Boost your workflow: a Stream Deck review

Reviews

As an arranger and orchestrator, I’m always looking for more efficient ways to work. That’s what compelled me to change my primary scoring software this past summer: I knew I could produce the results I wanted in Finale, but I was fairly sure I could produce them more efficiently in Dorico. Since the tools are a means to an end and not the end itself, it’s efficiency, not sentimentality, which determines the tools we use.

By efficiency, of course I mean speed. Fewer keystrokes generally translates to faster results. But there’s also the mental toll to consider. Although some orchestrators seem to be able to work quickly and effortlessly, I find the process of orchestration exhausting. The less I have to think about key combinations and multi-step processes, the better.

One of the advantages of both Dorico and Sibelius is that these programs allow users to set custom key commands for a wide range of functions. Finale doesn’t offer program-wide shortcuts, but with a little FinaleScript ingenuity you can get around that limitation to a large extent. If you find yourself repeating a function often, there’s a good chance you can map it to a key command.

Helpful as they are, key commands pose three problems:

  1. Some functions can’t be mapped to a key command, either because the program doesn’t make it available, or because it’s a series of commands better suited to a macro. But let’s be honest…
  2. …it’s hard to remember all those commands if you have more than a dozen or so. And if you limit yourself to simple key combinations, there’s a very real possibility that…
  3. …you’ll simply run out of available options, especially since every program has already reserved the simple keystrokes for native functions.

So thankfully, there’s Stream Deck.

Stream Deck, made by Elgato, is a customizable control surface with 15 keys that connects to your computer. Although it’s targeted at gamers and content creators, it’s totally flexible and suitable for nearly every workflow. The keys display whatever you want them to display, and operate according to whatever key command you assign.

The buttons are physical, which I prefer over a touch screen. The build quality is solid: the device is heavy, with a metal body, not plastic. The device comes with a kickstand for a variety of angles and sturdy rubber feet for a secure fit.

Stream Deck works with Mac (OS 10.11 or higher) and Windows 10 (64-bit).

Operation is simple. Connect to your computer via USB and install the software. You’ll get a simple, intuitive interface through which you can completely customize your keys. Drag and drop icons, or create them using Elgato’s online Key Creator. The programmable LCD keys display your icons beautifully, just as you’ve designed them to look.

 

To create a key, drag in a function from the option list on the right. There are plenty of presets you’ll never use, but here are the ones I use:

  • Multi-action: It’s a macro, and it allows you to layer a series of commands to trigger when the key is pressed.
  • Hotkey: basic key combinations like Shift-Alt-X or Ctrl-F4.
  • Text: Enters a text value.
  • Delay: some commands will need to give the program time to think. You can enter a numerical value in milliseconds (200, for example).

Here’s an example of a simple macro I created, which triggers a 2:3 tuplet in Dorico:

A single keypress triggers the following:

  • Semicolon (;) to invoke the tuplet popover
  • A delay of 100 ms to allow the window to appear (your mileage may vary)
  • Enters text “2:3” and presses Enter

I also added macros for fingering, which makes fingering a passage quite easy. In previous versions of Dorico, fingering had to trigger the popover for each note, which required a slightly more complicated macro. Version 2.2 now allows the user to advance to the next note using Tab or Space, which removes the need for a macro, but Stream Deck can still speed up the process for bracketed or combined fingerings:

 

You can use multiple Stream Decks, and create custom profiles for each. You can import or export profiles easily.

You can also stack folders over multiple layers. Here’s the top level for one of my devices:

Pressing the folder key on the top left opens up a whole additional layer of folders:

And pressing the “PT/art” icon opens up another folder of playing techniques and articulations, perfect for quickly entering string bowings:

 

I also have a folder dedicated to one-press intervals above or below a selected note, which softens the pain of losing Finale’s Speedy Entry (which was so good at quickly stacking chords). Honestly, this is at least equal to it:

Of course, the greatest strength of Stream Deck is its flexibility. I’m changing my keys constantly by just dragging and dropping them where I want them. I create every key command (with its requisite icon) and store it in the Stream Deck profile, buried in a sub-folder for easy recall if a particular project requires it.

