Dorico is the future of high-end notation software. This would be completely obvious if they had released it next August, but the realities of modern business and shopping cycles brought it to market before several key features (for certain groups) were added. Realistically, its core user base works with orchestral and choral groups for concert or broadcast, and these users are very well served by Dorico in its present state.
We all have just one chance to make a first impression, and if only Cyber Monday and the Xmas shopping season were six more months away Dorico would have created the sensation that it deserves. Glowing headlines would have hailed a revolution in computer music well beyond notation. Accounting and Marketing being what they are, Dorico’s arrival was less auspicious than it could have been, and relying on the promise of free updates to fill in the gaps has left its own gap into which competitors have quickly squeezed. Such is life.
In writing this review, I have taken for granted that Dorico is excellent — ground-breaking in many ways — in its design and implementation. My criticisms mostly fall into two groups: 1) missing features, and 2) annoyances (not true bugs, possibly even features). So if there seem to be a lot of problems with Dorico, in most cases they are minor especially compared with the huge leap forward that Dorico represents, and that I believe we will see in the near future in updates.
Dorico begins by opening the Steinberg Hub, a very useful starting point that is too often glossed over. More than just a list of previous projects, it is a menu of choices for Dorico and related sites. The top buttons allow you to enter the User Forums, the Download area, or the Knowledge base, while News and Tutorials are available on the left side of the screen. You are welcomed into the Steinberg world in the country of Dorico.
Recent projects are shown in a list, and it is possible to create the ensemble for a new project simply by clicking on Orchestral, Band, Chamber, Choral and Vocal, or Solo; you can also choose New Empty Project or open another project not shown. Choosing your ensemble is a microcosm of the way that Dorico works in virtually all areas. It gives you the most common choices, which you can then modify to suit whatever grouping you wish. This often makes workflow smooth, but can make seemingly simple requests suddenly complex. For example, I thought I would create a double string orchestra each with its own string quartet — not a common grouping but a combination of two very common ones. It turns out that you only get one shot at the main ensemble, so I chose the first string orchestra in one click. Choosing an ensemble or soloist takes you directly into Write Mode, which is fine if you are using that ensemble, but if you need to add one or more players, you will need to return to Setup Mode. Back in Setup Mode I chose Ensemble from the buttons below the players list, and chose Strings -> String Section, which gave me a second string orchestra. Unfortunately I was unable to add a string quartet, so I had to add each player of each quartet separately. It would be really convenient to be able to add more ensembles of soloists from the menu, although perhaps this is difficult to program. Still, this would be my one wish for Setup Mode.
You will now see the Players listed on the left, with buttons at the bottom to choose single players, sections of players, and ensembles, as well as a button to place selected instruments or sections into Groups. As you add players, they add to the bottom of the list, but can be moved to the position you desire. Their staff moves along with them in the Flow, but not in the Layouts on the far right; here you have to move them again yourself.
One other gaffe in Dorico so far is that the instruments show in Play Mode in the order they were created rather than the score order you choose. This makes following them difficult, especially if you are not used to piano roll depiction of the music. In my example case, I had to rename all soloists as well as the second string orchestra to keep them straight when working in other modes. This integration between modes in on my list of of issues that must be addressed ASAP.
The Layout window contains Page Setup Options via the “cog” icon at the bottom that allows you to set defaults for the full score, parts, or custom scores. The Sort arrows do nothing for me, nor do I understand the idea behind the Empty Part. Here a manual would be very helpful.
The score in the middle of the page is labelled “Flow 1” and below it is a dialog box to create additional flows. Flows are perhaps the most powerful feature of Dorico: they let you create more than one piece of music in the project. This means that a multi-movement work can be contained in a single file, as well as works with different instruments and voices in different numbers, or sets of examples. One caveat at this time is that the order in which the flows are created often determines their position in later operations and lists. This is the same problem as creating instruments (or rather players) and should be addressed in future updates as it seems to be unintentional.
Note that setup adds players, either solo or section, rather than instruments. Thus a player can double on a second instrument without complicated workarounds.
At this point I find it most useful to go to the main menu, and under the File list choose Project Info… Here is where you place the title, composer, lyricist, and other data describing the music in the project. Since many projects will consist of a single piece of music, there is a very handy pair of buttons at the bottom that allow you to copy the Project information into a particular Flow or vice versa. Of course if only some of the information is common, the rest can be edited or deleted. I find this an effective workflow as the titles Flow 1, Flow 2, etc. are now replaced with the actual piece names in the other modes as well. Oddly, the Flows window still shows them as Flow 1, etc. but you can edit the names there. It would make more sense to me to update them with the title of the piece.
