Robert Puff, leading music preparer and notation expert, dies at 66

People

Robert Puff, one of the foremost music preparers working in concert and commercial music, and music notation software expert whose advice was available on his highly-regarded industry web site Of Note, died on Thursday, April 21, 2022 in the Seattle, Washington area after a battle with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was 66 years old.

Robert Puff was well known to a wide variety of individuals working in many areas of music. As head of his company RPM Seattle, he worked on projects for some of the most notable musicians and companies in film and video game music, ranging from films with scores by leading composers, to pops arrangements commissioned by the Symphonic Pops Consortium, to blockbuster video games produced by Blizzard Entertainment, such as the World of Warcraft series, where he regularly supervised music preparation for massive scores.

Robert was a resident of the Seattle, Washington area since early childhood. He earned a degree from the Cornish School of Allied Arts (now Cornish College of the Arts) in 1977,  and despite being known to us as a music preparer, was first and foremost a performing musician, doubling on alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute and tin whistle. He was on many session gigs as player, which later contributed to his keen understanding of what it took to create successful charts. He served as musical director for Aglow international conferences and toured Europe with the USO.

Technology and music were intertwined for Robert throughout his entire career. Always an enthusiastic “early adopter”, he designed, built, and registered the inaugural web sites for international and local Seattle companies including The Hollywood Edge, Sound Ideas, Network Production Music (BMG), Valentino Production Music (TVMusic), Petosa Music, Morgan Sound, and Triad Studios.

Before turning his attention more fully to music preparation, he composed music for corporate training films and advertising, and his clients include Boeing Corporation, Bon Marche (Macy’s), Boys and Girls Clubs, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Pac National, PBS Television, Quantum Corporation, Siemens Corporation, and Weyerhauser. In the mid 1990s, Robert worked with Microsoft’s Interactive Music Division, converting and editing music content for incorporation into the DirectX (ActiveX) engine. Eventually, he worked his way over to the music software side, testing software for Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU), and then Finale and Sibelius.

Jason Wick, director of product development at MakeMusic, said:

“I’ve often heard that great teachers are also great students, and it’s evident to me that Robert was both. I have a brief story that I think sums up Robert’s attitude as I understood it. A couple of years ago I reached out about advertising on Robert’s ‘Of Note’ blog, to which he responded he’s never had ads and that the resource exists not for monetization but for the greater good. I always appreciated the direct but respectful way he handled his business! The impressions he left on the community of music makers—from his projects to his mentees to the JetStream—will leave their marks for many, many years.”

Sam Butler, director of product management at Avid, said:

“Robert was a knowledgeable and great person in our relatively small field of music notation. The guidance he gave us while beta testing Sibelius over the years, and via the occasional personal email, have contributed to hundreds of improvements to Sibelius that have no doubt had an impact on many musicians around the globe. His ideas for improvements spanned outside the realms of notation improvements, and he’d be quick to comment on the overall experience of Sibelius to help the whole user community. The team here will miss him tremendously.”

Although his music preparation projects kept him very busy during his career, Robert gained a considerable following among the music notation software community for his relentless pursuit of excellence with programs like Finale, Sibelius, and Dorico, and his willingness to share his knowledge. Robert mastered every feature it was possible for him to comprehend, including little-known and esoteric areas of the software that, once he tamed them, unlocked efficiency and achieved superior results.

Notable among his many side projects was his being commissioned by Cinesamples to create the CineScore Template in 2016; this package of templates for Sibelius and Finale was designed for use in the studio environment. Engineered to bridge the gap between the two products, a close inspection of the files revealed the level of detail and customization that one could expect to see in a Robert Puff file. Although the style of these templates was adjusted to conform to the Cinesamples specs in terms of font choices and certain other elements as opposed to Robert’s own RPM house style, they have Robert’s signature touches all over them, from well-organized categories of notational elements such as lines and staff styles, fine spacing and size adjustments, and meticulous use of page headers and wildcards to keep projects organized.

