Asked and answered, part 2: In awe of the DAW

Scoring Notes
Asked and answered, part 2: In awe of the DAW

Listeners responded to our “call for calls” with some terrific questions about music notation software, related technology, the business of music preparation, and more.

On this episode, Philip Rothman and David MacDonald take a variety of questions and dispense solicited (and unsolicited) advice. The topic at hand for this part: Using music notation software with — or as — a digital audio workstation (DAW).

The second of a multi-part episode — because we got so many questions that we didn’t have enough time to fit them all into one sitting.

More from Scoring Notes:


  1. Philip Benjamin

    Hi Philip and David,

    The answers you provided to questions relating to notation software and its relationship with DAW apps and DAW capabilities have left me eager to respond.

    In the last twenty or more years people who want to compose music straight into a computer have – amazingly – been substantially ignored by music software developers. That’s a very bold and far reaching statement – so I had better quickly get to substantiating it.

    For the sake of proving my point – and although there are apps which don’t fall under the following two main categories – let me now review what has been happening in respect of DAW apps and music notation apps. The creators of DAW apps have almost entirely dedicated their efforts in the last couple of decades to enabling people of vastly differing levels of musicality – and vastly differing levels of musical training – to create music by layering tracks on top of each other. The capabilities added to DAW apps have related mostly to this type of composition and to mixing/production concerns. Laying tracks on top of each other is one way of making music (although it has the effect of ensuring that unless one is a genius there is going to be less consideration of the interrelationships of the parts being entered) but it’s certainly not the only way! It has emerged because technology has made it possible – it wasn’t a common way of composing music before technology made it possible (except in the form of improvisation – which isn’t one track being laid down one after another – but all ‘tracks’ being laid down at the same time). Almost all other methods of composing music involve carefully considering potentially complex relationships of one part to another – those interrelationships being potentially so complex that almost all composers must work on all parts at the same time – and therefore enter notes as notation (or in a piano roll editor if this doesn’t stop them from being able to keep the entire composition in mind). There are features in the market leading DAW apps which cater for people wanting to create a composition’s parts as notation (step time in a notation editor) however those capabilities already existed in those apps before recent decades. The only exceptions I can think of (in the market leading apps) is Studio One – which is a more recent app (and therefore all its features were created in recent years) – and Pro Tools – which began as an app which served audio engineers and widened its feature set to include MIDI and a notation editor to better cater for musicians. Studio One had no notation editor at all until fairly recent years (although for reasons I am about to explain this should not be considered a sign of Presonus not wishing to cater for musically trained composers). And Pro Tools’ notation editor has only existed in the latter years of its history. As to the rest of the market leaders – the note by note compositional capabilities of apps like Logic, Digital Performer, and Cubase (step time) existed before twenty years ago. There has been almost no attention given to developing those capabilities – nothing has been done to help musically trained people who compose note by note.

    There is a similar blindness to helping the musically trained composer compose in music notation apps. What developers of music notation apps seem to be unable to grasp is that their users are composers – they seem to instead of think of their users more as people who want to print out their compositions. In the case of music notation app users the piece being entered is almost always being fully composed – or partly composed in being arranged – it is in almost every case being entered by someone who is composing as they enter the music. Only a small percentage of users (correct me if I am wrong) is using music notation apps to make a digital copy of a composition which is already fully composed. Three apps have dominated the music notation scene in recent decades – Finale – then Sibelius – then Dorico. However each of those apps – despite the passing of time – neglect the needs of the typical user. Finale and Sibelius music was always – and is now – locked to bars. This makes it difficult to add and subtract musical space. Dorico overcame this limitation – however it did so in a manner which was without sufficient vision – instead of making it possible to build compositions and arrangements from smaller segments which the composer might build as part of experimenting – it limited the modularity of entered music only to flows – which are in Dorico organisational units for formatting music (like sections are in a word processor) – preventing them from being able to easily be used as compositional components. Dorico – while absolutely groundbreaking in a host of ways – while having raised the standard for ever for music notation – has remarkably little flexibility as a compositional tool (when one considers the state of music software when Dorico began being developed). And yet as I began by explaining – almost all users of DAW and music notation apps are composers of some kind or another who are composing at the time they are entering music. Basic compositional wants and needs when composing into a computer – such as during the compositional process of being able to audio some of an instrumental part without finalising its notation – or record some of a vocal part without finalising its notation (which includes the additional burden of having to enter its lyrics) – or being able to make two different arrangements of a song in the one file – don’t exist in Dorico.

