You dip your quill in the inkwell and make steady progress on your masterpiece in the halo of a flickering candle. You haven't eaten or slept, but you’re determined to press on. You suddenly realize you've entered your viola passages onto the wrong staff and have just ruined yet another sheet of manuscript. “Oh, there has to be a better way! Why can't I just fix these mistakes?"
"Better yet - how wonderful if those notes would just appear as I play my clavichord!" You sigh and pause, and pull out another blank parchment. It then dawns on you that you haven't been outdoors in weeks. That's the ticket! So you wake up early and endeavor to score under the shade of your favorite tree. You're now balancing paper and ink on your lap while winds begin to toss your manuscript into a frenzy, and your last semblance of strength with it.
How far we've come. Although I've never used quills (c'mon!) my early scoring days were before any automation and completely by hand. While I wouldn't trade the benefits of such a background in pencil and paper, I'm glad we've moved on. I remember distinctly saying to myself back then in similar manner, "Wouldn't it be great to enter everything onto an electronic score and have the parts print out themselves!" It just made sense. Fortunately, only a few years afterwards it became a refined reality.
Since the late 80's my computerized notation desk expanded and evolved; larger workstations, more and larger displays, larger hard drives, and larger projects. Who would have thought from my manual pencil and paper days I could use a MIDI keyboard to simply fly notes onto the staves? Being a pianist certainly didn't hurt in this area, and over time I quickly developed note entry speed. With right hand on computer keyboard and left hand on piano keyboard, I was getting work done in a manner not seen previously. Have I arrived? Can it possibly get any better than this?
Flash-forward a quarter century and the advent of slate computing is upon us. No longer chained to a desk with a plethora of hardware, we can carry around these pads and harness amazing potential in the palms of our hands. These too grew in size and prowess and opened new paths of productivity. When they first came out, I remember once again having a similar thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to just pen notes onto an electronic manuscript, just like on paper?” Well, behold, as this has now became a reality, too.
The current crop of prominent tablets at this writing include Apple’s iPad and Microsoft’s Surface which share similar features and capabilities. The main difference is, each runs their own propriety operating system in a typical Mac vs PC manner, and even more so, that the Surface was designed to run a full-OS. That is, unlike the iPad which affords only an alternate version of a Mac operating system (called “iOS”), the Surface runs a full version of Windows as any other PC would, which holds a major advantage. So any software written for Windows, such as Finale and Sibelius, will work on the Surface tablet. Dissimilarly, programs designed for a Mac are not equally compatible on an iPad, but would require a special iOS flavor of that software to be developed separately. Clearly Microsoft has the lead here, and Apple needs to take a hard look at this for their artsy customers, which they’ve always catered to. Particularly, for the larger iPad-Pro which would seem an ideal fit for this kind of application.
When it comes to productivity applications like notation editors, being locked into Apple's iOS can be potentially disappointing. While iOS is a rich and elegant touch-optimized system for portable devices, particularly smaller ones like phones, it does not duplicate a full laptop/desktop experience, nor is it trying to, as that is not Apple’s intention with the product. Regardless, if Sibelius or Finale won't run natively on an iPad, couldn't an equally capable pen-entry notation system still be developed for iOS? The answer for the most part is, it can, especially with the updated hardware support found on the latest iPads. However, software companies may often be reluctant to invest the time and resources needed to cater to iOS in this manner, persuaded that their designs for such a niche app can only be realized properly on a full operating system. For Windows-based tablets at this time, however, it’s all essentially seamless.
Currently, various tablet-notation apps are available for both platforms, with a standout product at the moment for Windows known as “StaffPad”. Developed with Microsoft's Surface in mind, StaffPad offers refined pen entry and gesturing capabilities unlike any other. Why only for the Surface and not the iPad, too? The developers of StaffPad found themselves needing the capacity of a full operating system to achieve their desired results, of which the lighter iOS was not deemed worthy. With StaffPad, you literally handwrite notes onto the staves and they instantly turn into engraver quality notation. It’s a magical realization that the tablet-era's time has come, as you're swept away by their ads depicting composers scribbling on their Surfaces and suddenly being surrounded by an orchestra performing their creations. Wow! So, we finally we have the natural progression of notation technology allowing us to toss our old music workstations in the can and usher in a new era of notation-liberation! Goodbye cumbersome laptops and workstations that only weigh us down. Goodbye keyboards and trackpads. Let's triumphantly kick the door down and run untethered with tablet and pen in hand in uninhibited scribing bliss! ALAS!