The CineScore templates for Finale and Sibelius, commissioned by CineSamples and designed by Robert Puff

These were all borne from Robert’s decades of expertise taking music that originated from a wide range of sources and shaping them into session materials with a uniform look and consistent layout, regardless of what software platform or version the music originated in. The result was music notation that looked like it was created effortlessly, but was actually the result of Robert’s careful, uncompromising efforts, a mastery of the intricacies of the software, and an exacting process that he continually refined based upon his previous experience and evolution in the programs themselves. It was not unusual for the “process doc” in an RPM project to run dozens of pages in length, but every item had a purpose. When it was followed to the letter, it was like magic to see how the music could be transformed.

Robert continually kept up with the latest updates for Finale, Sibelius, and, later, Dorico, when it was eventually released. He was quick to embrace revolutionary concepts in the products, like the introduction of “dynamic” or “linked” parts, seeing the long-term benefit of such features, even if it meant jettisoning his earlier process and replacing it with a new one. That’s not always typical in the work of commercial music preparation, where it’s not unusual to see templates with years or even decades of reuse.

It’s the main philosophical difference between the Cinesamples approach and Robert’s approach, which although being released in 2016 — a decade after the introduction of the feature by Sibelius and Finale — did not use linked parts. If Robert was making the templates at his own direction, they would surely have made use of this feature, he told me; it also happens to be the subject of the very first entry he wrote on his Of Note blog, in 2011.

Daniel Spreadbury, Steinberg’s product marketing manager for Dorico, said:

“Robert entered my orbit early in my time at Sibelius, when I took over the management of our beta testing programme. We have known each other for more than twenty years, but in all that time only contrived to meet in person once, when Robert came to London a few years ago and we shared a very convivial lunch at a local restaurant, long after I and my colleagues had joined Steinberg and when Dorico was already available. Robert was demanding and uncompromising, but only in service of getting the right result for the musicians who relied on him to get the right music on the right stand on time and on budget. His contributions when beta testing both Sibelius and Dorico over two decades resulted in improvements to the software too numerous to count, for which I am (and, indirectly, musicians everywhere are) grateful. I will miss him.”

Robert’s curiosity and adoption of new music notation technology extended beyond the core software offerings and into other related products. He was an avid user of QuicKeys, the now-defunct macro controller for Mac. When it became clear that QuicKeys was no longer being developed, he ported all of his shortcuts and elaborate scripts to Keyboard Maestro, so he wouldn’t miss a beat. Robert’s facility with computer programming helped when we collaborated on devising a series of instructions for the file renaming app Name Mangler, so that it could automatically recognize text strings containing musical instruments and sort them into conventional score order. Robert was not shy about reaching out to developers to ask for assistance or to offer suggestions about how to improve a product, and this trait manifested itself in working with Name Mangler’s developer, where a long and patient but detailed series of exchanges finally produced the desired outcome.

This quality allowed us to collaborate with another remarkable colleague, Abraham Lee, whom I had already commissioned to develop the initial versions of the “PDF Batch” utilities like PDF-BatchScale and PDF-BatchBooklet. Robert immediately adopted those tools into his workflow, and with his help and financial assistance, we worked with Abraham to create PDF-MusicBinder, an app specifically tailored to taking large quantities of files and imposing a single booklet or separate files for 1-up and 2-up printing, the way Robert (and others) needed to do in scoring sessions. Without Robert’s hundreds of iterations, A/B testing and careful inspection of the output, the app would have never succeeded. But thanks to the work that he and Abraham did, I (and thousands of users) regularly rely on this app, turning what were previously dozens of separate commands across several programs into just a couple of clicks.

Robert also adopted the Stream Deck for its ability to turbocharge productivity, and took on the herculean challenge of devising a system for it to work with Finale, an ongoing effort known as JetStream, which continues on with his colleagues Jacob Winkler and CJ Garcia.