    With this in mind the recent release of Dorico 5 is somewhat of a puzzle. How are we to interpret the co-existence of a release dedicated to DAW like concerns – such as the effective playback of entered music – with the fact that Dorico doesn’t demonstrate awareness that its typical user is a composer/arranger who is composing as they enter music? Don’t misunderstand me – I think that Dorico 5 is brilliant – absolutely brilliant. It demonstrates what DAW developers should have been doing with their apps to cater for people who are musical and musically trained – it shows that there are a host of capabilities that a composer who is musical would benefit from when composing their music (composers want to hear back their composition BEFORE they go to the trouble of playing all the music in a second time – after composing it – they may rather in the case of some of the music not to enter it a second time if in the case of some of the music it plays back at a high enough standard). But it’s odd that these brilliant new Dorico 5 capabilities exist in an app which at the same time doesn’t reflect a wish to substantially cater for compositional needs in respect of building a composition out of sections of music during the compositional process – or make more than one version of an arrangement. Being able to build music out of sections isn’t just an issue for composition – it has other negative implications. For example I notice that one concern of Dorico users about Dorico 5 I that it still isn’t possible for a slur to continue on into a second time ending – I presume that the reason why this feature is not implemented is because the structure of Dorico makes it difficult or impossible currently (I suspect that Dorico would ideally become more modular as part of implementing this feature).

    With all this in mind I now wish to comment on your analysis in your podcast episode concerning music notation apps and DAW apps. I believe that your answers reflected some of the same blindness to the fact that users of both types of music apps are composer/arrangers who are being let down by the way those two kinds of apps are currently being designed. I believe that if you were clearly seeing what cannot be denied – that the people who use DAW and music notation apps are almost all composer/arrangers who are composing as they work – you wouldn’t accept that the current division of music notation apps from DAW apps serves those people.

    In your podcast episode you raised two reasons why developers of music apps don’t wish to create an app which is a DAW and music notation app in one. The first reason was that DAW and music notation apps are already very complex without merging their capabilities. But if neither category of app is ‘seeing’ composers who are musical that is hardly a good reason to keep the two kinds of apps divided. It’s just a fact of life that some apps must be unavoidably complex and hugely featured – take a 3D app like Blender with its many functions as proof of that (not that Blender – as amazing as it is – couldn’t be designed to be more usable!). If a user cannot be helped effectively by the capabilities they need being divided across apps then the dividing should not happen. The second reason you gave for why developers want to keep music notation and DAW capabilities separate was because this would result in developers working on capabilities which many of their users would not want (creating an unsustainable financial model). But this isn’t an issue – if Steinberg had built Nuendo and Dorico as a single app this would not prevent them from selling versions of the app which had less capabilities – one version being DAW heavy – and another notation heavy – and for less money. It’s only a question of how their work is packaged.

    Of course I am only arguing theoretically. As I understand it the coding environments of Cubase/Nuendo and Dorico are different – as I understand it this prevents the apps from coming together.

    With all the ideas above in mind what can we say about the companies which are currently making music apps – and their likelihood of being able to begin to cater to the musically trained composer? My conclusions are at this moment as follows – that Apple in buying Emagic have for years had the opportunity to cater for the Hollywood scoring composer (and those with similar needs) and haven’t chosen to – and won’t. That Avid – while owning Sibelius – won’t see Pro Tools as ever being an app centred on the composer – but instead centred on the musical audio engineer. Digital Performer has powerful film scoring features but hasn’t got much of the market (it might only be lack of income which prevents MOTU from being able to do the all in one super app by improving their notation). Which leaves Presonus – who as I observe things appear to be positioning themselves in the next decade to do what Steinberg appear not willing or able to do yet. Studio One is an outstanding DAW (its only major omission – immersive audio – can now be achieved using very good plugins). It has spent years rewriting its notation code so that Studio One and Notion Mobile share the same code base. It’s easy to miss what doesn’t get delivered at first as new features – that there is a huge amount of work to ensure that all of one’s coding work is moving in the same direction – a lot of the work is ‘underground’. In doing this work Presonus has demonstrated in the way some of the features of Studio One already work that they are thinking about the musically trained person more than other DAW developers. Their uniting the code base of Notion and Studio One – despite the turbulence and anger that this has produced in Notion users being upgraded to an initially buggy rewritten iOS app – Notion mobile – is a sign that they alone understand what musically trained composers need from their composition app.

