Working with StaffPad

A few weeks ago, Robby Burns contacted Paul Shimmons and I about StaffPad. StaffPad for iOS came out of the blue. What is funny is that I was up in Michigan in January for the Michigan Music Conference, and in one of my sessions, I asked if anyone was using StaffPad…and no one was…not even the presenter who later presented on using the Microsoft Surface.

I’m not picking on StaffPad, because in truth I was a bit jealous that Surface had something iPad did not (the list is really quite small), particularly in the area of music–and that there were no plans to bring it to iOS. If you saw any of the videos that StaffPad released over the years, often in tight collaboration with Microsoft, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

So as the years went on, I found Notion to be my main tool, although there are now a number of different notation programs with different input methods on the iPad. But now, we have StaffPad as an option.

One of the main questions Robby, Paul, and I had about StaffPad was if we were going to buy it. In terms of iPad apps, it is pretty expensive (close to $90) with the potential of hundreds of dollars for the optional instrument sounds that you can buy for it. Somewhere in our discussion, I realized that we are bloggers in this field (and there seem to be very few of us left) and that we should ask for promo codes to examine the app, especially if we talk about the app on a podcast (which we will eventually do). So I contacted StaffPad and asked, and David William Hearn (Founder/Designer) was kind enough to let us in on the beta program so we could test the program.

Paul has already written a review and keeps adding thoughts as he experiments more, and Robby is certainly formulating a very detailed review.

I’ve been pretty busy with ukulele materials and school stuff, so I haven’t had much time to dig into the app, but I have worked in it a bit, and have drawn a few conclusions. I think for the sake of organization, I’ll work in a list for the rest of this post.

  • It is hard to get over the sticker shock of the app. I realize this is what it costs to run a business. It’s still hard to get over it.
  • I am intimidated by the cost of the instrument sounds. If there was a way to use them elsewhere in iOS, it would be easier to justify. But as they are locked to StaffPad, and can’t really be used elsewhere, you really have to make good use of the app to justify the expense.
  • My work flow consists of three things these days, as my role as an educator has changed. First, I make ukulele resources, which StaffPad is not good with. This isn’t uncommon, because Dorico recently added these features in Dorico 3. But for what I do, StaffPad cannot be my first option. A second work flow is creating choral scores (now 2 part), which StaffPad can do. A final work flow is creating a single part song for elementary classes…which StaffPad can also do.
  • As Paul noted in his review, StaffPad rethinks how you interact with the app, which is both wonderful and problematic. It’s wonderful because there is hope that other apps will adopt the gestures (or that Apple will) and add more functionality…and problematic because things like pressing hard to erase happens accidentally with my own normal pen pressure from time to time.
  • If I’m honest, the handwriting interface isn’t as speedy for me as working in Finale or Notion without a (piano) keyboard–nor is it anywhere as fast as how I work in Notion for iOS. I don’t know if it ever could be, even with extended practice. What I’m left with is that I wish the other programs had StaffPad’s handwriting features as an option, and that StaffPad had the input methods of everything else.
  • The strength of StaffPad appears to be in what you can do with things after you have entered the music. I think the award for engraving is going to go to Dorico these days, and Notion did hold the award for the best stock playback sounds and features of all the apps. StaffPad raises the bar in terms of playback, with the ability to graphically shape dynamics and tempo. So I could easily see myself doing work in Notion, Finale, Dorico, or MuseScore and exporting that data to StaffPad for final performance editing.

I’m not fully done with StaffPad, as there is still a lot for me to learn about the app (just as Paul continues to find new features, such as chordal analysis). But again, it’s hard for me to force myself to use it, as 80% of my case use is outside of the program’s current abilities (and I by no means expect StaffPad to add ukulele features just for me).

