Notion- Music notation for the modern (electronic) musician.
As electronic musicians we are on the constant learning and discovering curve. Even in the midst of our projects, we have so many paths for each final versions. Anyone who has created multiple versions of a project would know that backups and maintenance notwithstanding, the tangible produce of the variations are a fertile breeding ground for even more ideas. If ideas are the germ from which grand works like Beethoven’s 9th and your latest favourite dubstep track is created, then I certainly am sold on the idea of iterative creation tools and the simplistic learning curve with astounding results.
In the graphics and design world, apps like Paper have proven that an imaginative mind coupled with solid artistic foundational techniques and a toolkit that fosters creativity with minimal distraction is recipe for success. Like all kinds of art, some folks get it, some don’t, and much is subject to debate with the various schools of thought. However the visual arts have remained a rather mute phenomenon lacking the grandiose and divine empathetic connection that sparks inside the human mind when sound waves hit the cochlear canal. In fact as much as motor skills and physical dexterity have been analysed and automated by technology, music works in the ethereal realm, involving the mind more than the physical channels, and inspite of finely calibrated scientific studies on the mechanism of hearing and the physics of sound vibrations, how the mind processes complex vibrations is still a mystery. For instance, we can separate the source and the environment and detect the various parameters of sound in your colleagues conversation in busy traffic, or remove the reverb and process the actual sound internally. While noise reduction algorithms are commendable(aka phase cancellation ), much is still uncharted territory. The point is a lot is left to do and modern tools have come of age with strong signs of present and future promise.
The Notion scoring and composition tool is my focus for this article, an amazing and very handy tool for the modern musician. I say modern inspite of having to work on a notation program because some things just don’t need to change. This app is for two primary audiences – the professional composer/conductor and the grade school students and music course enthusiasts. I don’t see much of a demand from ‘beatmakers’ especially of my electronic ilk. My advice to them is – ignore at your own peril. The advantages are humongous and this app sets the standard for accessibility and focus of use. I say focus-of-use because the ease of use is already a design decision for the iPad platform. If you skipped school or never had the exposure or interest in the art of orchestration, you are severely limiting yourself as a well rounded musician. A quick test- Can you tell the notes of an F#Maj Aug 9th chord? And in just about now? If you fared well in a couple of seconds you have your theory foundations sorted. And many musicians can do that without reading a note, especially some of the untrained guitar player types. That was easy actually, but now can you tell the possible ways in which orchestral strings can be notated for for the same chord and the various combinations with brass and woodwind? Why do some combinations sound proper? And how do stylistic eras dictate the best modes for a proper sounding orchestration? These are actually very deep questions and require years of score study and practical orchestration and preferably with real ones. Each era from the ornate Baroque to the stricter Classical to the more relaxed and emotive Romantic periods have all had their ideas and earlier rules tossed around or abandoned to achieve the purist goals of the composers. So how do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece.
While being able to read music notation and write it as well is a prerequisite, that part is usually imbibed in early training. Just like everything else, getting started is the most important thing. Never mind the pace, focus is the key, and so is repetition and maintenance. Nonetheless, many electronic musicians who read music come from rock music backgrounds or church music or just what the 2nd grade teacher taught him/her at age 5. So they come in all shapes and sizes. What matters is the output, you might remark. True, but true skill also comes from knowing what the masters did and then delve into uncharted territory on your own bearings. Standing on the shoulder of giants has a key advantage- you cover distances faster and safer. And even though it’s a never ending journey, the path traced so far will only make you bolder in your own exploits. Basically the more you know the better off you are with more at your hands to play with.
Tactile feedback for music notation has been a long standing goal for many software programs while being limited to the desktop PC or Mac. That dichotomy is broken down on the iPad.
Notion app for IOS devices greets you with a very beautifully done intro screen and app icon is cool too, something about brown and wooden elegance that rings a sure bell, every time. The home screen is just the list of scores in the device with a selection of demo scores of classical composers and one guitar tab demo. The help file at the bottom is very detailed and not overly long, providing links to tutorials and websites towards the end, and it also has a transparent overlay quick help screen.
You can touch every music note you draw in the flat screen and hear the sound, if you so wish. It’s more visual than auditory because you actually draw the notes by finger or stylus. This was touch editing. For step editing you have a virtual guitar and piano keyboard full range and scrollable on screen that draws notes at the desired pitch and octave right from it. For drum tracks and percussion, no drum machine is visible, but rather a multi pad MPC style keypad with a drum set layout and 4 individual voices. For the uninitiated the voices here refer to separate notation channels with different note time values in the same measure. For real time input connect a midi controller via USB connector Kit or CCK and press record. Live transcription is the most powerful feature especially for people who don’t want to do the mental calculation of where the next 32nd note goes and in in which measure. Really handy, sometimes. So essentially you have the instrumental palette of a modern orchestra with its different section – strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and keyboard instruments(including a synth – just a singular patch of saw wave really, but you get the idea). Some of the patches or sounds are unlocked for free via online registration and unlock code via email.
