Wallander Instruments has released a major update to NotePerformer, its user-friendly solution for realistic-sounding playback of Dorico, Sibelius, or Finale projects. With today’s release of NotePerformer 4, it takes a huge leap forward, adding to its own modeled sound library the ability to play back many of the most popular, premium orchestral sample libraries from Vienna Symphonic Library, EastWest, Cinesamples, Spitfire Audio, and more.
NotePerformer: What’s great is still great
Sample libraries have been capable of producing realistic performances of orchestral music for over a decade, but the time, effort, and expense of creating a convincing digital performance with them is very high. For producing final audio for film and media, this cost is worth it, and specialists have gotten very good at leveraging these tools.
However, for many composers and orchestrators who simply need a good-enough demo to share with collaborators, the effort — transferring their work from scoring software to digital audio workstation (DAW), spending hours massaging MIDI data, and still more hours tweaking the mix — is simply not worth it.
That’s where NotePerformer shines. It is light-years ahead of the built-in sounds that ship with Sibelius, Dorico, and Finale, and it requires no additional effort beyond the initial installation. As I’ve said and written many times on Scoring Notes, the quality-to-effort ratio of NotePerformer is untouched by anything in its category.
A number of features make NotePerformer a little different than other playback options. First of all, it has a better sense of context and phrasing. Current NotePerformer users are likely used to the brief delay between pressing “play” in their notation application and hearing audio. This delay allows NotePerformer to look ahead, interpret the score, and make better choices about dynamics and articulation.
NotePerformer is also loved because it is so lightweight. Rather than relying on recorded samples of every possible sound an orchestra might make, it uses a combination of sample-modeled synthesis, and a very small number of recorded samples that are filtered and modulated. Because of this, NotePerformer requires very little RAM and storage. The entire download is under 1GB. For comparison, many orchestral sample libraries are hundreds of gigabytes or more. My favorite marimba library is nearly 4GB for a single instrument, which I consider to be relatively small.
All of this — the simplicity of use, the musical intelligence, and the computational efficiency — are all still there in NotePerformer 4. Apart from some small tweaks, this core of the application is mostly unchanged. As NotePerformer creator Arne Wallander told me, “We spent a decade carefully balancing these sounds and don’t want to gamble on making changes now.” Having used NotePerformer for a good portion of that decade, this strikes me as “sound” reasoning.
Enter: Sample libraries
The headline feature of the latest release of NotePerformer is the NotePerformer Playback Engines (NPPE), which allows you to leverage the musical intelligence of NotePerformer with the robust sample libraries that are commonly used in DAWs and sequencers.
From NPPE, which opens as a standalone application, users can load selected instruments from a number of the most popular orchestral sample libraries. Users can select any set of instruments from any of their installed libraries to replace the NotePerformer sounds. It is not possible to use any VST3 instrument from here, as each has a custom-built integration.
Here are the currently supported libraries:
- Spitfire BBC Symphony Orchestra Core
- Spitfire BBC Symphony Orchestra Pro
- Orchestral Tools Berlin Orchestra Berklee Edition
- Cinesamples Cine Series for Kontakt
- Cinematic Studio Series
- EastWest Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition
- Steinberg Iconica Sections & Players
- Audio Imperia Nucleus
- Vienna Symphonic Library Synchron Prime
This list represents nearly all of the highest-quality samples and playback engines in the orchestral space. Even so, Wallander has indicated that there are plans to expand this list going forward.
These libraries must be purchased separately and activated within NPPE (more on that in a bit), and it’s worth emphasizing here that they are not required to use NotePerformer. Each time you add a sampled instrument to the template, it replaces the NotePerformer synth. If you choose not to load a particular instrument, or if a library doesn’t have one, NotePerformer will gracefully “fall back” to its own sounds. (Side note: How is it possible that so many libraries don’t have a solo bass trombone but do have a solo cimbasso? I blame Hans Zimmer.)
You can also mix and match from different libraries:
The NotePerformer mixer — accessible in Finale and Dorico — outlines any track in white that has a sample player loaded in NPPE. Any tracks not outlined are using NotePerformer sounds. This quick, handy check is not available from Sibelius, where NotePerformer uses the built-in mixer. It’s unfortunate to not have access to that visual indicator at the mixer level, but it’s a more-than-reasonable trade-off for not having to deal with two levels of mixer interface — the scoring application’s and NotePerformer’s — as is the case with Finale and Dorico.
