StaffPad brings live recordings into your scores with Audio Update

Reviews

StaffPad today released a major update — versions 1.5 (iPad) and 3.5 (Windows). The headline feature of what the developers have called their “Audio Update” is a new item known as “Audio Staffs”: recorded audio tracks that can be created and edited right alongside notation-based instrumental and vocal staves. Other audio-related features that appear this update include tempo mapping, adaptive audio to keep your audio in sync with your score tempo, royalty-free production sounds and loops, and studio-quality effects.

This also marks the first major update — indeed, the first update of any kind — since StaffPad was acquired by Muse Group in May 2021; however, it does not include the audio transcription features that StaffPad co-founder and designer David William Hearn demonstrated in Apple’s April 2021 iPad announcement. For that, we will have to wait a bit longer.

There are a number of improvements and smaller features in this update, including quick inserts for pizzicato and arco, custom cover art, support for open/atonal key signatures, and the ability to duration-drag rests as well as notes.

Sounds in your music

Screenshot of a score with audio staffs
The top staff is an imported vocal track, the bottom is a recorded drum loop. In between the two are normal music staves.

One of StaffPad’s greatest strengths has always been its sounds. In my initial review of StaffPad’s iPad release in 2020, I wrote that its “instrument libraries sound great.” (Philip and I also spoke about it recently on the Scoring Notes podcast.) Virtual instruments from Cinesamples, Spitfire, Orchestral Tools, and others offer high-quality sounds that StaffPad presents in a musician-friendly score interface. The promise to composers: skip the digital audio workstation (DAW) and produce audio right in the score while you compose. That worked great for lots of composers until it came time to integrate recorded sounds — like a vocal track, dialogue, or sound effects.

With this latest release, StaffPad has once again narrowed the gap between notation and production apps. You can include any recorded audio directly into the score using the new Audio Staff feature. (StaffPad already has used other “staff” types for things like chord symbols and tempo.) There are a number of different audio staff types that both help keep your project organized and signal to StaffPad what kinds of features might be relevant to suggest.

Screenshot of audio staff category in instrument selection screen
Audio staffs are selected just like instruments, and there are a wide variety of audio staff types.

Once an audio staff is added to the score, you can import an existing audio file or even record your audio using the iPad’s microphone. Unfortunately, StaffPad does not allow using any external microphones or audio interfaces, which I think those who are invested in iPad as a professional creative platform will likely find frustrating. During recording, plugging in headphones will allow you to monitor instrumental tracks or the click track while recording, just as you might when recording in a DAW.

Each audio staff shows its contents as a waveform, but unlike in a DAW, the waveform stretches to fit the length of each measure. The position isn’t exact, but it’s close enough to show what is in each bar.

StaffPad provides a lot of tools for working with audio data once you’ve recorded or imported it. You can easily trim audio, split audio clips, copy-paste clips, loop clips, fade in/out, and everything else you would expect when working with audio in a DAW.

Effects and adjustments

In addition to the basic editing features, StaffPad also provides a long list of audio effects that can be applied to your tracks, such as reverb, delay, chorus, and more. The app tries to be helpful by suggesting the effects that are most likely to be useful based on the type of audio track. For example, a vocal track is more likely to have a “DeEsser” (removing “ess” sibilants), and a guitar is more likely to use a “Funky Guitar” effect.

Screenshot of effects options
These are some of the effects options that StaffPad provided for a vocal track.

You have complete control over the levels of each effect and the order in the signal flow. Toggle each effect on and off, move the slider for level, and drag and drop to reorder. It’s really simple and fun to play with them. And added bonus I didn’t expect: you can even attach those same effects to regular instrumental staves!

For audio that was recorded without a strict tempo, StaffPad provides some useful tempo mapping features to its tempo track. Just use the pencil to drag beats and barlines to match where they occur in the audio file (which can be pretty easy to spot by looking at the waveform!), and StaffPad automatically calculates the tempo that will make that measure fit. For example, if you drag a barline slightly to the left (earlier), the tempo will speed up a little to make that happen. If you drag a barline slightly to the right (later), the tempo will slow down to accommodate.

Loops and loops and loops

The last major new feature in this release is the addition StaffPad Elements, a library of royalty-free audio loops that can be dragged into any audio staff in your score. If you have used anything like Logic Pro X’s Loop Library, you’ll find Elements to be quite familiar. The loops are all nicely organized with metadata based on instrument, style, tempo, etc. Although, don’t take the key or tempo as a restriction, as the clips adapt to the key and tempo of your project.

The library isn’t quite as extensive as you might find in your favorite desktop DAW, but the loops that are here are of very high quality, easy to find, and easy to use.

Screenshot of Elements browser
The StaffPad Elements loop browser is nicely organized and easy to navigate.

Some smaller updates

There are a few smaller updates here, as well. Notably, StaffPad now supports open key signatures, so that transposing parts can all use an empty signature. (Special thanks to the StaffPad team. Apparently, I was the only user requesting this!)

