Macintosh Notation Software
Desktop music publishing becomes a serious proposition with this sophisticated notation software for the Apple Mac. Dan Goldstein notates his way around the dots.
Previously the province of specialist copyists, music notation is currently providing a worthy challenge to software writers - take Engraver, an upmarket notation program for the Mac.
MUSIC IS A language. It is understood by almost everyone with a pair of ears. And it is spoken by anyone who can play a musical instrument - and by quite a number who can't.
Unlike most languages, however, music is a very different proposition when it is written down. This is mainly due to its alphabet, which is difficult for a novice to comprehend. Just think: if English was written down as a series of blobs on five horizontal lines, you'd find Music Technology pretty tricky to get to grips with, too.
Nonetheless, and despite the fact that many of today's most successful musicians cannot read music, the blobs are as valid a means of communication now as they've ever been.
These days, many people have their first brush with written music via a computer. This is particularly true in schools, where educational software is helping kids to come to terms with the blobs in a way no moth-eaten music teacher ever could. Sadly, the computer revolution came too late for this writer, who defied every moth-eaten music teacher in Inner London to drum "the dots" into him, and left school a musical illiterate.
A year ago, however, an Apple Macintosh landed on my desk, bringing with it a clutch of exciting-looking graphics programs, a couple of which concerned themselves with engraving music. Twelve months on, and it's a tribute to the mouse, the menus, the windows, and the icons (and all the other things associated with an electronic desktop) that I'm now not just a passable reader of music, but an avid fan of the printed page as a means of communicating musical ideas. A convert to the creed of the blobs, no less.
THERE ARE TWO ways of looking at music typesetting on the Mac. The first angle is that of the musician. If you play an instrument, are reasonably familiar with computers, and have a rudimentary grasp of MIDI, plugging a keyboard into a Mac and getting something useful out of it is not difficult. MIDI interface units for the Mac are not prohibitively expensive (well, not compared with most Mac hardware) and every Mac music program worth its hard disk space supports MIDI in one form or another. From here on, it's a simple matter of playing some music (more on this later), watching what comes up on the Mac screen, printing it out, and trying to work out what it all means. And if you're a "traditional" composer or anybody with an ounce of knowledge of music theory, you'll know what it all means before you even start playing. So - MIDI, the Mac, and some music notation software make up an unbeatable package for yer average modern musician. No more incomprehensible scribble, no more hassle from incompetent copyists, no more tears.
The second angle is that of the graphic designer or desktop layout artist. For these people, the ability to set music very quickly, at publishing-quality resolution, and at any size or scale, means another step taken towards the complete, "desktop publishing" environment that Apple have done so much to promote. Simply being able to set music on a computer - with all the benefits of speed and flexibility that implies - would have been enough. To be able to then place that music on a page alongside text and other graphics, and resize it so that it fits perfectly, is just too wonderful for words. No more incomprehensible scribble, no more hassle from incompetent copyists, no more scalpel-slashed fingers.
Since this is a magazine for musicians, rather than graphic designers, I'll look at Engraver from the first angle, rather than the second. But seeing as the publishing possibilities constitute one very good reason why somebody (anybody) would choose to run a program like this on a Mac rather than an IBM, an Atari, or an Amiga, we'll bear these in mind.
HB Engraver is manufactured by HB Imaging, of Utah, USA. When it first appeared it could confidently claim to be Utah's most illustrious contribution to the music industry since Little Jimmy Osmond. This unpromising backdrop notwithstanding, it promised a good deal, but delivered only some of it, and that not very well. Incomplete, unfriendly, and bug-ridden, early versions of Engraver received a mixed reception from music and graphics critics alike.
HB persevered, ironing out most of the program's operational problems, and even adding new features not mentioned in the initial publicity. The program is now at Version 1.2; the "finished" Version will be 2.0, and how far off that may be is anybody's guess.
You can use Engraver right now without too much grief, and many people are doing just that. In this country several copyists, fully versed in the ways of hand-engraving music, have been won over by Engraver's flexibility, and the BBC are now using it, having tested it alongside most of the competition and found it to be the most straightforward to come to terms with.
