Dorico 4.3: I’m Running out of Things to Complain About

I’m Ehler, and I love to complain. Dorico 4.3 is now out, and those folks at Steinberg have taken away things for me to complain about.

The biggest thing for me – and I imagine, most people who ever write for percussion – is a new “tremolo” behavior that is very useful when writing percussion rolls. Because Dorico understands two notes tied together as one note in actuality, applying a tremolo to the first note in a tie chain applied it to the last note as well. Many percussion rolls, however, need to show the final note without any tremolo slashes. Prior to 4.3, this would require a trip to engrave mode to disable the single stem tremolo property on the final note in a tie chain.

Old Roll Method

On its own, not particularly cumbersome. But this is a very common way of writing rolls, and in a given snare part, one may have to do this dozens of times.

The new method is much better. No changing modes, no properties panel. Just adding rel at the end of your tremolo input in the “Create Repeat” popover (e.g. 2rel or //rel) omits the tremolo/roll slashes on the final note.

New Roll Method

This, to me, is really the biggest improvement that percussion part writing needed in Dorico, and is most welcome. This one change is the highlight to me of a very meaty update. I won’t even talk about the impressive chord realization features, mostly because you should read David MacDonald’s post on Scoring Notes instead, but also because I’ve got two other things to gush over.

The first is a small change that will save me a lot of headache, and is kind of hard to understand. In most projects of any type, I do most of my writing in the score rather than the parts, in page view. As a result, when I need to change something from its default option via the properties panel I change it in the score. But Dorico has had for some time the concept of “local” and “global” properties – whether the property change should apply just in your current view (e.g. in the score but not the part) or everywhere it can be affected (in both the score and the part). There are times changes in one but not the other are definitely desirable, but the end result has been me forgetting to click the global button before making changes for years now and then having to go back and click all those properties again.

They have now let you change the default behavior. The only downside at all is it was a bit hard to find, and I had to pull up the version history to find it. Under the main preferences (⌘, on Mac), Note Input and Editing, it currently resides as the final entry before the “Editing” section

Properties - Set Local Setting

If the description of what this does made no sense to you, then you’re probably also the kind of person who should turn this on.

The last exciting feature of this release is the addition of some new commands and properties: Hide notehead and hide stem. These will allow easier creation of new kinds of worksheets for educators, I’m sure. This last summer, I had a handwritten resource from another educator from a jazz symposium I was given that I was excited about possibly using. Being a gigantic nerd, though, I was trying to think through how to make it in Dorico and was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t come up with good ways to do so. Before 4.3, I’ve now been convinced that it’s possible – over on Scorico, Hanneke Hommes has a series of worksheets she has made that I found inspiring in pushing Dorico to its limits. But these new features will make things like this even easier.

Now I have a bit of crow to eat. Despite considering myself a bit of an enthusiast, I don’t read every line of the version history documents for Dorico. Especially in the 4.x series, which has had a lot of improvements to Play Mode that are not of particular relevance to my own needs. The team at Steinberg is very thorough in these documents, and if you wanted an exciting read during your travels over Thanksgiving and Christmas, you could do a lot worse. But I missed an addition in 4.1 that also solved a standing complaint of mine.

I am quite colorblind. So much so that my students and I get to joke about it. And as such, I don’t really lean into color coding of things very much. But, when I was a student, I found it very beneficial in Finale and Sibelius to have out-of-range notes on instruments colored red, which was fairly visible. Now, Dorico has had this feature (I believe since 1.0). But the shade of red Dorico has used has been a very, very, dark red for my colorblind eyes. I can see that it is different from the black notes, but I have to be looking for it. When I was younger, this would have still been of value, but these days, any parts I am writing I’ll just notice that the note is out of range before I’d notice the difference in color (unless I was reading an irregular transposition of an instrument or working with instruments I’m not used to).

And I am very glad to have recently noticed1 the setting in Preferences now to change the note range colors. I don’t know if there were previously separate color selections for “standard” vs “advanced” range, but switching the shade of red for the former to match the latter was the perfect solution for my problem, and I’m incredibly appreciative of the option.

