Dorico 1.2 review, part 3: Percussion


In December 2017, Steinberg released Dorico 1.2, with major improvements in three key areas: cues, fingering, and percussion. Each area of improvement was deserving of exploration on its own; therefore, we split the 1.2 review into separate parts: In part 1 we covered the cues feature (along with several other improvements in 1.2), and in part 2 we covered the fingering feature.

Now, with the release of the 1.2.10 update, we present part 3 of our review — a look at the new percussion features that arrived in December, along with refinements made in the latest 1.2.10 update.

Dorico’s fresh take on percussion: Restoring a missing link

You are by now understandably tired of — or perhaps enthusiastic about — reading that Dorico does everything differently; in any case, here we go. The approach that Dorico takes to handle notation and playback of unpitched percussion is quite different from what you might be accustomed to.

You are most probably familiar with a relationship between a certain notation and a playback result. If staff position X is occupied by notehead type Y, this results in playback of MIDI note Z; or the other way round: input of MIDI note Z results in notehead type Y being placed on staff position X.

What may look like an implementation related to the real world is, at close inspection, one part of a software talking to another part of the same software, conveniently bypassing any consideration of what this peculiar exchange actually means to the recipient of the whole affair: a human percussionist having to translate a notation into a specific action on a particular, physical instrument.

For pitched instruments, using MIDI concepts directly is a somewhat acceptable method, since a MIDI pitch is pretty close, as an idea, to that which it represents: actual musical pitch. (Well, unless chromaticism, microtones or tunings come into play, but let’s not go there.) With unpitched percussion, however, MIDI pitch numbers are downgraded to arbitrary trigger switches for a soundboard.

Since, in a way, different playing techniques are the equivalent of discrete pitches on unpitched instruments (discuss!), this always left a void in previous percussion implementations, with notation and playback patched together, but no internal representation of the general concept of a playing technique.

Dorico makes distinct playing techniques the central part of its unpitched percussion implementation. Users now enter neither a specific notation nor a MIDI pitch; instead, they specifically call for how a note on this particular instrument is supposed to be played, even if this just means an implicit ordinario. The exact rendering of notation and playback sound is incidental, one could say.

The beauty of the percussion features introduced with Dorico 1.2 lies in how this basic approach — unpitched percussion instruments as specific gamuts of playing techniques — builds up to several levels, combining single instruments and their playing techniques into a consistent and powerful system for transforming real-world actions into the most appropriate notation.

Playing techniques for unpitched instruments

This sounds complicated — and it is, although not as much as it sounds. Therefore, before covering the more complex features, let’s take a look at how a single unpitched percussion instrument in Dorico works.

Clicking the arrow label of an individual unpitched percussion instrument in Setup mode offers the new Edit Percussion Playing Techniques… menu entry. This opens the Percussion Instrument Playing Techniques editor, which is crucial to Dorico’s whole approach to unpitched percussion.

At the top, all of the instrument’s Playing Techniques currently defined by notehead and position are displayed; most instruments provided initially feature just a single entry for Natural. Pressing the [+] button, the program brings up a list of distinct playing techniques, from which one must be chosen before proceeding.

I emphasize this to point out once more how the internal concept of a playing technique is the seminal innovation of it all. The choice made here provides the program with the fundamental information that there is a particular way of playing the current instrument that is distinct from all other possible ways to also play it. Consequently, whatever choice is made, it won’t be available anymore when the next playing technique is added.

Quick heads-up: there are more than 200 techniques listed, but they encompass, at current, techniques for all instrument families. I assume that this will be filtered down in the future, but right now it really helps to exactly know what one is looking for.

Only once a playing technique is thus made available for an instrument, notation becomes something to consider.

Well, and probably also playback fine-tuning via the audio engine, a topic that I gladly cede to Andrew Noah Cap in his upcoming post about Dorico’s audio rendering. Suffice it to say here that, on one hand, choosing any playing technique for which there is a mapping already provided by the program will result in correct playback as expected, but that, on the other hand, such provided mappings are rather sparse right now, which will make the default playback revert to the standard playing technique (“Natural”) most of the time.

Assigning notation to playing techniques

Even though elsewhere you will have already seen exciting glimpses of drum set notation or other multi-line staves, remember that we are currently still looking at a single percussion instrument, which Dorico will always present on a single-line staff. In that context, the two ways to distinguish a defined playing technique notationally are either by notehead type or by the notehead’s position relative to the staff line. For the former, any of the several predefined notehead sets can be chosen, for the latter there are just three options: on the line, sitting directly above the line, and hanging directly below the line.