LIKE ALL MACINTOSH notation programs, Engraver does its stuff using a special font which gives the computer access to the standard music notation symbols, rather than ordinary letters and numbers. Most programs use a font called Sonata, which was designed by Adobe Systems and has a straightforward if slightly awkward look to it. Engraver can use Sonata, but also comes with its own unique music font called Interlude, which looks more elegant than Sonata, and offers a few extra symbols into the bargain. As with all Macintosh fonts, you need to have two versions of Interlude to get the best from it: a screen (or "bitmapped") font that tells the Mac how to display the music on-screen at various sizes, and a printer font that does the same job on the printed page - ensuring that what you produce actually looks like a piece of music, rather than a page from Ceefax.
Both screen and printer versions of the Interlude font come as part of the Engraver package, which is on two 800K floppy disks. One of these contains the fonts and miscellaneous utilities (more on these later), while the other contains the program itself.
Since Engraver needs a lot of processing power to run at a decent speed, HB recommend your Mac has at least a megabyte of internal RAM at its disposal. And although you could conceivably get by with a double floppy disk drive, a hard disk of some description is essential for any really meaty applications.
You need to install the Interlude screen font in the System Folder of your startup disk (normally your hard disk) before Engraver will function, and herein lies the first headache. Like the program itself, Interlude is being constantly modified and improved, and newer versions may not be entirely compatible with older ones. Thus, a recent Version of Engraver may not run with an old Interlude, and vice versa.
Assuming your copies of Engraver and Interlude are recognising each other's presence, double-clicking on the "HB" icon in the time-honoured fashion gets you into the program, and you're presented with a custom window that does nothing until you select either New or Open from the File menu, when it promptly vanishes in a puff of pixels.
Let's assume you're creating a new piece of written music from scratch - in which case New is the selection to go for. This brings up the first of several custom windows which Engraver uses to organise its many layers of functions, and which, despite having little to do with the standard Mac way of presenting things, are quite logically laid-out.
This first window goes by the catchy nickname of Full System Specifications. And this, oddly enough, is where you specify some fairly fundamental things about how your "manuscript" will look. Like how many staves it will have, how many voices (or "parts" if you prefer) will be playing, which voices will be assigned to which staves, how many lines of lyrics there will be (if any), and whether or not such things as measure bars, brackets, and braces will be printed.
Engraver gives you immense control over each stave and each voice. You could, if you wished, choose to have one staff printed a different height from all the others, or have the voice printed in black while the rest appear at 25% grey. You may prefer more conventional things, like having a clef for each staff, and ensuring the notes for each voice are going to be the same size (measured in points, by the way) at the staves they are assigned to.
Obviously it helps if, at this stage, you have a clear idea of what your piece of music contains in the way of note information, and how you want it to be presented. But, contrary to what some reviewers have implied, it is quite possible to go back to the Full System Specifications window after you've entered some notes, or even an entire score. This comes in handy if decide the whole thing is too small to be read by anybody without the aid of an electron microscope, or it suddenly dawns on you that having some notes print out in black and others in grey looks totally naff.
Clicking OK in the Full System Specifications window gets you in to what is probably Engraver's most important window, because it's where you actually input notes. It doesn't have a name as such, but I'll call it the Note Input window for convenience. You can't do everything here, though. There's also a Lyrics window, a Page View window, a Dynamics window, and a Page Setup window. The first two of these are pretty straightforward, but the other pair need a bit of explaining - more on them in a bit.
EARLIER VERSIONS OF Engraver failed the serious user badly by offering only one staff (and one voice) on-screen at a time in the Note Input window. This meant you couldn't see how the voice whose notes you were entering related to all the other voices, necessitating either (a) a very good memory or (b) a piece of paper and a pencil alongside the trusty mouse - which rather seemed to go against the whole point of using software like this. Happily, the situation has now been rectified, and you can see as many staves and voices in the Note Input window as your screen will allow. This is especially good if you have a giant 19" screen of the type that is becoming more and more commonplace in computer-based design studios. To reduce confusion, only the voice you've chosen to work on - and its associated stave - are shown in black in this window, while all the others are shown in grey. Well, there had to be a use for it somewhere...