So what do I get to complain about now?

From criticisms I’ve brought up before, this really solves the percussion matter and the colorblindness thing. Improvements I’d like to see to Engrave mode aren’t really “complaints,” but continuing to make more powerful things possible with fewer overrides, more intuitive frame chain behavior, etc. are very desired. Also, even as I get a better sense of how Dorico the program understands flow headings, it’s still easy to be frustrated with them.

I’ve heard folks from Steinberg defend things that aren’t bound as shortcuts. I understand their case, and I still don’t agree. To quote myself on this:

Part of using music notation software efficiently is learning the shortcuts, but in Dorico, there’s an awful lot of important things not bound. Things like the sub-modes within the Engrave mode need to be bound. It’s one thing to expect your power-users to change the bindings, but it’s frankly a cop-out to leave so many things unbound. These are decisions that should be made by the developers. Undecided decisions are a shortcoming in your design; after all, to quote a guy who was an okay semi-successful designer: “Design is how it works.”

This may never change, but I still find it to be a problem in my personal use, and it’s still a philosophical problem I have when I advocate for Dorico to others.

Other complaints are pretty small, but I bet other band directors have them too. I’d like to be able to change the default transposition on instruments. I almost always want euphoniums in bass clef/C. It’s only a bit of work to click that every time I add them to a score, and I can save templates where they’re in C, but if I want to use the fancy new ensemble picker from 4.0, I need to then go in and change the euphonium’s transposition. And that ensemble picker is slick.

While we’re at it, I would still love for a setting to remove transpositions from player (and layout) names without having to do it manually. Again, I should be using templates more than I am, which would mostly alleviate this, but the Dorico team has taken away so many other things to complain about from me. And it’s possible this is the sort of minor thing they’ve slid in as an improvement that even I’ve missed somehow. There are some other snaggles here and there, but they’re minor enough that I’d need to look through my forum browsing history to remember them.

Beyond “complaints,” I’m really hopeful roman numeral support is around the corner. The figured bass additions in 3.5 are still wildly good, and I’m surprised that roman numeral analysis wasn’t right on their heels. MusAnalysis is a very fine substitute for the feature itself, but I’m hungry for the real thing.

Dorico has been revolutionary in what it’s done, and I’m almost kind of bummed not to have a longer wish list than that, because I’m afraid for what that means for innovation in the space of music notation software. Thankfully, the folks at Steinberg have a far greater imagination than I do, so I’m excited for far more than just roman numeral features in future versions of Dorico.

I really would get more work done in Dorico though if I could have a coffee-stained background. Perhaps they’re waiting to innovate on that too by dynamically adjusting where the coffee stains appear based on some ability to sense my actual current coffee consumption.

  1. It was while looking for the global/local properties option in preferences. I looked really hard and I couldn’t find it until I cracked the version history. I knew to look in preferences (not notation options, engraving options, layout options, note input options or any library settings) and it was just really hard to find, okay? 

Band Score Order in Dorico 4.0.10

Dorico 4.0.10 came out today, (SN post) which, as befitting an X.0.Y release is mostly bug fixes. I normally don’t write about any point updates for Dorico, but I felt the need to follow up on one thing from my post just a few weeks ago on the release of version 4 with the exciting news that Dorico’s score ordering feature now supports band score order in addition to orchestral score order!

Using Band Score Order

It’s a little tricky to find the band score order toggle; you do so by right-clicking the sorting icon at the bottom of the left-pane, which will give you options between different score orders (leaving room for more to come).

Finding Band Score Order in the interface – right-clicking

If you set that right from the start, then as you add instruments, they’ll appear in the correct order. If you unwittingly were working in orchestral score order first and need to then adjust, simply switch it over to band score order and then left click the same icon again to have it impose that score order on your players.

Sorting an existing set of players with band score order
It may behoove you to then renumber the layouts (in the Setup dropdown menu)

From Here

I had the privilege of getting to help with this list, but my own self-doubt when helping order all 610 instruments in Dorico for band and the lack of any single authoritative source on the matter means that an adjustment here or there might eventually be made by the smart team over there.