To really make clear the implications of Dorico’s new approach, let’s consider the following — and initially pretty pointless — example. Here I have edited the snare drum instrument to have five defined playing techniques. However, for all of them I have chosen the same notehead type and position. They are unhelpfully set to appear as identical notation, something that, to its credit, Dorico is vehemently trying to bring my attention to.

But since I am out to make a point, I will now use this setup regardless. In Write mode, I start Note Input the usual way. Note that the caret, differently from entry for pitched instruments, comes with a label, giving the name of the current instrument. What initially seems slightly redundant becomes clear after I entered my first note and want to use another technique. Pressing Shift+Alt+Up/Down Arrow cycles through all the instrument’s available playing techniques, and the label indicates which one is set to be used with the next entry.

With this helpful information provided, I successfully employ each technique, even though I can’t say which notes are representing which just two seconds later — after all, I set them up to look the same. (A dedicated percussion map will make techniques distinguishable by ear, but again, this I leave to Andrew’s post.)

To get out of my self-inflicted predicament, I revisit the instrument’s Playing Techniques editor in Setup mode and make some wiser choices for the notation of each technique. Sure, this is something that I can do somewhat similarly in other programs. But what happens once I confirm my changes by pressing OK is where Dorico breaks from the status quo.

As can be seen, changing the notation of an instrument’s playing techniques affects any instance of that technique that already exists. This is the key difference to percussion maps in older notation programs, which lack a “musically” defined concept for bridging a notation and its playback, instead just “reading along” percussion staves and triggering MIDI pitches when a notation matches an assignment on a list.

Changing a percussion map, until now, meant that users had to also update manually their current notation, since an important tool was missing to determine whether a mapping edit is intended to change the notation or rather the playback for an unpitched percussion instrument. (To do the latter in Dorico, just to tie this up, any assigned playing technique can be changed out completely in the Playing Techniques editor with the pencil button next to the [+] button, leaving the notation unchanged.)

A valuable consequence of playing techniques being so central to unpitched percussion is that it is virtually impossible to put onto a staff any “undefined” notations, simply because notations are not what users put in for unpitched percussion instruments in the first place. On the contrary, overriding an existing note’s notehead (via Edit > Notehead) still preserves the underlying playing technique (internally, and therefore on the playback side).

This latter approach has very few real-world use cases, and I am bringing it up to, again, make clearer the fundamental paradigm shift that Dorico 1.2 introduces. But there is, of course, also an actual command to change an existing percussion note’s playing technique (and therefore its displayed notation): applying Shift+Alt+Up/Down Arrow to any selected note or tie chain cycles it through all of the instrument’s available techniques, matching the method during Note Input.

Controlling playing techniques with articulations and other notations

For completeness’s sake it should be added that not all relevant playing techniques for unpitched percussion are specified by notehead type and staff line position. Alternatively, this will sometimes be done by applying articulations or tremolo to core notation, or by adding conventional playing technique indications.

As the most obvious example for the latter, Dorico’s default hi-hat gives the correct sound when marked up with the common “open” symbol via the right-hand Playing Techniques panel (in Write mode), even though such a playing technique is not specifically defined for that particular instrument in the Playing Techniques editor. Of course, the editor and the playing technique popover are, in the end, just two different ways to control the underlying framework managing the complex mapping of playback data.

On a somewhat similar level, an instrument can be assigned variants and overrides of playing techniques with regard to the universal articulations of the left-hand Note Input tool and to tremolos, which is done in the hitherto un-discussed lower section of the Playing Techniques editor; a simple use case is a shortcut notation for brush playing, with taps assigned to staccato and swishes to tenuto.

Playback of the two bars above (be sure your volume is not set too high):

The procedure, at its core, is largely as described above: a particular slot for a playing technique must be created first, for which is then defined a notation (any of the 80 possible combinations of Dorico’s three articulation types and up to four tremolo strokes) and the intended playing technique ID. As one distinction to the one-on-one matching of the notehead / staff-positioning approach described above, it is possible here to decide for a playing technique to completely replace any default technique, or to be added to any currently valid techniques — whether this results in adequate playback rendering will depend on the intricacy of a user’s sample library and percussion map, of course.

