A preliminary comparison of Notion and Symphony Pro

This morning, Notion Music released Notion for the iPad, at a special price of $0.99 though December 21st.  Before you go any further, stop right now and buy it–then come back and finish reading this post.  Notion Music has been a “smaller player” in the field of music notation, specializing in quality audio samples versus what you find with either Sibelius or Finale (although some of the newer sounds available in Finale 2012 or Sibelius 7, or add-on sound purchases for Finale or Sibelius, greatly enhance the playback of those programs, albeit at a higher cost).  Notion Music has had one other entry into the world of iOS, creating a Guitar Tab program called Progression, which has been favorably received (both a free version and a $4.99 version is available).  Notion will “normally” cost $14.99 (still a good bargain) and has add-on sounds available–you can buy the entire sound kit for $30, or individual sounds for $0.99.  Many users will not need these additional sounds–or they can buy the ones they need.

Notion for iPad Splash Screen

In January 2011, Xenon Labs released Symphony Pro, and was the first true notation program for the iPad.  I’ve reviewed Symphony Pro in the past, and several updates have been released over the year with another due in December 2011 or early January 2012.  Symphony Pro is $14.99, although when Symphony Pro v. 2.0 was released, there was a special $2.99 sale for a period of time.

Symphony Pro Splash Screen

How do these programs compare?  To compare the apps, I imported a Finale-generated MusicXML file of Handel’s For Unto Us from the Messiah that I prepared for my students.

Data Entry: Notion relies on a piano keyboard for note entry, and all menus are cemented at the bottom of the page.  The iPad has limited real estate from the start, so at times I wish I could toggle those menus off of the screen when I didn’t want the menus on the screen.  In general, I prefer the format of Symphony Pro, which allows for two-handed data entry (note values with left hand, pitches with the right)–plus there are ways to enter data with a cursor without the piano keyboard on the bottom of the screen.  That said, Notion adds a number of diacritical markings and other musical features that Symphony Pro does not have.

Notion for iPad Interface, Portrait Mode

Symphony Pro for iPad, Landscape Mode

Choral Use: Notion 1.0 doesn’t allow for lyrics–but it CAN import lyrics.  If you write a song with lyrics using another program (e.g. Finale, MuseScore, Sibelius) that has the ability to export MusicXML files, you can import (but not edit) those lyrics in Notion.  Symphony Pro does allow the creation and editing of lyrics.  At the moment, neither Notion nor Symphony Pro have a “preset” voice parts for entry into a score, although you can certainly use another instrument to musically add those parts to the score (you have to manually change the name of the staff from the instrument to “Soprano” and so on).  Notion was able to import the tenor treble clef from my music XML file of For Unto Us, although you cannot create a tenor treble clef in Notion at this time.  Currently Symphony Pro does not have the ability to import or create a tenor treble clef.

Notion for iPad, Landscape Mode.

Symphony Pro in Portrait Mode: Music Reading Mode

Sounds: I thought that Symphony Pro had great sounds…and it does.  Notion has better sounds, but sounds are their their specialty (samples from the London Philharmonic Orchestra).  The odd part is that you cannot export the audio from a Notion score, whereas you can with Symphony Pro.  Hopefully this will be added as a feature to Notion in the future.  I can see writing something in Finale specifically with the intent to export it to Notion for iPad to create an audio file–the sounds are that good.  Really.  For the record, Symphony Pro 2.2 crashes during the playback of For Unto Us, whereas Notion played all the way through the file.  Notion also has a easy-to-access mixer, which would be great for creating rehearsal files (bringing up one part, and muting or reducing the volume of other parts), and is again a nod to the company’s focus on quality songs.  As far as I can tell, neither app allows for “swung” playback at this time.

Appearance of Score: Symphony Pro’s “style” or “musical font” has always been of a lower quality than the full-blown programs like Sibelius or Finale.  At the same time, the notation on Symphony Pro is certainly legible.  Notion’s “style” reflects what you would expect in terms of quality from Sibelius or Finale.  That said, the actual output from either Symphony Pro or Notion–at this point–isn’t something that you’re really going to want to use.  With my sample file of For Unto Us, Notion creates a file that is 29 pages long, whereas Symphony Pro creates a version that is 47 pages long (I’ve used a Mac program called PDF Shrink to make these files smaller and optimized for the iPad).  You can see both of these resulting files by clicking the links below.  You do have some  ability in Symphony Pro to adjust the number of measures per staff line, and Notion currently does not allow any customization of the score.  For comparison, I’ve also added a Finale version of the MusicXML file I created (14 pages).  Remember that Finale can do things such as hide staves and change the size of staff systems.  Remember that I created this Finale file as a rehearsal tool, so in some cases the piano part crosses voices, where if I was publishing the document, I would fix those errors.  The Finale-generated file is naturally smaller (274KB) than the iPad-created apps (Notion was originally 311KB and Symphony Pro 12.6MB before using PDF Shrink [246KB and 4.3MB afterwards).  The large size of the Symphony Pro file could be problematic with some e-mail services.