The main settings and transport controls are towards the bottom of the screen with the home button the leftmost position. The transport controls are rather minimal. No per measure rewind and forward. Just back button and play and record. The back button can be pressed once to go the last measure playback was started from and pressed twice to go to the first bar. A single toggle button is towards the right of the transport panel for the mixer panel, guitar input, piano input and drum tracks input. An undo and redo pair follows with a playback cursor right and left buttons for editing mode only.
The palette gives a host of options for note entry and orchestral devices. Note that devices does not mean technique, which is something that depends on the caliber of the player and his playing style. Devices mean the possible sounds and playable features and sound generation techniques of every instrument taken as an umbrella term. For instance col legno means to be played with the wooden part of the bow in a striking movement. Sul tasto means to be played near the fingerboard of the string instrument, flutter-tongue means using the tongue to stop air and release it in spurts so that the sound is accented with a fluttering rolling effect and so on.
This is where the comprehensiveness of Notion is sort of compromised ostensibly because iPad would not support a 50GB mammoth sound rompler. But the achievement is in the available selection which while limited and rather static sounding sometimes, still provides enough variety for a composer to get a very clear idea of how it approximates when applied to a real orchestra. In fact this feature is purely to support the composer and not bother him with production minutiae.
Strings have the longest list of devices which is understandable as they are the driving force in a large majority of orchestral works and are immensely flexible and capable of playing any style in tandem or solo. Out of the string family the violin is the most versatile. But it’s nothing without the viola and violoncello and contrabass and it’s this divine invention that sounds celestial when imparted with the right sequence by the composer. For this app, the sections have their own sound and as well as the individual instruments. The sounds have been recorded by the London Symphonic Orchestra and it’s very nice to hear indeed. In my compositions within the first 4 hours of playing around with this app I found myself using the con sordino device quite a bit, which is an instruction for the string player to play with the string mutes attached. Brings out the legato passages well.
Dynamics are in good use with a set velocity setting for each level. In my opinion p sounds quite loud and ppp sounds nearly inaudible. But the key is the proper combination. I find that the smooth texture comes out when using the viola with con sordino with a pp or mp dynamic level along with a hairpin crescendo. Additionally, when used with an accented or staccato violin at the start of the measure it brings out the desired pulsating harmonic effect on chord voicings. Note doubling on cello works well and the contrabass gives good support to the texture. Playing the double bass an octave lower than the cello for the root or third of the chords and played pizzicato or col legno gives a striking effect and a proper accent on the bass note. A bassoon (woodwind) for the note doubling with contrabass gives a well rounded bass effect.
The string violin sections are the first and second violins and they can be played divisi as well. This would mean creating additional staves and grouping them in a bracket for each individual section. The high registers sound sharp and clear and good for fast spiccato (bow is bounced in the string for a lighter and bouncier staccato) passages. Good for general arpeggios as well, and this device is used for Epic trailer music a lot.
Glissando and portamento are the same sound sample just as the various accent symbols are just for visual cue and they sound the same or somewhat similar without significant difference in the app. The Fermata marking does not work audibly, it’s purely a visual cue. Oboe glissando playback is done by playing the notes fast as in an actual oboe and not just pitch bent via sampler. It works for strings by the actual sliding tone well especially when the violins play a phrase in unison with rest of the section, sounds pretty emotive. Slurs are done by selecting the notes over which the slurs must be effected and it sounds more subdued and connected in Notion.
Regular detachè bowing (alternate up and down bowing) is not implied and it sounds rather smeared when just played default, so the up bowing and down bowing symbols give a separate sound and accent. Many composer use all down bowing for a heavier sound and this feature helps in differentiating the sound to some extent in Notion.
Trills (adjacent notes played fast in a row) – regular, flat, sharp and natural are done well as they sound rather canned, but it works and never forget that the goals of this beautiful app is to encourage creativity and imagination along with traditional notation skills and scoring techniques while giving the benefit of portability and tangibility. I think it’s a grand success on all counts.
Some of the more subtle devices like jèté, louré, sul ponticello, sul <string name> like sul G, the various shades of staccato and pizzicato are not editable or available. Good inclusion is the Bartok pizzicato which is basically a sharp snap of the string back to the wooden fingerboard and so is the harmonics symbol and samples during playback. Double stops, triple stops and quadruple stops sound cohesive giving the impression that the sounds work with each other. Even if it’s not a multi velocity sampled or key switched mega library, the selection is commendable. The 7 practical positions on the string instruments sound as they should approximately. The G string and E string are the most soulful stings for the violin, one is haunting and profound and the other is piercing. In Notion these subtleties are lost cos of the samples compression but thats just nitpicking. A Sul G device or a Sul E feature could remedy these in future updates, in fact this would add significant realism to already outstanding package.