About Robert, Jacob Winkler said:

“I learned so much from Robert, not just about how to use the tools at our disposal, but what to do with them. Robert was a meticulous craftsman. On one of the first jobs I did with him, one of the copyists entered the composer’s name using mixed case rather than the all-caps we were using as a house style. Neither me nor the other proofreader caught it, and it went off to the printer that way. We all got a good talking to over it, and my first reaction was “surely it’s not that big a deal since all the notes were right.” But the larger picture was that attention should be paid to EVERY little detail, and that all those things add up. The difference between “1/2 trem” and “½ trem.” may be minimal, but it is real and substantive, and the cumulative effect of paying attention at that level is the difference between a beautiful, polished, and professional product and one that is not.”

Sammy Applegate worked with Robert during the later part of his career, years, and she said:

“I learned so much from this man and I couldn’t be more proud to have earned his trust and to have lived up to his incredibly high standards during the last eight years. I am grateful for all the time and experience I had with Robert; I only wish there could have been more.”

Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto with Robert Puff and Sammy Applegate during recording sessions for ‘The Revenant’ (Courtesy Sammy Applegate)

I first got to know Robert in 2006, when I asked him to help me create some string parts, last-minute, for a concert music composition that was way past deadline. Even though Robert was working on a session at the time, thanks to his careful preparation, everything was going so smoothly on his main gig that he had some time to fit in my project during the breaks, and he got my job done with the same level of professionalism that I would come to admire on every future project he and I worked on together since. In addition to the aforementioned software collaboration, Robert hired me on many projects that he supervised, and we often were coincidentally contracted for the same project, like when I would orchestrate scores for Marcelo Zarvos’s films and Robert was the music preparer, or when our good friend Mike Runyan had us preparing orchestral arrangements for the Symphonic Pops Consortium in the days before Thanskgiving, in the run-up to the annual run of Yuletide Celebration concerts at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO).

Mike Runyan is a music copyist and was for many years the principal librarian of the ISO. The ISO, under the direction of its pops conductor Jack Everly, was the originating orchestra for those Symphonic Pops Consortium, where new pops orchestra shows and packages would get their first performances before being picked up by many other orchestras.

Among Mike’s many duties was coordinating all of the music preparation for those projects. He had this to say:

“I first met Robert at a conference of the Major Orchestra Librarians Association in Los Angeles in 2005, though I believe I knew of him before that.

“At some point soon thereafter, I started sending him orchestral copy jobs. Many were old-school enter-from-hand-manuscript projects. Though he had his own house style, he easily worked in my templates. Sometimes I would have him convert a Sibelius score to Finale or tackle a particularly tricky file that needed to stay in Sibelius. I loved his ambidexterity.

“We were kindred spirits — both notation geeks and software power-users. Over the years, we would share tips, tricks, and shortcuts we discovered and would often call each other to find solutions and bug workarounds for things we couldn’t figure out. Many times one of us would add the other’s complaint to a pending bug report or feature request to MakeMusic. Once iPads emerged, I learned from Robert to create custom-labeled macro-controller buttons using Lemur. Then, when he told me about StreamDeck, I couldn’t get one and program it fast enough.

“After I retired from the orchestra world, I joined Robert’s team. What a pleasure to be part of such a well-oiled machine! I’m in the middle of one of Robert’s jobs as I write this. He didn’t live to see the end of it…I really thought he would. But large orchestral recording sessions go on as scheduled, so his team and I are forging ahead.

“I’m feeling sad. One doesn’t battle side-by-side in the trenches for years without bonding. Robert Puff will be part of my music prep DNA forever, which thing I will always cherish.”

A manuscript page from the 2010 Yuletide Celebration, and the piano-vocal score, set in Finale

Robert’s fluency with Finale and Sibelius served him well, and, as Robert did with Mike, what I recall most about working with him would be how he would call me up to discuss some obscure setting in the software or try to sort out a problem, and how that would lead to a wide-ranging discussion about our trade. Especially in the days before social media, knowledge about this corner of the field was often difficult to come by. A half-hour conversation with Robert would regularly lead to hours or days saved from re-inventing the wheel.

