it returned, primarily due to relearning the instruments I had always played by “feeling” in the past. Actively learning instruments and production techniques familiar to me properly opened my musical mind again, and I am slowly producing music I always wanted to make in the past before joining rock bands.

More on that in the future. This post covers one of the techniques I’ve been relearning. Writing and playing sheet music, specifically for me, for drum patterns.

What is sheet music or musical notation?

If you’re a regular Scoring Notes reader, this is probably a silly question to you, but if you’re coming here from elsewhere: Sheet music, or musical notation, is a generally universal language for representing music. In reality, sheet music is not as universal as I thought globally, but as I only know and play Western music now, it’s universal there. As a guitar player, I generally played “tab”, a shorthand form of notation for guitar players that represents a guitar fretboard. However, as I played more drums, I got used to reading, thinking, and composing in “traditional” music notation. I say “traditional” as I have also discovered that drum musical notation isn’t as standard as other music notation. Hohum, anyway, that doesn’t matter for this post.

My requirements

As I got used to reading drum notation, I wanted to standardize my various sources of music ideas. These include:

  • PDFs downloaded from a Udemy course I am taking.
  • Exercises mentioned by the teacher of the course but missing a PDF.
  • Exercises I create for a drum course I’m teaching.
  • Beat ideas and “sketches” I’m working on.

You might notice that nowhere have I mentioned any paper-based notation, so why do I call it “digitizing”? So far, I haven’t needed to handle any paper-based notation, but while reviewing options for this post, I kept an eye on those that gave the possibility to capture photos or scans of notation, too.

Digitizing isn’t the right word for what I wanted to do. I wanted to turn a PDF representation of the score into something recognised as music by other applications. Think of it as optical character recognition (OCR) for music. Ideally, I would use that in a digital audio editor (DAW). I assumed this would be represented as MusicXML or MIDI, both mature methods of representing notation and music, respectively.

That requirement aside, my others were fairly simple. As I wanted to create drum scores, I only needed one instrument, but I needed the software to recognize drum notation. Drum notation is somewhat non-standard, unlike untuned instruments. Most of the time, the placement of a note on a particular place on the stave represents a particular drum, but not always, and it depends on whether you’re scoring a drum kit or percussion section. I am almost always scoring a drum kit, so I needed something that would remain consistent. If I noted a snare sound, I want it to remain a snare sound between applications.

I am also only really using these tools to generate ideas I develop elsewhere, so while I was willing to pay something, I didn’t want to pay much. If I did need to pay, I wanted a free trial of some form to get an idea if it matched my requirements first.

Finally, I wanted applications that let me write music optimally and synchronize between macOS and iPad, using some form of keyboard on macOS and Apple Pencil on iPad. And on the iPad, I wanted an application to let me write music as fluidly as possible.

What I tried

With that particular and fussy list of requirements, what did I find?

I discovered during my lengthy experimentation that many music notation applications are old, poorly implemented and maintained, and full of expensive and/or annoying paywalls to try. It was a journey full of unexpected frustrations, and I had to eliminate a lot of options to find what I wanted.

Here’s a quick summary of what I tried that didn’t work for me:

Sibelius: Initially, it seemed like a good option as it’s cross-platform and can import PDFs and music scans at certain price tiers. However, I found it nearly impossible to trial any of these features without getting stuck in a loop of account authentication and inputting music frustratingly difficult, especially on iPad.

Finale: macOS only and seems promising, but during my tests, it wouldn’t recognize drum notation consistently, so I gave up on it.

Notion: Cross-platform, but doesn’t feel particularly native. It is easy to add notes and good export options, but you can’t hear anything without downloading sound packs, which you must create an account to do. No PDF import option.

digitalScore: Works between iPad and macOS and has some digitization options, but only for existing scores and has no drum instrument or score options.

GarageBand: You can write music in notation on the macOS version but not on the iPad version.

Soundslice: I had already found my choice for scanning scores, and then someone told me about Soundslice. It looks tempting, with a lot of promising features. I decided against it as I didn’t want to pay yet another monthly subscription, and Soundslice is only browser-based. I’m unashamedly old-school and like to have standalone applications.

StaffPad: Reading the App Store description, it sounds perfect for cross-platform composition, but it’s relatively expensive to take the plunge with no trial available, so it remains a potentially unknown perfect entity for me.

Crescendo: Cross-platform, for macOS, Windows, and Android (why no iOS?), but I can’t honestly tell if the software is still maintained, and while entering notes was painless, it does feel, well, “old”, and has no PDF import option.

ScoreCloud: A suite of apps, and I wasn’t entirely sure which I needed or if any of them met my requirements. However, the suite has some interesting features aimed at songwriters, and despite also looking somewhat unmaintained and “old fashioned”, it’s cross-platform and affordable.

