Symphony Pro: Music Notation for the iPad

Although there are a number of apps that I would recommend for the iPad, there are only two that are music-specific apps that I would say are “must buy” apps for the iPad: UnrealBook ($4.99) and ForScore ($4.99).  On January 7th, Xenon Labs released “Symphony Pro” for the iPad ($12.99), the first true music notation software for the iPad.  If you want the summary without reading the entire blog post, Symphony Pro joins my list of “must buy” apps for the musician.

Symphony Pro is version 1.0 software, and as such, there are a few bugs and some missing features.  As it stands, it is still a remarkably mature program that offers a great deal of functionality and a fantastic UI at an affordable price (Remember that Finale sells versions between $49 and $239 with academic pricing; Finale Notepad is $9.99).  Unlike previous reviews, this review will not be a play-by-play of the app, for two reasons.  First, the app has its own embedded manual, and second, I’m sure that the app will be revised over time, making a play-by-play review outdated and irrelevant.  Instead, I would like to highlight the features of the apps, and point out some of the bugs and missing features.

The app has two views…in portrait, it simply displays the music as completed, as if it were a PDF in a music reader.  All editing occurs in landscape mode.  Of course, you can zoom in as needed with standard iPad gestures.

The main piano entry screen for Symphony Pro

From my own blog, on March 27th, talking about the iPad, before it was released:

Now, there’s still the need for someone to step-up in a big way (and I think that company is MakeMusic, but I’ll save that for another post) and provide the following:

1) A music composition suite for the iPad, with embedded piano and playback.

2) SmartMusic for the iPad (and iPod Touch/iPhone)

3) The ability to print a PDF from the music composition suite

4) The ability to send that PDF from the iPad to someone else (I’d expect that functionality to be included somehow)

I’m just beginning to understand the impact of the iPad and how it will change how we use computers.  Just as the iPhone revolutionized the cell phone industry, the iPad will revolutionize computers.

It is now January, 2011.  Roughly ten months later, Symphony Pro has met three of the criteria I wrote about in the past: 1) a music notation suite with embedded keyboard and playback, 2) export to PDF, and 3) ability to share those PDFs.  I was wrong in expecting MakeMusic or Sibelius to release the product first–it took Xenon Labs’ three-person development team to release this app–which also made one of the only music notation apps for the iPhone (the other app was PocketScore, which has not been updated since January 14, 2010).

How did I test the app?  I took a traditional song out of the vocal literature (Caro mio ben) and entered the first page into the app.  Entering the single page took about fifteen minutes, but I was also using the app for the first time, learning as I went and reading from the included manual as necessary.  There were some things I could not do, but I was able to enter a remarkable amount of the score, mostly in a very intuitive fashion.

So how does it work?  Overall, very well.  You can enter notes with a piano keyboard (choosing the value for each note, like Finale’s Speedy Entry tool), or by choosing notes and touching the screen (like Finale Notepad).  You can choose different instruments (both for playback and composition), time signatures, key signatures, and number of voices (such as in piano scores where multiple notes occur at the same time), and overall tempo.  You can also add repeats and change the style of barlines on a piece by clicking on a measure in this mode.  If you try to enter too many notes in a measure, the app simply won’t allow you to do so (it clicks at you when you add a note you cannot actually add).  And yes, you can play more than one note at a time and enter chords.  I personally preferred the piano entry mode.

Settings screen for Symphony Pro

There is also a screen where you can add articulation markings to your music (you select a note, and choose an articulation).

Articulation screen in Symphony Pro

The app also organizes all your scores by composer on a rather detailed documents screen.  The app comes with some sample scores…however, be warned that playback does not seem to allow for “swung” notes (Take Five sounds a little strange as it is not swung).

Documents screen for Symphony Pro

In theory, Symphony Pro allows you to export files in a number of formats, including jpg, PDF, and MusicXML (See the “What’s wrong” section below).

