Is it time for Sibelius to stand aside? Toby Deller speaks to composers about their experiences of Dorico notation software
I bought Dorico when there was a deal for people who already had Sibelius and also a discount for students at the Royal Academy of Music where I was at the time. I knew I wasn’t going to switch over: at the time my computer wasn’t capable of using Dorico but I thought, I will buy it now and when I do upgrade I will be able to start looking at it. A few months after that I got a new computer and started using Dorico for the first time.
Where the problem lies – and this isn’t something you can really blame them for but it’s just the fact of the matter – is the time that goes into learning a new notation programme is an arduous investment when you’ve already learned another programme system and its quirks. Because when you open up Dorico, everything that you can do in it is completely different to the way I’m used to doing things in Sibelius.
It probably is likely to be the best on the market, however. When you see Dorico doing something in a flash that it might take you 20 seconds to fix on Sibelius, you do think ‘wow, that would save so much time’. But I guess because I personally don’t feel particularly frustrated while I’m using Sibelius, it’s only when I see stuff done a multitude of times more efficiently that I think: actually that could be much better.
I think particularly the advanced requirements for contemporary composers are built in and that was what really made a difference for me – for example, unbarred layouts, note heads, microtonality… One example: I’m writing a piece at the moment for Psappha. I went to see their percussionist Tim Williams with the piece and he said: it just looks so good. And I didn’t have to do any work on that myself: I didn’t need to sit down, talk to him, have him tell me how I need change the whole thing, go home, do the changes, come back to him… Also, things like settings for beamings and note spellings. When I did my PhD, I sat for hours and hours going through every single note deciding on how that note should be spelled, but in Dorico you just decide on your settings, go into advanced settings, press a button and it does it for you. That would have saved me hundreds of hours.
I must admit the look of it is something I love because I’ve spent so long in the past trying to make my music look good. To have something look so beautiful right from the word go – to know you’ve got a piece that’s in progress and isn’t there yet but looks really beautiful – it makes you want to open your composition and carry on.
The big, big thing for me is the support for microtonality which is just so much better than anything Sibelius can do. When I’m writing notated stuff I’m generally working with just intonation using Ben Johnston’s notation. It has potentially loads and loads of accidentals for all the different types of interval. The great thing about Dorico is the degree to which you can customise your own tonality and accidentals. What it can’t do is define intervals as ratios, which is what I would naturally do in my head and would be most accurate, but the degree to which you can subdivide an octave means you can get pretty damn close, within half a cent. You can define the stave as having unequal tones and semitones and things, and that’s amazing. And your own accidentals actually play back as functioning accidentals and change the pitch by the amount you ask it to. And it plays back accurately, which you just couldn’t do remotely as easily on Sibelius.
There are still a few things that don’t quite work: when you try to use transposing instruments in weird temperaments, that goes a bit funny. But I believe that’s an issue they are aware of. And it would be really nice if you could combine accidentals in unequal scale. If I could have a basic palette of accidentals and you could combine them to create a new one when you need rather than having to set one up from scratch, that would be helpful. But honestly, these are piddling things.
I was working with librettist Gareth Mattey on a song called A Seductive Event that was based on Schumann’s Dichterliebe. But instead of it being a 16-song cycle we took it down to make a song out of 16 micro events. I wanted to display this as 16 separate movements. And it’s so easy in Dorico using its ‘Flows’ – you can have Flow 1 which is movement 1 and so on; you name them – they are all there in front of you. If Flow 1 takes only half a page of A4 you can decide if you want Flow 2 to start on the same or next page. Then there are mastersheets that you can edit if you want to do something very specific about how your score’s laid out. It’s like using an image editor combined with notation software.
It just feels intuitive. When I’m working within it, things happen as I expect them to happen: if I delete something, things don’t happen around that edit that I’m not expecting. I was tired of problems like when I would produce a score and the parts, check it and proof it. You know what proofing’s like: the more you look the more problems you find. You think you have got there but there’s one little thing to nudge, which you do and then print it. But nudging this one little thing means a rehearsal mark suddenly appears in the middle of a stave. You think: why does this happen?
My favourite notation-nerd function is irrational time signatures. I needed a bar of 5/6 in my piece Our Drugged Balloonist: no problem for Dorico!