MOTU Professional Composer
Macintosh Scorewriting Software
One of the leaders of the Mac Pack is Mark Of The Unicorn's Professional Composer. Ian Waugh reports on the latest version of one of the leading Macintosh scorewriters.
Following the reappraisal of MOTU's revamped Performer Mac sequencer last month, it's the turn of the Composer scorewriter on the MT test bench.
This is going to be the year of the Mac. Over one million Classics were sold worldwide in 1991, and the installed Mac user base has risen 42% between 1990 and 1991. Even the Japanese market share doubled from '90 to '91. In the UK, Mac music software is getting a higher profile - Mark of the Unicorn's top-flight Performer sequencer got the MT treatment last month, now it's the turn of their Professional Composer. And if you haven't already guessed, it's a scorewriter.
Like Performer, Professional Composer (review v2.3M) requires a minimum of a Mac Plus and a 800K disk drive. But let's not beat around the bush; as mentioned in the Performer review, any halfway serious Mac user will have a hard disk and at least 2Meg of RAM. Anyone running System 7 will need 4Meg minimum to stay sane.
Also like Performer, Composer is copy-protected. You can either use the program disk as a key disk or do a hard disk install and risk losing it if your machine goes down. It's key disks for me - until MOTU follow companies such as Passport (and even Electronic Arts) and take the copy-protection off.
Composer was reviewed on a Mac IIsi running under MultiFinder 6.07 along with a wordprocessor on which this is being written.
The "M" in the version number stands for MIDI and this version supports input and output via MIDI. A separate 40-page booklet deals with this. Most of the new functions are in a new MIDI menu so it's no major problem. However, it's worth skimming through the booklet as you work through the main manual so you can compare the input and playback options.
Unlike some scorewriters, Composer doesn't use a page format, rather you enter music on several long staves. The page formatting comes later. I prefer this method, as it lets you concentrate on getting the score right without worrying about the page layout.
The first step is to set up the staves, clefs, key and time signatures, which is easily done from various menus. You can add and delete staves so you can add more parts as you go (again, without worrying at this stage about page format).
There isn't a "move stave" option so it's best to get them in the right order to start with, but there's always the copy function if you don't (although text has to be handled separately). Staves with braces, brackets, stave and bar lines can all be connected.
You can insert clefs, key and time signatures at any point in the score. Time signatures affect all staves, whereas a key signature affects only one stave. This is unlikely to worry the majority of users but it may restrict avant-garde composers, and even some classical music uses mixed time signatures.
However, it is possible to display different time signatures on different staves, but you have to adjust the layout yourself. Changing time signatures within a score won't automatically readjust the bar lines for you. There is a Rebar function and a Check Rhythm function, but these don't always quite put back together again that which you so easily managed to take apart. Don't know why. This is one area in which the computer should help us mortals out of the holes we bury ourselves in.
You can add bar numbers and specify how often they appear, and enter rehearsal marks too. If you're working on a large score, there are options to take you to a rehearsal mark and bar number.
Each stave may have an instrument assigned to it. This doesn't simply give it a name, it gives it an associated note range and transpose setting. These are used with Check Range and Transpose Part functions, which check to see if you've written something the instrument can't play. You can redefine any of the supplied settings and create your own. Very nice.
Composer also facilitates assignation of MIDI channels to staves for playback (more in a moment).
Scores may be entered in three ways - with the mouse, from the Mac's keyboard and via MIDI - although you can't enter symbols via MIDI. There are nine palettes - Notes, Rests, Dynamics, Ornaments, Special, Articulation, Barlines, Jazz and Clefs. These sit to the left of the staves and you may have as many on screen as you wish.
A vertical line cursor on the score indicates the horizontal position and a small rectangle on the line indicates the current vertical position. To enter a symbol with the mouse, you click the line onto the required spot, drag the rectangle up and down the line to the required note pitch or symbol position and then click on the symbol in the palette. Easy.
For speed, you can select a note's duration by holding down one of a number of keys on the Mac's keyboard and then clicking (or dragging) its pitch on the stave.
You can move the insertion point using the Mac's keyboard but you'll have to learn the keys to use. They are grouped together but not mnemonically. The G and B keys move the insertion point up and down the stave, while the U, I, O and P keys move the cursor left, up, down and right (a throwback to the days before Macs had cursor keys?). I've never seen a set of cursor keys grouped in this way and it takes a little getting used to.
There are also keystrokes for notes so you can enter them using only the keyboard (for PC convertees?) but that's not my idea of a night out. What about support for cursor keys and/or a keyboard overlay?
