I just finished my first project with Dorico, and I want to tell you about it.

It’s a new orchestration of The Burial of the Dead for The Sound Ensemble; the concert is on March 4 in Seattle. Come hear it.

The photo above, taken by James Holt, is of Bobby Collins, the music director of The Sound Ensemble, conducting at the first NUMUS Northwest last weekend – it was a great event, and I hope you all join us if we do it again next year.

But this blog post is about working with Dorico. In short, it’s amazing. In slightly longer, it is clearly early stage software, with some important features and UI elements not in there yet. But equally clearly, Daniel Spreadbury is doing a great job of prioritizing features. The things I’m missing are all things that would make some tasks easier or smoother, but right now they’re all possible, and not even that hard to accomplish.

If I were in their shoes, I’d be waiting for sophisticated users to hit bumps, and document their experiences before I finished these last UI elements. Plans are great, but users always change them. I seriously applaud the team for all that they’re doing. But now, specifics:

As a former Finale user, making parts was always a massive pain. This is the first project where I’ve been able to work on a part as an effective way of editing the music, instead of entirely as a matter of engraving. The ability to assign instruments to actual people, and automatically have parts with instrument changes created, is life changing, especially for percussion parts.

This was a re-orchestration project, and The Burial of the Dead is a setting of a poem, so the orchestra score has lyrics in it. This, I’m sure, isn’t a use case that got a lot of testing, but Dorico handled it with aplomb, importing the lyrics, avoiding collisions, and automatically spacing the music very well straight out of import from musicXML. Dorico is a very semantic program, and it did a great job of interpreting the meaning of most of the markings, and translating them correctly as rehearsal letters, tempi, slurs, ties, expression markings, etc. The tempo markings came in at a very small size, and my “rit. poco a poco” got changed to “poco rit.”, but the meaning stayed the same.

Polyphony in Dorico is very intuitive to enter and read, but it’s not as easy to edit the structure of multiple voices as it is in Finale. Dorico doesn’t present you with a huge number of options at every point – the goal of the UI is to do what you want it to, as automatically as possible. This is, very often, totally magical. But sometimes when you don’t have all the buttons visible, it’s difficult to figure out how to fix something if Dorico guesses wrong about what you want. (This is mostly a matter of a learning curve that’s appropriate to professional software, and otherwise a matter of finishing some features in the next couple releases; it’s a good way to build software).

So in my case, I had divisi string parts, and I was orchestrating for a one-on-a-part chamber orchestra. I frequently had cases where there were two voices on a line, and I needed to get it down to one. Removing an empty voice is difficult, and the functionality to merge two voices into one isn’t coming in the next release. This is a good prioritization, but meant that I used the brute force solution a few times, and re-entered music instead of editing it. There was probably a better way, but the project was small enough that brute forcing my way through it was a fine choice for my own use of time.

The printing options for scores and parts, and the layout/set-up options, are amazing. The desktop publishing application built underneath Dorico is as powerful as you’d hope it would be, and makes explaining matters to the parts a very clear process. The clear options for re-setting overrides on page layout in particular make it easy to try laying out parts a different way without risk of having to start again. I did have a few collisions to resolve with large systems overlapping on a page, and text objects not being taken into account when spacing staves, but those were small and easy to handle.

I do want a couple more options for sliding measures around, or group re-spacing staves, but what’s there already is pretty awesome. Another piece I’m working on is going to have a totally insane layout, and Dorico is going to make it MUCH easier.

Having the print dialogue entirely in Dorico is novel, and helpful for doing multi-file output without switching back and forth to finder constantly. I did hit two bumps in the printing process. First, and this is documented on the forums, but if you have slashes in the name of a layout, you get an unhelpful error when you try to print it (the error message doesn’t say that the slash is what the problem is). My guess is that the naming convention for printing to file uses the name of the layout in the filename, and so the slash causes a problem. Something just needs to sanitized, or an error message added, or the slash barred from layout names. It’s an easy fix. For reference, my parts had names like “flute/piccolo” and “oboe/English horn.” Now they’re “Flute (picc.)”, which is, honestly, better.

Second, my viola part only had 1 page, instead of 5. Not sure why. In write & engrave mode it looked fine. The layout pulled the music assigned to the player just fine. But when I went to print it, the print panels only saw one page, even when trying to print a page range. I still don’t know what that’s about, but fixing it took about two minutes. I just made a new part, pulled the music from the player into the layout, and re-flowed the part (the automatic system breaks were slightly different here, not sure why, but they still looked fine). Then I re-named the layouts, dragged some stuff around, and re-printed the part. It was probably a bug, but working around it was so easy as to be trivial.

So – if you don’t have Dorico yet, go get it now. It’s great. And we, as composers, want to keep this team empowered to do great work at Steinberg for as long as we can.

And if you’re near Seattle, come see The Sound Ensemble play The Burial of the Dead on March 4 – they’re a great band and it’ll be a great show.

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