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.