In just a few years, we’ve gone from “stylus…yecch” to “stylus…yeah!” Although Apple is finally getting in the game with a pen-and-touch system for pro tablets, it’s Microsoft that first demonstrated the viability of the stylus and has been pushing its full integration into the PC experience with its Surface line of devices.

Yesterday Microsoft announced the next generation of Surfaces, including the Surface Pro 4 and the new Surface Book. The Surface Pro 4 manages to improve the screen resolution and size from its predecessor, among other improvements, and the Surface Book is taking the detachable keyboard concept to its most advanced level yet — a fully powered laptop with an additional GPU inside the keyboard.

Both Surfaces will be available October 26: the Surface Pro costs $900 and the Surface Book costs $1,500.

Last night at a Microsoft launch event in New York, I had a chance to try out the new devices. While there was quite a gathering to try out a Surface Hub and a number of gaming devices, I was most interested in taking the music software out for a spin.

In conjunction with the announcement, StaffPad co-founder David William Hearn announced that StaffPad for Windows 10 will be released as a free update at the end of October, along with the new Surfaces. It’s not a minor update; it’s rebuilt to fully take advantage of the new OS, including new features like partial bar selection, swing playback, handwritten dynamics symbols recognition, sketch layer colors, and a new voice activated smart assistant.

The basic concept hasn’t changed, though — if you use StaffPad already, you’ll easily adapt to the improvements (read our initial comprehensive review of StaffPad here).


The early build was on display for visitors to get their hands on it, and so far, the results are impressive. In addition to the features described above, the toolbars are nicely consolidated into a single position at the top of the screen, resulting in a much more natural experience as opposed to having to swipe up from the bottom to access certain features.

One particularly interesting development to me wasn’t specific to StaffPad, but had to do with the Surface’s new stylus. It finally has a proper eraser where you’d expect it to be, at the top of the pen, instead of as a button on the side. I had almost as much fun erasing music as I did writing it, though admittedly it was slightly slower since you have to flip around the pen to use it, of course.

David made the trip over from London and was on hand to give demos and to visit with users.


I was also intrigued by a version of Bitwig Studio that is optimized for the Surface. Bitwig is a DAW that is geared for both live performance and studio production, and founder Claes Johanson was present to talk visitors through the multi-touch features and gestures like the radial menu and touch keyboard.


While yesterday’s announcement wasn’t a music-central event, it was nice to see these impressive apps prominently featured as part of Microsoft’s strategy for promoting the Surface and its potential for creative users, as evidenced by the prominence of StaffPad in the morning presentation:

It may also explain Avid’s recent focus on optimizing Sibelius for the Surface (at the expense, some might argue, of developing other notation and engraving features for the moment).

If you’re a Windows user (or thinking about becoming one) and are starting to wonder whether your next music device should be a laptop or a tablet, Microsoft has made it so it’s approaching the point where you may no longer have to choose between the two.


A 37-key addition to the Xkey MIDI keyboard family

by Philip Rothman on October 5, 2015 · 1 comment

in News

xkey-profileIn April of last year I wrote about the Xkey 25-key mobile keyboard controller, a MIDI keyboard made by CME. The Xkey caters to both the mobile musician seeking a lightweight controller and the more stationary user with limited desktop space.

Generally I fall into the latter category, and I was so pleased with the Xkey that after testing it became my note-entry tool of choice. Its simple design belied a surprisingly sophisticated feature set, with polyphonic aftertouch and many customizable settings via the free Xkey Plus app, for PC, Mac, and iOS.

But having only two octaves available was somewhat limiting. Like just about all portable MIDI keyboards, the Xkey 25 includes octave adjustment buttons, which I found myself pressing often. And if I wanted to actually play a musical passage into a sequencer or notation program (as opposed to doing step-time entry), I found the two-octave range limiting.

So when Xkeys came out with a 37-key version, I wanted to see if it mitigated those shortcomings. After several months working with it, I can happily report that it does so, and then some.

Siblings: The Xkey 37 and 25

Siblings: The Xkey 37 and 25

In most respects the Xkey 37 closely resembles it’s older (but smaller) sibling, with the addition of the extra octave. It has the same slim profile (just 3.9mm high) and aluminum body. The velocity-sensitive keys allow for a degree of expressiveness in your playing, although CME’s marketing hyperbole — “Shut your eyes and you’ll think you’re playing a regular piano” — is a wild stretch unless you have never actually played a real piano or even a weighted keyboard.

The Xkey 37 has the same customized “slim” version of the micro USB (micro-B) cable to connect to your computer or tablet (iPad users will need the Lightning to USB Camera Adapter). The octave adjustment, modulation, pitch bend and sustain buttons are still there.

The Xkey 37 alongside my Logitech wireless keyboard and trackball

The Xkey 37 alongside my Logitech wireless keyboard and trackball

It’s interesting how the addition of just one octave can make a world of difference, though. When using the Xkey 37 for step-time entry, you can cover nearly the entire range of most instruments without needing to switch back and forth using the octave key. And when playing in real-time, you can actually play a reasonable amount of two-handed music comfortably.