Users can also distinguish sampler sounds from the default by listening for articulation: sampled instruments played by NPPE will play as staccato when clicked in editing mode, while NotePerformer sounds will use the longer articulation.
To add sampled instruments, you simply open a library within NPPE, select Add instruments and load them from the list. NotePerformer automatically assigns library instruments to your score. Once the instruments are loaded, you can return to your scoring software and everything works more-or-less the same as NotePerformer has in the past. You can still open the mixer to make tweaks to balance or reassign playback to a non-default instrument (NotePerformer uses the built-in Sibelius mixer). For example, NPPE doesn’t currently support any choral or vocal libraries, so you might want a choir to play back as clarinets (my preference) or strings.
Once your instruments are loaded in NPPE, you can play them back as easily as you can with NotePerformer’s own instruments, which is to say, just as easily as your software’s built-in sounds. NPPE handles interfacing directly with sample libraries and players, so you don’t need to touch playback engines like Kontakt, HALion, Opus, or others. I can’t overstate how remarkable it is to have such a simple way to get such high quality playback.
To compare NotePerformer sounds to NPPE-driven sample libraries, here are two audio demos. In each case, you’ll first hear NotePerformer sounds (which again are the same as NotePerformer 3 sounds), followed by Steinberg Iconica and EastWest Hollywood Orchestra. Note that these videos have chapter markers in them so you can easily jump between sample libraries.
Of this small subset of the possibilities for NPPE, I generally prefer the EastWest Hollywood Orchestra sounds for their clarity and presence. The EastWest Opus instruments are also much better optimized. Loading the whole orchestra took less than 20 seconds on my Mac Studio (M1 Max, 64GB RAM, loaded from external SSD), compared to over five minutes for Iconica.
If you have any favorite VST instruments that are not currently supported by NotePerformer 4, you can still mix NotePerformer playback with other playback engines as you could before. You may need to spend a little more time adjusting the mix or reverb, but the timing is still spot on for all the other VSTs I tested.
For users who regularly move between desktop and laptop on a project, there is a convenient side-benefit to separating the NotePerformer plugin from NPPE: if you don’t ever load NPPE, you still get NotePerformer’s own sounds without changing anything in the file. So if you don’t carry your extra 490GB strings library around on your laptop or you forget your iLok at home (which I have definitely never done) but still want to work, you can do that without having to keep changing the project’s playback settings each time you move to a new machine.
Perhaps the biggest limitation of NotePerformer 4 is that getting a taste of some great libraries playing beautifully out of Dorico made me notice the handful of libraries I really like that aren’t there. Some of these, like the more boutique instruments from Sonic Couture, may never be included, and playing directly via VST doesn’t have quite the nuance that the same instrument can have with NotePerformer’s intelligence. Though if you have a small number of these mixed with an ensemble of mostly NotePerformer instruments, it doesn’t take a lot of work to get them to blend.
Speaking of VST support, all three of the scoring applications that can use NotePerformer also support VST plugins to varying degrees. The most robust of these is probably Dorico, and I asked Arne Wallander about the benefit of using NotePerformer to drive — for example — EastWest Hollywood Orchestra rather than connecting it directly using Dorico’s VST rack. Here’s some of what he told me:
“Without NPPE, most notes would be noticeably off in terms of dynamics, timing, and pitch because it’s following MIDI with no respect for the underlying sound. Even if you were to tweak the Expression Map individually for every articulation, we do that process per note. Unlike Expression Maps, NPPE is not plain articulation switching, but we convert the notation program’s MIDI into NotePerformer’s higher-level expression, which guides the NPPE instruments. We respect onsets and offsets of slurs, do volume envelopes and other audio-domain processing per note, and layer multiple articulations when applicable. We intelligently select solo and section samples and balance appropriately for the number of players. We support polyphonic legato for any sample library. We improve the intonation and have universal support for orchestral A4 tuning, and in Dorico, we have universal quarter-tone support. We have universal brass mutes working with any sample library. We have easy-to-operate managed multi-microphone support, which is cumbersome in a notation program since microphone signals have different volumes that must be carefully adjusted. Essential processing like EQ is readily available in NPPE for each instrument without manually routing to different ports and adding it as a VST effect. We bounce directly to stems very quickly in a single pass. We even bounce to individual microphones and process each microphone channel with an independent EQ. There’s also a workflow improvement to accessing all sounds through a common interface that’s fast to operate.”