Choosing which voice you want to work on is simply a matter of clicking on one of a pair of up-down arrows to the left of the main Note Input display, while you can switch from measure to measure (or from bar to bar, as we British would say) using a small dialogue box underneath. Under that is another box for inputting and storing favourite chords - which can save a lot of note-input time, believe me - and underneath that is yet another box, in which you can select the note value you're currently using.
In practice, however, it's far quicker to use the Mac's keyboard for selecting note values, since Engraver uses a clever way of assigning different keystrokes to different notes. To give you an idea of what's involved, hitting the 3 key on the Mac gives you a crotchet (or quarter-note), hitting 3 and then D gives you a dotted crotchet, hitting 3 and R gives you a crotchet rest, and hitting 3 then D then R gives you a dotted crotchet rest. Engraver goes all the way from the rarely used breve (what the Americans would call two whole notes; zero on the Mac's keyboard) to a 1/128th note, so there's little chance of the program not being able to cope with the basics of your score.
As well as notes and rests, you can use keyboard shortcuts to select such things as sharp, flat, and natural signs, additional treble and bass clefs (should your piece change clef halfway through), grace notes, and parentheses.
That's about it for the Note Input window, though. Anything else your music may require before it is printed has to be added via other screens.
Before you progress to those other screens, however, you really need to go into the Page Layout window to determine some more musical basics. Like how long your
staves (or "systems" as Engraver now calls them) are going to be, how many of them are going to fit onto a page, and which time and key signatures are going to be awarded to which measures. Here you work from a greatly miniaturised version of the finished page(s), using a hand tool to shift measures about and alter their length, and double-clicking on any measure to bring up a sort of sub-window that presents the time and key signature options, as well as control over repeat signs. Any time or key signature is possible - for the former you're given a sub-sub-window in which you can enter a different value of your choice for the top and bottom numbers.
It's crucial to set these parameters before you start mucking about with dynamics because, obviously, your notes are going to be pushed together or spread out depending on how much space you've allowed them, and because Engraver - being immensely clever - automatically arranges note position and alignment depending on the time signature you have chosen.
OPENING UP THE Dynamics window gives you a first view of your music as it will actually be printed. Because in order to save on processing time, the Note Input window continues to show just note values and their position on the staff, not relative spacing, even after you have made your adjustments in the Page Layout window.
It's at this point that you may suddenly realise all your stems are pointing in the wrong direction, or that you have missed one vital 1/128th note and therefore buggered up the alignment of an entire section. Unfortunately, you have to go back to the Note Input Window to correct this sort of error, which entails closing the Dynamics window. I'd strongly advise making such corrections before adding any dynamics, though, even if the temptation (particularly with a long piece of music) is to mix 'n' match a bit so that you do a little dynamics followed by a little note input, then a little more dynamics, and so on. Apart from anything else. adding or taking away note information inevitably means realigning the notes on any given staff, and even though Engraver does its best to realign any dynamics that have already been placed, this isn't always possible.
One major criticism of Engraver - and a fairly fundamental one, given the program's initial partiality to crashing at awkward moments - was that you could only save your work to disk while at the Note Input window. Thankfully, this problem has been addressed, because you can now save while working in Dynamics mode as well. But it's still unfortunately true that every time you close the Dynamics window and go back to Note Input, you find yourself at the beginning of your piece - regardless of the point at which you were just placing dynamics. To say that this is a pain when typesetting a major-length symphony is to let Engraver off the hook - although in fairness, I should point out that you can control which measure or page you are led into by the Dynamics and Page View windows, via a familiar-looking Preferences dialogue box.
Setting aside these minor operational hassles, I can't emphasise enough just how enormous the scope of Engraver's Dynamics window is. If the program has a star feature, this is it. To begin with, you can work in a variety of viewing scales, from an eighth of actual size up to 16 times actual size, or 1600%. At the latter scale the most you can see is one giant, menacing blob filling the entire screen, and I find myself sticking with 400% viewing even for the most detailed work.
