The Rise of Dorico

Interview with Daniel Spreadbury

Until fairly recently, two big names dominated the world of music notation software: Make Music’s Finale and Avid’s Sibelius.

Other software – such as Presonus’ Notion and the free-to-use MuseScore have continued to challenge their supremacy, but with the October 2016 release of Dorico it was clear that a significant professional alternative had arrived on the scene, causing quite a stir.

The backstory has been repeated many times elsewhere – how Avid decided to close their London office in 2012, leaving their existing Sibelius development team – headed by Daniel Spreadbury – without their jobs.

By the start of 2013, music software giants Steinberg Media Technologies – a wholly owned subsidiary of Yamaha, and the creators of the VST standard, Cubase, Nuendo and Wavelab – had snapped up the team and tasted them with creating a brand new notation package from the ground up. Enter Dorico 

In this interview, I will be chatting with Daniel about his career in the music software world, the development of Dorico, and the birth of version 2.0.

But first … 

The Interview

Daniel-Spearbury
Daniel Spreadbury

Andrew:  Can you start by telling us about your favourite music, and how it has changed your life?

Daniel: Although I love all kinds of music, my first love was music for cello – my parents used to put me to sleep with cassette tapes of Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Baremboim when I was tiny – and sure enough I learned both the cello and piano as a child, but it was singing that really took hold for me, and so practically all of my favourite works are choral and vocal works.

I have been lucky enough to sing in a number of very good small ensembles, and being able to hold, shape and breathe life into a vocal line in a small ensemble is something I love to participate in.

Now that my own daughter, who is soon to turn eight, is beginning to learn the piano, I find myself reflecting on my own early experiences with music learning, and my mother’s struggles to get me to practice, and I have a renewed appreciation for her determination to keep me on that path, because without her support and encouragement I would probably not have stuck with it to the point where I was no longer held back by my physical limitations and could begin to express the music I hear in my head through my hands.

What I love about singing and being part of a choir is that the musical expression is so physical and direct, and at its best I find that experience profound.

Clearly you are passionate about producing beautifully engraved music too! When and how did this become such an important goal, and how did you embark on a career in music software?

I’m of that first generation that had computers in the home from a young age: my older brother is eight years older than me, and my parents bought him a computer (a Commodore Pet with its metal case that opened up like a car bonnet, so you could see all the microchips inside!) when I was about four, so I grew up with computers around me, and of course with music around me too.

I developed an interest in design and typography early on, and in my teenage years took to producing magazines and other such things on my own computer. Funnily enough, my undergraduate studies in music barely touched on the mechanics of music engraving and typography at all – and of course I understand why, since music notation is not itself music, but rather an incomplete and imperfect means of capturing the music so that it can be interpreted by others.

To the extent that I had any kind of a career plan beyond finishing my degree, the one thing I promised myself was that I wouldn’t end up working in an office and would pursue a career in music, but of course I found that being a lay clerk in a cathedral choir is good for the soul but not so good for the bank balance.

When the director of music at Ely Cathedral got an email from the people at Sibelius Software looking for technical support and copywriting staff, I applied for the copywriting job, but got the technical support job, which of course rapidly developed into something completely different – product management.

And it was working closely with Ben and Jonathan Finn, the twins who invented Sibelius, that really brought all of these different interests and experiences in my life together, in a way that looking back on it seems almost preordained, though it was anything but!

After working on Sibelius for several years, the move to Dorico gave you a chance to start again with a clean sheet. As you started to realise this opportunity, what were the big things that you decided to do differently with this new software?

We had three main goals: first, make a package that is much more flexible than its competitors in terms of how it thinks about music and how you as a composer, arranger or engraver work with music within it; second, make its output as beautiful as possible, as automatically as possible; and third, to make it possible to work with today’s advanced sample libraries and other virtual instruments and plug-ins as easily and efficiently as possible, so that it would be able to satisfy the requirements that today’s musicians have for producing mock-ups, rehearsal materials, pieces to publish or share online, and so on.

We were fortunate to be starting with an enormous amount of experience behind us, and also the opportunity to use the latest technologies to build the software, which gives the program a solid foundation for many years of development to come.

Steinberg are of course major industry leaders, with Yamaha backing. How does Dorico integrate with their other products, and what’s the bigger vision in terms of the programme’s development within the Steinberg range?

Dorico borrows technology from other Steinberg products, but doesn’t yet really integrate with them directly.

For example, it uses the same audio engine for handling VST instruments and effects, mixing, timing, MIDI input and so on as Cubase and Nuendo; it uses the same video engine for video decoding, sync and playback as Cubase and Nuendo; and it uses many of the same virtual instruments and effects as Cubase.

