Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles exploring microtonal music in Dorico. The first article, by Marc Sabat, reviewed microtonal notation.
Earlier in the year, when I first heard that Steinberg’s Dorico would be providing integrated support for microtonal notations as well as accurate playback at the click of a button, I was initially skeptical but eager to see the software in action.
Composing in extended microtonal systems, such as just intonation (my particular area of interest), has always been a rather cumbersome process of “faking it” in Sibelius and Finale. Accidentals would have to be separately defined as regular staff symbols that have to be individually positioned in front of notes. Then, everything has to be tweaked and forced — note spacing, collisions with other accidentals, collisions with barlines, accidentals randomly floating around in the middle of the page — and forget about playback! That required additional calculation and programming for individual pitch bends.
Dorico, on the other hand, is completely different. Not only can you create many new accidentals that actually function in the software like accidentals rather than generic symbols, but you can also define their respective intonations to a user-defined precision in tenths of a cent if desired. This means that playback is remarkably accurate.
The process begins by defining a new tonality system based on an arbitrary number of equal divisions of an octave.
To get started with this, you create a new tonality system in Write mode by opening the Key Signatures panel and, under Tonality System, click the + button (New Tonality System).
The resulting Edit Tonality System dialog will open you to a bevy of options from which you can set custom divisions of the octave and create custom accidentals and key signatures to your liking.
In my working with the program, the sizes of the intervals between the diatonic “white” notes are defined in terms of 12000 divisions of the octave (e.g. in a Pythagorean system, the interval between C and D [9:8] is 2040/12000 while B and C [256:243] is 900/12000). Accidental symbols are created using font glyphs with specific pitch deltas (i.e. deviations) associated with them, which the software uses to modify the already defined diatonic notes.
Dorico can handle accurate playback of complex, polyphonic just intonation in Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 5, in the excerpt below.
While working with Dorico, I have the feeling that I can simply sit down and compose rather than constantly have to fuss around with and worry about hundreds of floating symbol objects because the program actually understands the microtonal notation and how to play it.
Dorico’s native HALion Sonic SE workstation and Symphonic Orchestra Library provide a sufficient amount of sampled VST instruments to choose from that sound pretty good. If you’re looking for instruments like alto flute, contrabassoon, or bass trombone, though, you’re out of luck, which is a bit of a shame since these instruments are standard in today’s orchestras. As ever, excessive vibrato remains an issue with VST instruments, specifically with woodwinds and strings — the oboe and solo strings are especially exaggerated, which can clearly be heard in the Ben Johnston example.
For a software that successfully supports finely tuned microtonal playback, I think that the extra effort to provide accurately tuned non vibrato samples only makes sense. Beyond that, I found myself missing muted brass sounds and it seems to me that, especially in new software, the inclusion of nice samples for additional standard playing techniques (ponticello and flautando for strings, harmonics for strings and winds, glissandos, con sordino, etc.) would be very useful and keeping with the high bar that Dorico is already setting with its user interface and professional engraving options. (Warning for 4K screen users: while Dorico itself scales nicely, you’ll have to get out your magnifying glass to see the VST instrument windows.)
Check out the excerpt below from a recent orchestral piece to see and hear how I’ve been using Dorico’s microtonal support with its orchestra sample library. Note that aside from a few font point size modifications, the scores were created using Dorico’s default spacing, positioning, and fonts with minimal additional tweaking in order to demonstrate its particular “out-of-the-box” idiosyncrasies.