Before we go on to the more complex use cases of combined unpitched percussion, here is a delicious little feature addition… with a somewhat bittersweet aftertaste. Any note from an unpitched percussion instrument can be turned into a “ghost note”, which puts the notehead into parenthesis (a few settings to fine-tune positioning of the brackets can be found in Engrave mode > Engraving Options > Percussion). In playback, ghost notes automatically have their volume significantly decreased.

Playback without ghost notes (again, be sure your volume is not set too high):

Playback with ghost notes:

The bittersweet part is when one starts to assume that this certainly means that there now is also a generic mechanism available with which notes in pitched instruments can be put into brackets. Alas, it is not so.

The Percussion Kit, as illustrated by a series of unfortunate (but surprisingly instructive) events

I recently was in charge of music preparation for a concert in Newton-le-Willows’s prestigious Richard S. DeLys Concert Hall. The program consisted of Hector Berlioz’s Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Mahler’s Fifth and Liar by Queen; with the latter slightly abridged to its first fourteen bars, to avoid having the whole thing run too long. The entire concert is on YouTube, in case you want to check it out (especially that great drum solo at the start). Anyway, the dramatic story of how I prepared the percussion part for the Queen number turned out to be an almost too convenient showcase for the new percussion kit feature.

A percussion kit, in Dorico, is an instrument made up from other unpitched percussion instruments (of the kind that has been discussed above). In Setup mode’s left-hand panel, percussion kits appear as green boxes, unlike the light blue ones used for single instruments. Several common percussion kits are provided, for example: Bongos (a composite of the individual high and low Bongo instruments), Marching Cymbal (seven cymbals), a “basic” drum set (a lot of noise), a “full” drum set (even more noise)… you get the idea.

It is also possible to build a custom percussion kit from scratch by right-clicking on a player and choosing Create Empty Kit, or with the same button found at the bottom of the regular instrument list summoned with Shift+I. Alternatively, all single unpitched percussion instruments already “held” by a player can be turned into a percussion kit with the right-click command Combine Instruments into Kit.

Roger Taylor’s modest setup for the intro of Liar needs the following: Hi-hat, crash cymbal, ride cymbal, 3 tom-toms, snare drum, and kick drum. (Also, hand claps.)

Drawing up that list had been the whole extent of my work when, two days before performance, the bad news breaks: the drummer has jumped the gig! Fortunately, there are a lot of orchestral percussionists in the Berlioz, and they agreed to help out as long as they would be provided with proper highbrow parts and no one would have to play more than one instrument (union rules).

I created two Players, one with a percussion kit from all the drums, and one with a percussion kit from all the cymbals; I did that because it seemed completely appropriate (the Berlioz has three dedicated cymbalists, after all), and not because it would allow me to demonstrate something else at a later point if I ever used this not-at-all-made-up situation for a software review!

The Edit Percussion Kit dialog opens directly after creating a new kit (it can be accessed again later by clicking, in Setup mode, on the kit’s arrow and then on Edit Percussion Kit…). As the most basic edits, at the top it allows to name the new composite instrument and to specify whether it is a Drum set, in which case some special notation options will apply at times for such a Kit.

Skipping, for a moment, the whole rest of the editor and taking a look at its very bottom, there is a button labelled Export Kit…, which is a first step for Dorico to allow users to create their own custom instruments. Granted, actual custom instruments are still not supported, but the possibility to store and recall complex percussion and drum kit setups will be a relief to any user who has a need to frequently reuse particular kits. As a side effect, this also makes it possible to reuse individual unpitched percussion instruments with heavily customized playing techniques, as long as they are stuffed into a percussion kit, for transport.

The button to Import Kit is found next to the Create Empty Kit one mentioned earlier, at the bottom of the list when one adds instruments to a player.

Single-line instruments representation

Each Percussion Kit in a Dorico project can display its instrument’s notation in three different representations: 5-line staff, Grid and Single-line Instruments. A kit can appear in one of these three forms in any layout. For my classically trained substitute players, I created a new “Playing Score” layout and, in Setup mode > Layout Options > Players, set the two kits of the respective players to display as Single-line Instruments.

One potentially confusing thing when setting the representation type is that all of a project’s players with kits are listed for every layout; this makes sense in a way as each player could be assigned to any layout at any time. However, the names of players that actually are included in the current layout are shown in bold, which makes things much clearer once one is aware of this.

With the Single-line Instruments representation set up, I transcribed the Liar intro for its individual drumset components, in a way that is readable to a conservatory alumnus.