Placing dynamics - numbers, slurs, lines, accents, custom text - precisely is a simple matter thanks to crosshair, grid, and "forced alignment" options, though you don't have to use any of these, and I found the first two adequate for most purposes. Even if you place something inaccurately, you can always move it lust by clicking and dragging - a process that's made all the more precise by the provision of "handles" on such items as slurs, which allow you to move one part of an object while the rest of it stays put.
The custom dynamic text options are probably the most fascinating of the lot, since they allow you to place any text anywhere you like on or around the staff, at virtually any size, and in any font you happen to have installed in your Macintosh system.
The same kind of flexibility exists when inputting lyrics which have their own separate window - except that this time you select type style and size from a pull-down menu, and Engraver cleverly aligns each new syllable of text with each new note of music.
The final Engraver input window, Page View, used to be called Block Text, since one of its functions is to serve as an overall screen for typing in piece headings, copyright notices, and other notes related to the score as a whole, rather than to individual notes, measures, or staves.
However, since this is the only window where you can get a view of the finished page as it will print, HB have wisely renamed it in the belief that people will turn to it last and have a quick peek before printing just to make sure everything's OK. This is just as well because, usually, everything is not OK. Back to the other windows, then.
THERE IS, OF course, one other way of checking your score is as it should be, which is to get the Mac to play it back for you. This it will do quite happily in a dull, pure sinewave tone - which seems a bit of a waste on something like a Mac II, which has an Ensoniq sound chip in it.
Alternatively, you can elect to play your score back over MIDI. Engraver lets you assign different voices to a choice of four different MIDI channels, and the result can speed up the proofing process considerably: assigning different strings samples to different parts in a chamber music score is quite straightforward, and connecting a drum machine with assignable MIDI channels could be a quick way of checking drum notation.
The other side of the MIDI coin, that of actually inputting notes from a musical instrument, has finally been addressed by Version 1.2. Don't hold your breath if you want to play pieces into Engraver in real time. You can't. What you can do is record them in step time, which is just as good because, even if real-time note entry were a possibility, you would have to spend hours correcting timing mistakes, adding dynamics, and so forth. Believe me: for anything longer than a four-bar intro, step-time recording is the only answer. At least until computers get much, much quicker, and the software becomes available to get the most from them.
When all looks to be well and good with your score, you can print it out on virtually any Mac-compatible printer. A dot-matrix Image Writer will give you a resolution of 72dpi (dots per inch), which is the same as the screen and not really good enough for publishing; fine for sketchpad work, though.
A LaserWriter will give you at least 300dpi, but only if you have remembered to download the printer font version of Interlude, along with the printer files for any other fonts you have included in your score for text or whatever. This downloading has to be done with a program called AltSys Download (which comes on the Engraver Utilities disk), since the standard Apple Font Downloader seems to have problems with Interlude.
Any other printer compatible with the PostScript PDL (Page Description Language) will print Engraver files at whatever resolution is available. Which, in the case of professional typesetting machines, is anything from 1275dpi to 245Odpi. This is serious publishing stuff, and produces results which are, in many cases, aesthetically superior to the work of a hand copyist.
HB ENGRAVER IS as sophisticated and as versatile a music notation program as is currently available. As such, it obeys musical rules, rather than Macintosh ones. Which means that, very often, you find yourself staring dumbfounded at the screen, wondering why the program has done something which all logic, experience, and even the manual (which is no great shakes, by the way) suggest it should not be doing.
But over the months I've been using Engraver, I've come to the conclusion that anything is possible. The knack, it seems, is to find a way of making the program think you're trying to do something you're not - whereupon it will allow you to do what you were trying to do in the first place. It may require a bit of lateral thinking, not to mention a gallon of black coffee, but it is possible.
And even if it isn't, there is the possibility that a set of utilities known as HB ToolBox (still in a somewhat formative stage of development at time of writing) will allow you to adjust almost any aspect of note size, spacing, and alignment. Beyond that, there is the second possibility of exporting an Engraver file as a "template" for Adobe Illustrator, one of the most successful precision graphic programs running on the Mac. Once you're in Illustrator, you can stretch your notes, bend them, reflect them, rotate them, colour them in, and do 101 other things to make them look utterly horrible - or quite, quite beautiful.
After Engraver, the blobs may never look the same again.
Price £425 including VAT
Review by Dan Goldstein