The program will enter bar lines for you automatically(!) and even split and tie notes which are too long for the bar over a bar line. Fine.
MIDI input is accomplished by selecting a note duration on the computer's keyboard and hitting a key on a MIDI keyboard. You can't click on a duration on the palette and then play the MIDI keyboard, as the act of clicking on a note puts it on the stave.
The system works well and it's fairly quick, but it does mean you have to learn where the duration keys are on the Mac's keyboard. Why not let us click a duration on the palette and then play a note? And it would be nice if the currently-selected durations were highlighted on the palette.
"Scores may be entered in three ways - with the mouse, from the Mac's keyboard and via MIDI - although you can't enter symbols via MIDI."
Entering the notes is only a part of a scorewriter's job. It has to be able to cope with note groupings, beams, textual instructions and the myriad of other symbols music notation uses.
Accidentals, ornaments, dynamic markings and the like are selected from the palettes. Many symbols are attached to specific notes and are difficult to remove without removing the note also. The Undo Delete function doesn't always give you back what you took away.
To beam notes you highlight the group by clicking and dragging and select Beam from the Groupings menu. You can flip the stems, add slurs, ties, crescendos and decrescendos, octave markings, trills, grace notes and glissandos. If you drag the mouse downwards or upwards during highlighting, you can place the slurs and lies under or over the notes. Neat. However, the program will tie notes of different pitches, which would have got its knuckles rapped at my music school.
There are also Second Slur and Tie marks which place a short slur over selected notes within a larger slurred area. Triplets and tuplets are easy to create - highlight the number of notes you want to "uplet" and up pops the most likely configuration. You can alter it if it isn't what you want.
End bars may be specified from 0-9 (a zero ending bar?). The amazing Invisify Rests function makes rests invisible in printing: useful, the manual suggests, if you merge staves (coming up).
Clicking on an area to the left of a stave will select the entire stave and you can make regions remain highlighted with a toggle option in the Basics menu.
The symbols are placed at the insertion point and although they're generally in the right place, it's up to you to make sure they're aligned properly. It's possible for a hairpin, for example, to overlap a note beam or text if you're not careful.
There are global spacing settings for certain symbols such as crescendos, dynamic markings and so on but these affect all symbols throughout the score. It would be useful to be able to "pick up" symbols and drag them around the score. Generally you have to erase and replace.
The Special symbols palette includes movable rests which can be placed anywhere, a displacement character (which acts like an invisible rest to prevent the overlapping of notes which are a second apart when you merge staves), and a whitespace character (which performs a similar function but which you might use to compensate for an offset produced by an accidental).
After entering one displacement character you have to enter others to readjust the following notes in the bar. Surely these lining-up functions are tasks the computer should be performing automatically?
Composer doesn't support multiple voices on a single stave but you can create multi-voice staves by merging them from the Variations menu. This is where the invisify rest command and the displacement character come in. You can't edit a stave after merging but there's an unmerge option to give control back to you. However, wouldn't it be nice if you could work with more than one voice on a stave in the first place?
Another option lets you double or halve the rhythmic values in a score, or you can select the lowest note value for the score, and scale all the other notes accordingly.
The Rebar function affects all staves and should be a universal panacea for all those odd time signatures you made a mess of. However, if you have different time signatures on different staves or odd numbers of beats in some bars, it may not work as you expect. It's not undoable (you do save regularly, don't you?) and it removes all text.
Check Rhythm and Check Range in the Extras menu will seek out and highlight any bars with an odd number of beats and any notes which are outside a stave's note range as defined by the stave's instrument setting.
You can transpose a part by key, interval or diatonic interval, and write parts for transposing instruments in concert pitch or their key and convert them from one to the other. A Chord Invert function will invert all chords in a selected region upwards or downwards. Cute.
Space between staves can be inserted by increasing the number of leger lines they support in the stave's instrument menu. Use this to create space below a stave for lyrics. Text insert mode lets you Tab along the notes as you insert lyrics so each syllable is neatly centred under each note. They only space out when you finish entering the bar, so don't fret if it looks wrong during entry. If the words are too long for the bar, it makes the bar longer. That's the way it should be.
You can change the text font, size and style and copy text from one region to another.
Composer uses a couple of specialist fonts for the music symbols - ChordFont and Sonata. Some Sonata fonts are supplied, but the manual suggests you may like to send a cheque to Adobe for the complete set. I'd rather have everything I need in with the program I buy.
"Composer has lots of brilliant features: assigning instruments to staves is a gem, lyrics are handled well and there's an excellent range of symbols."
ChordFont is used for entering chord names above the stave and includes some extra music symbols.
