Steinberg Does Jazz

Mike Lawson • Technology • January 10, 2019

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Jazz has always been something of an afterthought in music technology. Other than programs like Band in a Box, support for jazz notation and performance practices has been somewhat limited and often required jazz composers to resort to convoluted workarounds.

So, it’s heartening to see two Steinberg updates focus on the needs of jazz musicians.

The Write Way

Some of you may have read my previous review of Dorico. At the time, Steinberg had taken the unusual path of releasing software that was missing many basic features. It was a risky idea, but it appears to have worked out reasonably well. My original conclusion was that the program had plenty of potential, but it wasn’t usable just yet, especially for those of us who write jazz and popular music. Considering how many notation programs of great potential have come and gone over the years, I thought a “wait and see” attitude was prudent.

The Dorico team understood this, and they’ve been aggressively updating the program over the last two years adding many of the features that were initially omitted. As with the first release, each new feature is implemented exceptionally well. What has become clear is that Dorico is combining both power and ease of use into one program. It’s also clear that Steinberg is committed to supporting the program.

As a jazz composer/arranger, I appreciate both the attention to my needs and how well they have implemented them.

Each of the incremental updates has added significant features for jazz. In fact, while writing this article, a new update (v. 2.2) was released that includes swing playback adding jazz articulations.

From Steinberg – “Dorico 2.0 introduced a suite of features aimed at helping composers, orchestrators, and copyists working in media music for film, TV, and games, including support for composing to picture, timecode, markers, MIDI controller automation, and more. Dorico 2.2 adds further MIDI-centric features for media musicians, including real-time MIDI recording, improved MIDI transcription, and import and export of tempo tracks from and to MIDI files. The 2.2 update has many other new features and capabilities such as enhanced trills, a dialog for editing the appearance of musical symbols, and many workflow improvements for key commands.”

Key features of Dorico

• Easy note input

• Intelligently adjusts notation as it is written

• Any number of movements or pieces in a single project

• Automatic layout of instrumental parts, including unique linked cues

• 1,500 playback sounds included

• Supports VST 3 virtual instruments and effects processors (30 included)

• Sequencer-style piano roll MIDI editor

• Desktop publishing page layout

• Chord symbols, unpitched percussion and drum set notation

• Unbarred music, tuplets across barlines, microtonality, etc. all handled correctly — no workarounds

• Transfer to and from other programs via MusicXML, MIDI, PDF, etc.

Leading the Way

The first essential improvements were to add chords symbols and repeat endings, which made lead sheets a reality. The way chord symbols were implemented is typical of how Dorico is extending standard functions. There’s no need to create your own chord symbols as the library includes virtually any style that you can imagine. You can type chords directly into the score, but you can also play them in using the MIDI keyboard. Sure, other notation programs can do this too, but most require you to play a basic version of the chord, which then plays back using block voicings. In Dorico, you play the voicing you want, and it then identifies even the most complex chord remarkably well. If it doesn’t get it right, just restrike the root after entering the chord and it will. Better yet, it will play back the voicings precisely as you entered them. There’s even more, like entering chords on one staff and being able to toggle them on and off on any other staff. No copy and paste required.

The next major update included percussion notation including drum set notation. While certainly needed, it’s not of particular importance to jazz composers, who usually don’t write out drum parts. But it is essential and can be quite useful for playback purposes.

Cues were also added uniquely. Cues are dynamically linked to their source and can also be displayed as rhythmic cues, all on one pitch. I was initially quite excited about this, but oddly enough, they don’t work with drum parts, which is primarily where jazz arrangers would use them. I hate to mention the dreaded workaround, but there is one that’s pretty easy, requiring the use of any treble clef instrument, rather than a drum set. But don’t fret as this is something that will be taken care of soon.

We Want Slashes

Version two was when Dorico truly became a viable option for jazz composers. The most important new addition was slash notation. Select a region and create a slash region using menus or shortcuts. One very cool trick is to enter notes and then create a slash region on top of it. The notes are hidden, yet still play back. This works quite well when coupled with the drum notation as mentioned above, or bass lines.

The program also supports stemmed rhythmic notation. Whereas slashes are considered repeats, rhythmic notation is a part of note entry. You can set an entire staff to rhythmic slashes with one command or select individual note heads. Also included in v.2 was bar repeats. As usual, Dorico goes adds to the standard, including automatic numbering and the ability to combine any number of measures under the repeat.

The new Petaluma handwritten style font is another welcome addition. This font is modeled after the font in the Sher editions of the New Real Book and is already my favorite handwritten font. As with Bravura, it’s a SMuFL (Standard Music Font Layout) font and is available to use with any program. I particularly appreciate the slightly oversized note heads as well as the clean, distinctive text.

