Well, there’s no such thing of course, but I needed a snazzy headline for another software review.
If you don’t use Sibelius, you are excused and can run and play. If you do, I’d like to tell you about the best playback option I’ve ever found for it. It’s called NotePerformer.
There’s always been a specific problem with scorewriting programs, and it stems from the fact that they were originally specialist musical typesetters that have gradually acquired bolt-ons. The most contentious bolt-on feature has always been playback.
This problem has been with us from the earliest days. We had stage one – the prehistoric era of very cheap farty MIDI. Then there was stage two – the baroque age of very expensive fiddly sampler integration.
It’s in the nature of musical notation that it’s probably impossible to get a computer to play it as if performed by real people. Despite the most valiant efforts of programmers, playback facility in scorewriting programs has always represented a compromise. In particular, there have always been dynamic, articulation, phrasing and textural problems…
This has created an issue for composers – the danger has been that they might rely on the playback, adjust the score to make things sound better and then get some horrible surprises when the parts are put in front of 50 or so real musicians.
To give a simple example, someone might write a flute solo in the mid register alongside full active brass and compensate with the dynamic markings and faders. Of course, in a real life situation the poor flautist might as well be miming.
Texture and balance are best achieved via the natural characteristics of the orchestra, rather than battered through with unnatural dynamics or micing.
The older, “quill’n’parchment” generation occasionally refer to people who make this kind of cock-up as “midiots”. (A term also used for those who can massage miracles out of hundreds of patches with mod wheels and controllers, but think a treble clef is something to do with darts…)
Anyway, the wish has always been: can we please have a playback option that makes what I’ve written sound exactly like it would in real life? Well, Wallander Instruments seem to have taken this as a key priority and with NotePerformer have got the closest to it I’ve ever encountered. And it costs just $130.
As far as I can ascertain, the program achieves this in four ways. First, all the instruments seem to have been recorded as if playing ensemble and from the ideal XY front pair of mics. Second, it really does seem to have an unusually accurate and comprehensive way of rendering articulations. Probably this is helped by the third point – it reads every staff ahead and pre-processes to shape the phrases. Finally, it has been refined and sort of taught interpretation by exposure to scores from Mozart to John Williams. Apparently.
I like to think I believe my senses, not hyperbole. I’ve had pieces performed and this program gets extremely close to the real result, so I’ll believe the marketing claims in this case.
ORCHESTRAS ARE FUNNY THINGS, COMPOSERS DOUBLY SO
NotePerformer is not perfect, of course. There can be some occasional oddness here and there, depending on the type of music you’re writing. And the sounds it uses are generally very good, but aren’t all going to be to everyone’s taste – hey, that’s the case with any library. And NP’s USP is that it’s as much an automatic interpretation engine as a sound library. It’s really an aid for scoring, rather than painstaking mocking up.
Nevertheless, I’ve done some lurking and chatting on forums about this program, and even the hardcore who moan about the second bassoon lacking woody mid-range punch (or whatever) generally admit that they’re happy to use NP for reliably checking articulations, balance and texture. (No doubt, before they go off merrily patching and mod-wheeling for hours to produce the bassoon of their dreams.)
I’d admit also that sometimes the attacks can be rather abrupt, as if you’re dealing with a somewhat over-caffeinated orchestra. But I’d say there’s an upside to that. It means you don’t have comfortable sonic soupiness forgiving deficiencies in your orchestration.
Here’s NotePerformer tackling a chunk from my piano concerto. On an 8GB laptop, without a single hiccup. Bear in mind that NP’s system demands are very light because the sounds are produced by a hybrid process that’s heavy on modelling, light on sampling – rather than constantly borrowing books from a massive library of patches…
A few things to bear in mind. First, RTFM – it’s only 40-odd pages, and most of that is leading you through the installation process. Even if you don’t, remember at least to reset all the Sib mixer levels to default and turn off the built-in interpretation options.
If you don’t default all the mixer faders, you’ll not be getting the correct balance which is one of the key points of using the plugin (of course, you can play with the faders later if you absolutely must… ’60s spy flute solo, anyone?)
And if you leave Sib interpretation on it’ll sound weird, because you’ll be getting two different passes of expression on top of each other. A bit like having a viola player with two personalities linked in series. Erm… sorry violists – for some reason, I just reached for you as an example there. Don’t be hurt, I love you really. You’re the Worcester Sauce in my string section Bloody Mary.
Furthermore, what you get out is as good as what you put into the score. So if you don’t tend to bother with detailed score markings (which you really should), the program isn’t going to read your mind. Another thing is that this baby doesn’t swing. The programmer has responded to complaints on these lines, and fairly I feel, by pointing out that the result will be roughly what you’d get if you put a jazz score in front of classical musicians – they’ll interpret it classically. The program is designed for classical orchestral music and that’s what it’s best suited to.
(Oh, and if you have directions such as poco a poco cresc, you’ll need to add hidden hairpins. This isn’t NP’s fault – Sib itself treats such textual markings as it would fare una tazza di té.)
There is a built-in limitation too. The read-ahead interpretation algorithm needs to add a second or so of extra latency, so it’s not practical to use it in a real-time recording situation. But then, you could always render the tracks and work with those.
ER, IS THAT IT?
The final point I’d like to make is that installation is so seamless that it’s possible to wonder if something’s gone wrong. It doesn’t have endless “you’ve installed this part, now check one of these options” boxes, it just says “you’re done”… and closes.
At the Sibelius end, things are equally as unobtrusive. It doesn’t have a fancy VST interface with knobs and sliders. Choose it as a Playback Device and it’s just there, working – no messing about with sound sets or the like. Hey, since the purpose of the program is to provide a reliable reference, the ability to get under the hood to monkey around with the settings would rather defeat the object of the exercise…
All in all, this is actually refreshing, but can be a bit alarming in a world where we sadly seem to draw a perverse comfort from checkboxes, lists and options.
There’s a 30-day free trial version, so I’d urge you to give it a go. Nothing to lose, eh?
So to the brains behind NotePerformer, Arne Wallander, tack så mycket. I don’t wish to knock the hard work done by Daniel and the house team, but frankly Sib should ship with something like this. And I hope Avid pays you a hefty sum, so that it will in the future.