[Click for PDF of complete Single-line instruments example]

Note: We decided to forego a comprehensive discussion of note entry in all three percussion kit representation types. That was a painful cut, because Dorico offers some exciting innovations in that area. There are, however, a number of resources already out on the web that do cover the topic extensively. Especially recommended are the “Discover Dorico” tutorials on Dorico’s own YouTube channel; here is one focusing, among other things, on percussion note entry.

The Single-line Instruments representation of a percussion kit shows each contained instrument on its own single-line staff (hiding of empty staves notwithstanding), even in cases where the program would usually, for non-overlapping passages, employ its automatic instrument change features. It is possible to customize the vertical order of the contained instruments in the Edit Percussion Kit dialog. Other than that, the representation is largely identical to Dorico’s behavior when handling actual individual instruments, and each instrument retains its properties set with the Playing Techniques editor.

In fact, so central is the Playing Techniques editor that, when editing a percussion kit, a button bringing up that instrument-specific editor can be found in each tab for the three representations. One can easily fall into the trap of thinking that these buttons will provide edits pertaining to only the kit representation indicated by the current tab, when, in fact, they all bring the user to that exact “global” editor discussed earlier; the adjacent Edit Names… button works in the same manner. I found that keeping that in mind helped a lot with understanding the overall innovative approach to unpitched percussion.

Even though the instruments of a kit are treated as a “collective instrument” in Setup mode, the Single-line Instruments representation allows for complete flexibility. If, as a questionable example, I believe it to be helpful to spell out the sixteenth note phrasing as an independent meter, I can do that:

Grid representation

The next day (one day to performance), more bad news: the 23rd clarinet had become indisposed, wherefore the Berlioz was scrapped. So there went my clever plan. But… I still had the two percussionists from the Mahler, and they would even play multiple instruments (different union).

To bring the existing notation into a more suited form, I changed the representation of the two percussion kits to Grid (again, Setup mode > Layout Options > Players). What this does is to take all the music from all the individual instruments of the kit and display them on a single staff, made from as many staff lines as there are single instruments.

While such a Grid staff can have as many individual instruments as needed, all music is boiled down, initially, into a single voice. In the Grid tab of the Percussion Kit editor, the default voice for each single instrument can be set — as I have done in the example above — as either up-stemmed or down-stemmed. Pre-defined kits, of course, are already set up with sensible voice constellations, which can be easily adjusted if needed.

Optionally, any instrument can be set into an additional voice of the specified direction (by increasing the integer to the right of the direction buttons), though this is not advisable in most cases. Nonetheless, Dorico will sort out even such complicated voice constellations without breaking a sweat.

You may remember that, when writing the material for single-line staves, I used rather long note values, to make the rhythms clear and to avoid unnecessary rests. Dorico retains these durations when condensing everything into fewer voices, and expertly solves any overlaps with the application of ties.

In most cases, this is not really percussion-y, though. In fact, this kind of over-exact notation is due to one of two possible settings of a particularly clever option. In Write mode > Notation Options > Percussion, users can, on a flow-by-flow basis, alternatively decide to Truncate to shortest duration any overlapping values (this takes effect in the 5-line staff representation as well). The result is a usefully subsequent indication of all relevant attacks, as is recommended by virtually all percussion guide books.

For kits explicitly declared a Drum set, there is also a related option to ignore the voice settings and use only one voice by default, which is a convention in some drumming schools.

The drums are a “Drum set”, the cymbals are not.

Even with this “abbreviated” re-notation, it is nonetheless possible to input overlapping longer durations directly from the Grid — the note will be shortened appropriately while the caret advances to the appropriate position at the end of the underlying longer duration. Dorico is still aware of the underlying durations, and if one were to take any single instrument out of the percussion kit, its normal single-line notation would reveal the full durations.

Sometimes, however, it can be useful to override the default voice assignation set in the Percussion Kit editor, especially when there is a good reason to really show an underlying duration that is either abbreviated or split up into a tie chain with the default voice constellation.

For this, new commands are available in Write mode under Edit > Percussion > Change Voice. Similar to the voice handling of pitched instruments, it is possible to swap any note over to another already existing voice, or to create for it a completely new voice on the spot, up-stemmed or down-stemmed. Since these commands already operate on a level of “condensed” voices, the results of simply changing to an existing voice can sometimes be unexpected in more complex situations. I found that, when in doubt, it is usually best to create an extra voice.