It’s that latter improvement that no doubt led CME to add the best new feature of the Xkey 37: an included cable with sustain and expression pedal inputs, and MIDI OUT capabilities. The proprietary Xcable plugs into the left side of the Xkey 37, and splits three ways. The MIDI OUT is a traditional 5-pin plug, and the sustain and expression pedals are the standard 1/4″ headphone-style jack that allow you to connect those pedals directly to the keyboard.


The free Xkey Plus app for PC, Mac, and iOS is updated regularly. The app isn’t necessary to work with the Xkey — the keyboard is fully class-compliant, meaning it’s simply plug-and-play — but advanced users will appreciate the ability to save configurations and customize settings down to the sensitivity of each individual key, should it be necessary.

xkey-plusAs far as portability is concerned, the Xkey 37 weighs in just shy of 2 lbs (880g), so it’s unlikely to break your back. Its length might be a more awkward factor; at 22 inches, you’ll need a bag large enough to accommodate it comfortably.

At $200 from most retailers like Amazon and Sweetwater (£149 from Amazon in the UK), the Xkey 37 is double the cost of its smaller 25-key sibling. For some, the price may seem steep for what seems, on the surface, like such a slight device. But beneath that simplicity is some pretty impressive engineering, and if you’re on the road a lot or are looking for a note-entry companion to your music software that looks great and doesn’t overpower the rest of your workspace, the XKey 37 fits the bill nicely.

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Sibelius 8.0.1 update available

by Philip Rothman on September 29, 2015 · 8 comments

in News

update-downloadToday Avid released Sibelius v8.0.1, the first update to Sibelius since its latest release in June this year. It’s also the first update made under the new support and upgrade scheme introduced along with Sibelius v8.

It is a fairly typical “.0.1” update, which much attention given to fixing bugs relating to the new annotation features, pen support, multi-touch, and high-res displays, as well as identifying and fixing some situations in which Sibelius crashes.

Sibelius v8.0.1 once again allows for “lasso” mode (making a selection by holding down Command on Mac and Shift on PC and using the mouse), correcting a regression introduced in Sibelius in June.

8.0.1 restores Quick Look, the Mac previewing feature, for all Sibelius files, after having been disabled in 8. There are also a number of corrections to the display of text in dialogs and menus on Mac as Sibelius now correctly uses the Lucida Grande font as before. This came about due to changes Apple made in Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite.

On PC, 8.0.1 brings with it more refined support for the pen, fixing a number of selection problems. It is now possible to scroll through the score using one finger on touch screens and two fingers on trackpads when in Annotate and Note Input mode. Tweaks have also been made to the visibility of the cursor and the transport panel.

About the update, senior product manager Sam Butler told me: “We have a new smoothing algorithm that makes lines smoother and more efficient to draw, speeding up score redraw times and improving overall appearance. Annotation lines are thicker by default too, helping those with just a mouse but also allowing those with a pen to be more expressive.”

In addition to these and some other bug fixes, there are also a few nice modest improvements:

  • Pinch-to-zoom now works as you’d expect, zooming into wherever you have your cursor on screen (on Mac) or where your fingers are on Windows touch devices, instead of always in the middle of the screen;
  • When in Annotate mode, the cursor changes to a pen;
  • Translated versions of the Reference, Tutorials and What’s New documentation are now available in all eight languages that Sibelius supports;
  • One I’m particularly pleased about — Sibelius 8.0.1 now includes default support for the Norfolk family of fonts, with presets already entered. This means that users will simply be able to select Norfolk from the list of music fonts in Text > Format > Edit All Fonts and not need to spend time first setting it up in File > Preferences > Music Fonts, though you’ll still have to download the fonts separately (for free) from the NYC Music Services web site. The Norfolk fonts are updated with new documentation as well as some significant improvements made by Robin Walker to the Norfolk Special Extra Std font. Registered users of the Norfolk font are receiving a custom link today via e-mail to download the update to the Norfolk fonts.
The cursor now changes to a pen when in Annotate mode in Sibelius 8.0.1

The cursor now changes to a pen when in Annotate mode in Sibelius 8.0.1

Unfortunately there is still no way to filter annotations within a selection — and no plug-in has yet been devised to remove them — so if you’ve got a lot of them, it could be time-consuming to get rid of them (you can, of course, prevent them from being viewed by going to View > Invisibles and unchecking Annotations.

On the official Avid blog, Sam Butler also noted the following regarding compatibility with the tomorrow’s forthcoming official release of Mac OS X 10.11 “El Capitan”:

It’s important to note that Sibelius is not yet fully qualified on Mac OS X El Capitan (10.11). We’ve worked hard on improving the experience of Sibelius on Apple’s next operating system but there are still issues that mean we don’t recommend you upgrading to Mac OS X 10.11 yet. We’ll announce further news on compatibility and support for El Capitan in due course.