But because Dorico is such a different kind of application to our DAWs and our audio editing software, as yet there’s no real project or data interchange between the applications beyond standard formats like MIDI and MusicXML.

That’s something we will certainly be looking to change as Dorico matures.

Having explored the software, I’m impressed with the ease of producing great piano scores, and especially how easy it is to add fingering and pedalling indications. Can you talk us through how these and other features of Dorico work, and will particularly appeal to Pianist composers?

I think Dorico is probably uniquely well-suited among music notation software for writing music for piano and other keyboard instruments.

Dorico-piano-score

Not only does it have the most comprehensive support for pedaling of any software – with all of the modern techniques for partial pedaling, changing the level of pedal depression over time, and even simpler things like having dedicated tools for both the una corda and sostenuto pedal indications, which other programs don’t – but it also has the best keyboard fingering support, too.

No other software can handle things like fingering substitutions, even delayed fingering substitutions where the finger has to change midway through a long note and be indicated with a horizontal line, or cautionary and editorial fingerings, as simply and automatically as Dorico.

But beyond those features specific to writing for piano, Dorico is also fundamentally better suited to keyboard music because of its uniquely flexible handling of polyphonic voices, its exemplary rhythmic spacing, automatic staff spacing (including automatically centering the keyboard dynamics between the staves), and so on.

One of the example projects that comes with Dorico is a set of miniatures by the mid-20th century Russian pianist-composer Vladimir Drozdoff, and they are a great example of how beautiful Dorico makes that kind of music look, without the composer or editor needing to cast much more than a critical eye over the output and to perform a few simple tweaks.

Alongside these features, can you tell us which aspects of the current Dorico version 1.2 you are most happy with? And least happy with?

Asking me to pick a favourite feature in Dorico is like asking me to pick a favourite child!

I am consistently amazed at how my colleagues in the development team, through a process of iterative and collaborative design and implementation, take the specification that we work out after a period of gathering requirements from users and translate it into something really natural and musical.

Of the features we added in Dorico 1.2, I think the percussion features really stand out, as they take an area of music notation that is notoriously complex and with a lot of edge cases, and dramatically simplifies the workflow for producing percussion parts compared to the competition.

In terms of features I would like to see improved, the thing that is both wonderful and terrible about working on music notation software is that even the things that you have spent the most time on and are most proud of could still always use another round of refinement and further development.

As they say, software is never finished, only abandoned!

Looking ahead, with the first product cycle complete, what are your hopes for a Dorico 2.0 – and any news on when it can be expected?

Dorico 2 was in fact released just this week, and in two versions: what was simply called Dorico is now called Dorico Pro, and continues to be the top of the product line, with all of the power and flexibility needed to write works for ensembles of any size, but perhaps of special interest to the Pianodao audience, we have also introduced a new entry-level version called Dorico Elements, which costs around €99 inc. VAT for a retail license, but which is also available at an educational discount for eligible teachers and students, which takes a further 40% off that suggested price.

Dorico-Pro-and-Elements

Dorico Elements has all of the essential power of Dorico Pro, but it’s streamlined and simple, and allows the creation of projects for up to 12 players, which is more than enough for keyboard music, choral music, and other small or chamber ensembles.

The main thing not included in Dorico Elements is Engrave mode, so you are ever more reliant on Dorico’s output being as beautiful as we say it is! I think that Dorico Elements is a really excellent addition to the product line, and I hope that lots of instrumental teachers and students check it out.

Dorico Pro has also been given an enormous range of new features, including support for composing to picture with video sync, automation of tempo and MIDI controllers in Play mode, and some really sophisticated tools for working with extra staves, including an amazingly clever and time-saving feature for handling divisi writing, for example for strings and voices. There are many more new features, and if your readers are interested I would recommend they check the short but sweet videos on the new web site at www.dorico.com to find out more.

I think Dorico is a hugely exciting piece of software, and I’m impressed to see the new version coming out so soon, with so many fresh improvements – and with the two versions to suit different users … many congratulations!

I hope that your readers will give Dorico a serious look, even if they’re currently using another scoring program, and especially if they’re using a free one, like MuseScore.

MuseScore is a wonderful program for its price, but for a modest outlay you can add a truly refined and comfortable tool to your toolbox in Dorico Elements, and enjoy making beautiful music look beautiful with no effort expended!

It’s been great to meet you Daniel, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know Dorico. Congratulations again, and thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions!

Further Information

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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