PDF Expert hits the sweet spot


PDF files are a modern necessity when working with music notation, whether or not the music was produced with digital software. It’s the easiest and surest way to share and transport files anywhere, and you’re basically guaranteed that the PDFs you share with your colleague will appear the same way, no matter what operating system or software is used. After all, PDF stands for “portable document format”.

Perhaps due to their ubiquity, often we’re asked to do more with PDFs simply opening and printing them. If you work with music notation PDF files regularly, there will come a time — if it hasn’t happened already — that you’ll need to manipulate them, edit the text, merge files together, and more.

If you’re on a Mac, you have the Preview app, which comes on every Mac. Over the years, Preview has evolved into a very serviceable Swiss Army knife that can deal with files and images in a variety of formats. Its PDF tools may suit your needs just fine if you only occasionally need to adjust PDFs or if your needs are relatively straightforward.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 800-pound gorilla: Adobe Acrobat. (There’s also the free Acrobat Reader with some basic features.) Indeed, when people think of PDFs, they often still think of Adobe, which developed the file format in the 1990s and licensed it until it became an open standard in 2008. Acrobat is stuffed with features that you may or may not ever use, and it comes with a considerable price tag: $13 per month for the “Standard” tier, or $20 per month for the “Pro” tier. If you’re doing high-end publishing, $156 or even $240 per year is a reasonable sum, but if your needs are a bit more pedestrian, that quickly adds up.

Filling the gap — at least on Mac and iOS — is PDF Expert, a $6.67 per month ($80 per year) app that may well satisfy your requirements for more robust PDF editing compared to what Preview can provide, without all of the more niche features and recurring bank debits of Acrobat Pro.

PDF Expert

And, now through March 31, 2024, if you enter the code PDFE30 at checkout, the first year of your subscription will be discounted by 30%. (This post contains affiliate links to PDF Expert, which means that if you click a link — like this one — to go to the PDF Expert site and subscribe to the product, Scoring Notes will earn a commission on the sale, at no cost to you, helping to support Scoring Notes.)

PDF Expert is developed by Readdle, a company specializing in useful, attractive software for Mac, and it aims to strike the balance between simplicity and utility.

When you open PDF Expert, that balance is on display, with a simple home screen.

The PDF Expert home screen

The first thing I noticed using PDF Expert was that it was fast. I mean, ridiculously fast. On my Mac Studio, it had no trouble opening and rendering scanned PDFs that were hundreds of megabytes in size.

Its viewing options are intuitive and helpful. Like you can in other software, you can view 2-page spreads with ease, and when you click PDF Expert’s Show first page alone option, you’ll be able to easily scan a part to make sure that the pagination is correct — important when judging if page turns are applied correctly.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Making use of Split view, you can show two documents side-by-side, and, if you switch on Sync scroll and zoom, you can do just that — navigate through two documents at once, with the same zoom settings, for easy comparison; this is helpful to compare two similar documents, or two versions of the same document.

PDF Expert has all of the PDF tools that are “table stakes” these days for a PDF application: editing; annotation; markup; easy conversion from other formats; signing (but not secure e-signing like Adobe Sign or DocuSign); page organization; merging PDFs; and optical character recognition (OCR).

Adding page numbers was easy, and you can edit them later. I used this feature to apply page numbers to prelims in a part, beginning on page 2, so as not to number the title page:

I did miss Acrobat Pro’s ability to apply page numbers to only even or odd pages here, as well as some of Acrobat Pro’s more advanced features, but PDF Expert’s simplicity came in handy when time was tight.

What truly astounded me, though, was PDF Expert’s relatively new Enhance Scan feature, found amidst its other useful scanning tools, like Split Pages, Crop Pages, Clear Margins, Recognize Text, and Content Selection.

Here, you can quickly convert a document to black & white — not greyscale — improving contrast and removing color. There is also a Remove Distortion option.

Have you ever scanned, or been the recipient of a scan, from a mobile device? These apps are great, but they often introduce terrible distortion into the document:

Original file, before processing with PDF Expert

Processing a 41-page document with PDF Expert took mere seconds:

And the result was instantly transformed: contrast was improved, shadows were removed, and, on this page, other than a wiggle in the upper right-hand corner, everything nicely straightened and aligned, making for a much more usable and printable page of music:

After using PDF Expert’s Enhance Scan feature

This feature, alone, was worth the $80 yearly subscription cost to me.

If you are on Mac, you can create one account and use PDF Expert across all of your Apple devices — Mac, iPhone, and iPad. And, don’t forget: through March 31, 2024, enter the code PDFE30 at checkout to get the first year of your subscription discounted by 30%.


  1. David MacDonald

    What a great app! It’s also my favorite way to work with PDFs on iPad.

  2. Waldbaer

    PDFExpert was a great tool and still may be, but I just don’t understand why I should make an account for working with PDFs locally and subscription is a no-go for me, sorry. So I’ll stay with the Version 2 features, which are still very helpful and look for less greedy alternatives (sorry, but Adobe being just ridiculous, does not mean Readdle is fair to me).

    1. Philip Rothman

      They do have a “lifetime” one-time payment of $140, but this is really more of a perpetual license for the current version and some maintenance updates. They say “Big updates and new features” are not included, and neither is the iPhone and iPad version.

      I do understand the concern, but accounts are necessary for software that is both continuously updated, and works across multiple devices and platforms, like PDF Expert does, with both Mac, iPhone and iPad. Sibelius is the same way — you need an account so it can authorize your use on desktop and mobile (same with Adobe for Acrobat Pro). The other option is what Dorico does — offer the desktop and iPad versions as separate products, which the user pays for separately. Readdle offers this option as well: You can purchase the iPad version separately, for $50.

      So, if you only want to use it locally on your Mac, and prefer the traditional way of paying for software, the lifetime option might be a good fit.

  3. Robert Foulkes

    I use the Affinity suite, and their Publisher does all I need. Used with Dorico, it’s extremely handy (for example, splitting pdfs then cleaning them up before using PlayScore2 to convert to xml before import into Dorico)

  4. Engela Fullard

    I use the 800-pound gorilla, Adobe Acrobat, and it works well, but I find the page numbering a bit of a chore (probably because I don’t need that function all that often). I then jump onto iLovePDF, which is a free online service. One can preview your numbered pages, which is helpful.

  5. Chris Hoh

    Thanks. Glad to know about this. Enhance Scan is nifty, but not something I’d likely use. I’ve been happy with Qoppa’s PDF Studio Pro ($139 one-time fee rather than subscription). Relatively easy to save different versions with different levels of security and also great flexibility in watermarking. Page replacement, re-numbering (with multiple number styles in one doc), annotation, compression all are straightforward and intuitive. I dropped the Gorilla after Adobe moved to subscription and have never looked back!

  6. Ben Byram-Wigfield

    I use Master PDF Editor, which is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. It cost me just under £70 (as a one-time fee), and has a lot of features, including OCR, object editing, annotations, form filling, and page manipulation.

    I used to use PDF Pen Pro, which has been renamed Nitro PDF Pro. This also has a lot of features, but is expensive, at £11 per month, or £190 for a one-time purchase.

    I also use GhostScript and my own set of python scripts that call MacOS’s PDF routines.

  7. Philip Rothman

    Thanks to everyone for providing information about these additional options for PDF processing!

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