Daniel Spreadbury on music fonts: past, present, and future

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On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and Philip Rothman talk with Daniel Spreadbury about the common set of font specifications known as the Standard Music Font Layout, or SMuFL. We get into the history of music fonts and how we got to where we are today with this essential component of music notation software technology. Listen now:

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Music fonts and open standards with Daniel Spreadbury
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Daniel Spreadbury has seen more than his fair share of music fonts. So when the time came to design one for Dorico, you’d think the source material would be easy to come by. But, having settled on the design of the music in the Notaset dry transfer system — which itself was based upon engravers’ stamps — as the foundation upon which to base the new font, acquiring that source material proved more difficult than one might think.

“One of the things that was quite a challenge,” Daniel, who is the Dorico product marketing manager for Steinberg, told us on the Scoring Notes podcast, “given that people had stopped selling Notaset 20 years before I started working on Bravura, was how to actually get hold of good samples. I had seen little bits and bobs of Notaset over the years, having worked in the business for a long time. The really nice thing about Notaset is that it was available in lots of sizes that the engravers would use when they were punching out the music on the plates and to actually try and get a decent spread of different sizes with enough coverage of the symbols for this dry lettering system that had gone out of use 20 years before. I sourced it from all over the place.”

The evolution of the Bravura treble clef (Courtesy of Steinberg)

It turns out you just can’t find this sort of thing on eBay. “Well, no, I tried,” Daniel said. “Surprisingly enough, you can get pretty much anything on eBay, but I never once saw Notaset. And so I had to reach out to engravers that I knew, who had been working in the business since before computer engraving, in the hopes that some of them might have some. Some came in from the US, and I went out collected some from a couple of engravers who live outside of London, who used to work some of the bigger publishers.”

The adventure paid off, but finding the source material was only the beginning of the process, Daniel said. “That was a bit of a quest in its own right — to get enough source material to give me the feeling of it, because I got maybe a couple of hundred symbols, not in every size. So if there is any creative work that I put into the actual design of the font, it was then in harmonizing the gaps — so this is what this now looks like. This is the aesthetic that the Notaset transfer system gives me, but I’ve now got to do 2,000 or 3,000 more symbols that are not represented in that set. And even some common ones that I just couldn’t get hold of because I couldn’t get the sheets.”

That effort ultimately resulted in not one, but two important creations: what ultimately became Bravura, the default font for Dorico; and the emergence of a new standard for music fonts: the Standard Music Font Layout, or SMuFL. In his role as product marketing manager at Steinberg, Daniel said, “My primary motivation was to develop a great looking font for Dorico. So that was priority number one. SMuFL, in a sense, was a nice side effect of the work that needed to go into making that beautiful font.”

That side effect has proven essential in the development of a whole new generation of fonts. Prior to SMuFL, music fonts had only adhered to loose conventions based upon the mapping of the Adobe Sonata font, designed in 1985 by Cleo Huggins without any particular application in mind, but diverged fairly quickly into families specific to the software for which they were intended to be used, like Finale’s Petrucci and Maestro fonts and Sibelius’s Opus font.

March of the eighth notes (Courtesy of Steinberg)

When creating Dorico, Daniel said, “We did have this luxury of not having to worry about breaking anything that already existed. It seemed like a good opportunity to try and figure out, well, what, what actual symbols do we really need? I think I surveyed the fonts that came with Sibelius and Finale at the time, and identified something in the region of 800 to 1,000 symbols that existed between them. And I looked at Emmentaler as well, which was the LilyPond font. It just became clear, through working on the font and identifying all of these symbols, I very quickly found more than that initial 800 or 1,000 symbols that we might need. It would make sense to actually seek the advice of other people in the community who are much more knowledgeable… I really had to draw upon a lot of expertise from the wider music technology community, but also the musicological community as well, in order to build up what was going to be in SMuFL. And that’s actually been one of the most interesting and fascinating things about working on it over the past seven years is that there’s always a new corner to uncover.

Fast forward to the present day, where SMuFL is under the auspices of the W3C Music Notation Community Group, which Daniel co-chairs. The W3C group is responsible for developing and maintaining SMuFL as well as the MusicXML music interchange format originally invented by MakeMusic’s Michael Good, who also co-chairs the group along with Soundslice’s Adrian Holovaty. Its output is licensed royalty-free, in perpetuity, to anyone who wishes to use it, making it an enormous contribution to the field of music notation software. “The great thing about that Community Group is that it guarantees that, for those standards that we’re working on, they’re going to be unencumbered for anybody who wants to implement them,” Daniel said.

Work continues apace, Daniel told us. “We’re now on what we hope is the home stretch of SMuFL 1.4, which adds something like 150 new glyphs to the already 3,000-plus glyphs that are in the standard.” In addition to the newcomers to SMuFL, there have been some additions to the font-specific metadata, making it possible to do things like define which text font family the font designer recommends to pair with the music font.

On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and I had great fun catching up with Daniel on what has ended up being the final podcast of 2020. It’s a good one, and you’ll want to listen to the entire conversation — not just for all of the font goodies but for an update on Dorico itself, including how work is progressing to make it compatible with the latest M1 Apple Silicon-based computers. Daniel made us all jealous by showing off his screaming fast M1 MacBook, which he says that “from a point of view of our development work, there’ll be some news on that front very soon.”

Papa SMuFL, the proud owner of a new M1 Apple Silicon MacBook Pro

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Comments

  1. Dan Kreider

    Great post, thanks Philip! Listening to the podcast now.

    I literally just played around with a new M1 MacBook yesterday. I’m not a Mac user, but it was pretty tempting… screaming fast.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Dan! Enjoy (the podcast, that is… and maybe the Mac, too)!

  2. Peter McAleer

    Ooh, lovely post! I can’t wait to listen to this…

  3. Dan McL

    Great podcast. Callout to Daniel, I happen to live near Petaluma (home of the Fakebooks) and the pronunciation doesn’t emphasize the first syllable, it’s just an even pronunciation.

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