Symphony Pro Export of For Unto Us a Child is Born

Notion for iPad Export of For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Finale Export of For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Export & Import: Both apps can export as PDF, MIDI, and MusicXML files.  In general, whatever you create on one of these apps can be pulled into any other app–or each other!  Both apps also import MIDI and MusicXML files, and Symphony Pro has a very basic, almost beta, music scanning feature (It’s not a reason to buy the app, but it’s a nice thing to at least work with).  If you have Finale or Sibelius, you can work with either of these apps (If you have an older version of Sibelius, the MusicXML Dolet is now free from MakeMusic/Recrodare).  Neither Notion nor Symphony Pro has direct Dropbox integration at this time.

Summary: If you are a composer, neither of these programs is going to replace your full-blown version of Finale or Sibelius.  However, either app would be great for situations where you wanted to compose (digitally) without bringing a computer.

In terms of education, either of these apps is an ideal answer to providing a mobile music composition lab in any classroom.  Notion will require familiarity with the piano keyboard, Symphony Pro will allow you to enter notes by touch without using the keyboard.  In my opinion, either app is better option than Finale Notepad, which sells for $9.99 (Sibelius doesn’t have a similar low-priced entry-level app).  Really, what more does your Beginning Music Theory, Choir Student, Band Student, Orchestra Student, or AP Music Theory Student need? (Your guitar students probably need Progression for iPad more than Notion or Symphony Pro).

Notion for iPad brings a fully functioning (I haven’t been able to make it crash so far) notation app to the iPad with outstanding sounds and a wide variety of diacritical markings.  It is lacking the ability to export audio from the app, some specialty staves, “presets” for voices, lyrics, and swung playback.  Notion brings a a large number of resources to the iOS playing field, and it’s nice to have another option in the field of music notation on the iPad.  There are no such programs available for Android or WebOS devices.  This iPad app may be a gateway for some users to purchase the “computer” version of Notion3 ($249).  It might be a great marketing tool, just as iPods, iPhones, and iPads lead many consumers to eventually purchase MacBooks.

Symphony Pro has a pending update, but be aware that 2.2 can crash from time to time.  Unlike Notion, Symphony Pro began as an iPhone app (Symphony).  The developers have been highly active in responding to user questions, problems, and concerns both via e-mail and on their forum.  I like the interface of Symphony Pro, and when it works, it works very well.  The app is adding features with each update, and it is maturing into a solid program.  There are a number of features which still need to be added to Symphony Pro (e.g. more diacritical markings, swung playback, vocal parts, tenor treble clef), and the program can be buggy.  But again, 2.3 is right around the corner.

Which app do I want to succeed?  Both.  With 30,000,000 iPads on the market, there’s enough consumers to support both apps.  I see the need for both Finale and Sibelius (Although I think that at some point there will be one app called Fibelius).  I also see the need for “newer” desktop programs, such as Notion 3.  Competition can help drive innovation and quality improvement.

As a music educator accustomed to paying over $100 each year just to upgrade Finale, I’m not bothered at all by iPad music composition apps that cost $14.99.  I know that $14.99 is a hefty price for consumers that are used to apps for $0.99 or $4.99.  But for the category of app compared to price on other platforms, $14.99 is a great price for either Notion or Symphpny Pro.

At $0.99, Notion is a bargain, and they’ll quickly develop a customer base.  If you miss the sale, I wouldn’t expect $0.99 again–but apps go on sale from time to time.  If you’re a music-techie, like I am, you’ll want both, just out of curiosity of how they develop in the months to come.  One thing is certain: neither app will remain the same (they will keep improving).

And this leads to one final question: will Notion’s entry into the iOS market cause Avid Sibelius (which currently offers Avid Scorch as a reader) or MakeMusic Finale (which currently offers SmartMusic Inbox) to go all-in with notation for the iPad?

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