    In the light of what I have written here I hope that you will reconsider your opinions about what is needed to fulfil the needs of musically trained composers – who are mostly composers in part or in whole. And recognising these needs I hope that you will cover what may initially be elementary music notational improvements in Studio One (and any Studio One for iPad if unlike Logic for iPad includes notation) – because for pro composers who don’t have complex notational needs a Studio One app which acquires intermediate notation capabilities – and already has advanced DAW capabilities – will be a game changer.

    PS Might an episode in which you ask the question “how well do music apps – whether DAW or music notation apps – cater to the compositional needs of the musically trained person?” be a worthy subject?

    1. Philip Benjamin

      Note that the situation is similar on iPadOS – there is no app which meets the needs of a (musical and musically trained) film composer:
      – Logic for iPad – just released – has no notation editor (although Apple might give it one if they release bigger iPads).
      – Garageband is a DAW with notation but it doesn’t have basic features like for example the ability to create changing time signatures.
      – Staffpad has the ability to record audio and has notation but it isn’t a DAW and I can’t see any reason to expect that it will soon be syncing with a world class desktop DAW with notation capabilities).
      Whereas if Presonus released Studio One on iPadOS – and with notation – that would be a breakthrough for any composer with similar needs to a person scoring for film.

  2. D.D. Jackson

    Fantastic podcast – always love it so thanks. I was waiting for someone to mention the common technique which I employ constantly as someone writing a lot to picture: namely of bouncing the finished track from my DAW; exporting the MIDI, then importing the midi and attaching the audio version to a static image in iMovie and importing that into Dorico Pro as a movie file (so the two are perfectly synced). Because Dorico 5 inherited Cubase’s rock-solid video syncing (from what I recall), it works seamlessly and then you can mute/unmute the reference audio file (the “Video” track in the Dorico mixer) as you do further work in Dorico 5, knowing that everything will remain synced perfectly. I further am now using Note Performer 4 with BBC Orchestra Pro for playback, which is also outstanding, though you also in Dorico 5 with Note Performer 4 can mix/match different sounds beyond whatever Note Performer provides if you so choose, and therefore additionally use Dorico Pro’s robust performance editing tools (though haven’t needed to do this myself).

    Two big caveats, though, about the above technique: if you spend a lot of time “cleaning up” your Piano Roll data in Logic Pro specifically, don’t forget to select all your regions and apply quantization settings permanently (us the secondary menu, functions->MIDI Region Parameters), and also apply All Parameters Permanently. This is because if you don’t do this, what you end up ACTUALLY exporting from Logic to your notation program is the raw, underlying MIDI you may have originally played in, NOT the neat stuff you may have spent hours tweaking! I didn’t realize this for years so wasted many hours with needless tweaking. Now I actually do minimal editing in Logic since I can apply quantization on import (including on whatever specific notes I select, etc.), in Dorico so easily.

    The 2nd thing: I’ve realize the hard way that the whole approach mentioned above of importing MIDI (which contains tempo data) from my DAW, then syncing the video with a bounced audio file of the same material works well with ONE exception: if you subsequently insert actual shift-T type tempo indications in Dorico Pro (such as “rit.” and “rall.”) and then select them and choose “Suppress Playback” in the property panels at the bottom, they will STILL mess up the tempo map. I’ve been meaning to tell Dorico Pro to PLEASE fix this as I’ve had to manually insert system text for those indications instead of actual Tempo text, which is much more time-consuming. Hope this helps and keep up the great work!

  3. D.D. Jackson

    Just an update: it appears I may be wrong and adding ”rit.”’s, etc., selecting them and the in the Properties panel choosing “Suppress Playback” DOES work as I hoped after all.



    This was a wonderfully succinct assessment of the troubling inconsistencies between all types of notation and DAW apps. I have tried and own every single app mentioned here and found all of these cognitive dissonances on my own through the years. It is refreshing to hear all of this proclaimed by such an important source as yourselves! I am going to stay for now, after 30 years, with Finale because the flow has become second-nature under my fingertips. Until some firm can coalesce all of the factors mentioned above, I can only hope for a breakthrough from one of the players to meet ALL of the needs of us composers, I will sit still for greater minds to address these improvements that should now be obvious as we as immerse ourselves in this 21st century. Thank you Scoring Notes for being our advocates for progress! ♥

    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Enrique!

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