It peeves me beyond all belief when anything is mis-ordered in a score. Horns above the trumpets are an obvious offender, and percussion (which is mostly the same with orchestral score order) is also particularly irksome. It was a fun project trying to find sources, and if I were made of time, I wouldn’t mind taking a trip to just pull a bunch of scores and try to find what has actually been done with oddball instruments that almost never make it into a concert band. But this new feature will hopefully be of use to everyone who writes for band in Dorico – at the very least saving them the clicking and dragging on every new score to fix where horns and bassoons should be.

Revisiting My Dorico Criticisms: In Light of Dorico 4’s Release

Dorico 4 is out!

What I want to write about it isn’t a review. If you want a real review for it, you should read the excellent one over on Scoring Notes. It’s the most comprehensive look aside from just reading the version history document.

If you want my review, it’s short and sweet: this is a great release, and you should buy it.

Instead of pretending I could give a review that would be worth your time in light of Scoring Notes’s, I did want to touch base on some of the things I griped about previously and just follow up on where some of those things are with Dorico 4. It’s not an objective or even fair measurement of this release as a release – which is what differentiates it from a review. But I want to acknowledge where they’ve made important progress and have to look at the areas they haven’t in the same breath.

I’ll acknowledge that I have had a chance to test this version of Dorico ahead of time, which also means that I received it for free. Which itself means that I’m of course totally in the bag for Steinberg and no longer a trustable source on any of this.1

As a quick summary of the things I mentioned:

CleanShot 2022 01 12 at 23 39 16 2x


The Dorico team has really done a great job with the new templates, and to me they’re one of the headlining features of this release. It goes beyond the bare minimum that many of us would have settled for – it does a great job of handling things like font and even certain layout options in a template itself. I was able to pretty easily set my blank file for rhythm assessments to a template with flows included. Check the SN review for more on the Library Manager features to better understand the depth of these features.

Engrave Mode Improvements

My checklist is actually a bit generous here, but I really appreciate one refinement in Engrave Mode that’s so subtle, I didn’t realize I’d been using it and benefiting from it until I heard Daniel Spreadbury (Lord of the Dorico-verse for anyone unfamiliar) mention it as one of his favorites. There’s now what he calls a “crosshair” when adjusting frames, and that makes all sorts of layout and alignment work absolutely delightful. I don’t know what a guide feature exactly looks like in my head, but in practice, this is everything I want a guide feature to be. Daniel has mentioned true snapping might be down the road as an extension of this feature. I’m now totally satisfied in this particular itch, though.

eLicenser is Dead

Ding dong! I mentioned that it wasn’t long for this world, which was public knowledge when I last wrote about it, but now it’s officially dead! And what replaces it?

The Steinberg Activation Manager looks nice and is mostly out of the way. Having been on the beta, I assume I’ve had vastly more interaction with it than someone on public releases. While it’s fully baked, it is worth noting that Dorico is Steinberg’s first program on this new system, and it’ll probably have some further revision as they add it to new releases of Cubase, Nuendo, WaveLab, et al. I don’t expect that’ll make for a worse Dorico user experience in the slightest.

Importantly, where with the “software” eLicenser before, you could only use Dorico on a single machine (and it required a USB dongle for a second machine) the new SAM allows you to use it on three machines. Great stuff. For more details on it, check Scoring Notes’s coverage

Setup Mode Behavior

I vaguely griped about setup mode in my previous post, but there’s some really strong progress here that will be even better as it’s further realized.

It’s much faster now to add instruments to a score (or as Dorico conceptualizes it, players, which is meaningful in how it intelligently handles instrument switching). It’s much faster now when using a feature called the “ensemble picker.” The SN review mentions this, but I think a GIF makes things much clearer quickly:

GIF of Ensemble Mode interactions

Further improvements on this feature are going to make life even easier, but for most band users, you’ll want to make ⇧E your new favorite shortcut in Setup Mode.