They also led to some of the friends and colleagues I have made. In early 2008, Robert and I were having a conversation about a Sibelius file that wasn’t displaying cautionary time signatures at the ends of systems, because of the way the originator of the file applied them in the document. We realized that there was no automatic way to check for these or reset them to always display, other than manually re-applying each one. That’s when Robert told me that he personally knew Bob Zawalich, who was responsible for authoring many of the plug-ins that shipped with Sibelius, as well as a growing cache of separately available plug-ins. Robert offered to ring up Bob, who, like Robert, also lived in the Seattle area, to see if he could come up with a solution. A few days later, Bob’s creation Cautionary Time Signatures appeared in our inboxes, and eventually made its way to the download page for all Sibelius users to enjoy. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that the TGTools and JW plug-ins for Finale, and many more of the Sibelius plug-ins, either directly or indirectly benefit from Robert’s influence.

Bob Zawalich offered this tribute to Robert:

“I encountered Robert when we were both beta testers for Sibelius. It was a fantastic group of people, and even there he stood out. He answered a lot of users’ questions, and he would phone me once in a while to discuss a thorny problem. Sometimes I would write a plug-in as a way to solve it.

“I occasionally dedicated a plug-in to someone who was influential in the process of creating that plug-in. These nine plug-ins were all dedicated to Robert: Cautionary Time Signatures, Change Case, Change Selected Barlines, Divide Durations, Note Spacing, Percussion Pitch Map, Smarten Quotes, and What Is Where. His influence is baked into the Sibelius community experience.

“He published a number of my posts in his Of Note blog, and once invited me to sit in on a film recording session where he was the music librarian. I still think of that day as one of my favorite life experiences. So long, and thanks, Robert. I wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.”

Bob Zawalich, John Hinchey, and Robert Puff in Tacoma, Washington in 2015 (Courtesy Bob Zawalich)

Seeing how that conversation with Robert resulted in the already-legendary Bob Zawalich creating a tool that was, in nearly real-time, available for any Sibelius user, was a pivotal experience for me, and for Robert as well. Eventually, both Robert and I made greater efforts to share our accumulated knowledge; Robert had already been giving instructional seminars about notation software in his local area, and I started to do the same in New York; I started making YouTube videos about using Finale and Sibelius; Robert started his Of Note blog in 2011; and I inherited this very site, formerly the Sibelius blog, from our mutual friend Daniel Spreadbury in 2012. Of course, now there are countless videos and other resources devoted to learning about the software, and, over time, we both expanded our cadre of collaborators, occasionally contributing to each other’s endeavors.

For Robert, learning and sharing were two sides of the same coin. He dutifully transcribed many of Anthony Hughes’s Dorico videos for Of Note, like this primer on expression maps and Play mode improvements. He told me that doing so helped him learn about Dorico at his own pace, and since he was doing it for himself, he figured other people would find the format useful, too.

Robert gave a lot back to the field in terms of knowledge and resources, and I learned a great deal from him — yes, geeky technical know-how, but also a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a valuable collegial community. We are all the beneficiaries of Roberts’s largess, and I’m sure I speak for many to say that he will be greatly missed.

Robert Puff is survived by his wife Jennifer, their children Chloe and Nat, and grandchildren Alice and Abel. Charitable donations could be directed to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.


Thanks to Jacob Winkler for his assistance obtaining information for this post.

Comments

  1. Bill

    What a tragedy. I’m so sorry to hear this…

    1. Max Tofone

      Thanks Philip for sharing this very sad news.

      I had the good fortune to connect and interact with Robert over the years and he has been very kind to me.

      My deepest condolences to all his family and close friends.

