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Music: A New Ensemble for the Creative Spirit

By Mark Laiosa
arttimesjournal February 24, 2017

How do you capture something you can't see but can hear?

Capturing sound in forms of music notation for future generations to replicate has evolved from the early neumes to the beautifully illuminated Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. As the need for precision grew so did notation to the present day.

The ages-old oral tradition of sharing songs is global. It's always been possible to create a song without putting paper to pen, as recently experienced at an art opening. A composer pulled out her smart phone and played her piece, no need to learn notation when you can record, edit, and press play.

For music creators in 2017, there's a new ensemble of hardware and updated StaffPad software and Windows 10 bringing music notation to an efficiency yet to be seen.

The hardware trio of pen, Surface Dial, and the new Microsoft Surface Book with a powerful new processor work synergistically, yielding greater speed and flexibility in capturing your creative bursts and reducing time spent arranging or orchestrating. The Microsoft Surface book has two batteries that can keep you in the creative zone, depending on the tasks, for several hours, and the detachable 13 and a half inch screen makes it easy to use as a tablet while on the go.

Learning to write traditional music notation took time, learning to write the simplified notation for StaffPad is helped along with interactive tutorials. First StaffPad asks your handed-ness, then you trace note heads, stems, and flags with simple strokes. If understood by the program, the notes are converted to Bravura font! If not, the staff turns orange and time to retrace. Rests are simplified, the numeral 7, for 8th note rests, “s” shapes for quarter note rests. Video demos reinforce the interactive lessons. The program is written to ignore your writing hand resting on the screen. As your writing and StaffPad doesn't understand your scrawl, the music bar will turn orange, alerting you that revisions need to be made, not stopping the program and tripping up your creative flow for corrections. StaffPad takes digital music notation to a new level and is a good replacement for paper and pencil, or the inkwell and nibs of not too long ago.

Editing is easy, to change a note, place the pen over the note, when it turns blue the pitch will sound and you can raise or lower the note head accordingly. By the way, the score can toggle between at pitch or transposed notation. A finger tap on a bar of music activates it, making it movable.

The Surface Dial is similar in shape to a hockey puck and communicates via Bluetooth and can be placed next to the screen or placed on the screen to copy a bar of music, lift and place on the new location and presto, it appears. Highly efficient for arranging or orchestrating. Other Surface Dial features include playback, transposing, undoing and copying. In a short time your hands are working together in a creative counterpoint. The surface Dial is compatible with Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, 4, Surface Book, and Surface Studio. Check with your computer manufacturer to see if you have an active digitizer for StaffPad's pen/stylus use. StaffPad is not available for Apple or Macs.

The creators of StaffPad made sample recordings of world class musicians, usually several takes of the same note. These are blended for nuanced phrasing used in the expression mode. Options for each instrument include muting, adjustable playback and reverb levels, panning and printing exclusions.

Several ensemble templates are included in StaffPad, or build your own from the list that looks familiar to users of Sibelius The sound library is standard European orchestra and popular music instruments. Guitars and other fretted instruments samples can be purchased on-line. A unique StaffPad feature is the Expression Mode. A nuanced performance is accomplished by tracing the rise and fall of the phrase that appears as blue shading. The timbre is accomplished by the blending of at least two discrete recorded tracks.

Music notation is more than the correct note at the right time and volume. StaffPad uses a tile system for performance directions; rehearsal letters, articulations, trills and octave markings that are activated with a finger or pen tap.

Additional performance directions like con sordino, with mute, are done by placing the pen at the insert point just above the screen's surface, a pop up screen asks if you want to add lyrics or text. Type in con sordino, hit return, and it appears in italic. When you want senza sordino, without mute, hover above the screen and type senza sordino. StaffPad is well designed with a layout that avoids crowding, and has space between dynamic markings, expression directions, articulations, and lyrics.

Music creation is often a collaboration, traditionally paper tabs or inserts would convert a score into a lumpy pile of paper, at the risk of losing an insert. Written editorial or production notes in StaffPad appear as a separate layer while using the sketchpad feature. Its handy for performance notes and communicating with collaborators on the next Broadway hit, or the cornerstone of 21st century opera or genres yet to be defined! With StaffPad, you can send files in mp3, WAV, MusicXML, or midi formats, it's quite versatile.

StaffPad is written by musicians David William Hearn and Matthew Tesch for musicians, not just the classically inclined. Tiles for doits and fall-offs, another for scoops and plops will save time for big band, jazz, and contemporary music creators. Would love to see a chord chart tile for fretted instruments helpful for music teachers and arrangers.

An efficient feature is Microsoft's Cortina acting as a Composer assistant. After training Cortina, you can give score preparation directions, “add a 3 4 time signature”, or tasks like sharing scores, and almost anything else. A comic note, during the early stages of training and exploring Cortina's abilities, when asked to make tea, Cortina suggested key. Sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan plot to me. Seriously, the Composer Assistant does save time, streamlining score preparation and communication.

Overall, The Microsoft Surface Book and pen, Surface Dial, and StaffPad makes a powerful ensemble to support your creative musical endeavors.

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