Updated at 5:07 pm with comments from Philip Lee of Xenon Labs (developer of Symphony Pro).
In an ideal world, I would have an app that could run on my iPad Pro 12.9″, make use of my Apple Pencil to write as I would on paper, and still give me all the control, flexibility, and power of Sibelius, Finale, or Dorico. I know that I am not alone in my quest to find this miracle tool. Imagine being able to write as quickly and as freely as you might on paper, with all the expansive, creative space that comes with it, but yielding performance materials that were the match of anything from a major publisher. Symphony Pro 5 is not that app; but, after spending over a week exploring it, I’m pleased to say that it gets closer than anything I’ve used on iOS until now.
I first started looking into Symphony Pro after seeing some questions pop up in the comments to my previous write up on Komp. After reading about it and getting in touch with the developers, I spent a week or two exploring the application on my iPad running iOS 11. (Disclosure: Xenon Labs, the developers of Symphony Pro 5 sent me a complimentary copy of the app and in-app purchase for handwriting recognition, worth $25 combined.)
From the beginning, Symphony Pro is clean and modern. The welcome interface is almost non-existent. It uses a shelf-like grid of scores that reminds me a bit of the iBooks grid view. Unlike many complex apps, there is no onboarding sequence. I often find these directed tutorials to be tedious and frustrating, preventing me from getting down to work, and I appreciate Symphony Pro’s more direct approach.
The tools in Symphony Pro are relatively easy to discover and learn through experimentation. The symbols used are mostly self-explanatory for anyone familiar with music notation, and the layout and design will feel intuitive to any experienced computer user. Once a user begins digging in to the app, plenty of contextual pop-ups will help guide them through new tools and settings as they toggle each for the first time. For confident users, the tips can be turned off, and more forgetful users can reset them all over again.
Symphony Pro has extensive documentation online. The manual is viewable in the app, but it’s worth noting that this is just an embedded web view. The data itself is online and not accessible if you are not connected to the Internet. Users can download a PDF; but, you’ll have to remember to do that ahead of time. It’s worth the time to explore the documentation, or at least long-press all the buttons and toggles in the interface, as the options here run as deep as any iOS notation app.
My only issue in getting up and running was that there are a couple of gesture controls that are difficult to discover, and from what I could tell, are only accessible through gestures. The primary example of this is the Measure Dialog, accessible by two-finger tap, is the only way I found to change key signatures, meters, and several other “global” parameters in the middle of a score. It turns out that there are actually two more equally sneaky ways of opening these controls, and I only discovered them from the manual.
Handwriting with Apple Pencil
Symphony Pro has been through several iterations (a positive sign on its own), and the focus of the current version 5 is handwriting recognition. In the few years since the release of the first iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, fast, accurate handwriting recognition, writing speed, and palm rejection have quickly become table stakes for any music notation app.
Symphony Pro 5 joins the surprisingly crowded category of apps that use the handwriting recognition engine from MyScript. If you haven’t used a MyScript-based application before, you might be surprised at how efficient and accurate this can be. Symphony Pro behaves much like the other MyScript-powered applications in that it focuses on one measure at a time, only rendering from handwriting to engraving after the user taps away. Using off-the-shelf components means Symphony Pro has to work a little harder to distinguish itself.
Notably, Symphony Pro cleverly allows the user to switch between finger multitouch for tools and navigation (panning, pinch-zooming, etc.) and Pencil input. Other apps require the user to affirmatively enter a pen-writing mode that limits the ability to interact with most of the other controls, removing the illusion of working on paper; that’s not the case with Symphony Pro. While this will be great for Apple Pencil users, those who use non-Apple styluses will not see the benefits. Having said that, iPad Pro users without an Apple Pencil are missing the best part of the platform.
Speaking of the paper illusion, one of my favorite little bits of an excellent user interface in Symphony Pro is the full screen toggle, which hides all the tools and allows the closest thing to paper-writing I’ve found in a notation app yet. It also allows the user to use the Pencil for selecting passages for editing and deleting them (like the Lasso tools in Photoshop). This is a really clever idea for a feature and one that the developers tout proudly. Unfortunately, I found it to be very buggy, often switching to nearby staves and dropping my selection if I wasn’t extremely precise in my lasso work.
QWERTY and MIDI keyboards
Along with the intuitive note entry, Symphony Pro provides a large and welcome array of keyboard shortcuts for those using a hardware QWERTY keyboard. Best of all, the keyboard shortcuts are customizable.
My only quibble here is that the shortcut map itself does not use the standard iOS UI for displaying shortcuts, nor does it use the system-standard of long-pressing the Command key to review them. This is a very minor concern, and I suspect it may stem from the fact that the shortcuts are user-editable. Symphony Pro is mostly a good “app citizen” on the iOS platform, even going so far as to embrace Split View, allowing users to have a score up side-by-side with another app, like an orchestration reference, sketchpad, or media player.