In short: this little device is the best hardware purchase I’ve made… perhaps ever. Here’s to efficiency!

Stream Deck generally retails for around $150 US ($136 at the time of publication of this review) and is available at Amazon and other retailers. Elgato also makes a 6-key version, called Stream Deck Mini, that sells for around $80.

P.S.: Here’s a Dropbox link to the Stream Deck icons I’ve made. Feel free to use and share. I also offer tutoring in Dorico, either on-site for educational institutions or online with individuals.

Comments

  1. Florian Kretlow

    Well done, Dan, thanks for this review! I’m very tempted to get myself one.
    Nice icons, too, and thanks for sharing your macros! What’s the font you’re using for the old-style numbers in the icons? I’m pretty sure it is Figurato, but what version? Must be an older one. Anyway, if it is Figurato, I’m glad you’ve found another use for it. :)

  2. Dan Kreider

    Thanks Florian! Yes, in fact it is Figurato. Thank you for your excellent work on that!

  3. Joe Curtis

    A not dissimilar control surface using an Ipad and with the custom keypad app ($4.99) was devised and offered free for Sibelius by Tobias Escher (www.novatlan-sound.de/sibeliuscontol) and reported on by Daniel Spreadbury in the August 2011 Sibelius blog.For those people with an Ipad, I’ve no doubt that the techniques used for this would equally apply to Dorico, Finale or any other notation program using key strokes and save the not inconsiderable sum of $150.

    1. Dan Kreider

      And there’s Metagrid. For me, it was the tactile control I really wanted. I can rest my hand on the keypad without having to look at it. Other users have been very satisfied with touch-based interfaces; I just don’t prefer them.

    2. Barry Pollack

      Joe. The link doesn’t work as written but his does: http://www.novatlan-sound.de/sibeliuscontrol/

      and thanks for the info!

  4. Bill

    Another cool feature is that you can setup profiles for different programs, and Stream Deck will automatically switch when a program gets the focus.

  5. Barry Pollack

    Any reason this wouldn’t work as well with Sibelius? Any plans to share or market a similar set of predefined keys/macros for Sibelius? Thanks.

    1. Dan Kreider

      Barry, Stream Deck works with any program! If you can expose a function to a key command or series or commands, you can program it to Stream Deck.

  6. Peter Hamlin

    I’m close to getting one of these!

    I have a beautiful chrome bluetooth numpad that I use for note entry and is super handy. But the Stream Deck would take that to the next level. (I just made some hand-drawn labels for the keys to indicate the different rhythmic values — programmable LCD buttons would be better!)

    Could you comment on the physical keys themselves? Are they similar to a typewriter keyboard, or do they require a harder push than a typical typewriter key? I’m thinking of situations like entering notes where you can be entering the keys pretty fast.

    I was also surprised that the iPad version is so expensive — and it’s a subscription that you have to keep paying for. I might be inclined to use the XL version on the iPad if the price was reasonable.

  7. Peter Hamlin

    After looking into this a bit, I downloaded Touch Portal (used on my iPad, also could work with my Android phone) to see how that will work for me. I already have my iPad as part of my studio (used as a vst plug-in for synth and effects), and generally have my phone with me when I travel, so this lets me get this functionality without adding yet another physical device to my workspace.

    No physical buttons, obviously, but much cheaper and flexible (you can create pages with any number of buttons on them). I realize that once my hands are off the computer keyboard, I’m not touch-typing anyway, so I’m going to see how this goes. I still appreciate the review — hadn’t thought before of getting a macro tool like this!

  8. Peter Hamlin

    Just an update — I’ve been using Touch Portal on my iPad connected to Dorico and Cubase on a Windows computer (Android and Mac are also supported). It’s working great. I already have an iPad Pro, so that makes this a much cheaper alternative to Stream Deck.

  9. Anees Curry

    What a fantastic post! This is so chock full of useful information. I can’t wait to dig deep and start utilizing the resources . you have given me.

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