Notion 6

Mike Lawson • ChoralTechnology • November 11, 2016

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Handles are used to adjust staves, systems and other entries.

With this new version, Notion enters the realm of professional notation programs.

Over the past 25 years or so, we’ve seen a lot of notation programs come and go. Some have been decidedly superior to the industry leaders, while others have just been different. It’s rather interesting how many players kept trying to enter such a small niche market. It’s also interesting that programs all seemed to be targeting the same audience, engravers. But the thing is, while we all want our scores to look good, most people who use notation software don’t need the exacting level of detail required by publisher and engravers.

This is where Notion comes in. Notion was created and developed by composers who personally used the program. As such it was designed for speed and ease of use, taking care of much of the detail work that gets in the way of actually creating music. Shortcuts are intuitive, and there are fewer to learn as most of Notion’s shortcuts cycle through a group of related entry items. And you never have to worry about things overlapping or not lining up. Notion handles all that.

The other thing Notion does well is playback. Even though the focus of notation software is the printed page, the focus of the notation itself is the music. Notion handles sound differently than other programs, not only by providing high-quality samples instead of a software synthesizer, but also by not using MIDI messages to control the playback. Dynamics, articulations, phrasing and other expressive marks are interpreted much more musically. The result is realizations of scores that are, well, realistic.

I became a fan of Notion while writing my book, Create Music with Notion, and now use it for most of my work. But as much as I liked the program for its speed, ease of use and playback quality, I had to admit some things were holding it back from competing with the established professional notation programs. The automation of the layout came at a price, a lack of flexibility. It was pretty much what you see is what you get. There were also basic things missing like cross-staff beaming. And some things just didn’t work correctly. But since PreSonus acquired Notion, that has all changed.

Their first release, Notion 5 took some meaningful steps, eliminating bugs and adding functions that were sorely needed. Now with the release of Notion 6 ($149, in-app purchases available), Notion is ready to join the ranks of professional notation software.

One of the biggest time savers is Notion’s automatic spacing of all items. It handles entries better than any other program, but the layout left something to be desired. The global controls let you respace the staves and systems, change the notation size, and add system breaks, but that was about it.

Notion’s automatic spacing still works great. But now most entries can be moved manually, too, the main exception being notes and slurs. Dynamics and hairpins can now be moved and adjusted. Articulations can be moved, too, though I found it quite difficult to select them individually.

Individual staves and systems can now be dragged with a mouse and bar lines can be dragged to change the width of measures. While there’s still no clear way to move measures up to the previous system, I was able to make that happen by changing the width and then linking the measures. It’s not ideal, but still an improvement from previous versions. The result is that while Notion still handles most of the layout issues for you, you can now adjust things to make them sit on the page better. It’s very fast and now very good.

Another important function for a professional notation program is the ability to import and export MusicXML. Being able to share files with other programs is a great feature for collaborating musicians. As music publishers move towards accepting scores in MusicXML format, it’s essential that a program exports the score as accurately as possible. Most notation programs handle this, but the results vary from program to program. Notion (and Notion for iPad) have always done a good job of importing musicXML files, but exporting has not been as good. Notion 6 has made some marked improvements in the accuracy of exported musicXML files. All entries imported correctly in the other three professional programs, but the layout varied. It appears Notion does not include system breaks in the exported file. Also, while Sibelius and MuseScore recognized the grouping of the score, Finale didn’t. MusicXML is an evolving standard, so it’s no surprise that there are some inconsistencies between the programs. Nonetheless, Notion’s musicXML export is much improved and functional.

The ability to write music in a notation program using a pencil has always been one of those features that gets people talking. It sounds like a cool idea, but I have to be honest, it’s not something I’ve cared much about. I stopped writing scores by hand years ago, so I’m not sure why I want to start again now. But I have to admit as I use it more, I’m warming to it.

Notion first implemented it on the iPad and now has added it to the desktop version. It takes a little getting used to, but with a little practice, it works quite well. When you turn it on, you can either begin entering directly into the score, or open a zoomed-in version of the score displayed in continuous (scroll) view in a window at the bottom of the screen. Since you can’t zoom out or change the size of the handwriting window, I’m not sure how useful this would be for larger scores. I found it just as easy to zoom into the score and enter directly there.

The recognition is pretty good. Even little scratches using a mouse or trackpad were translated into the correct notes. However, when I tried to work faster, it was less successful. I was able to draw in slurs, and articulations, but it did not recognize dynamics and hairpins.

Editing is a little tricky. I tried changing a flagged eighth note to a beam and ended up with a chord. You have to delete a wrong note first by scribbling on it as there’s no eraser. It didn’t work well with a mouse, but with a drawing tablet or Surface, it works better. You can, of course, switch to Edit mode, but without a shortcut assigned to enter Handwriting mode, that’s a little slow. All things considered, if being able to enter notes using a stylus is a feature you’ve been waiting for, it’s here.

Possibly the most significant change to Notion 6 is the integration with Studio One, PreSonus’ flagship DAW. Notion has long been the leader in supporting third-party programs with direct support for sample libraries like VSL or East/West and the easiest Rewire audio connections. Now it adds a two-way connection with Studio One that transfers MIDI or audio data, either on your computer or over a network. Just select “Send to Studio One” and choose which data to send. It will automatically create new tracks in Studio One. You can also do the same thing in Studio One and send data to Notion. I expect this to be of particular use to film and video composers. Notion makes it easy to sync music to video, and now you can create Foley and sound FX in Studio One and instantly send them to Notion. They’ve also improved the video window by adding jog/shuttle buttons.

The update also includes new instruments, including a very nice pipe organ with five different stops. Educators will especially appreciate the new ukulele and choral instruments. Text improvements include the ability to copy and paste lyrics and chord symbols that are now attached to beats instead of measures. And they’ve added a long-needed shortcut for the transpose function.

All in all, this is an essential upgrade that all current users will want. It places Notion squarely among the ranks of true professional programs, yet it remains the easiest program to learn and use. There are still some features to be added or improved, but that list is now no larger than that of any other notation program, and what it does do, it does better. Considering the price, sound quality, speed and ease of use, not to mention the excellent iPad app (sold separately), whether you’re a professional or a hobbyist, Notion 6 is a great choice for composers, educators, or students.

Dr. George Hess is an award-winning educator, guitarist, and composer/arranger. The author of Creating Music with Notion, and producer of the MuseScore in Minutes video series, he has used and taught almost every notation program since 1985. A professor at leading universities for over 25 years he teaches music technology, theory and jazz, and presents clinics and workshops throughout the world both in-person and online.

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