Another pleasant surprise in Symphony Pro is the support for MIDI input. Yes, I know. I’ve now added a Bluetooth stylus, QWERTY keyboard, and a MIDI keyboard to my agile mobile rig. However, the Bluetooth MIDI support is notable here. While many mobile music apps work nicely with MIDI controllers, they tend to be audio synthesizers, not scoring applications. Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) MIDI is often poorly supported in those apps, requiring an external MIDI pairing app.
In Symphony Pro, though, I was able to pair my keyboard (an Xkey Air 25-key) directly from within the app. This feature will be a real boon to those who already have the hardware, but perhaps not worth the purchase for this single use. MIDI input works great both as step-time and synchronous recordings. I didn’t note much lag, even when Symphony Pro was playing back other staves alongside my recording.
The fonts available in Symphony Pro are quite good. Typography connoisseurs will be pleased to discover that text in the score can be changed to access any installed system font, including user-installed fonts. This is something even many of Apple’s own apps don’t allow. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a way to control fonts globally in the form of paragraph styles or text styles that you might find in desktop applications. If a user wants to apply any kind of house style, there will be lots of tiny taps to change each object individually.
Along with good support for text fonts, the music font in Symphony Pro is Bravura. I’m extremely pleased to see Bravura catching on with so many apps, as I’ve never been a big fan of Emmentaler and other free-to-use music fonts. It’s yet another reason to thank the Dorico team for their work and Steinberg for allowing them to release it under a liberal license. However, some of the individual expressions of Bravura symbols are less elegant here than you might expect in other applications. I saw several examples of too-short stems in particular that looked odd next to more correctly proportioned symbols.
In general, Symphony Pro’s notation and engraving defaults are very good. The downside of this is that the ones that are not stick out as downright bizarre in comparison.
For example, one of the templates provided is string quartet, which lists instruments as “Violin, Second Violin, Viola, Cello”. I’ve never seen a part marked “Second Violin”, and I’ve certainly never seen a Violin 2 part paired with one only labeled “Violin” rather than Violin 1. On top of that, the second’s abbreviation is “Se. Vln.”. Without seeing the first system with the full name, I’m not sure I would have even been able to figure out what “Se.” stood for. Transposing instrument part names also use a lowercase b instead of the flat sign and show inconsistent capitalization (Trumpet in Bb on the first line and Tpt. In Bb subsequently). Admittedly, these are somewhat pedantic concerns, but they’re exactly the sort of easy wins that I expect software to take care of on my behalf. Instrument names are user-changeable, but the defaults just look careless.
While on the subject of instruments, the array of instruments to include in the score seems to be populated from the General MIDI list, as it includes things like “muted trumpet” and “tremolo strings” which are not the sorts of things one would assign to a separate staff with these labels.
In addition to instrument names, Symphony Pro fails to follow some rather basic rules of music notation. For example, it fills empty bars with rests based on the beat size, rather than using the whole-bar rest (centered whole rest). Filling empty measures with rest is a step that must be taken manually as well. The upside to this is that you can easily over-fill a measure if you want to. It deals with this by turning the extra rhythms red. However, I found it a bit too easy to over-fill by accident. The user is presented with a warning when this happens; but, I found the warning to be more intrusive than helpful.
More alarmingly in notation, Symphony Pro deals incorrectly with tied accidentals. In the example here, Symphony Pro does not add a sharp symbol before the second note in the measure, even though it is entered in as a C-sharp and plays back as C-sharp. Ideally, the app would show either another sharp or a courtesy accidental.
Some of Symphony Pro’s engraving choices are also a bit perplexing. Articulations are one of the most obvious categories. Slur and tie arcs are sometimes very odd, to the point of being wrong. In fairness, it took the development teams on Sibelius and Finale decades to get slur arcs to to their current point which require only minimal manual adjustment. But some articulations should be a bit easier to manage. Symphony Pro often places accent marks are inside the staff, even sometimes intersecting staff lines in very unpleasant ways. This seems like it should be much easier to correct.
Output from Symphony Pro presents another set of challenges. Vertical and horizontal scrolling are nice and smooth while navigating the score, and users can choose infinite horizontal scroll, infinite vertical scroll with regularly spaced systems, and print layout. Viewing the print layout is marked “Legacy”, indicating that it will be removed. This is baffling for an application that presents so many print-focused features, such as parts, page size, margins, staff size, and more.
Knowing where pages begin and end is crucial to presenting useable materials to performers. While there are some missing controls for print, handling parts at all and offering some page settings both set Symphony Pro apart from its mobile competition. Often, mobile apps assume that users creating scores on tablets will use those same tablets to distribute and perform their work.