Additionally, there are some nice shortcuts for adding pizzicato and arco indications quickly, and the newly-added ability to duration-drag rests as well as notes is helpful.

Those that make use of the automation layers will appreciate that you can now toggle between automation layers from a single menu, rather than have to cycle between them.

For the graphically-inclined: You can now give your score custom cover art. From the Welcome Screen, choose Edit Details, then tap the camera icon. Choose an existing photo, import a file, or take a photo with a your device’s camera. You can choose to print this cover art as a cover page.

It’s also important to note that all these new features are represented in a set of tutorial videos that can be found on the Discover tab within the app. Seeing someone else go through the steps, taps, and swipes goes a long way toward understanding how you can use these tools in your own projects.

One more thing

In addition to all the new features and refinements in the app update, StaffPad is launching a new web radio station: StaffPad Radio. The linear stream will play a curated selection of music by StaffPad users, produced entirely within the app. It’s an impressive showcase of what the software sounds are capable of, and I expect we’ll start hearing music on StaffPad Radio that includes the new audio features as more people get the Audio Update under their Apple Pencils and Surface Pens.

You can listen to StaffPad Radio at https://radio.staffpad.net in a browser, or using any web radio app (I like Broadcasts by Stephen Troughton-Smith on iOS/Mac.) You can also ask your favorite Amazon Alexa device to play it for you.

Availability

The StaffPad update 1.5 (iPad) and 3.5 (Windows) is free for all current StaffPad users on iPad and Windows.

For everyone else, StaffPad is celebrating the release with a massive sale: From now through January 8, 2022, StaffPad is discounting their product an eye-popping $50 off from the usual $89.99 price, for both iPad and Windows. That means that you can pick up StaffPad — with all of the new features just released, along with everything else — for only $39.99. That’s the lowest price we have ever seen for StaffPad.

I’ve often said that StaffPad is an application that doesn’t have any obvious direct competitors, since it sits in a new space that’s right in between the big notation applications and the big audio applications. But that $39.99 price looks an awful lot like the $39.99 that Dorico for iPad will cost you for an annual subscription. Coincidence or not, at that price, picking up both apps is an easy decision (and if you’re a Sibelius user with an iPad, adding StaffPad is a similar no-brainer).

Of course, if you’re on a Windows touch device, StaffPad has a similar value proposition since you can run the desktop versions of the other notation apps on your device already.

And, if that’s not enough, the in-app sample libraries are on sale at 30% their usual $99.99 price, so you can pick up items like the Berlin Strings, VOXOS Epic Choir, Berlin Woodwinds, Cinesamples Percussion, and Spitfire Symphonic Strings for $69.99 apiece, to pair with your newfound audio recordings.

The free StaffPad Reader digital music stand app for iPad and Windows has also been updated, and the in-app Pro upgrade continues to be $12.99.

Conclusions

StaffPad’s new audio features are the most distinguishing feature between it and the other notation apps. This demonstration track arranged by David William Hearn in StaffPad is a great example of this.


This is a really solid update for StaffPad users. These are the sorts of features that will save many working composers and arrangers a lot of time in a variety of workflows. There are a number of users who may be able to avoid round-tripping between StaffPad and a DAW, which is really exciting.

For me, the one big thing that is still missing from StaffPad is the same thing I mentioned in my review last year. As great as its handwriting recognition is, it will never be perfect, and there is still no fallback for when the recognition goes weird (or when I just don’t want to write by hand). I’d love to see some other input options, like MIDI devices. But as we’ve seen with both Dorico and Sibelius on the iPad earlier this year, figuring out how to get as much score and as many tools as possible in a small screen is a major challenge, so I’m willing to wait for them to do it in a way that most integrates with the StaffPad design instead of just quickly bolting on this feature.

Today’s StaffPad update is the most significant single update in nearly two years, and the first update of any kind in eight months. It shows a lot of promise for the future of the software. In the time since I reviewed the initial release of StaffPad for iPad in February 2020, nearly every issue that I described in that review has been addressed. I’m continuing to look forward to what is next — presumably audio transcription(!) — for StaffPad in 2022.

Comments

  1. Malcolm Kay

    Wow. So innovative! I am amazed at the level of understanding and thought that has gone into this program.

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks for reading! The StaffPad team are really rethinking some of the fundamental assumptions in the field, and it’s been really exciting to watch!

  2. Dale Williams

    Is Staffpad still limited to Windows Surface and Ipad?

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks for reading, Dale. StaffPad requires Pen input on Windows, so it doesn’t require a Surface, but it does require a touch screen with stylus input. So while you can download it on any iPad or Windows computer, it won’t be able to do much without an active stylus. For that reason, it won’t work with a Mac or non-touch Windows computer.

  3. Jan

    I hope touch will come to for macos. Then you can work far better with big scores

  4. Jacob

    Ironically, you desiring some other input method for StaffPad is a complete reversal of what I want: I wish all Notation and Digital Audio Software accepted written notation input as seamlessly and effortlessly as StaffPad. Despite the occasional wonkiness, I feel absolutely at my most creative when writing in the notes.

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