In closing, I’m glad StaffPad is on iOS, and I wish that had been the case long ago. I love that it does some things differently, and I fully realize I need more time with the app to really determine what I like and what I don’t like about it. I’m having a really hard time getting over the price of the app and the price of the instrument sounds. I realize that the cost of the app is inexpensive compared to other desktop notation apps. Ultimately, I’m not a fan of handwriting-first or handwriting-only input (e.g. on Notion, I can use a ukulele fretboard to enter notes sometimes). If you want to make lifelike performances from MusicXML on your iPad, I don’t think you’ll find a better option (e.g. Notion does not allow you to create N-Tempo tracks on the iPad). Ultimately, you’re going to need to consider the features that StaffPad brings to the table and decide if it is right for you.

Dorico 3 SE

While I am over in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the Michigan Music Conference (Hello, any visitors from Michigan!), NAMM is under way–always of double interest to me for music technology and ukulele news. There are some new Fender ukuleles coming out that look like little Telecasters…and I quite like the look of them…but that’s neither here or there for the “Tech In Music Ed Blog.”

On my way to Michigan, Dorico dropped the news that it was now making a new version of Dorico…a light version entitled “SE” available for download. So, I’m back at my hotel and I’m downloading it.

I have been procrastinating with Dorico, because it hasn’t been able to do what I needed it to do until this summer…when guitar (and ukulele) chord fonts and tabs became available.

I have used Finale for a long time, and I’m pretty used to creating music in measures that are empty, such as with Finale and Notion; and I struggle with programs that have existing rests that turn into beats (Sibelius, MusicScore, Noteflight, and flat.io). To be honest, my Sibelius and MuseScore time is pretty limited (MuseScore more than Sibelius) because I’ve never owned Sibelius, and Notion and Finale handle all of my needs for notation.

Dorico promises to be a whole new experience–I’m not sure what it’s going to be like. Dorico offers some wonderful educator discounts, but even the educator pricing still represents serious money (such as more than one of the aforementioned Fender Telecaster ukuleles) so I want to be able to see what it’s all about before I go further. Dorico does offer a 30 day trial; but I don’t like working under those conditions as I’m never sure how much time I’ll get to play with a software package in 30 days.

So, this news of the SE version is of great interest to me. I have no idea if it will have the guitar/ukulele features that were added this summer, but I’ll very much enjoy finding out. I am a little amazed at the size of the files. When you download the program, you actually download the Steinberg Download Assistant (111MB), which, after installation, allows you to download Dorico 3 SE (423 MB plus nearly 3GB of sounds). That’s a pretty sizable download–and I’ll be waiting a while here at the hotel before it’s ready to go and for me to start entering some notes. Make sure to check your available storage before downloading!

Are you a Windows user? Here are a couple of apps for you to consider!

There was a time when I was quite literally anti-Apple in my life. That part of my past actually helps me when I meet people that are currently Anti-Apple. There was a also a phase in my life when I was trying to keep devices that ran all operating systems in my house, so I could help other teachers regardless of what technology they used. I don’t do that any more, and my time is spent on my iPhone, iPad, and 2018 MacBook Pro. I realize that I could install a virtual Windows machine on my MacBook Pro–but I have no need to do that.

Quite a while ago, I received information about a couple of Windows based music notation applications that are not available for iOS or MacOS. I thought I would let you know about them.

The three programs are Forte, ScanScore, and Bandora. The ultimate version of Forte includes all three applications. I have linked their YouTube introductions below (yes, there is English overdubbing, as the videos are originally in German). You can also buy each program individually. ScanScore will export to MusicXML, which makes it useful for just about any existing notation program, not just Forte.

You might ask, “Why, in the world of so many music notation programs would I want to buy another program?” The simple answer is: for ease of use and choice. The developers of Forte are trying to make Forte a very easy to use program, and choice is a great thing in the marketplace. And I will add that it is becoming a rare thing to embed a scanner in a music notation program.

The company has also developed iOS and Android apps that work with the Forte platform, including a scanning component for ScanScore, a Forte music reader, and a PlayAlong Orchestra that works with Forte files. Note: all of these iOS and Android apps are not stand-alone apps…you need Forte (and/or ScanScore) on your Windows computer to use them.