Despite some misgivings about the page formatting, export from Symphony Pro is another area where it really shines. Tapping the standard share icon (square with up arrow) brings up a menu which allows the user to select a format—MusicXML, MIDI, m4a audio, a number of PDF configurations — and a destination. Destinations include e-mail and AirPrint, as well as the catch-all Send To, which allows a user to select any option on the iOS Share Sheet, including any app that can handle XML, MIDI, or PDF files. This could include other music apps that can import MIDI files to drive synths, or PDF apps that might be useful in markup (like PDF Expert) or performance (like forScore). This is a seemingly small concern, but I appreciate iOS apps which take advantage of the tools Apple has provided to allow them to interoperate with other apps.
I opened an exported MusicXML file from Symphony Pro in both Sibelius and Dorico, and both handled it nicely. It seems Symphony Pro includes some extra metadata that may need some cleaning up around clef, key signature, and meter changes. Other than that, every symbol from Symphony Pro came over accurately.
Thankfully, the engraving issues and most of the notation issues I discussed above will not will not follow a Symphony Pro-created score into a desktop application. Notably, Dorico’s import defaults did a lot of heavy lifting to clean up some of the rhythm notation problems (like whole-bar rests) that Symphony Pro created. Sibelius, on the other hand, seemed to take the MusicXML data more literally, and it would have required a bit more manual cleanup or fiddling with import settings, but it still does fix most of the shortcomings. In either case, I think that even though Symphony Pro isn’t ready to replace a desktop app in my workflow, it may find a place as a mobile scratchpad.
The “Pro” in Symphony Pro
I invited Philip Lee of Xenon Labs to comment on how he positions Symphony Pro in the context of professional users and powerful desktop scoring applications, and only received his comment after publication. Here is some of what he shared:
This product and business plan involve different reasons and perspectives: market constraints imposed by the mobile platform prevent from staying competitive given prices typical of software on traditional platforms; in an entirely different view, designing for a touch & stylus interface involves different UX approaches, not to mention software libraries supplied by Apple.
Though we really wanted to bring a worthy, differentiated competitor into the desktop ecosystem as to give our pro userbase a full-fledged partner app, … constraints definitely kept the company small, and the app limited to iPad/iPad Pro. That isn’t to say that SP may be brought to Mac or other platforms in the near future, to accommodate the many who’ve requested viewing/playback capabilities.
Given the design and polish that amounted over the years, it’s certain to me, with the agreement of my advisor, Daniel Wyman, that professional users are buying the app as a bargain at its current discount price. The layout & behavior of SP’s toolbar, context menus, and gestures for touch were deliberate decisions to allow a good user experience across a variety of user backgrounds in a single product, in breadth and depth.
I can’t argue with any of that. Given the thoughtful layout, controls, and hardware compatibility, Symphony Pro 5 with the Apple Pencil support is a steal at $25.
As just mentioned, Symphony Pro’s price is very reasonable; $15 for new users, and $10 for handwriting recognition as an additional in-app purchase. In addition, all of the items in the Version 4 Complete Features Bundle are available to Symphony 5 Pro users as a free in-app purchase.
Regrettably, the user is reminded of this every time a formerly paid feature is used, even when the premium features are unlocked. A modal dialog that interrupts your work to tell you that a feature “was previously part of the Version 4 Complete Bundle. This IAP is now offered free in Version 5. Write us a good review!” This is notably contrary to Apple’s review guidelines which were originally announced over the summer. I understand that the App Store is rough and competitive for developers and that good star ratings can make or break all the work that goes into creating good software. That doesn’t excuse the constant interruptions from an application that is so professional that it has “Pro” in its name.
Admittedly, it is completely unfair to hold a sub-$50 mobile application created by a small startup to the same standards as products created by multi-million-dollar corporate development studios employing teams that represent collective centuries worth of experience. While Symphony Pro 5 makes great strides for power users with uniquely thoughtful Apple Pencil support, keyboard shortcuts, MIDI input, typography, and user interface design, it falls down in some of the same ways as every other scoring app on the platform: it simply can’t make scores that I would be proud to put my name on. Sadly, I am beginning to think that we won’t see that app until Steinberg, MakeMusic, or Avid decides that it’s worth their investment. Symphony Pro’s namesake professional users will best use the app to augment, rather than replace, any part of their current workflow.
These complaints are sometimes nitpicky and thankfully rare, and the things that Symphony Pro 5 does well, it does very well. I would go so far as to say that the things it does well, it does better than any other iOS notation application. However, for an iOS notation app to be a true replacement for one of the major Windows or macOS tools, it needs to support the same level of control over the final output. Symphony Pro is not that application, but I think it has some of the right ideas. I hope that the current, highly competitive Cambrian explosion of iOS music applications can push all of them toward that goal.