MOTU'S Performer has limited notation facilities and the company hope, I'm sure, that Performer users will rush out and buy Composer in order to print their music.
Performer has a Save as Composer option which saves a file in a format Composer can read. It can only save the currently-enabled sequence as a Composer file (although you can convert a song to a sequence in the Chunks window) and you are advised to give it a run through the quantise mill first.
However, as is the nature of MIDI, music timings and conversion programs, you'll be lucky if you get out the score you thought you put in. The Performer manual even suggests that for scorewriting purposes you should input notes in step time. Sort of defeats the object of the exercise. Performer can read Composer files, however, and this works rather better, as you might imagine.
Composer cannot read MIDI files, which restricts its usefulness in file conversion to Performer and limits its appeal to Performer owners. An insular standpoint, surely.
Although Composer isn't a sequencer, it has limited playback facilities. You can playback either through the Mac's speaker or via MIDI. Unfortunately, you can only hear the four topmost notes of the first four staves - even via MIDI - which restricts its use somewhat!
The MIDI section has a Thru function, mainly for use if you're using a separate expander, which sends incoming notes back out on a selected MIDI channel. Auto Patch Thru can automatically select a different MIDI channel for each stave, which is useful too.
Composer supports a title page for the score along with page headers and footers with options to flip them from one side of the page to the other when printing odd- and even-numbered pages. You have quite a degree of control over the printing. You can force a new page and a new line and indent the lines. There's a split rests option which prints a block rest with the figure 2 above it, which is common in band parts.
Some settings require your interaction, however. To force the last system to print across to the right of a page you have to add an extra bar to the score and insert a Force New Page command. Something else the computer could/should do?
You can print the entire score, a partial score or individual parts. Partial printing lets you select noncontiguous staves. You get a preview of the score before printing; which lets you go back and reformat if it's not right.
ImageWriter users can create special page sizes, otherwise the page setup routines are similar to those used for other applications. Even if you don't have an ImageWriter, if you select ImageWriter in the Chooser you get the option to save pages as MacPaint files. The file is a bitmapped image, however, and prints as such.
The printout from Composer itself is excellent - although it really should be on a 300dpi PostScript printer - and you won't get much better quality anywhere.
The manual is divided into three sections and is generally fairly clear. The first section is a short introduction. Follow this and you'll soon have entered the first four bars of 'Ja-Da' (this is well before your time, however old you are). The extra manual to accompany v2.3M explains how to enter four bars of a Bach minuet. The second section takes you through most of the functions in considerably more detail and this is followed by a reference section which explains all the menu options.
It's always good to see what a company can do with its own program so it was particularly disappointing not to see any demo files.
I don't think anyone would argue with the fact that Coda's Finale is the premier scorewriter for the Mac, even though it's not quite as plug-in-and-go as Mac users like their software to be, and it does tip the scales at around 700 quid. Composer is more accessible, but there's still QWERTY keying involved which takes the edge off the instant access Mac users love and expect (but don't always get).
In keeping with Performer's approach to changing numeric values, you usually have to type these in rather than click on adjustor buttons. And, like Performer, you can't have more than one file open, which means global cut and pastes between files must be done via the Clipboard - inconvenient, to say the least.
A more comprehensive Undo function would be useful to undo the last copy, paste function and so on, as would more flexible symbol placement.
The program could also be more helpful by automatically adjusting the bar lines and notes therein, and by sorting the spacing out without making you resort to the fudge of displacement and whitespace characters. Manual correction really shouldn't be necessary. If you want multi-part staves, you have to merge them, which limits its convenience for certain types of music.
While it's useful to find a scorewriter with the ability to playback via MIDI, Composer's four-note restriction will, again, limit its usefulness in this area. The program, amazingly, doesn't support the MIDI File format. The only way to convert realtime sequences to a score is to use MOTU's Performer. But even this combination isn't ideal. Apart from the cost, it's a faff running between the two programs and through the conversion process, and the result isn't always as you might like it. You can't beat a combined sequencer/scorewriter for this sort of work. These are observations rather than niggles and, being fair, many of them won't affect a large number of potential users.
Composer has lots of brilliant features, too. Assigning instruments to staves is a gem of an idea, lyrics are handled well and there's an excellent range of symbols. Page formatting is flexible and output is neat and impressive. It's fairly easy to get into the program (Mac keyboard commands notwithstanding), it's not overly complex and it is enjoyable to use.
All you have to do is count your pennies and make sure the limitations aren't going to affect your scores. If they aren't, then Professional Composer is well worth checking out.
Price £459 including VAT.
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