The iPad Pro is my favorite computer I’ve ever owned. Nothing else is really even close. Along with the Apple Pencil, it has allowed me to remove paper from my workflows in ways I had never truly imagined. It has even allowed me to get work done in more flexible, intuitive, and even delightful ways.
However, one sticking point for me and many other musicians has been a lack of notation and scoring software for iOS. It seems like such a natural fit for the immediacy and accuracy of writing with the Pencil on iPad. I know I’m not the only one who has looked with admiration and a hint of jealousy at Windows-only StaffPad.
That’s why I was keen to try Komp, a new app from Semitone, which launched as v. 1.0 several days ago on Friday, April 28. This blog previewed Komp in January at the NAMM 2017 show, where the app was being demonstrated in a pre-release state.
With the app now available to the public, it’s time to see where it lines up in the world of iOS scoring apps. Komp isn’t the most powerful in the category, but it might be the prettiest.
On first launch, Komp greets the user by giving a quick video demo. Unlike many similar videos, this one is short and succinct, allowing you to get right into using the software. Like many other writing apps, Komp also asks if you’re using an Apple Pencil so that it can optimize the speed and clarity of writing. There are a handful of example scores to look at, play back, and edit. Some are complex and some are simple. Creating your own score is as easy as filling in a few broad details in a New Score wizard that will feel familiar to most users of any desktop scoring application.
After completing the setup, you’ll find a blank page with very few tools in front of you. The tool palettes are clean, minimal, and unfussy, allowing you to focus on the score itself. You can start writing here like you might expect.
This is where Komp next distinguishes itself from other apps in this category. Unlike NotateMe, MusicJot, and even StaffPad, Komp will start interpreting handwriting almost instantly, rather than waiting for you to complete a measure.
This can be both good and bad. If you write slowly, Komp may process your shapes before you’re done. Or if you tend to draw in a different order than Komp expects, it might get a little confused. The writing itself is very fast and accurate. As users of Apple Pencil or Microsoft’s Surface Pen know, not every application handles this gracefully. Komp is as smooth as my favorite handwriting apps on iPad.
In my testing, I found the notation interpreter to do a pretty good job most of the time; but, there were enough misses that I found myself getting frustrated at times. There are also a few symbols that the handwriting recognition can’t handle, such as a sixteenth rest or a triplet. These can be entered — more on that in a moment — but not using the handwriting interpreter.
It’s understandable that some symbols are hard to figure out, since the first step in drawing a sixteenth rest is to first draw an eighth rest. But the handwriting feels so good when it works, it’s a shame to have to pull up short when it doesn’t, and it’s easy to forget which symbols will or won’t work. Sixteenth notes: yes; sixteenth rests: no. Slurs: yes; hairpins: no. Rhythm dots: yes; staccato dots: no. In fact, Komp’s speedy handwriting conversion often caused me to inadvertently add rhythm dots all over my scores just from tapping around to make selections or scroll. A bit annoying, but these are easy to delete by tapping to select (or circling with the Pencil) and tapping the trash icon.
The rendered notation is another thing that distinguishes Komp from its competitors on iOS: it looks really good. Komp uses the Bravura music font from Daniel Spreadbury at Steinberg. This is a positive sign for the future of both SMuFL’s future as a music font standard and the future development of Komp’s engraving options. In addition to the standards-based approach to presentation, Komp relies on MusicXML for its scores. More on that later.
Training the robot
Komp’s creators understand that everyone has their own unique way of drawing a quarter rest. And rather than forcing everyone to learn a standard set of notation-like glyphs, as in the old Palm Pilot Graffiti system, Komp invites users to train the app on however they write basic notes, rests, and accidentals. By writing sixteen quarter rests, you can teach Komp your own process. I found that after doing this with a handful of common symbols, the quality of the recognition improved noticeably. It was still not perfect, but much better than the untrained interpreter.
A much larger set of symbols can be entered and edited using the tools along the right side of the page.
First is the very stylish and clever radial menu. This circular, floating palette gives access to all the basic note and rest values, accidentals, and more. It can be easily moved around the screen and hidden entirely. Sitting on top of the score with a slight drop shadow, it has a distinct, tactile feel that I really appreciate. I almost wish the other tools, such as articulations, dynamics, and ornaments, were included in the radial menu instead of in their own options along the right panel.
One really intriguing side-effect of Komp’s more immediate handwriting interpreter is that it’s difficult for Komp to apply a lot of control to your writing. You can write a stem in the wrong direction, and most of the time it won’t be corrected. You can even write measures with the wrong amount of rhythm. Even the demo video shown on first launch has incorrect rhythms.
Again, this is both good and bad. Good for free-wheeling composers like me who are looking for an app that supports open-ended sketching, where meters can be fluid. But it could be bad for conforming to notational norms. I can add extra notes in the violin part, but leave them out of the viola part in the same measure. This makes playback and export potentially an adventure.