NotePerformer has always included more small-but-impactful design decisions than most users will ever notice, which is one of the things that makes it so great to use. Universal support for orchestral tuning means that you won’t have to deal with the intonation problems that sometimes arise from mixing samples from different libraries and vendors (or even within the same library), and you can have (for example) 442 Hz concert pitch for any library.
I also want to bring attention to something Arne mentions in the quote above that is a good example of this: brass mutes. Many instrumental libraries include both muted and unmuted brass samples. However, some don’t include muted sounds or don’t include the full range of articulations for muted brass as they do for unmuted. Rather than falling back to NotePerformer sounds, which might be jarringly different from sampled ones, NPPE uses some clever filtering techniques to generate its own muted sounds, which are often better than the ones recorded by library vendors. Like so many other elements of NotePerformer, it is thoroughly considered and deeply practical.
Price and availability
NotePerformer 4 is currently free for all existing NotePerformer 3 users, which includes access to all of NotePerformer’s own sounds. Current registered users can request a new download link at the NotePerformer web site, which will provide the user with NotePerformer 4.
Current NotePerformer users will only have to pay for an upgrade if they want to use one of the supported sample libraries listed above. For each of those, NotePerformer offers a one-time purchase of between $69 and $89 per playback engine. Note that this is just the bit that connects to that other library of samples, which you will need to purchase separately.
I really like this pricing structure, since it allows me to only purchase the add-ons for the libraries I have and use. And the base features of NotePerformer are not going anywhere. There is also a generous free trial of each library, which allows users to load all its instruments for as many one-hour sessions as they like.
If you’re new to sample libraries and you want to try out these new features of NotePerformer 4, I’d recommend EastWest’s Composer Cloud+ subscription, since you can try it out for a month without investing hundreds or thousands to see if it will work for you.
Of course, if you’ve never used NotePerformer before, you’ll need to first acquire it. A single-user license is the same price as it’s always been: $129 for a perpetual license. That one license gives you the ability to not only use it in Dorico, Sibelius, and Finale, but it also allows you to use it on as many computers that you personally use. What a deal!
Further, NotePerformer offers a rent-to-own option, where you can rent it for $10.75 per month, and, once you’ve forked over a total of $129, it turns into a perpetual license, making this effectively an installment plan for those unwilling or unable to commit the entire cost of the product at once.
Finally, there is a 30-day trial available, which runs for one hour. You need to restart your notation software to keep using NotePerfomer after one hour, if you’re in trial mode.
Conclusions and next steps
Even with a relatively small number of supported libraries, NotePerformer 4 covers some of the most popular ones in use today. Arne Wallander tells me that once they’ve “settled in with the platform” they plan to add more, including choirs, pianos, solo strings, and more. Maybe the most exciting thing about an already-exciting release is the groundwork it lays for the future.
NotePerformer 4 is a remarkable achievement from Wallander Instruments. They have carried through all of the best features of NotePerformer 3 and added a new suite of tools for working directly with some of the highest-end virtual instruments in the digital audio world. In some ways, they have created a completely new application that integrates beautifully with the existing one.
I suspect there will be many users of sample libraries who already have clearly defined workflows that will probably always be better implemented in a DAW. However, I know there are many users who are more notation-focused and who rarely or never use sampled instruments simply because of the complexity and time-cost of learning to use them. In a practical sense, those users now have access to these sounds for the first time. There are many instances where audio directly out of a scoring application with NPPE will be perfectly suitable for media projects, and the difference between a temporary demo and the final audio will be negligible in many other circumstances.
The tag line in the NotePerformer 4 promo video is “Let technology work for you”. NotePerformer’s best feature has indeed always been its quality-to-effort ratio, and that extends to the new features in NotePerformer 4.