Music Tech Integration with Power-User Applications Part 1 of 2

Mike Lawson • Archives • March 13, 2008

Power-user software applications are designed to create music projects that are too complex for any single application. The secret to the power-user concept is file conversions that can be used to transfer data across different software. For the past 20 years, Standard MIDI file format was the primary tool to exchange data from one music software application to another, much like saving word processing documents in RTF file format for use in other proprietary applications. Standard MIDI files can be freely interchanged with all power-user software applications, such as notation, sequencing, and automatic accompaniment generating programs. These powerful programs can convert PDF musical score files into musical data or audio files and hand-written manuscript to a music data or audio file, create rhythm section parts in an automatic generating application, and import into a sequencer and/or notation application.

MIDI files don’t retain all of the file parameter properties of the original document. For example, Standard MIDI files will not retain text, articulations, dynamics, title, or phrasing marks; they’ll only retain notes, rhythms, ties, key signatures, and time signatures. In order to compensate for the diminished data, users have to take the time and energy to reenter all the missing information in the new file format.

Fortunately, there is a new file format for PC called MusicXML by Recordare Music [ ] that allows users to retain just about all of the original file parameters. The MusicXML format was originally designed as an interchange format between different music notation applications running on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux systems. It is a utility program that can be used to open data files in different software applications even if the original data file is in a proprietary file format. This means data files can be moved between notation, sequencing, and scanning programs without losing the data that would normally disappear a Standard MIDI file format. Presently, there are over 85 applications supported by the MusicXML format, including: notation programs such as Finale, Sibelius, and Capella; scanning programs such as four of the SmartScore scanning applications, PhotoScore Ultimate 5, SharpEye Music Reader and Capella-Scan; PDF and MIDI music acquisition programs such as PDFtoMusic Pro and Notation Composer; and electronic music stands for organ and piano such as OrganMuse and MuseBook Score. This combined support makes MusicXML far and away the most widely adopted music notation format since MIDI.

One downside of MusicXML files is that they have historically been very large. However, version 2.0 adds a compressed format that reduces their file size by about 20 times, making them similar in size to corresponding MIDI files. The compressed format also allows multimedia content to be distributed with digital sheet music. There are 95 new features in version 2.0 including enhancements to capture the full appearance of a musical score. For example, both Recordare’s Dolet version 4 plug-in for Finale and Sibelius’ newly released version 5.1 support the new MusicXML 2.0 format.

To better understand the power and convenience of MusicXML, there is an online video that shows how to use Dolet 3 for Sibelius to transfer files from Sibelius to Finale, and contrasts this new file format with MIDI. The high-resolution tutorial can be found at:

Music Suite Superiority
Another avenue to explore with power-user file interchanging is the music suite concept pioneered by Australian company Datasonics [ ] for the past 15 years. Their applications are now exclusively distributed in the USA, Canada, and Mexico by Alfred Publishing, and they also come with North American technical support. Datasonics’ Mastering Music is the most comprehensive integrated single product notation/sequencer application on the market, with six different sequencing editors to fine tune a notation composition, more than 400 lessons mapped to all aspects of the music curriculum, and 75 how-to video tutorials. What makes these lessons and tutorials so powerful is that they are all built inside one application. Users work on a composition seamlessly between notation and sequencing scores while implementing the tutorial instead of just passively observing the techniques.

Consider the following advantages of a Mastering Music score over a traditional MIDI/digital audio sequencer or notation application. It allows users to edit a notation file in detail with six different sequencing editors including global, drum, keyboard, mix-down, tempo, and event editors. It is also possible with these six editors to enhance a standard MIDI file with far more performance parameters. The notation is automatically displayed, in addition to automated vertical placement of tracks in a conductor score. Unlimited audio tracks can be recorded in total synchronization with the unlimited MIDI tracks. MIDI tracks can be converted into audio tracks then exported as a stereo audio wave file, which can then be burned to a CD. Film clips can be synced to music and edited in both real and step time.