Export screen for Symphony Pro

So, what’s missing in this app? Or, better stated, what can be added in future revisions?  For me, as a choir director, lyrics are missing.  You can enter text in the score, but MusicXML output can include lyrics.  Along with that need is a way to add staff systems that can be assigned to non-packaged parts, such as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.  In addition, advanced score navigation settings are missing (first and second endings, codas, etc.).   I missed having the tenor clef which is used by singers (looks like the treble clef with the octave designation at the bottom).  It also appeared that you cannot change keys or tempos in the middle of the piece, although it seems that you can change time signatures.  I’d also like to see Dropbox integration.  I’m sure there are a million things users would like to add, from guitar chords and tablature, to scanning (iPad 2.0).  Give the app time to develop (Finale has been around over 20 years)…it will get there.

What doesn’t work at the moment? Right now, exporting to jpg works great, but exporting to PDF or MusicXML was problematic.  The next two pics will show what I am talking about:

JPG export with Symphony Pro

PDF export from Symphony Pro

The MusicXML file I imported into Finale was just as messed up as the PDF export.  At the moment, I’d suggest saving scores as photos, importing them into a computer, and converting to a PDF (easy to do with Preview on a Mac).  I’m sure that Xenon Labs will get the export feature working like it should.  I’m also not sure why the PDF export loses the header information.  I would also like to see the note toolbars arranged vertically, from longest value to shortest value, on the left side of the screen.

Additionally, when you add staves, if you add a piano part, the program always adds a second staff…there is no way to add a single piano staff (such as if you would like to make a voice part but have it played by piano).  In the scrolling playback, the cursor isn’t always accurate with the playback.  And if you look closely in the exported JPG file above, sixteenth notes have an awfully long flag when barred together with eighth notes.  I also wasn’t sure how to enter slurs,  and I wished I could enter dots and ties easily after entering notes, without having to replace the complete note.  I still wish that apps would allow you to use the same tool for ties and slurs, playing notes as a tie when necessary, and as a slur when necessary.  Some of the articulation markings become hidden underneath a stem (although I was impressed how rests in additional voices adjusted to avoid overlap).

Importing also left some features to be desired…there should be a way to drop a MIDI file into the app from iTunes, as well as the existing ability to download a MIDI file.  I’d also allow the ability to open a MIDI file from an e-mail message directly into Symphony Pro.  Still, MIDI is such an inaccurate way to import music.  MusicXML would be a much better import method.  I imported a MIDI into Symphony Pro that was a version of “Down By the Riverside.”  Many dotted rhythms were lost in translation, and I need to find a way to keep the piano part on two staves.  So, both import and export leave a bit to be desired on Symphony Pro right now.

Please note: these items, as listed, are not major items, and all very fixable.  This is a 1.0 version of an app that works very well.  It has potential for use in education right now, and I don’t think that it will have the learning curve of a Finale or Sibelius. This app is yet another reason for music teachers and music students to consider an iPad.  The software is nearly equivalent (if not better, in some cases) than Finale Notepad, and the included piano keyboard in the app is a great idea.  Using the piano and touching the screen is much more intuitive than using a mouse or a computer keyboard.

I know that Xenon Labs isn’t done with Symphony Pro.  When I reviewed their iPhone App, I thought that app had promise, but it really was limited by the size of the device–and the company kept developing that app.  Symphony Pro doesn’t have those limitations, and to be honest, the quality of the output of the app is better than a number of scores I’ve seen on the Choral Domain Public Library (some computer generated scores look terrible).  I’m excited about this app…which is something that doesn’t happen very often.  No, you don’t get all the flexibility of Finale or Sibeluis…but to date, neither Sibelius or MakeMusic have stepped up to the plate to make a music notation app for the iPad.  So, this is your choice, if you need music notation on the iPad.  Thankfully, it’s a great start and the app will only improve in time.   In the long run, there may be no need for Finale or Sibelius for the iPad, particularly if importing and exporting improves.  In summary, if you’re a music person, and you want to write music on your iPad, get this app.  If I ever get a classroom set of iPads, this app will be on them…the possibilities for my theory class are endless!

**I forgot to mention in the core of the review that I contacted the company and asked for a review copy of the software so I could write a review on it.  Xenon Labs was willing to provide a copy of the software, and I appreciate it very much.

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