Measured tremolo and regular tremolo are there and they sound as expected. Probably linking an LFO to the note value and tempo it’s set for on the screen, nice touch to detail. Fingering marking ps are available, given that most fingerings on strings range from 1 to 4 and the thumb T symbol for larger instruments like contrabass and cello where it’s used an additional fulcrum as well as a playing finger.
A chord tool C7 can be used to enter a set selection of chords which are quite complete and with an additional slash chord feature for a bass note for the given chord. Guitar tabs change accordingly and they can be drawn as well.
The triplet and tuplet tools allow insertion of triplet notes and other numbers, works exactly as expected in playback.
The virtual piano displays the note range per instrument with the out of range notes grated out. Most software music programs start middle C with C3, however, it’s C4 in Notion. For a regular violin, the tuning is GDAE with the lowest stirring being the G string and the highest being the E string. The E string is numbered the first string and hence G the 4th. The range in Notion spans 4 octaves from G below middle C to a high A. The practical range is from G below middle C to 3 octaves and a 5th.
Note editing is switched on and off via a pencil icon button to the left of the instruments panel near the bottom half of the screen. This enables you to audition the sounds before you enter them if you like. A chord mode button just above ensures that the cursor does not move to the next beat after a note is entered, thus enabling you to quickly stack notes over the other and build chords manually. The single note entry button adjacent to it switches back to linear note entry mode. To move to the next measure while editing press the right and left arrows to the right most bottom settings panel.
The score views are sort of quirky – you have an iPad view which is supposedly optimized for the iPad screen, but it also reveals a bug because you cannot set the number if measure per system on the screen. It’s 2 by default and it stays the same, or so it seems from various online forum complaints. In reality, it’s the notation size in points that controls the resulting display of measures per page. So at the minimum setting of 3.0 pts or 3.5 pts I could get a display of 4 measures per system in the iPad view mode. The consistency breaks once you choose the 4.0 pts value for the notation size. The print view is a lot easier in the eyes and looks very good on print and pdf. It’s like a yellow paper and gives a nice touch for the onscreen graphics and layout. To set the number of measures per system in print view navigate to the print view settings dialog to the layout tab. In the case of print view, the page margins take a lot of space, hence I could get 3 measures per system by setting the notation size value to 4.0 pts or below. Of course the 5 measures per system setting in both iPad view and print view layout seems like an oversight or for a particular iPad display mode only because it’s never achieved. Finally you have a continuous view which is like a left to right timeline view without page turning required as it plays, a benefit of the modern world for sure. Very useful for getting an overview of the score and during editing as well. One other thing I noticed is that the screen view moves a lot during editing especially if you zoom in to individual measures. It’s like it tries to set the view for every edit you make as it changes the measure content and the graphics have to readjust every time. But it’s not too bad and just zoom back to a smaller value to stabilize the screen. For continuous view having too many staves which is more like 5 or 6, the playback cursor jumps to the last stave in the page so it’s a little irritating to constantly correct the view of the particular instrument you want to focus on. The solution is to remove the parts that are not required only from screen view, as of then while editing, by clicking in the eye button towards the left in the score setup menu.
A second bug was discovered right after Notion crashed on adding a new instrument. The last measure of my composition would not take the last 32nd note to the first voice inspite of having the space for that and in the same voice. I had the choice of using the second voice so I just set the rests aligned with the notes on the first voice and then entered the required note. It makes the score look clunky but it works. In one of the many reviews online I noted that many sure were complaining about Cubase and Auria apps crashing a lot as well as hours of work lost. Thankfully such crashes have not occurred in Notion and every note you enter does an auto save, as I never saved and still recovered all the files.
The swing tool and the tempo tool can be used to good effect. The swing effectively sets the swing with 8 and 16 note settings with a slider for the intensity from 0 to 100. The tempo tool can be used to insert a tempo value at any position in the score. Very important to being out the realistic texture as no orchestra plays in computer precision time. The slow passages can take a few tempo values lower than in the fast passages.
Brass and woodwind samples are good enough and flutes and ones are nicely done. The horns and reeds are particularly responsive to the dynamic expressions and articulations. The devices are not too many but that’s also due to the nature of the instruments. While these sections do get solos from time to time, their main purpose is as an accessory to the strings section. This is from a historical viewpoint.