In addition, Mastering Music opens up Standard MIDI files with more clarity and parameters than most notation software applications, so the files won’t require as much editing. It can also open Band-In-A-Box files with good rhythm section parts and the drums parts displayed in either concert pitch (for editing) or in standard percussion notation with the correct notes and head types for percussionists and drummers. Perhaps the best part for music educators is that Mastering Music has only one interface to harness the power of both notation and sequencing applications. Plus, Mastering Music has the capability to create original lessons because it is really six applications in one: notation, MIDI sequencing, digital audio sequencing, film scoring, music theory, and ear training. Mastering Music is a true power-user application.

Another Standard MIDI File Alternative
Looking for another Standard MIDI file alternative? Consider Notation Composer by Notation Software, Inc. ( ), which has excellent MIDI-to-notation capabilities. It imports MIDI files in both format 0 and 1 equally well, and has very good interpretation of the MIDI events into notation, especially in terms of note lengths and positions, and the split point for keyboards. It also has very good interpretation of real-time performance, which minimizes post-editing for printing. Notation Composer’s editing tools fall into two categories notation editing and MIDI editing and the tools overlap. This overlapping of notation editing and MIDI editing is central to Notation Composer’s overall strength.

On the notation side, the notation editing tools are uniformly presented in the user interface. Most are also accessible via palette buttons, menus, and keyboard shortcuts. It’s relatively easy to navigate through a visual, three-level hierarchy of tabs and palettes to find the type of object to add. Then users can just point and click in Add Mode.

On the MIDI side, Notation Composer highly integrates MIDI with notation by graphically displaying the MIDI data on top of the notation. The best example is with piano rolls. Three years ago, Notation Composer was the first program to display piano notation on top of notes, and is still one of few programs that does this. It’s visually delightful to see and quite informative. When you hear some extra swing added to notes, you can clearly see it in the piano roll rectangles. Notation Composer displays individual note velocity vectors drawn out of each note head. If the melody is in the top notes of the right-hand piano staff, longer velocity vectors are drawn for those notes. Notation Composer also overlays MIDI graphs for track volume level, tempo, pitch bend, and controls. MIDI graphs can easily be edited with line drawing tools or keyboard shortcuts. Notation Composer also exports Music XML, making it compatible with well-known notation programs, and comes with a 635-page manual for whose who want to learn every last nuance of the program.

More Power-User Application Options
Band-In-A-Box [ ] is an automatic accompaniment generator for PC and Mac. It is an excellent bridge between notation and sequencer applications capable of producing authentic sounding rhythm section parts. And it’s perhaps the most fun, intuitive, creative software you will ever use. Band -In-A-Box’s strongest power-user feature is that it can create authentic rhythm section parts for both notation and sequencing software applications so you don’t have to be a rhythm section specialist to add professional rhythm section parts to your music scores. In addition, data can be exported via Standard MIDI files into notation or sequencing applications. Band-In-A-Box offers a smooth transition to Web pages with audio and/or MIDI file playback and practice accompaniments. It burns copyright-free CDs, creates improvised solos, harmonized melodies and automatic rhythm section accompaniments for compositions.

SmartMusic is an interactive, intelligent accompaniment and performance assessment system by MakeMusic, the creators of Finale. Converting Finale notation files to SmartMusic practice accompaniments is a great example of using two or more applications to produce a superior product customized for a specific need. Inputting the score into Finale has never been easier now that music scanning has matured to a level of extreme accuracy and convenience.

For those not yet into scanning, MakeMusic provides over 1,000 large ensemble charts to assist teaching, practicing, assessing, and recording individual parts at any tempo and key. Finale and SmartMusic are powerful power-user applications that can be used to provide enticing exercises for creative, structured practice with looping, recording and assessment.

Have you heard the story of the band director in Kentucky who used SmartMusic accompaniments? He entered his marching band charts into Finale and saved them as SmartMusic accompaniments, and then opened them in SmartMusic. Because every student in his band had a SmartMusic subscription, they could all practice at home with the full marching band. This process helped boost them to the state marching championship. SmartMusic was the only addition to their curriculum, and there were no other changes from the previous year’s state contest. An interesting side note is that this band out-performed the incumbent band that had won the Kentucky State Marching Band Championship for 13 consecutive years.

Closing Comments
Music technology will never be the same with the arrival of power-user applications. More outstanding power-user applications will be covered in part 2.

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