Write Mode is where Dorico really shines. You can work without barlines if you like, which can be very handy if you want to vary ideas without shoehorning them into a preconceived number of beats and default accent patterns. It is also very handy for transcribing music by ear when you want to get the pitches right first and then overlay the rhythmic values. No assumptions are made about your music at this point. This is very handy for single parts, but can make coordination of multiple parts tricky.
Once again you have control over virtually everything to do with how your music is notated: the groupings within a bar, whether syncopations show each beat (usually requiring ties), different note heads, and on and on. A particularly wonderful feature is Insert mode where you can insert notes without deleting those following — they are simply moved to the right. One oddity of this mode though is that you need to be in Insert mode to delete notes you have entered, which I don’t find intuitive. However, once again the notes move to accommodate the deletion rather than leaving a gap. If you want the gap, simply insert a rest.
Notes can be input from a MIDI keyboard, the computer keyboard, or by mouse. A combination of MIDI keyboard for pitch and computer keyboard for duration can allow for very fast input, especially if you have memorized the keys for dotted notes, rest, ties, and whatever else you commonly use. The computer keyboard must guess at the octave into which to insert the note you have chosen, but you can use Option->Command->arrow key (on the Mac) to move a note up or down an octave. Once again a manual would be helpful, and is surely on its way. The 1.0.10 update added several ways to select notes as well as a comprehensive transposition feature that can transpose to a key, by an interval, or even calculate it for you if you know the starting note and where you want it to be transposed to.
There are so many features and options in Write Mode that it would require a review longer than this one just to cover them all. It can produce amazing results, but there are quirks that should be fixed in future updates. One is dashed barlines, which cannot be restricted to a single staff (as Bartok does in the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta) but rather span all staves. While this is a pretty rare use of them, the bigger problem is that they are treated as regular barlines in the numeration, so that if bar 1 has two dashed barlines within it, the next bar is mis-labelled bar4 rather than bar 2. As with most things, there are workarounds to fudge the bar numbering, but this should be corrected.
While many keyboard shortcuts are easily remembered, there are at least seven menus, some of which have sub-menus, that can be shown or hidden to provide note values, articulations clef, octave lines (up to triple octaves!), as well as those for uncommon and even archaic clefs., just some examples of the depth of Dorico and its options. Keep this in mind when I mention missing options; the available list is enormous.
Play Mode appears to be the last feature added, and many of the problems with version 1.0 were fixed with the 1.0.10 update. The incorporation of the Cubase / Nuendo playback engine and the HALion SE library into Dorico is a work in progress. For example, in 1.0 the bass sounded an octave lower than scored (i.e. an octave below the actual octave transposition of the double bass and bass guitar) so that the lowest octave did not sound. In 1.0.10 the notes play correctly, but on input and edit they still sound an octave too low (I believe that this is already fixed and should be in the next update).
Playback of articulations is supplied via expression maps, but these are still somewhat rudimentary, giving an approximation of the sound of the orchestra but missing the nuances of the Vienna Symphonic Library or even the Garritan Personal Orchestra. As the Dorico team suggests using the HALion SE library for playback, it seems that there is a ways to go before this part of Dorico reaches the level of its competitors. While Cubase or Nuendo users may be familiar with expression maps, many others will not be and a tutorial on them would be most helpful. However, the manual on the steinberg.help site does not even have a section on Play Mode.
As previously mentioned, the instruments in Play Mode show in the order of their creation. They cannot be rearranged. On my second attempt I placed each section and quartet in its own Group but this did not affect the Play Mode ordering. Using the provided HALion SE playback engine, the instruments are also placed in MIDI channels in the order of creation. This library seems to be created for playback of scores, since the articulations shown by clicking the middle button in the VST Instruments panel are not sounded when the on-screen keyboard is played, nor are all of the articulations available through notation. Another anomaly I ran into was finding that many string sections had solo expression maps assigned to them while only one solo instrument had a section (or combi) map. These were easy enough to change, but annoying since the instrumental layout did not correspond to my score, so I had to work by instrument name.
The results here were so odd that I tried creating a double orchestra-plus-string-quartet in setup again, and found that while the ordering was still in that of the instruments’ creation, the assigned maps were very different, in fact only solo plus “solo-combi” was assigned. Even stranger were the instruments that showed up in the HALion SE rack, which now included a nylon string guitar! Clearly there is work to be done on Play Mode.
Many of us will have little need for Engrave Mode, although its feature list is impressive, and it makes possible excellent looking Title pages as well as providing for a specific final page different from the rest of the score. Thus there is no need for a blank page at the end if the chosen printing style would ordinarily require it.