There’s a new default that band people will want to be aware of, and that’s the fact that new instruments get added in orchestral score order. That most importantly means that your horns will go in the wrong place (in a band score, horns should always go after trumpets, while in an orchestral score, they go before). Band score order is likely coming though, and the forums are a great place to give input on this. I sat down with a full list of every Dorico software instrument that Daniel provided to me and got a start on it, but aside from making some assumptions about where a Zink goes in a band score, I wasn’t very confident in a good order for many percussion things with the time I was able to commit to reordering things.

Closing Thoughts

This is all just a comparison of what I’m still wanting Dorico to be against what it just became with the release of Dorico 4. This isn’t getting into the many great new features added that I couldn’t dream up. For those who care a great deal about the way things sound coming through, there’s major enhancements to Play Mode. For anyone using this with students (or even for yourselves) the new Key Editor (read: Piano Roll) will prove to be a valuable added dimension for working with the music right in Write Mode. The new Insert options give a lot of added flexibility to one of my favorite Dorico features. It’s a great release, and you should hunker up with the Scoring Notes review as soon as you have time.

I also didn’t mention that this release is now a “Universal Binary” on the Mac, which means it takes full advantage of the M1 chip’s power. The only downside is that many audio plug-ins (including NotePerformer which I quite like) are not, and require you to manually run the app in Rosetta (nullifying that benefit) for compatibility. I can only guess, but I assume NotePerformer will become a universal binary some time between now and June.23

I won’t pretend that every feature I care about on this checklist is mission critical for every band director.4 I just wanted to touch base on these issues; because this is already getting a bit long, I won’t even go to the effort of restating the issues that still stand today; anyone who cares has to go read my old post on it. The team at Steinberg has done a great job with this release, and I’m excited for the point releases to follow and everything that’s still to come down the road. The timeline of the Steinberg Activation Manager, the iPad release, and, oh yeah, COVID-19 made this release a little farther away than the team at Steinberg has intended them to be relative to their ideal release cadence, but it’s been worth the wait. Everything else on my list can wait for Dorico 5.

  1. I shouldn’t have to specify this is sarcasm, but I know we’re on the internet and it’s 2022, so… 
  2. And I now have an M1 Pro MBP, which I absolutely adore} 
  3. The team behind NotePerformer is great, and you’re a jerk if you get mad at them for not having a Universal Binary or put any stock into my guesses 
  4. I think fixes to the percussion notation actually are a huge day-to-day deal for most directors and band arrangers looking at Dorico 

Chord Sheets (with Remingtons) — and Dorico for iPad’s Update

This resource page is the source of a lot of where I’ve come to believe Dorico can improve the experience with Engrave Mode, particularly with frames being able to have ‘guides’ or snapping like many other applications offer. It’s also where I encountered the absolutely bizarre Flow Heading assignment behavior.

The goal with this sheet was to provide a written out example of a Remington (both on concert F and concert B♭) as well as the chords for every scale. Some of my students weren’t grasping the idea of a Remington right away (leaving out tones, etc.) as they hadn’t done them with the previous director. I also wanted a major triad stretching across the range of their instrument to allow us to later do chordal Remingtons after each scale in a warm-up. There might be an unnecessary/unhelpful excess of notes that I could pare down, but this was just the first version to revisit later.

The way I wanted to lay this sheet out made it pretty tricky. I thought Dorico’s frames features would make it easier than it ultimately did, but in reality, I had to do a ton of math and remembering numbers in the properties panels for these frames to get it lined up even halfway decently. This is where some guides or snapping would’ve really been handy.

Properties panel of just *one* of my frames

I had each chord as a separate flow and had a pretty easy time of just setting every instrument’s notes across their range from the score itself. I assigned each flow into a separate frame chain (which itself could maybe be a faster process) but what really threw me was the flow headers were all assigned seemingly at random until I figured what was up. I then manually had to set the text frames too, assigning one for each flow’s title.

Oh no… (Master page layout with tokens of this Dorico project)

Thankfully, I only had to do this arduous process once for the master page layout, but I still think it should’ve been easier. In any other application, it would’ve been equally hard in different ways — making staves invisible, keeping system text titles of chords from floating away, and having to fuss with inconsistencies between different instrument parts.

The preview of what all my frames looked like on the master page when finished.