MuseScore: Free and open source (to a point), it is an excellent option for someone on a budget, and I keep a copy around. However, there’s no iPad version, and the feature for PDF import takes you to the project’s commercial website, which seems to be in permanent beta and rarely worked for me.

What I ended up with

I couldn’t find one tool that met all my requirements (that I could try anyway) and eventually settled on two that gave me a workflow that matched what I was looking for. I will be the first to admit it’s still not perfect. But after a lot of looking, I couldn’t find anything affordable or at any price I could try before buying. So much so that I am considering making my own, but I am not sure I have the time or coding skills to do so. Or if there’s enough market desire. Watch this space.

For converting: Newzik

Newzik (web version)

At the start of my pipeline is Newzik. It’s web-based and has an iPad application. I hope that the developers turn it into a macOS version at some point, but at the moment, it’s an OK compromise.

This is where I contradict myself and show the weakest link in my music chain. I still need a subscription to unlock all the features I need for Newzik. There’s a lifetime one-off unlock, but it has no export option, and then to unlock exports is a subscription. However, this part of my workflow isn’t something I plan to use as much as the other part, and once I am finished clearing the backlog of imports, I may not need it anymore.

So, for now, I can “get away with” using Newzik’s free trial. I upload several pieces, convert, delete, and start again.

I appreciate that this isn’t ideal for me or the company, but there’s another shortcoming of Newzik that makes me reluctant to pay. The app aims to provide you with music set lists and features for practices or performances. As a relatively lightweight application on an iPad, I can take it anywhere. It does that well. However, there’s one major drawback for a drummer. There’s no drum kit sound. As most of the other features are useless to me right now, I don’t feel so bad about not upgrading yet.

All those caveats aside, it works admirably to convert PDFs to MusicXML.

With my PDFs converted to more flexible formats, I now needed an option for gathering them together, using them for practice, and adding new scores to that library over time.

For collating, composing, and practicing: Dorico

Dorico (desktop version)

There are many options on the notation creation side, but to be blunt, most are clunky. They are either old applications showing their age or using bloated, fiddly cross-platform frameworks where nothing quite feels right no matter what platform you use. The older applications are typically expensive or have confusing pricing and licensing structures. The newer applications feel equally clunky, but you’re not sure if they are actively maintained or likely to be maintained actively in the future.

So again, I ended up with Dorico from Steinberg as it was, shall we say, “least bad.” Pricing is made easier for me as often you have to pay to unlock multiple instruments in a score. At the moment, I am only interested in drum tracks, so I can make do quite happily with the one instrument restriction. This may change at a later date.

Of the older-style applications, Dorico made the most sense for me on iPad and macOS. I realize this is a personal feeling, but many of the applications I tried make entering and editing notes quite fiddly and frustrating, and I found Dorico the “easiest” so far. It synchronizes between the iPad and macOS versions via iCloud, and I can hear the notes playback. That last point may surprise you, but I struggled to hear anything with several applications. As a bonus, it has a MIDI “tracks” view that’s DAW-lite, and you can easily export it into Cubase to take compositions further. I mostly use the MIDI export plus Ableton, but I have a copy of Cubase LE, so it’s nice to have the option.

Ableton Live

The one main quirk that annoys me is that, by default, Dorico ties matching notes to indicate that they should be played together. This doesn’t always make sense, but it makes no sense with drums, as two snare hits are not one note. I couldn’t even make two snare hits sound like one if I wanted to. I am still scouring blog posts and documentation to see if there is a way to disable this, but most answers imply that you can’t in the free version, so I will ignore it for now.

Coda

It’s imperfect, but Newzik + Dorico is my current workflow. I am still building up and consolidating my score library, which means I will use Dorico more over time and determine if it is the best long-term home for my music library. The PDF import part is the weakest link in my chain. I will unlikely need it forever, so I can unlock it fully for a couple of months and then downgrade again (one of the few advantages of monthly subscriptions).

I researched almost all possibilities, but if I missed anything obvious that might suit my particular needs, let me know in the comments, and I will be happy to hear it.

Comments

  1. John

    I’m confused by your “two snare hits are not one note” statement. If they are two hits then maybe they should be slurred, not tied? Either way I think an example would be best, so email an example to j.barron@steinberg.de and let’s see if we can find you a solution.

    1. Chris Chinchilla

      Hmm, I’m not sure, and I hadn’t seen notation like this in any other drum scores (including those I “imported”), plus a fair few people in the Dorico forums having similar issues, so I will email you with some examples!