If the new features introduced in June haven’t enticed you to upgrade from 7.5.1, this update will probably not compel you to do so, either. Those upgrading from an earlier version such as 7.1.3 can feel more confident of v8.0.1’s stability and can upgrade from a reseller or from Avid’s online store. Of course, if you’ve already got v8, then you’ll want to get v8.0.1 right away. It’s available from the Avid Application Manager that was also introduced with Sibelius in June or  through your Avid Master Account.


El Capitan and music notation software (updated)

by Philip Rothman on September 28, 2015 · 1 comment

in News

El_Capitan_OS_XWhether or not you think Apple’s nicknames for its operating system are getting ever more fanciful, if you’re a Mac user and use notation software, you’ll want to know if you should upgrade to El Capitan (Mac OS X 10.11) upon its official release on Wednesday, September 30.

In advance of the release, I reached out to the makers of the three most popular notation software products for their take on El Cap. Here’s what we know about compatibility with the new system.

Please share your experience using any of these products in the comments section, and we’ll update this post as warranted.

Updated September 29, 2015 at 4:00 pm with information about Sibelius compatibility.


From Sam Butler, senior product manager at Avid, on a post on Avid’s official blog: “It’s important to note that Sibelius is not yet fully qualified on Mac OS X El Capitan (10.11). We’ve worked hard on improving the experience of Sibelius on Apple’s next operating system but there are still issues that mean we don’t recommend you upgrading to Mac OS X 10.11 yet. We’ll announce further news on compatibility and support for El Capitan in due course.”


Finale users are advised not to update to El Capitan yet.

From a post by MakeMusic’s Scott Yoho today on the official Finale blog: “In our testing with the latest beta versions of El Capitan, we’ve discovered some new incompatibilities with Finale 2014d. Specifically, opening certain dialog boxes (involving expressions, articulations, and others) can cause Finale to crash.”

Further, Scott says, “We are working closely with Apple and hope to resolve the issue soon. While Apple could possibly address this before launch, at this point we advise against upgrading to El Capitan immediately upon its release. If the solution is on our end we will address it with Finale 2014.5, which we plan to release by the end of November 2015.”

Finale 2014.5 was first announced back in June, but this is the first time MakeMusic has committed to a release date for the upcoming free update to Finale 2014.

Regarding other Finale family products:

  • Finale PrintMusic 2014 is similarly impacted.
  • While Finale 2012 and Finale NotePad 2012 are not supported in Yosemite or El Capitan, they do not exhibit additional problems in El Capitan.
  • Finale 2011 and earlier versions are no longer supported.

“Further testing in all current Finale products will occur once the shipping version of the OS is released,” Scott said. The knowledge base article on this issue can be found on the MakeMusic’s support site, and you can subscribe to it for updates.


From Thomas Bonte, MuseScore CEO: “There are no open issues we are aware of with regards to MuseScore 2.0.2 and El Capitan.”

Thomas also noted that “the MuseScore mobile app also runs on iOS 9,” the newest version of Apple’s mobile OS, which was released two weeks ago.

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Thumbnail image for Creating new versions of Appalachian Spring using Sibelius and Norfolk

Creating new versions of Appalachian Spring using Sibelius and Norfolk

September 24, 2015

Delving into the process of producing new versions of both the suite and a complete ballet of Aaron Copland’s masterpiece Appalachian Spring, using Sibelius and the Norfolk fonts.

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Thumbnail image for Projects announced, input sought for notation standards group

Projects announced, input sought for notation standards group

September 18, 2015

The chairs of the Music Notation Community Group have identified specific short-term and long-term projects to fulfill the aims of the group, and are now seeking input from the community.

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Thumbnail image for Differentiating staff text, system text, and lyrics in Sibelius

Differentiating staff text, system text, and lyrics in Sibelius

September 15, 2015

In this guest post, Bob Zawalich explains the differences among the types of text used in Sibelius, such as staff text, system text, and lyrics, and covers some tips and plug-ins for changing one type of text to another.

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Thumbnail image for Lines between notes in Sibelius

Lines between notes in Sibelius

September 10, 2015

Drawing lines between notes in Sibelius, like glissandi or portamenti, can be tedious. Here are some ways to make the task less of a chore by using a plug-in and tab slides.

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Thumbnail image for Print and make PDFs using Sibelius’s view options

Print and make PDFs using Sibelius’s view options

September 2, 2015

Sibelius gives you the ability to highlight passages of your music, make comments, and, in Sibelius 8, draw freehand annotations. But what if you want to share those markings with non-Sibelius users? Here’s how.

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Thumbnail image for Laissez (les bon temps) vibrer

Laissez (les bon temps) vibrer

August 26, 2015

Let the good times roll with these tips on how to more easily place laissez vibrer symbols in Sibelius and Finale.

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