Here’s the project file and the individual PDFs. You’re best off doing any edits from the score, rather than an individual part. Sorry for any font weirdness.

Here’s my boilerplate from previous posts: For anyone curious on playing with the project file who doesn’t have Dorico, pick up Dorico SE — or now the new iPad app . I didn’t test these files in SE, but I think you can get the gist using it. As I recommended in my big Dorico post , the trial is worth grabbing.

I’m not sure if I’ll have any new resources next week as summer wraps up, but I wanted to share these resources with other educators for them to be able to put to use in their classrooms and to give them ideas of what Dorico is able to do with some of the features that make it unique from other notation applications. To provide a more permanent home than these Dropbox links (though I don’t plan to deactivate them ever) I’ll be following up before long.

I did want to drop one other quick note on Dorico for iPad with this post.

Software development is hard, and business models take a lot of consideration. Many software companies are like a large boat, seeing the currents of the market and their customers’ needs, but taking time to pivot.

Twelve long days after Dorico for iPad launched, they’ve removed the 12-player limit for subscribers, thus solving the #1 limitation I felt the app had. It’s great to see the Dorico team responding so quickly to customer needs, and to have the app become so much more valuable. At $40/yr, it’s a no brainer. It’s still not Dorico Pro as it exists on the Mac, but it’s a vastly more capable application than it was two weeks ago when it launched — and at launch it was already an amazing experience.

A Transposition Worksheet and Thoughts on Dorico’s iPad Release

After my last concerts for the year, I threw together a simple transposition lesson for my middle school bands. I just came to my school at the beginning of 2020, and as a younger teacher, I continue to feel out ways of integrating music theory into my band classes. I find lots of opportunities to talk about it in lessons (especially with students that have piano experience), but there’s nothing that I’d consider straight theory as part of my curriculum for every student yet.

I wanted to set them up to talk about transposing music they like to listen to in a key they’re more comfortable playing, but I wanted them to get to do transposition firsthand. The sheet I put in front of them was going to be mostly text, I knew, but I also wanted to have their concert B♭ scales with the scale degrees written under, and the scale of the key they’re transposing from (concert G♭ for this sheet, though any unfamiliar key works just as well). Then I wanted the melody in the unfamiliar key and an open stave for them to write in.

Like many other things, this sheet would’ve been possible in Sibelius. It just would have taken more than the 10-20 minutes from the time I sat down at my computer.1 If I were using Sibelius rather than Dorico today, I’d have probably done all the actual layout work in Pages and exported all the music graphics to it. While Pages makes layout easy, the major downside would be essentially having a separate Pages document for every instrument. In Dorico, I set the text up in the Master Page for the project, and then used a separate layout for each scale and the melody in a predesignated frame.

I was glowing when I finished this project. I couldn’t believe how easy it was and how little time it took. I wanted to talk the ear off of any other adult unfortunate enough to pass me in the halls on my way to or from the copier, because I was so jazzed up by how easy this was, especially compared to how arduous I knew it could be in other software.

If you want to make some quick changes to the sheet without using Dorico, I highly recommend using PDF Expert or a comparable app just to edit some of the text. If I spent more time on this, I would’ve picked a font that doesn’t space flat symbols out so far, and probably used something other than Academico (the default Dorico font) for the scale degrees (which I just did as lyrics in Dorico). The font I used in my original file (and thus in the PDFs) was Abadi MT Condensed, but for compatibility, I changed it to Helvetica in the Dorico project itself.

Here’s the project file and the individual PDFs.

Here’s my boilerplate from previous posts: For anyone curious on playing with the project file who doesn’t have Dorico, pick up Dorico SE — or now the new iPad app. I didn’t test these files in SE, but I think you can get the gist using it. As I recommended in my big Dorico post, the trial is worth grabbing.

Dorico for iPad

The new Dorico for iPad is here and it’s incredible. For the best possible coverage, as always, check out Scoring Notes. Also, Robby Burns has a new podcast episode with Steinberg’s Daniel Spreadbury along with his own coverage.