The first edit gives a reading meant to indicate a particular hand allocation for the passage, swapping the first three Crash Cymbal notes into the up-stemmed voice; the second edit puts the Crash Cymbal into its own voice entirely, to emphasize the sustain.
Kit representations and tuplets

Probably the most impressive part of Dorico’s fully automatic re-notation of individual Instruments onto a single staff is the handling of tuplets. Any tuplet-contained notes from individual Instruments become condensed into one single tuplet when combined into a common voice in the re-notation, provided that the “source” tuplets have identical ratios and rhythmic positions (if rhythms are not reconcilable that way, an extra voice is introduced automatically).

Notes that coincide with a tuplet’s start position will be included in the consolidated tuplet even if they are not contained in a tuplet themselves (and if they are not part of a distinct rhythm over the length of the consolidated tuplet). This is a fancy way of saying that Dorico properly combines simple on-beat attacks with tuplet off-beat pattern:

Below, the six examples to the left are all automatic re-notations of the same source material, shown to the right in its Single-line Instruments representation. I did not make any manual edits to any of them (with the exception of slightly adjusting the inner tuplet brackets in the last example), I only changed the overall voice settings in the Percussion Kit editor. Dorico condenses the underlying durations accordingly, showing them in full whenever the voice defaults allow it, and shortening them when necessary for a proper sequence without unhelpful ties.

It is a quite straight-forward mechanism, if you think about it. What makes the feature innovative is not its algorithmic cleverness, though. In fact, a number of non-standard situations could probably be solved more elegantly than the program manages to do right now (I have no doubt that subtleties of that sort will evolve in the future). But it is exciting to see how such a “simple” feature once again only becomes reasonably possible because of the fundamental design choices made for Dorico’s whole approach to modelling of music and notation, with results that are attainable for notation programs with a more “pragmatic” understanding of notation only in theory, if at all.

Mind the gaps: Consolidating attacks and sustains

An interesting consequence of Dorico’s re-notation is that there isn’t necessarily a strict one-to-one relationship between representations. When actually using different representation instances of the same kit in one Project, it is useful to be aware of that, especially for passages containing tuplets. The following example is meant to make that clearer.

First, here is a septuplet entered directly in the Grid representation, “as written”. Since the user tells Dorico to use the durations from an already abbreviated version, those durations are what ends up in the Single-line Instruments representation as well.

With this approach, tuplets in the Single-line Instruments representation will be created on all the staves of the instruments assigned to the same voice – something that can be confusing the first time one sees it when switching representations mid-workflow. Currently I recommend not to mess with any “superfluous” empty tuplets unless really necessary; to avoid the issue altogether it is always possible to proceed as follows.

Here is the same septuplet entered in the Single-line Instruments representation instead, using durations emphasizing sustain and not just attack. However, the Grid re-notation (provided certain global settings) is exactly the one from the previous example, even though the actual musical material has significantly changed.

A third way for arriving at the same Grid notation is to enter the whole tuplet rhythm on one instrument only and to then move noteheads across to the intended staves (something that can only be done from the Single-line Instruments representation, since it is the only one that, technically, consists of more than one staff). This can sometimes be preferable even in cases without tuplets involved, when contour and beaming should match in all representations; it comes at the cost of losing exact and unambiguous durations, though.

Dorico’s automatic re-notation between percussion representations, in its current initial form, is obviously designed for covering a broad range of common standard situations in a generalized way, with a special focus on drum set conventions. It fares exceptionally well within that scope; cases of constellations where there is no easy automatic way to achieve them remain minimal.

Still, on occasion there will be some trial-and-error or re-thinking required in getting particularly complex or unconventional notations to appear as intended. It is situations like these where it pays to remember that a problem might look very different when approached in another representation than the one it will eventually appear in.

Customizing Grids

Though it will initially appear as such, with all instruments on single lines two spaces apart, Dorico’s Grid representation is not just a simple “n-line” staff. Instruments can be freely re-ordered vertically, and for each line it is possible to set an independent value (in full spaces) for its distance to the next item.

This allows to construct custom line constellations that emphasize a kit’s inner structure, as I tried with my Grid for the drums: Kick Drum and Snare Drum paired at the bottom, Tom-toms grouped together above, with a gap in between. The Tom-toms are also ordered “upside-down” here, reflecting the common physical setup (with the higher drums to the left and the lower ones to the right) instead of a pseudo-pitch-based notation. Vertical ordering is independent in all representations, so if Single-line Instruments would be used in another layout (in the full score, for example), the order focusing on showing pitch contour could easily be used there.