Playback is much improved, and along with swing playback, now any MIDI controller can be edited to add expression and realism to the performance using the graphic automation editor “rubber bands” like those found in sequencers. There is also support for Note Performer, a third-party orchestral library that previously only worked with Sibelius.

And while not specifically jazz, the new video features are something many composers will appreciate. They include the usual sync and markers features, but also has a feature that I’ve only seen previously in Digital Performer; the ability to automatically find tempi that will catch the majority of your hits.

Missing in Action

While Dorico has matured rapidly, there is still some work to be done. Aside from drum cues, the other major omission is a comprehensive library of jazz articulations and techniques.

While I have no doubt that these will soon be implemented exceptionally well, there is a solution. The new Playing Technique editor provides the ability to edit and create text and glyph playing techniques. The result is that many of the things, particularly jazz articulations, that have yet to be fully implemented, are now relatively easy to create. In just a minute or so I created a trumpet fall that plays back and could easily create a nice collection of techniques in under an hour.

So what else is missing? Text repeats like D.S and Codas still don’t playback. Other than that, with the few workarounds I’ve mentioned, Dorico is a pretty complete package for the jazz composer.

Groovy Drums

Steinberg has also released an expansion library to its Groove Agent drum program called Modern Jazz Essentials. For those not familiar with Groove Agent, it’s similar to most drum machine programs on the market with a standard drum pad interface. There are 8 groups of 16 pads for both patterns and individual drum hits. Previously, it was purely electronic, but the recent update now includes acoustic drum kits and patterns in various styles. The key word for this package is modern. You won’t find basic four on the floor swing grooves here. These are complex, modern jazz beats that work as both swing and straight grooves.

This expansion includes 10 grooves that use one of three drumkits that contain five or six drums, five cymbals, hi-hat, tambourine, and hand clap. Each of the drumkits includes two different kicks and snares with controls for tuning and envelopes. The controls for room and overhead mics are a little different in they control how close the mics are, rather than the volume as in the mixer.

You can play the kits yourself or use the included patterns. Each groove has eight main patterns, eight fills, four intros and four endings that can be triggered by one of the pads or a MIDI keyboard. Straight out of the box, I found these to be too busy.

Fortunately, you have a lot of control. The edit window includes an X-Y axis control for dynamics and complexity. For the most part, I preferred them a the lower half of both axes. There’s also a swing control that works quite well for many, but not all of the grooves. Other options include an AutoComplexity button that varies the X-axis and an AutoFill button that adds fills at specified intervals. There are also options for various cymbals. The built-in mixer includes groups and individual drums along with the room and overhead mics and a full collection of built-in effects. If you prefer, you can also route each drum to a separate output and use your own effects.

The program integrated easily with both Cubase and Logic. It also works as a sound set in Dorico, but I wasn’t able to trigger the patterns. This would work great under slash regions, so I hope they are able to make that work in the future. This is a fun library of grooves and kits with a lot of flexibility and owners of Groove Agent will find it a welcome addition to their collection. The one downside that it only works with the full version of Groove Agent. It would be hard to justify the price of both it and the expansion pack just to have this library.

An Educated View

With these latest updates, Dorico is pretty much a complete package, regardless of the type of music you write. Yes, there’s still some work to be done, but the omissions are few, and the rate at which updates are coming suggest most will be addressed sooner rather than later.

For those considering making the switch, be aware that there is a learning curve as Dorico isn’t just a clone of existing programs and often requires a different way of thinking. But in the end, it will be worth it. Dorico is clearly interested in the educational market as the crossgrade price is reasonable and the new Dorico Elements provides an entry-level version that is more affordable. Groove Agent and the Modern Jazz Expansion packs are an excellent option if you are in the market for a high-end drum program. Working with the grooves was a lot of fun, and there really isn’t anything else like it on the market.

But it will be of limited use for educational purposes as it doesn’t integrate completely with Dorico, Groove Agent SE included with Cubase doesn’t support expansion packs, and there’s always the issue of the hardware dongle required for copy protection.

It’s encouraging to see a major software publisher supporting jazz at such a high level and Steinberg deserves kudos for taking the lead. Perhaps if we’re lucky, other publishers will decide to follow suit.

Dorico 2.2 is available immediately as a free update for existing Dorico Pro 2 and Dorico Elements 2 users, and new customers buying Dorico for the first time will automatically receive Dorico 2.2 when they install. Dorico is available from local resellers or directly from the Steinberg Online Shop. The suggested retail price is $559.99. Students and teachers can purchase Dorico at the discounted suggested retail price of $349.99. Users of Finale and Sibelius can buy a Dorico cross-grade at the special suggested retail price of $279.99, and a further educational discount is available for students and teachers, allowing them to buy Dorico for just $179.99.

Dr. George Hess has been using and teaching music technology for over 25 years. He is currently associate professor of music at Sunway University in Malaysia.




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