An important thing to understand about writing rhythms and adding other symbols in Komp is that the app is, to put it simply, dumb. By that, I mean that it doesn’t seem to know much about what music should look like. If you’re an experienced and careful musician, this is a boon to creative freedom. You can write even weird rhythms like the one above, trusting your own expertise. However, if you’re less careful, you might find yourself writing nonsensical rhythms and stacking two or three accent marks on the same note by accident.
Another side-effect of Komp’s open-ended proclivities is the reflowing of rhythms. As you write fast or complex rhythms, you might find yourself running out of space in the measure, or simply crowding your notes uncomfortably close. Komp has a manual reflow button that is always visible at the top to set rhythm spacing. This is simplified a bit by the fact that there are no system breaks. Komp is always in a one-system scroll view.
The user interface is strikingly modern, as clean as any you’ll find in the App Store, including Apple’s own apps. This really distinguishes it from some of the garish and juvenile designs of some of the other iOS notation apps. It might seem shallow of me to say this, but that’s very important to me. I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time working in an application that I find ugly. Komp has a user interface and navigation that strikes a good balance between power and flexibility. The typography, colors, and general design language of Komp are a genuine pleasure to work with.
As I mentioned earlier, Komp’s developers opted to adhere to the MusicXML standard for score files. As MusicXML continues to evolve, it’s great to see new applications built around it from the beginning. This helps to avoid platform lock-in, and may appeal to users who aren’t yet prepared to make a long-term commitment to a new app publisher like Semitone.
I tested the MusicXML export by sending out my strange string orchestra score to Dorico and Sibelius. It was a deliberately weird document with a wrong rhythm in the violin part and a bass part written in treble clef.
As you can see, the results of both the strange rhythm and the dynamics were mixed; but, because each difference does represent something from the original Komp project, I think the differences probably say more about the MusicXML importers than the exporter.
At the moment, there is not a way to take a Komp project to PDF, and that’s okay with me. One thing that the app doesn’t deal with at all is line breaks and layout. For my use cases, I think the team made the correct decision to focus more on the handwriting and music notation than on the document layout features.
In its current state, Komp represents a remarkable achievement. Semitone has created a tool that many musicians will be happy to use. This is still a 1.0 release that has its feature limitations and even some bugs. Here is a non-comprehensive list of some things that jumped out to me most:
- Scrolling through larger scores can be slow and jittery.
- There are occasional stuck notes if you flip to another app during playback.
- No iPad split view support, so no ability to look at a PDF score or song text in another app while writing in Komp.
- No way to rename an instrument, even to add a number like “Violin 1”, “Violin 2”.
- Copying doesn’t seem to know about clefs. Note the measure above that I copied from the bass clef cello part to the alto clef viola part. Komp keeps lines and spaces, not notes.
- All instruments are shown at sounding pitch with no way of switching to transposed pitch.
- No way to write arbitrary annotations on the score. This is one that I think is a perfect companion for an app that interprets handwriting. I’d love to be able to mark up sketches.
Many of these become less important when I think about how I would actually use a tool like Komp. I imagine myself using Komp as a mobile notepad that allows me to import my work to a desktop scoring app when things start to get serious. That means most of these issues could go away pretty quickly after that transition.
Semitone is aware of many of the larger missing features and bugs, and they seem very responsive to users. Shortly before Komp’s launch, they published a feature roadmap which lists some upcoming additions and the order in which developers expect to approach each of them. They’ve even given an indication of how long they expect each of these additions will take, along with a place to submit your own suggestions. While I find the limitations of Komp 1.0 to be frustrating, and in some cases dealbreaking, I am impressed with the openness and ambition expressed by the roadmap.
Like many new apps for mobile and desktop, Komp is sold as a subscription: $5/mo. or $50/yr. Each of these is available with a free trial, and if you’re just interested in seeing how the tools work for you, you can create scores of less than sixteen measures without starting a subscription at all.
I know a lot of users are not comfortable with subscriptions, and I understand why. However, I think it of subscriptions like this as a mutual agreement between users and developers: I’ll continue paying for your software as long as you continue maintaining and improving it. With Adobe (Photoshop) or Avid (Sibelius) subscriptions, there’s the user-hostile threat of file-format lock-in. Semitone avoids that ransom model by not using proprietary file formats. Since everything is in the open MusicXML standard, you’re free to go when you like.
After having spent time using Komp for several weeks, starting during its beta period, I can’t say that this is an app that will replace my desktop scoring applications in any foreseeable timeframe. However, I can certainly see its utility as a mobile option when I’m not at my Mac. I’m impressed with the writing tools, and I could learn to live with their imperfections while also trusting that those imperfections would be ironed out over time.
I’ve spent some time with NotateMe and MusicJot. Both are nice and can even do several things that Komp cannot. However, NotateMe and MusicJot feel like tech demos to me in their design and the quality of the resulting score. Komp is the first mobile scoring app that feels like a modern app of the same caliber as the other apps I use on my iPad. It’s not the app for me or for now, but I can imagine it being useful to many people — and I will certainly be keeping tabs on its continuing development.
David MacDonald is a composer and educator based in Orlando, Florida. He teaches music composition at the University of Central Florida.