Steinberg’s Dorico 3

Mike Lawson • Technology • November 1, 2019

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The latest version of Dorico, Steinberg’s professional engraving program, has been released, and it includes an impressive list of new features and improvements.

The new version adds the last few missing features, such as guitar notation and harp pedal support, and goes further with some new features that leapfrog the competition. It’s now a full-featured program that should meet the needs of all but the most specialized users.

The Basics

Dorico sports a unique single-window design that divides the engraving process into five distinct modes: setup, write, engrave, play, and print. Tools surround the workspace on both sides, and a contextual Properties panel is at the bottom. You’ll spend most of your time in write and engrave modes. Single-key shortcuts for note entry are organized logically on the keyboard, and most other entries are entered using popovers with easily remembered shortcuts. The engraving and layout tools rival desktop publishing software, and as one might expect, the printed output is excellent. If you’re coming from another program, it takes a little getting used to, but considering the scope of the program, the learning curve is surprisingly short.

The Condensed Version

There is a bevy of new features, but the one that has created the most buzz is the ability to create condensed scores intelligently. Simply select the condensing option from the menu, and Dorico identifies phrases and automatically combines like-instruments onto a single staff using one of three methods–unison, single stem, multi-voice–to do it. When it works, as with standard orchestral scores, it’s quite impressive. However, it does have some limitations.

At present, it condenses the entire score, and other than creating custom instrument groups, you cannot override the choices Dorico makes, and as is wont to happen when programs attempt to do too much for you, it makes mistakes. A Mozart symphony condensed beautifully, but when I attempted to condense a big band score, the results were less than optimal. I’m confident there will be more flexibility and improved algorithms in future releases, but for now, it’s a bit of wait and see.

A related function is of much more immediate use. Notation programs have long been able to “explode” music (i.e., separate the notes of chords onto single staves), but it’s an editing function and tended to be a bit messy. Dorico now does it during note entry. Instant sax solis and tutti sections! The only caveat is when voices converge to unison, such that there are fewer notes than staves, Dorico places the unique notes in the top voices and doubles the bottom note in the remaining staves. Not a problem for sax solis, but more traditional voice leading may require some editing.

Guitar Hero

On the top of the list of requested features is complete support for guitar notation. Version 3 adds support for fingerings and string IDs, tablature, bends, and editable chord diagrams. They’ve done an admirable job here. Entering fingerings is similar to adding other annotations in Dorico, type shift-f to open the popover, and then enter the fingering number for the left hand or press the down arrow key to enter right-hand fingers (p, i, m, a). There are options for new playing technique and the appearance can be customized. String indicators are calculated automatically but can be overridden.

Chord diagrams are also new and again, done very well. Turn them on using a menu command and they appear automatically for all chord symbols. You can cycle through the available diagrams in the library or easily create and add your own. There are even options to exclude the root or 5th. And it’s not just for guitar – there are almost 50 instruments or tunings, ranging from uke to theorbo.

Tablature is also automatic, and you can choose to display notation or tab or both. Notes can be entered in either staff, and swapping strings is done with simple shortcuts. You can add bends, jazz articulations, and harmonics in the properties panel, though hammer-ons are a notable omission. As a guitarist, I much appreciate that Dorico identifies the dreaded unplayable chord.

Arrangers might want to turn on tab just for that. Dorico also knows how to play harmonics. Turn on harmonics in the Properties panel and move a note up or down, and Dorico indicates whether the harmonic can be played and if so, where. It presents interesting teaching possibilities for both arrangers and players. Harmonics work on all string instruments. At present, harmonics and playing techniques do not playback, but we should expect that in a future release.

One example of a nice feature that needed a little tweaking was chord symbols. In the previous version, you only needed to enter them once and then could either turn them on or off on any player and choose to display them in the score, parts, or both. But like the condensing feature, it was for the entire piece. They solved this by adding a new option to display the chords only on sections with slashes, a real time-saver, especially if you are starting the chart from a lead sheet.

Looking Smart

The last significant addition is smart harp pedaling. I’ve never actually written for harp, and I suspect it’s a relatively rare addition to most of your ensembles. But those of you who need it will appreciate Dorico’s implementation. When you enter notes into a harp part, Dorico identifies the notes that cannot be played using the current state of the pedals. You can either enter the pedaling manually using the playing technique popover or let Dorico calculate it for you. After the initial pedal state, the calculate function only displays pedal changes. The pedaling can be displayed as a diagram or with note names. It’s all so easy; I may have to try writing for harp.

No Comment Required

There’s one other addition that isn’t quite as pivotal is the Comments feature. Comments differ from text in that they don’t print. For composers, it might be used to remind yourself of something, but it also has educational value. Coupled with the new ability to combine standard text and music characters, comments are a great way to provide feedback to student composers.

…And Improved

There are significant improvements to existing features, as well. Lyric entry is now more streamlined. You can paste lyrics into the popover all at once and assign them one syllable at a time, adding melismas as needed. There is also a new edit lyric dialog box, but it can only be used to correct errors; words and hyphens cannot be added or removed. Also new is the ability to adjust the lyric baseline on a per-system basis.

I’m sure most users would agree that playback hasn’t been one of Dorico’s strengths. While the samples are fine, it still sounds like a notation program. But there are clear signs that they intend to improve this. In the previous version, they added support for NotePerformer, and now they’ve added the Olympus Micro Choir Library. While it only has oohs and ahs, it is still a significant improvement over previous vocal sounds.

While Dorico plays back notated dynamics and articulations, many were looking for more control. Play mode in Dorico resembles a sequencer piano roll editor, but it lacked most of the basic editing functions. For them, velocity editing now works. There are only pencil and line tools, but that should suffice for most needs. With the addition of condensed scores, it makes sense to be able to have different instruments play on the same staff. For example, it’s now possible to have voice 1 set to clarinet while voice 2 plays a bass clarinet.

So far, other than NotePerformer, there is no support for third party sample libraries. It’s a time-consuming process to create expression maps that enable libraries like VSL to respond to dynamics and articulations in the notated score. The updated Expression Map Editor provides improved precision, but even more important is the ability to save custom playback templates. Finally, for the jazz composers, there’s also a new adjustable swing control for either 8th or 16th notes.

What Next?

While there is still room for improvement for individual features in Dorico, for my purposes, the only standard feature still missing is user-created templates. Unlike other programs that use stationery files, Dorico stores all templates in a single musicXML file. It’s a more challenging programming problem compared to just storing files–which by the way is the obvious workaround–but hopefully one they will solve soon in an upcoming version.

An Old Beef

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I have to comment again on the copy-protection. Dorico is the first major Steinberg product that doesn’t require a dongle and instead allows software authorization. So far, so good. But I recently got a new computer at work and now leave my laptop at home. The only way to run the program on both machines requires that the software license to be transferred to a dongle. And once that is done, it can’t be moved back to a computer. More than once I forgot the dongle while writing this review.

Report Card

With this release, Dorico is now a complete professional engraving program. While it doesn’t do everything that Finale and Sibelius do, it also does things that they don’t. And most of what it does, it does better. Considering the pace of development, it’s not hard to see this becoming the top dog soon, if it’s not already. The program gets a solid A.

For those of you who have yet to check out the program, there is a 30-day free trial, and crossgrades are available from most major notation programs. For schools, Dorico Elements is a powerful and affordable option, and site licenses are available for both versions.

George Hess has been a notation software aficionado for over 30 years. He is currently a professor in the contemporary music (audio technology) program at Sunway University in Malaysia.


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