  2. Chris

    Just a quick correction – in Notion Mobile you do not need to create an account to download the base soundsets (and that includes drumset).

    1. Mike Philcox

      It sounds like you have looked into matters carefully but I noticed your statement that in Dorico you “can make do quite happily with the one instrument restriction” and hope you are aware that Dorico SE (the free version) allows up to 8 players (musicians) and each player can switch between different instruments during the course of a single piece of music. You can readily compare the capabilities of different versions of Dorico at https://www.steinberg.net/dorico/compare-editions/ Also, the Dorico forum at https://forums.steinberg.net/c/dorico/8 is a very friendly and productive place to get advice from experienced users and even the developers, one of whom (John Barron) has already offered help directly above.

    2. Chris Chinchilla

      Huh, you’re right, I think maybe the user flow was a bit confusing to me when I last looked. I am certain I couldn’t get any sounds without an account last time, or possibly the wording of “welcome pack” is confusing, or I was just swimming in a sea of music application UX at the time I made the video and the post ‍♂️. More than happy to take a nother look when I have some time again!

    3. Chris Chinchilla

      Although… Is there a way to get just a drum score without having the rest of the band?

  3. Adrian Holovaty

    Your arguments against Soundslice were frankly a bit weak. :-) I mean, you didn’t even *try* it? Come on in, the water’s fine!

    You dismiss web-only applications yet ended up choosing a PDF scanning solution that requires an Internet connection (Newzik’s scanning happens over the web, on their servers). These days the distinction between web and desktop applications is blurry.

    If you really need that warm, fuzzy feeling of having installed something, you can save Soundslice to your device’s home screen (works on desktop too now, in the latest browsers):
    https://www.soundslice.com/help/en/player/tips/247/native-app-experience/

    Also: we recently added a free trial for our PDF importer, and it looks like you made your YouTube video before we introduced that free trial. Give it a try! We just added tremolo detection this past week, which may come in handy for your percussion music.

    And if our exorbitant $5/month subscription fee is an issue, note you can just pay for a single month; there’s no long-term commitment as there is with other software.

    -Adrian at Soundslice

    1. Chris Chinchilla

      Hey :) There are an awful lot of “only $5 a month” subscriptions right now, and times are tough, so especially when I was looking for something that was mostly to get an archive of files imported, yes, I wanted to try before I buy. Now you make that possible, I will try again, as Newzik has issues, too.

      Yes, I ended up with a web app (though they do have an iPad app) because it was the least worst option. Yes, I like proper applications, and actually, a growing number of people do (again). I’ve worked in programming teams for years, and while web apps have certainly massively advanced, they aren’t the same, and well, I’d just like a proper application with a one-off price if possible!

      But with that trial now available, I will give it a try!

  4. Benny

    Seems like a lot of work just to avoid doing a lot of work! Just learn to use (and pay for) the tools – none of them are perfect, you’re ALWAYS going to be doing a ton of work if you want anything beyond simply pedestrian. Of course, I realize that this workflow is also a good way to take other people’s music and, uh, “expand” on it, but trust me, it’s way easier to come up with stuff on your own!

    I personally use Photoscore to import PDFs, then send to Sibelius, where I can export MIDI and/or Audio. I know there are a few other choices for importing as well. I’m pretty sure all the major scoring programs export XML, MIDI and Audio, and most of them read XML and MIDI. But it’s always going to be fiddly in some way, and always will be.

    And really, if you just want to play, just get a bunch of good mates and have a proper jam. It’s loads more fun!

    1. Chris Chinchilla

      As noted, I played in bands for years… I toured all over the world and even have several hit singles and albums, so I am most definitely playing with people person first and foremost. I have a couple of writing partners again now.

      Most of this exercise was to consolidate my own personal training material into a standard format I could take with me from different sources and also annotate playing tips, etc. It was also to create practice routines for a class where I teach drums to refugees here in Berlin, so again, we needed familiar pieces and were on a budget.

      Finally, it was so I could jot down pattern ideas on the move as it’s quite hard to carry a drum kit around with you.

      At the moment, my budget workflow isn’t that much work, but I am more than happy to try Photoscore and pay for it, I wanted to try before I buy to see if it actually worked for me first.

  5. Chris Chinchilla

    Thanks for all the comments and side conversations generated by this post! I learnt a lot and have changed my workflow quite a bit. I’ll be back with a follow up video, and if Phillip allows it, maybe even a follow up post soon!

  6. Michael Porath

    Hey Chris, here’s another entry to the list, at least for readers who use an iPhone or iPad: https://beat-note.app/ref.html. It’s free, but has a Pro plan with more features

    1. Chris Chinchilla

      OK thanks! Yes I am planning a follow up as my process has definitely changed now ;)

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