Dorico 3.5 – Innovation in Notation

SBO Staff • August/September 2020Tech Review • August 19, 2020

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Steinberg’s music notation program, Dorico, has a fascinating history. From the outset, there were rumors and conjectures about what to expect from this new product, followed by an initial release that was clearly incomplete, leaving many to wonder if and when we would see a fully functional program. The questions were quickly put to rest as the Dorico team embarked on one of the most aggressive development programs that I can recall. With each new version, they addressed the needs of a particular set of users. The first were the engravers, which, of course, is their primary market. This was followed by a slew of features for the jazz composer and arranger. And now, with version 3.5, it appears that their focus has turned towards educators.

An Educated View

As an educator, my needs are quite different from those of professional engravers. While I compose and arrange for ensembles, I also need to be able to create worksheets, handouts, and even articles and books each with a combination of notation, graphics, and text. There have been two main ways to do this. One is to create it entirely in the notation program, which requires a bit of a brute force method that never quite produces the results you want. The other was to export notation examples and design the layout using a desktop publishing or graphic editing program.

It’s Academic

Dorico has always had the potential for academic work. The concept of frames and flows made creating pages with unique layouts and combinations of notation, text, and graphics relatively easy. But there were a few too many limitations. The latest version has added the features we need to make this a reality.

The addition of figured bass was essential for those who teach harmony and as we’ve come to expect, Dorico implements it in a simple, intelligent manner. As with most entries other than notes, you enter figured bass using pop-ups. Type the shortcut, shift-G, type the figured bass numbers, and Dorico automatically formats it and places it in the correct location. There are no complicated key combinations to remember, just type the numbers–in any order!– and use # or b for raised or lowered notes. But it gets better. Dorico can identify the chord, and if you change the bass note, it will automatically adjust the figured bass to maintain the same harmony. And that’s not all. Type a chord name, like Dmin, into the popover, and Dorico displays the correct figured bass automatically. Music theory classes will never be the same.

One feature that I must admit I overlooked in version 3.1 was the addition of a variety of horizontal and vertical line styles. These were nice but were mainly geared to engraving. Now with the addition of the Line Editor, you can customize the lines or even create your own. The options seem almost infinite, and you can easily place text or musical symbols within the line. Instantly these become useful for analysis and other instructional purposes. Lines are attached to notes, barlines, or rhythmic positions. My only wish is for them to be available independent of a staff or notes.

Adding blank staves to a frame is another new feature that will be great for worksheets. Blank staves? It’s a little hard to believe that this wasn’t always a thing, but yes, it’s new in version 3.5, and it’s a welcome addition. You can now provide a blank staff for student answers, and can finally create your own staff paper, too. Related to this is the ability to fill a part with blank staves at the end in what Dorico calls “Hollywood part style.”

Export Duty

While Dorico now makes it possible to create your work entirely within the program, sometimes we only need a few music examples for an article, and it makes more sense to import them as graphics into the word processor. For that instance, Dorico has added a new graphic export function, Graphic Slices. Slices export as PDF, PNG, TIFF, or SVG formats and can be in mono or color. As usual, they go one better, as you can easily adjust a selection after drawing the initial frame. They’ve added a nice touch by letting you save the file with a single click.

Some Goodies for Composers 

Way back when I first learned Finale (v.1), the best method for entering notes was where you chose the pitch first, and notes were entered when a duration key was pressed. It tends to be a better option for composing as you can experiment a little before entering the note in the score. Gradually, the opposite became the default in most programs, which works well for engraving. The note-first option is now available in Dorico. Dots and articulations can be entered afterward, too.

A welcome addition for composers writing for school jazz ensembles is the ability to display all of the chord diagrams used in a piece at the beginning or end of a part or score. This is great for helping a student learn the chords needed in the piece.

There’s one more feature that composers will find useful. You can now create multiple versions of the same part with different clefs and transpositions. This will be great for creating custom arrangements for school ensembles that have non-standard instrumentation.

The Play’s the Thing

There are two primary types of music creation programs. Notation programs focus on the printed page, and digital audio workstations (DAW) are primarily for recording. While, to some extent, each can do what the other can, the results were never close to that of the dedicated program. Even though the playback quality of notation software has improved over the years, if you want to produce a truly musical performance, you need to use the DAW.

Dorico has been making progress in this area. The Play section includes a sequencer-style editor that allows you to edit note lengths, velocity and expressive controllers independent of the notation. As anyone who has created convincing playback of virtual instruments knows, it’s incredibly time-consuming. Expression Maps can make this a little easier by automatically assigning playback parameters to notated performance techniques. Dorico’s new Expression Map editor is easy enough to use, but it still takes a considerable amount of time to set up a map for each instrument in a score. Expression maps for the built-in Halion SE library are included, but as of now, none for third party libraries. Hopefully, the Dorico community will begin sharing maps for popular sample libraries.

With all that said, I still haven’t found Dorico’s playback to be all that convincing, and I find it much easier to use a DAW to create musical performances. In this area, Dorico is heading in the right direction, but still has ways to go.

Considering Options

While I’ve been working with the program for some time now, I don’t use the program every day. As such, I still find that some things aren’t very intuitive and spend too much time hunting for them. The desire to provide maximum flexibility is laudable but, as the program grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of where the options are. For example, settings for the new figured bass tool can be found in the Layout, Engraving, and Note Input Option windows. The new search filters found in each of the Options windows help. There are two levels of search, first for the category and then again within the category. It’s an improvement, but it would be better if all options appeared, rather than just the ones in that particular window.

And Still More

There are a host of other new features and improvements to existing ones. The appearance of most items is controlled in the Properties window. These were once all global options, so moving an object or changing its appearance affected score and parts. There is now a one-click option to choose either global or local, limiting the edit to the current view.

The list goes on. Condensing scores, a revolutionary feature added in 3.1, now supports divisi and sections parts, which can be condensed in the score, but still have separate parts. You can display hidden staves in any system, which can provide a more balanced look to your score. The default location of the endpoints of slurs that span multiple systems is better, and there are improvements to beaming. Finally, importing and exporting MusicXML has also been improved.

Report Card

When Dorico was first released, many of us, myself included, thought that it should have been a pre-release beta, and it took a bit of nerve to charge for incomplete software. With the latest release, Steinberg more than makes up for it. This release is packed with enough features to easily justify a new version number along with the accompanying price tag, but instead, Steinberg has chosen to release it as a lower-priced incremental version. The initial wish list has been whittled down to almost nothing, and they are adding features we didn’t even know we needed. Dorico is now established as the leading innovator in the notation market. The program gets an A in my book.

Dorico comes in three versions, the pro version, discussed here, an entry-level Elements version, and the free Dorico SE. Crossgrades and educational pricing are available, and you can download a free trial.

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