This mode also allows for the adjustment of staff spacing, I task I usually dread because I so often accidentally introduce errors in the notation while simple trying to accommodate an unrelated unusually high or low note. Dorico’s separation of functions here assures me that I will not accidentally change a note because it will not allow it. In fact you actually have to “flip a switch” to enable staff spacing changes, and the distances are clearly labelled including the size of the spaces. One or several staves can be adjusted at one time. The full use of this feature, along with an overview of all of the changes in 1.0.10, is in the video in this edition of Making Notes by Daniel Spreadbury.
Print mode gives a wide variety of print options. I was surprised and disappointed to find that I had to choose US Letter as a page size for a second time here as I had already chosen it in Layout Options, and the need for a link is obvious. Print Mode does add the option for a different final page, which again is very useful.
As well available printers, Print Mode will create graphic files of your score (or chosen parts of it) as PDF, PNG, SVG, or TIFF. You can also include the date in the filename automatically. You can also include watermarks, crop marks, borders, and date and time on the graphic. If you prefer, you can also use your OS’s print dialog.
Learning Dorico is needlessly more difficult because there is no complete manual for it yet. There are excellent introductory tutorials, the beginning of a manual on the help page, and user forums where you can often find members of the Dorico team answering questions as well as via tech support. The forum idea for support has become an unfortunate standard as companies cut back on support staff, but the Dorico one is particularly good as the community tends to be both informed and engaged. While this does not ensure that all answers are correct, most tend to be helpful and response is usually quick. There is also Dorico Help option under Help on the main (top-level) menu. This takes you to a search of the steinberg.help manual but also has an option to generate a support ticket to ask a question. Oddly, mine came up in German, which I can speak but am hardly fluent. Another oddity was that the option for choosing a different language was also in German, so you should know that Sprache in this context means language, and you can choose English in the upper-right corner of the top white box that requires a sign-in to your My Steinberg account. This is a cumbersome procedure because you have to have provided personal information previously (probably during registration) which may have been optional but now is mandatory, and you must give consent for it to be shared with tech support to answer your question, however simple it may be. Still just an annoyance, this is really at the upper reach of them with security implications that disturb me. With hackers having the edge in the battle for data safety (and its defeat) I prefer to give them as little information as possible. As a former owner of a computer security business, I prefer to give out information on a definite need to know basis, and so far have yet to use this mechanism.
Dorico is potentially a revolution in music notation software, but its Achilles heel may well be too early a release date. While understandable from a marketing and accounting viewpoint, especially with the year’s big shopping season approaching and fans clamoring for it, the need for a series of updates before it has even become completely usable has undermined confidence in it. This is most noticeable in the playback engine, which needs more tuning to be fully functional as well as to be acceptable to third-party sound library manufacturers to adapt to it.
This is most unfortunate since the heart of the program, the actual notation, is advanced far beyond the competition, and despite a few minor quirks it provides a great deal of flexibility that composers and arrangers have been lacking until now. While many were surprised by the number of bugs found in the initial release, the speed at which these were corrected while new features were being added is very impressive. With the exception of some modern music, most orchestral, band, and vocal music is ready-to-go in a package that exceeds by far anything else on the market. Players will benefit from a wider variety of part formats that rival those that so far have been the purview of the major publishing houses.
Limitations of the playback engine are the result of greatly expanded expectations for notation programs. They are now expected to be virtual sequencers, playing back scores with perfect fidelity, mixed with a little “humanizing” to keep them from sounding robotic. It is clear that the Dorico team has concentrated on making the next generation notation package, and is now turning to bringing Play Mode up to the same level. Note that this is the one area where the Dorico team does not have autonomy, but rather must work with soundware developers both internal and external to Steinberg. Such groups have their own priorities, and scheduling is likely difficult.While third-parties reasonably have a wait-and-see attitude toward new software, in-house developers are more accommodating and so we will likely see a Steinberg-based playback engine complete before others develop Dorico-specific interfaces. Similarly, documentation is often a separate department, and work on a product cannot truly begin until that product is near release. Other projects have their own updates that require documentation, and again scheduling can be a problem. Dorico really is quite intuitive once you get the hang of opening the hidden panels and searching creatively, but those who rely on a manual solely will find their learning curve unnecessarily steepened.
There is no reason to put off buying Dorico at this point unless you need tablature or a complete set of jazz articulations and playback. If in doubt, work with the free 30-day trail and experience Dorico for yourself. While I understand the allure of competitors who are selling their products at rock-bottom prices, consider what might cause them to do so. I believe that a year from now the vast majority of high-end notation will be done in Dorico.