Note that the independent meter that I added earlier in the Single-line Instruments representation (for the third tom) does not affect the Grid, even though it is still there underneath.

The program’s default distance of two spaces is reasonable, since any contained instruments having playing techniques defined by placing the notehead above or below the line would appear ambiguous between two lines a single space apart. With that kept in mind, it is perfectly possible to save a lot of vertical space by putting related instruments tightly together.

Dorico places clefs and time signatures on the (nominal) vertical center of the Grid, but with non-standard grid-line configurations this is not necessarily ideal. For such cases, there is an adjustment setting to Center clef and time signature around staff position.

Each individual instrument is labelled next to its relevant staff line in the system margin. With a large number of instruments, or with many instances of basically the same instrument (think temple blocks or roto-toms), this can become unwieldy and/or borderline ridiculous. For such cases the Percussion Kit editor allows the user to define groups from “continuously stacked” instruments and to name them collectively.

Exhaustive labeling of all Instruments contained in a Grid (as Dorico does by default) will often stack a lot of text, which is why it comes with its own Paragraph Style (Staff labels percussion grid), featuring a smaller font size. Once Instruments are combined, the resulting groups will be labelled with the standard Staff Labels paragraph style.

[Click for PDF of complete Grid example]

5-line Staff representation

One hour before dress rehearsal, finally good news: the 23rd clarinet has miraculously returned – and she also brought along an actual drummer! All that’s needed is a drum set chart, ASAP.

In Dorico, it is not necessary to actually create a new kit, in order to then copy and paste any of the already existing musical substance. Instead, I create a new layout, containing just the player with the Drums kit, and I set that kit’s representation to 5-line Staff for the layout. To elevate the kit to a proper drum set, though, I have to include the three cymbals from the other player’s kit.

At the bottom of the percussion kit editor there are four buttons. The first one [+] allows me to add new instruments to a kit, the last one can be used to exchange any instrument against another single unpitched percussion instrument; but these two are not the ones needed for the task at hand.

The third button removes a selected instrument from the current kit, which I do with all the instruments in the Cymbals kit, leaving it empty. The three cymbals are turned into “regular” single instruments held by the same Player. Switching to the Percussion Kit editor of my existing Drums kit, I now can use the second button to pull in the three cymbals from the other player. The existing music for each thusly transferred instrument is retained at all times.

These useful ways of moving percussion instruments around between kits are often made quite awkward by the fact that they all have to be performed one-by-one for each instrument, and that it is also necessary to positively remove instruments contained in a kit before they can be pulled into another kit; some usability streamlining in the future would clearly add to the many ways the Percussion Kit feature can save users time already.

But how does the 5-line Staff representation of the — at last completely consolidated — drum part look like? Well, the first impression is a bit off:

Just to be clear, when using one the drum sets that Dorico provides by default, you will not encounter a result like that. However, the kit in my example was created (via a few detours) from scratch, and in such a case all instruments are initially placed on the middle line of the staff; after all, the program has no way of knowing what the “right” position could be.

The place to adjust this default solution into something meaningful is, once more, the Percussion Kit editor, namely its 5-line Staff tab. Each instrument can be dragged and dropped to a suitable staff position — strangely, this small bit of extra usability is absent in the editor’s two other tabs, where reordering of instruments has to be done by way of two buttons.

Just as in the Grid tab, a default voice can be assigned to each instrument, using the same mechanism at the bottom of the editing area. In fact, the voice setting for both representations, 5-line Staff and Grid, is identical; changing voice properties of an instrument in one representation will make the same change to that instrument in the other one. This close connection between the settings of the two condensed representations is well worth keeping in mind: most of what has been said earlier about the re-notation features of the Grid representation works basically the same for the 5-line Staff one.

My adjusted 5-line Staff drum set, with staff positions and voices reasonably adjusted, looks like this:

This whole approach, you might notice, is basically the same as the one for individual playing techniques of a single unpitched percussion instrument, but now for distinguishing individual instruments against each other. Dorico always keeps track of the musical and technical meaning, even if, as a temporary state or by design, the notation does not provide that information at face value — as is actually still the case with my drum set here, as far as cymbals are concerned.

