Microtonal playback in Dorico

Reviews

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.

The tonality system editor in Dorico 2.1

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.

Excerpt from Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 5 (click for PDF)
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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.

Excerpt (notated at sounding pitch) from Thomas Nicholson’s Per (click for PDF)
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Comments

  1. Juhani Nuorvala

    By corrections in the Johnston, do you mean errors you found in the published score? Looking at the original score, I notice that you’ve changed the e in the first violin to 5/4 of C from Johnston’s 81/64, and surely that’s indeed Johnston’s typo (minus missing) because there’s an overtone chord there. Are there many other mistakes?

    1. Thomas Nicholson

      Right! Not sure exactly which one you’re specifically citing, but that’s more or less it…mostly missing or too many minuses. In a way, they’re somewhat easy to spot as most of the constellations are simply shifting overtonal/undertonal structures. But at the same time, the awkwardness (in my opinion) of the notation doesn’t always make it obvious exactly what the notes should be and Johnston himself slips up now and then.

      1. Juhani Nuorvala

        Ah, sorry, left out the bar number – it’s the second beat of bar 11. Yes, there are occasional mistakes in the pluses and minuses in Johnston’s hand-written scores.

        BTW, as the commenter below says, NotePerformer works in Dorico. Its sounds are much better than those of Dorico’s Halion set (at least so far), and it responds to the VST micro tuning messages. I suppose a high-end orchestral sound set in an expensive version of Halion does, too. But NotePerformer is not expensive.

  2. Mikhail Rimsky-Korsakov

    Privet, It is rather obvious that the entire Music Software Industry met face-to-face the Earth’s best Software Designers born exactly for this purpose. It is not surprising that Dorico’s internal VST should lack some functionality (or rather made provision for Dorico’s specific requirements). Steinberg’s Hallion Libraries were specifically designed for the use of Cubase! Notwithstanding the fact that Dorico’s team have already surpassed some of the most challenging AI choices software can make during the last 3 years of development, (Sibelius’ development started in 1993 and Finale 1988 [which explains their reluctant exodus from ancients outdated Windows 3.1 – ’95 objects), Daniels and his amazing team approached Dorico’s Design Policy from the standpoint of 1) providing the basics of would expect from notation software; 2) Fix Bugs and add more functionality (while receiving feature requests from users); 3) More Bug Fixes, adding a few more features, keeping in mind that more dev funds would be required. So they started working on the “Pro” version on the sideline, incorporating most of the important features users have been asking for. THIS very clever move would surely convince users to purchase the Pro update for “We wanted it!” Dorico’s team even approached Mr. Wallander to see if “NotePerformer” could be incorporated in Dorico as so many Sibelius users (like myself) loved this lightweight VST. My point is, Daniel and his team CARE about the needs of their User Bases! Even if they have to eat some of the nasty comments, they stay professional which is more than I can say of certain other Forums! I, myself, have been asking MakeMusic AND Avid to incorporate CC Midi lanes into Sibelius. Not ONCE, have my request in 5 years been addressed! At least, Daniel would answer my question on the forum, even LATE at night, as ower timezones are basically the same. Another thing to consider, Dorico never created their own unique VST library. Dorico’s entire sound engine was built into Dorico from Cubase! This, is an extremely versatile engine that leaves a lot of possibilities for the future. It is “plugged in”, now the “wires” into this engine must be connected! Hence, with the Pro version, one already experience the “Video” feature with timestamps etc, “Microtonal adjustments”, CC and controller lanes (Something I, personally, have been BEGGING for, for YEARS), no 4th year BMus degree to create Soundmaps to use external VST, and once I even purchased one, it still is found wanting. So, in conclusion, I know we have Earth’s best team working on software that will serve our needs. Many of Dorico’s capabilities already beyond that of their competition, Notation – Layout wise; and Sound/Video wise. Regarding VST. Dorico can incorporate almost ALL VST provided they adhere to certain requirements. VST3 is preferable, but many VST2 are also “Whitelisted”. There are more expensive versions of HALion available with more instruments and playing techniques. I do hope that Dorico’s team will at least try to convince Steinberg that the average engraver need a certain number of standard instruments with their articulations. Perhaps call it HALion for Dorico! But, Noteperformer 3 does nicely as well! ;0)

    Keep well, my music brothers and sisters!

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