Not so fast.
Let’s put the Cool-Aid down and gain some perspective for a second. I think I’ve done justice in expounding the virtues of the Surface and the iPad, and that their time has truly come. But for what? To completely supersede notation workstation conventions that tout quick MIDI keyboard note entry and large displays that beautifully stretch out our scores? Or, do pen tablets serve as magnificent portable companions to all this allowing you to start or continue your work while on the go? Could you complete an entire orchestral score on a Surface with pen entry only? Certainly you could - but are you sure that's what you want? Are you really asking me to ditch my dual 27" displays that so nicely expand my score, for a cramped 10” tablet screen, instead? Is a single pen a suitable replacement for 88 keys on a MIDI keyboard for bulk, polyphonic note entry? Or, is a pen a nice companion to all of this?
What about the idea of using a Surface as your primary computer for both a portable and workstation solution? That is, at home you connect the Surface to all your peripherals, such as displays, keyboards, and mice, and leverage it as any other PC to run either StaffPad, Finale, or Sibelius. Then, on the go you simply disconnect all that and continue your work using a pen, instead. This is quite the reality and can prove to be a wonderful solution. It then becomes a matter of, are you a Windows user, and do you want a Surface to be your go-to device for everything? Hopefully nothing ever happens to your Surface, or otherwise you’re out a tablet, a workstation, and all your work. For myself, my home workstation tower is intentionally more powerful than my portable gear, and handles not only notation but recording projects as well. This is all connected to racks of recording gear that I’d prefer not having to upset continually. My work files are synchronized seamlessly through online storage solutions at all times, so I’m able to transparently move from home workstation, to portable, to office without ever giving it a thought. But now we’re starting to stray from the scope of the article regarding our new foray into portable pen notation. Back on track.
One of the key virtues of any tablet is its enhanced portability, arguably beyond even a laptop. But I’ll make the case that pen tablet notation is more likely to compete primarily with laptops, not so much desktops. With professional desktop workstation setups being optimized for speed and not going away anytime soon, a tablet certainly provides for an ideal, natural portable extension. On a bus or train I’d much rather handle only a slate and a pen than try to balance a notebook and small keyboard on my lap. Whenever I’d be unable to use my home workstation, a pen entry solution is an absolute consideration, making optimal use of what tablets offer and excel in. So instead of tossing my laptop and mini keyboard in my bag and heading off, grabbing my pen-tablet instead sounds like a great alternative. Do I use a Surface in this manner or plan to? Respectfully, no. If the iPad begins sporting a full OS, or a competitive iOS app emerges, I’d consider it.
Otherwise, go ahead and compose your entire score on a tablet if that’s what works for you. Many do this. It certainly can be a total solution if you want it to be, and may influence your decision between purchasing a laptop or a tablet. I’m asked continually about this topic by colleagues and students interested in acquiring a new notation solution, especially at the start of a semester. For classes and serious work using only a tablet, I could recommend only the Surface at the moment. Most other tablet notation offerings are presently too lightweight or limited, though they reveal much promise ahead. if you’re seeking a portable Apple solution, you will want to still consider a Macbook variant for notation, not an iPad. However, I believe it’s just a matter of time before we’ll see a proliferation of tablet options for everyone’s platform and preference. On the surface, I’d say it all looks intriguing.
Marc J Stasio is an east-coast based composer/arranger, pianist, educator, and author who actively lives out his calling producing scores for hire, serving as collegiate jazz faculty and performing abroad for nearly 40 years. His work is heard on recordings by today's top artists in jazz and contemporary music. As professor of jazz studies, he specializes in teaching composition and arranging based on “the Hidden Score,” with a dedicated blog by that title. Marc holds a B.M. in Arranging and a Masters degree in Jazz Studies. Visit http://marcstasio.com.
This article may be freely reprinted by including the author's bio and website address, above, subject to copyright law.