From Single-line Instruments, to Grid, to 5-line Staff

The general trajectory from Single-lines Instruments over Grid to 5-line Staff could be summed up as trading homogeneity and simplicity of notation for compactness, which becomes apparent here: As is customary for certain drum notation conventions, I placed all cymbals onto the same position directly above the staff (starting in bar 9), and Dorico effortlessly re-writes the existing material for this even more compact notation. But having different instruments sharing exactly one staff position reveals two conflicts inherent to the switch from the other, less compact representations.

For one, where before all three cymbals could use standard noteheads (as is common in orchestral percussion), this now makes the instruments indistinguishable. Likewise, differentiating playing techniques by placing a notehead above or below the instrument’s dedicated staff line becomes meaningless and Dorico therefore does not do it. As with my closed Hi-hat notation in bars 13 and 14 (see example below), this too can make a previously well-working distinction useless.

To reconcile these two consequences of making the notation more compact, the Percussion Kit editor provides, in its 5-line Staff tab, a notehead override for all Playing Techniques of an instrument, including the default Natural. Selecting, in turn, each instrument and using Edit Noteheads…, I can finalize my proper drum set part by assigning cross noteheads to the open (Natural) Hi-hat, cross-in-circle noteheads to the crash cymbal, and diamond noteheads to the ride cymbal.

Before this causes a comment war: I am recreating the exact notation from the pretty official as well as very much recommended “QUEEN – OFF THE RECORD” transcription book.

Top staff gives cymbals as Grid representation, for reference

While notehead overrides for the 5-line Staff representation are specific properties of a particular instrument within a particular percussion kit (an instrument removed from a kit and added to another will not retain any overrides from the previous kit), the settings from an instrument’s Playing Techniques editor will always be there underneath.

The advantage of that approach is that users can remove any instrument (and therefore its contents) from a kit, and its notation will simply revert to the simpler defaults sufficient outside of the tightly condensed 5-line notation. This argument may seem a bit far-fetched (until you come across such a situation yourself, mind you), but I see it as just another manifestation of how Dorico goes to great lengths to allow its users to change their minds without having to worry about unintended consequences.

At the core of such an implementation is the same kind of freedom that allows Dorico users to change a time signature and have rhythmical spelling adjusted automatically, to have fermatas appear correctly on all staves by only putting in a single one (and having all of them removed by deleting only one instance), to trust the program with cues, as they are neither static nor unduly influencing the appearance of actual notation, and to overall just doing the right thing when juggling all the intricate details of multiple-voice notations on a single staff.

[Click for PDF of complete 5-line staff example]
Labels and legends

There is no labeling of single instruments anymore for a 5-line Staff kit; this representation always uses the name for the whole kit in a layout’s margin, as entered at the top of the Percussion Kit editor. But since — with a kit being a composite instrument — it might not at all be clear which single instruments are called for and how they are notated, Dorico offers another way of indicating the kit’s instruments: users can add a dynamic percussion legend at any point.

A percussion legend can appear in two ways, either showing every single instrument contained in the current kit (Edit > Percussion > Legend for All Instruments), or listing only those instruments that are actually used during a particular passage (Edit > Percussion > Legend for Sounding Instruments). Especially relevant for the latter, a legend — in Write mode — has the usual handles known from other objects of duration. Since Dorico’s percussion legends are dynamic, adjusting the handles immediately updates the legend label; likewise, an All Instruments legend automatically reflects any instrument changes made to the kit as a whole.

A legend’s type can be toggled from one to the other at any point via the Properties panel, where it is also possible to choose between showing full or abbreviated instrument names, and whether to show the legend above or below the staff.

Admittedly, Dorico’s on-staff percussion legend is no substitute for a proper comprehensive notation legend of the type that should be given at the start of a score; but that is not its point anyway. Instead, it serves as a very useful reminder to orientate a percussionist/drummer towards the logistical demands of a movement, or even just a particularly tricky passage. This is why it is a bit unsatisfying that percussion legends are currently only available for the 5-line Staff representation.

In the Grid or Single-lines Instruments representations, an existing or newly added legend shows as a signpost, and while this is no great loss in the latter, the ability to quickly indicate the involved instruments in a particular passage of a Grid representation is something that I would certainly welcome.

A new frontier — and new perils to look out for

With all the innovations and paradigm shifts introduced for unpitched percussion in Dorico 1.2, it is reasonable to assume that there would be some stopgaps and teething problems showing. But one is hard-pressed to uncover such deficiencies. Dorico’s implementation of percussion notation is truly head-and-shoulders above all previous attempts by other software — a feat that is all-the-more impressive given the newness of the feature. I am aware that this statement once again might come across as suspiciously euphoric — what can I say… I am genuinely convinced of the program.