For my part, I played with the free tier long enough to see its limitations. I want all my students who have an iPad to get one ASAP. (It’s a little bit user-unfriendly to ask them to make the Steinberg account to go from 2 to 4 players, but I won’t complain, as SE limits it to 2 and requires a Steinberg account).

Having only played with it today, I can’t believe how full-featured it is. At a glance, every setting from Layout and Notation options are in here. The new project flow is a little bit…weird. It’s somewhat more beginner friendly to encourage you to set the key and meter at the beginning, but the number of bars is giving me Finale flashbacks. I wish, just on principle, that it could surpass the 12 player limit for subscribers, though I guess I understand.

The most important thing to me is that all of the shortcuts from the desktop version of Dorico are here. This allows me (with my Smart Keyboard, which is always on my iPad) to write in parts as fast as I do on my Mac with Dorico. That’s not just the note input shortcuts, but all the shortcuts for the popovers allowing me to put in special barlines, key changes, lyrics, or whatever else. It has support for a MIDI keyboard (and I actually have an adapter to use one with my iPad Pro) but I’m faster and more comfortable keeping my hands on a QWERTY keyboard (and I think anyone who gets good at both will be faster on a QWERTY keyboard as well). The only downside to the keyboard shortcuts (and this might be solved in an update) is that for users unfamiliar with them on Mac/PC, they don’t show up when you hold down ⌘ like in most apps. There is, however, a preference pane to not just view them all, but to rebind them all (which is far from a standard feature in most iPad apps).

The free version is good enough for most of my students, though I’ve found the $40/year tier easy to justify for the additional features it brings (up to 12 players and some light Engrave mode options). Steinberg are on the record that Dorico on Mac and Windows is not moving to a subscription model, but it’s worth noting that it does sound like v4 is a bit further away than I recently speculated given this release (for anyone on the fence about jumping on v3.5 today).

It’s not a full stand-in for the Pro version of Dorico — it’s missing some of my favorite Engrave mode features even with the subscription, in addition to the 12 player limitation.2 It will definitely allow me to work on arrangements when my Mac isn’t with me, be helpful in lessons as the most sophisticated musical whiteboard I could have on-hand. Much like Dorico SE was, it’s a great tool to get in my students’ hands instead of MuseScore where appropriate.

Ultimately, for my more involved projects, I’ll still have to complete them on the Mac, but I’m more comfortable managing the final files there anyway. For other educators, this is probably the easiest way to dip one’s toes into Dorico if you’ve never used it before (the setup is so much faster than on a desktop or laptop computer), but if you know you need the pro level of any notation software, it’s not that, from the player count alone. Still, I’m wowed by its abilities, and very glad to have it as a tool in my arsenal.

It’s worth noting that Sibelius has released an iPad version as well this week. Since I have active Sibelius subscription or upgrade license, I haven’t played with this and don’t really have any thoughts of my own to share, other than some envy that there is an unlimited player count. In addition to Scoring Notes coverage (they’ll also have some podcasts up on it this weekend), Robby Burns wrote about this one too.

  1. In fairness, I had already laid it all out in my head before this, otherwise it would’ve taken longer 
  2. Scoring Notes lays out the exact features and limitations of the iPad version very well. 

Chromatic Scales Sheets in Dorico

When I set out to make a new chromatic scale resource for my students, I had a few simple goals:

  1. It had to have a shared range on it that we could use as part of our rehearsal warmup
  2. It had to have a different range on it for assessments, more appropriate to each instrument
  3. Since I teach 5-12, I figured I’d just make one sheet with both the middle school and high school versions of points one and two.

Now an important thing pops up right away in that I might want different lengths of chromatic scales for different instruments when assessing. The effective range I want my high school flute players playing is more than the two octaves I tend to expect from my brass. Every teacher will have different opinions, but I wanted to share my Dorico files as a starting point.