I can’t comment on how easy Forte is to use, or how ScanScore operates compared to other options on Mac or iOS, as I no longer have a Windows device…but if you are a Windows user, there are trial versions of the software which would allow you to see how Forte, ScanScore, and Bandora work for yourself. Forte Premium, at the time of writing, is $229, which is a great bargain if you find that you can work easily in Forte, and if the scanning features work well for you. The closest paid notation app I can think of is Notion, which does not include scanning software (I have not heard anything about StaffPad for a LONG time). If you try Forte, send me a note and tell me how the product works for you.

Forte Notation: https://www.fortenotation.com/en/

ScanScore: https://scan-score.com/en/

Noteflight Marketplace

Noteflight officially announced “Noteflight Marketplace” yesterday. If you’re not familiar with Noteflight, it is one of two web-based music notation programs that work on every device (well, the iPad isn’t always the best experience, but other than that…). Some time ago, Hal Leonard bought the company (this is directly related to the marketplace announcement), and the company has started to push the boundaries in terms of notation, education, and now distribution of music. This is exactly what we need to see in a technology-rich world.

In terms of education, Noteflight introduced Noteflight Learn a couple of years ago. Noteflight Learn is a solution for education that not only gave students access to the notation editor in a COPPA compliant environment, the program also gave students and teachers access to a optional music library (filled with Hal Leonard titles), as well as a way to record audio (e.g. student playing) and share those files with the teacher.

Noteflight’s latest development is the Noteflight Marketplace. While anyone can buy music from the Marketplace, the Marketplace allows anyone age 18 or older with a Noteflight Premium Subscription (which is actually very affordable) the opportunity to publish music. You can publish your own scores (50% commission), publish scores in the public domain (50% commission), or arranged works (10% commission–as long as the copyright holder has a license agreement with Noteflight, and over 1,000,000 songs do have that agreement). And yes, you can import MusicXML files into Noteflight if you have music you would like to sell but it is currently in another program. My guess is that the number of available songs will grow as other publishers see the strengths of this program, and I have a sneaky suspicion that Noteflight would be open to adding publishing partners (I haven’t talked to anyone about it, but it certainly seems as if Noteflight is ready for this). I love the publishing aspect, which seems to be very similar to publishing your own music (without a label) on iTunes, or an iBook on the iBook Store (without a publisher).

When you buy a song from the Noteflight Marketplace, you can print your music (it creates a PDF) and you can buy a license for a larger number of performers at a set fee (this is awesome for choral music). All scores can be purchased for more performers, but it is awesome to see the option for a 50+ purchase (I hope more composers will utilize this!). Any purchase from the Noteflight Marketplace can be adapted for your needs.

In general, anything that has been published by Hal Leonard (not necessarily its subsidiaries or publishing partners) in the recent past seems to be available in the Noteflight Marketplace catalog. One negative but understandable limitation is that you cannot export a song from the Marketplace to another program via MusicXML. I understand that limitation, but if you are more comfortable on Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, or Notion for editing, you will have to learn how to edit in Noteflight; in my case, my main reason for exporting would be to have another program play the music and create audio files for rehearsal/performance.

I did a little searching on the Marketplace and found a lot of available literature, even songs from The Daily Ukulele! I was a little sad to see that “printed” choral octavos seem to be at their regular price–I would have loved to see a discount offered to buyers due to no printing, shipping, storage, or local music store sale. Sadly, I can always buy a printed score at a discount from local music stores. I don’t expect to buy music at the price that a music store would pay, but perhaps pricing in-between would be possible?

Music publishing, copyright, technology, and specifically tablets (e.g. iPad) have been in an uncomfortable position for years. Can you scan your music? Not legally for use in schools. Can you arrange music (e.g. you don’t have tenors)? Not legally. Can you change the key of a song? Not legally. Some of these problems are now solved if you live in the Noteflight world. And with this development, we probably all should be getting involved in Noteflight.