That’s not to say, of course, that the program’s new features cover all percussion issues that can ever be imagined within the overall scope of general notation. Given the complex nature of Dorico’s re-notation operations with percussion, there are incidental fringe cases bound to happen which are challenging for the program’s algorithms and where the default output will be awkward, counter-productive, or simply incorrect.

But such isolated individual cases do not provide a particular good opportunity to point out an assumed general flaw; they tend to highlight not so much a deficient feature implementation, but more where the limits of the current implementation begin. There is a genuinely new kind of freedom gained with the way Dorico brings the complex requirements of percussion notation together — and at times that freedom is curtailed by some genuinely new boundaries.

Of such difficult fringe cases, the proverbial 98 percent are solvable with some user initiative, further manual edits, and patience; it is doable, just not as convenient as one will quickly take for granted. The remaining two percent are the main source of frustration — their unifying feature is that they result from choices that Dorico makes automatically and for which there currently are no manual overrides. This means that users can, for the time being, get stuck with a notation they do not agree with.

The most obvious cases involve rests, which in Grid and 5-line Staff representations will always be implicit rests (if you are unfamiliar with the concept, we looked at it in a previous post). Unfortunately, there is currently no way to adjust them by turning them into explicit rests, as is easily possible when working with pitched Instruments. Not quite as stumping are situations with condensed tuplets or voice overrides where the one constellation preferred by a user just is not achievable; in such cases there will at least be alternatives available, even if this means having to make a compromise.

There have been comparable issues with features lacking manual edit abilities in previous versions, always along with two mitigating factors: the underlying algorithms themselves tended to be powerful enough that problematic results were rather rare; more importantly, the necessary overrides have been added as soon as possible afterwards. It remains to be seen if that pattern holds.

If I would have to pick one issue that comes close to a questionable implementation choice, it’s the following: Having one player use several percussion kits at the same time is problematic, in particular because in Layout Options representation types are not set per actual kit, but per player. This means that for all kits of a player the same representation type will apply. While the common drum set chart or marching band part will never suffer from this, it falls short of certain situations that can be encountered in orchestral and chamber music, and certainly in art music for percussion ensembles and soloists. Then again, this presumably is affecting only a very small group of users (*cough* like yours truly *Gezoondhite*), and thankfully it belongs into the category of problems with reasonable workarounds available.

Lastly, there are a few peculiarities with dynamics and articulations in kits that would have been interesting to look at closer and which might come across as bug-like behavior at first, even though they do make sense in full context; this would have meant the addition of two more “mini-tutorials”, though. Like some of the re-notation subtleties with tuplets that I presented above, these issues are only really relevant if users actually use different representations of the same percussion kit, showing the same material — which overall probably doesn’t happen that often. We therefore decided to leave them out; if you are pondering to jump in as a new user and this is something which you think might be important for your work, we encourage you to experiment with the trial version.

Especially in some particular genres or project types one will at times be confronted with something that will need serious head-scratching and wrestling with the program to satisfyingly notate. Still, the truth is that Dorico’s unpitched percussion features are carefully and comprehensively designed in a way that makes them largely succeed in solving the broad field of problems with which in mind they have been developed. Once you have worked with Dorico’s percussion for a while you will not be able to return to other programs without suddenly being keenly aware of what they have been missing in that area.

Editor’s note: Some of the animations in this post have been edited.


  1. Fraser

    I wondered how easy it is for dorico to cope with notating for something like a Cajon, especially for tutors to prepare practice sheets.

    Typically I have seen it notated on two lines for edge and base with the edge note head defining an open or slap but this is then supplemented with r or l under the line to define the hand used. Presumably the r and l will be text as usual below with a second line of text above so they include count marks at the top.

    I have also seen it notated on three (or four) lines with each hand having two lines.

    1. Daniel Spreadbury

      It would be pretty easy to set up a percussion kit containing two Cajon instruments, then set the layout option to determine the presentation type to show the kit as a two-line grid, and then simply input the music by using the arrow keys to move between the upper and lower line and hitting Y to input a note on that instrument. You can add the R/L indications either using lyrics, which is nice and quick, or the “proper” way using the Shift+P playing techniques popover.

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