  2. Michele

    Thank you Philip for sharing this saddest news in such detail.
    Robert’s blog was my first saving anchor in my early days as an engraver (~2010).
    While we never actually met in person, we became closer and closer through the years, when we co-authored two articles on contemporary music engraving in Sibelius on his blog, exchanged opinions and hopes of what Dorico would become, even discussed deep philological matters on how the Italian language managed diacritics characters!
    The fondest memory I have of our 21st-century-style friendship is from late 2016, when we were both discussing upgrading our MacBook Pros to the just released Touch Bar equipped one. I got mine first, and I recall him asking me the most precise questions about how it felt not to have the physical Escape key, a confirmation of his uncompromised love for detail, precision, and efficiency.
    I last heard from him this Christmas to exchange season greetings, and he didn’t share anything about his illness, thus making this news a thunderstruck to me.
    I will deeply miss him, and I will always remember him as possibly the most positive and influential figure in my engraving life. Godspeed, Robert!
    —Michele Galvagno, Italy

  3. TLynn

    Robert was always very generous with his knowledge and experience and it was obvious when communicating with him that his desire to help improve our shared profession was always a much higher priority than his own personal advancement or enrichment. The world could use more like him and the notation community will certainly be poorer without his participation. My condolences to his family in this sad time.

  4. Paolo Tramannoni

    That’s a very sad news. We all learnt so much from him. And he contributed, and would have still contributed hugely, to the development of the art and technology. My condolences to his friends and dear ones.

  5. Stephen Taylor

    A lovely remembrance. Thanks for sharing this sad news – I was always inspired by Robert’s generosity and wisdom.

  6. John Hinchey

    A really thorough, thoughtful and heartfelt article about our friend and colleague. Thank you Philip. We will sorely miss Robert such a wonderful human being.

  7. David Pickett

    Robert was a very generous and kind man whom I first met on the Sibelius beta team. I shall miss him and am saddened to hear of his untimely death.

    Condolences to his family. RIP

    David Pickett

  8. Engela

    Thank you for sharing this very sad news. We have lost a great figure in the music industry.

  9. Bob Nowak

    A wonderful tribute. Thank you for posting it. I had no idea of the impressive extent of Robert’s background, only his evident music prep expertise. Yours and Robert’s blogs are the ones I always recommend to everyone seeking my advice. I now understand why some of your respective comments would overlap. It’s clear that we have lost a very important voice in our field. Robert Puff, R.I.P.

  10. Dave Metzger

    What a lovely tribute, Philip. Robert and I crossed paths many times, and I always enjoyed our exchanges. I still find myself on the Of Note site sometimes looking for answers. He contributed so much to the community, and he will be missed.

  11. Riccardo Del Prete

    I am very saddened by the loss of Robert. His blog was a beacon for early experiences! Although we didn’t know each other personally we shared many experiences with Jetstream. He always enticed me to work on the project by kindly asking me to take care of many icons. He was always very kind and helpful. His passing is a great sorrow. We will miss you Robert
    -Riccardo Del Prete, Italy

  12. Jeff Davies

    Robert was so generous and helpful. So sad to hear this news. Condolences to all his many friends and colleagues.

  13. Derek Williams

    A sad loss. I knew Robert through his help with our ‘Save Sibelius’ campaign. My condolences to his family and friends.

  14. Peter Roos

    A nice tribute. Years ago he gave me good advice when I was looking for a music printer. He will be missed.

  15. Blake Schaefbauer

    So sad to here! Robert was the most talented musician I ever played music with in the early 80 and mid 80s, I was so lucky and blessed to have known him and called him my friend!

  16. Robert Elhai

    Thank you so much for this meaningful and beautiful tribute to one of the heroes of the music prep world.

  17. Allan Walker

    The news of Robert Puff’s death is sad indeed. As a long time (Australian) user of Finale, “Of Note” was often my first port of call when the inevitable “how can I solve this?” question arose when some thorny notation problem occurred.
    My deep condolences to his family and friends.

  18. Judith Shatin

    I just saw your post about Robert Puff and am so utterly sorry to hear. What a wonderful, generous-spirited and helpful person he was. I took a few lessons with him and they completely changed my workflow. Of course he, like you, was extraordinarily expert. But beyond that, while I never met him, his special spirit came through.

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