The only challenge for education that I currently see with the program is how to tie a purchase to an institution versus attributing that purchase to an individual. For example, if I buy all of my concert music from Noteflight for large groups, and then leave the school, how does the next teacher get access to those scores? Or can a team of teachers have access to a single score? Or can a district get access to a purchased score so that any school in the district can use the song (up to the purchased group size)? These problems do not need to be solved right away, but certainly are worth thinking about.

And just a word of caution: if you decide to join Noteflight for the Marketplace, don’t buy one score and then use it with a choir of 50 students. Please respect the innovation offered here and do the right thing (I think back to a teacher that was buying five scores off of a digital music service and using that to provide music for their entire ensemble. Sigh).

Additionally, every score on the Noteflight Marketplace has a preview of the song, as well as the ability to hear it (digitally). If you’re searching for new music for 2018-2019, you might want to spend some time on the Noteflight Marketplace, too!

I’m really excited by this development, and it is one step away from my dream scenario where a school could report the number of students in their program (e.g. 350), and pay a set price per student to access for printed music for the year (think Spotify or Apple Music). That’s a natural next step–but it might be years in the making.


Ultimate Guitar Acquires MuseScore

Reported first by Scoring Notes, it appears that Ultimate Guitar has acquired MuseScore.

MuseScore has been an outlier in the world of music notation.  It is an open source, free program that can do most of what musicians (including educators) need a program to do, and it runs much like Sibelius.  This past weekend, I visited with a fellow music education techie who mentioned that they have not upgraded Sibelius since version 6, and are generally using MuseScore for most of their work.

Music Notation is a crowded industry right now, with programs such as Sibelius, Finale, and Dorico, as well as programs like Noteflight and Flat.io, and platform specific solutions such as Notion (Mac/Win or iOS), StaffPad (Win), Komp (iOS), MusicJot (iOS), Symphony Pro (iOS), Forte (Win), and others.  George Hess just wrote about this today as well, and he does what I do…most of his work in Notion (Mac/Win or iOS).  I move to Finale when I can’t do what I need to do in Notion.  All of these are paid programs.  And now there are notation editors in programs such as SmartMusic and Soundslice, too!

MuseScore has been the outlier.  Several years ago, I asked college students what programs they used, and they all used MuseScore.  What did you use in college?  Do you still use that application?  Chances are, you do.  What does this mean for the future of software notation?  And now that MusicXML is not controlled by a company and can be freely used by every application (and new versions of MusicXML will be even better)—there is nothing to stop you from using whatever program you want to use.  So why not choose free?

The large elephant in the room has been this: why pay for a notation program when a free version does nearly everything that you want it to do, with similar results?  The answer usually lies in three categories:

  • I need tech support that I can call; I don’t want to rely on a community for answers
  • I want a program that is easier to use (Notion and Dorico)
  • I need all the power I can get because I am a super human

I’ve been watching MuseScore for years, occasionally using it (the Sibelius-type note entry is hard to wrap my mind around as a Finale user), and have simply marveled at its existence.  George mentions that the core developers of MuseScore wanted to make money with the program even when it was free.  I suppose they have, at least now with the acquisition.

Ultimate Guitar has been very useful for me as I make ukulele play along videos—I check their chords when I work with music to make sure that chords I am using are correct.  However, if you want all the functions of Ultimate Guitar, you need to subscribe (e.g. transposition).  We call this a subscription/freemium model, and it works.  In the world of iOS apps, it is one of the only ways to sustain income over time (versus the one time purchase of an app).

MuseScore and Ultimate Guitar are both promising that MuseScore will remain free and open source; and that MuseScore 3 (which could once again change the playing field) is still under development.  All that said, I’m betting that MuseScore will be a freemium application, offering basic features for free, but advanced features for an affordable monthly or yearly rate.  Again, mind, you, that is MY guess and has NOT been stated by either company.  Just remember…if you want a product to make money, you have to actually collect money somehow.

Soundtrap was recently acquired by Spotify.  Peaksware acquired MakeMusic and Alfred.  Hal Leonard acquired Noteflight.  Acquisition seems to be a part of the process in the field of music technology.

If you want to follow this industry more closely, follow the work at Scoring Notes and the thoughts of George Hess!