Percussion sounds are nice as well. The drum kit is basic and acoustic one shots, the timpani is better with ton and pitch changes. Many of the other sounds are in-app purchases like the tam-tam gong and castanets. Xylophone and the cymbal along with bass drum, snare drum and tambourine are ready to use. The note heads tool will be the most useful on this section as you get a variety of note heads like the diamond head and cross.
The mixer is a really spartan one, with the distortion fx and overall singular reverb being the only fx on the mixing board. No sends or returns or EQ. Panning and gain along with solo and mute are minimal feature set.
The reverb sounds just ok, but it saves in CPU cycles without sacrificing an important effect – the room is as much an instrument as the orchestra itself. RT60 times for concert halls average it to about 2.75 seconds. It’s immensely useful to have a full sound library at your disposal and a couple of them infact on desktop/laptop computer to get the approximation of a real orchestra when doing the mock ups after the scoring is done. This is required as phasing issues in singular libraries often give a rather crude approximation when you start playing around with the section placements around he soundstage. Also some section are better recorded than others and so it’s always helps to have that extra choice in your toolset.
Regarding the plethora of context menu options, it’s amazing how much they have crammed in here. You access it by tapping a measure and tapping the more menu from the pop up. You get a tabbed dialog list. Out of these, the transpose option in the tools tab gets most work for me in order to write out octave doubles or parallel 3rds or 6ths to add a contrapuntal line to an existing motif. Fill with rests write out rest symbols for every empty bar in the project.
Clear recorded velocities and quantize to notation are useful context menu options to clean a recorded passage via midi controller, using USB connector kit or CCK for iPad. Midi recording is a breeze with the instrument chosen by tapping and positioning the green cursor on its respective stave. The response is fast and latency is inaudible, and a clear click track aids in rhythmic accuracy once the record button is activated. The midi notes record visually as violet colored lines drawn to note length at the pitch positions on the staff. It’s like the best of both worlds where midi and notation coexist on the same plane, very nice touch in this visual element. While recording you don’t see the notation time values, and once you stop the transcribing is completed and displayed almost instantaneously. I noticed that even if the notation might not get it fully right always the sound plays back as recorded with velocities intact. This is where the above menu options come to foray to get the best representation of your real time midi events list of your recorded passage.
Rest of the context menu options are for visual cues and facets as well as positioning of attachments above or below, note beaming directions, stave grouping and bracketing or unbracketing, rest show or hide, tuplet creation, voice swapping. Here the clear special option merits a closer look- this bearings up a dialog where in all articulations, dynamics, tempo changes, text, lyrics, pedal markings, slurs, accidentals and chord symbols can be individually removed from the score without touching anything else. These can be effected on the upper or lower voice or both and including hidden staffs.
I find that composition and arrangement on iPad is fastest in music notation. Not same for desktop software, which is bloated behind recognition. The Notion desktop app beings in the full package along with rewrite and third party sound libraries, excellent partner to iPad app. I did a 16 bar 1.44 minute string arrangement in about 3 hours and did not feel drained or tired rather invigorated. It’s weird, it’s like playing a video game, much better than sudoku or candy crush. Music scoring is the real deal guys:) Complex melodies that require fiddling around with glitch based tools and hyper editing on the piano can be done with the same effect but more compact method of traditional music notation. Large sections can be dealt with ease and aplomb as the sections are well defined and have a tenor and structure to it that differentiates visually. If you remember Burial’s interview that he makes tracks entirely in Soundforge and interprets waveforms as dynamic data with unquantized beats. It’s a lot similar in this insightful aspect. The music becomes more structured and you get a deeper and more intimate sense of music craftsmanship through orchestration. Much of the initiation is just instrumentation that is, you study the features and devices of the instrument palette. So something like what you do for synth and sampler patches. Knowing you way around the garden before you start playing in it. So don’t get scared of it or over hype it- music notation is just a tool for communication of ideas in a time when electricity was not yet discovered. It’s not perfect and leaves much to the interpretation of the conductor or concert master or the individual performer. Many ideas get lost or cannot be notated with precision. It’s all part of the same tool that had given us the masterpieces of the last 300 plus years of western music history.
Triplet time is a genre in its own right – most of the trademark dubstep wobbles are 8th note and 16 note triplets in combination. It’s that simple, yet so effective in the right context, especially with a interesting bass sound. Now can these actions be creatively notated in your music? I am sure you know the answer to that question.
Overall I give Notion app a cool 4.5 stars out of 5. Great design, pleasant and workable score views, good collection of articulations and devices in total for the full orchestra, a working sample set, multi tempo and time signature, and real time transcription and export features to cloud, device and email along with a midi export and WAV bounce and AAC bounce.
I just wish it had AudioCopy and inter-audio. Time will evolve this app into a very powerful tool when coupled with hardware support.
I love it and so will you.