If I were trying to do this in other software, I’d be hitting a wall with the differences in length of my “assessed” ranges. I’d just have to have empty measures at the end of some instruments’ pages, OR I’d have the enviable task of having totally separate files for each instrument. Frankly, even if it’s not a good reason, if I were trying to accomplish this in Sibelius, I’d probably standardize the length.1

So that’s what I’ve done in Dorico. Every instrument with the same length is condensed into a single flow, but the flows are only assigned to the relevant layouts. I have a “score” of every layout, so I can keep one reference document for everyone (though it’s somewhat more sane to just keep each instrument’s sheet in a PDF). Because the “shared ranges” (for warmups) have to be the same to use as a warmup, they’re obviously the same length.

Here’s the Dorico project file, and a Zip file of every instrument’s part.2

Criticize the ranges I chose all you want, it’s something I continue to reevaluate myself. I invite you to use this as your starting point, though. It’s also worth noting that I threw some C♭s in place of some Bs for my middle school ranges on C instruments, to introduce them to that idea ahead of getting to the G♭ scale .

You’ll also notice I don’t have every instrument in here; we’re a small school, and I haven’t taken the time to add in some instruments I don’t have any students on right now, but it’s very easy to add them yourself.

Here’s my boilerplate from my last post: For anyone curious on playing with these files who doesn’t have Dorico, pick up Dorico SE. I didn’t test these files in SE, but I think you can get the gist using it. As I recommended in my big Dorico post, the trial is also worth grabbing.

  1. There’s something to be said for standardizing the length from an equitability standpoint, and if that’s where you come down, that’s fine. But to make that decision based on the limitations of the software you’re using is pedagogical malpractice. 
  2. At some point in the future, I’m going to make a more permanent home for these links than links from my personal Dropbox, and I’m reserving this footnote to host the link for when I finally get around to that. 

Rhythm Assessments in Dorico (and a Template)

One of the primary assessments I’m currently using with my students is a set of three rhythm assessments each semester. I won’t go into how I’m managing these with reassessments and how I’ve got the progression through various “rhythmic vocabulary” broken down, but I do want to share how I’m using Dorico to handle these files and share the files themselves as examples.

I have four graded ensembles — my 6th grade band, my junior high band (7th and 8th grade) and my high school band. I want to be able to go over these rhythm assessments as part of our warm-up at the start of class, but my 7th and 8th graders have a separate set of assessments from one another. I also don’t want to be fumbling around with 3-4 different sets of papers myself for my lessons.

Enter flows and layouts. I have each individual rhythm assessment set up as a flow. The first three are assigned to my 6th grade layout, the next six to my JH layout, and the last three just to my high school layout. My “score” layout has all twelve on it so I can print it double-sided or use it on forScore on my iPad.

It’s not the most revolutionary thing in the world, but it’s more convenient than having to fight with separate files or variable lengths of things like I might have to in other programs.

Here’s a link to the blank file that I start from scratch each semester. I’ve tried using macOS’s “stationary pad” feature in Finder to help me use it as a real template, but alas, I just have to be careful with that file to not overwrite it with Dorico, since, as I griped, it doesn’t have templating support.1 The template should have the proper frame and system locks, though if you do much more than four bars in a single system, you might run into trouble. I’m more of an Avenir guy than Futura, but I like using something different for these assessments, and Futura is part of my school’s official branding.

Additionally, here’s the Dorico files I used in Fall of ‘20, Spring of ‘21, and this upcoming Fall.2 And here’s a zip file of the PDFs that it generates for the same three semesters.3 The Fall ’20 ones aren’t quite as reflective of the current form of that template as the Fall ’21 ones are.

For anyone curious on playing with these files who doesn’t have Dorico, pick up Dorico SE. I didn’t test these files in SE, but I think you can get the gist using it.

  1. Though in fairness, something like this is actually above and beyond what I would expect in the template support I hope they implement. 
  2. If any of my students are reading this, no it’s not cheating to get a head start on these, but maybe spend your summer on something more fun than reading your teacher write about music notation software. You’re only young once, and I would question spending it this way. Also, get off your phone and practice your instrument. 
  3. At some point in the future, I’m going to make a more permanent home for these links than links from my personal Dropbox, and I’m reserving this footnote to host the link for when I finally get around to that. 

Dorico For Me, For You

Last week I tied up talking about subscriptions with why Sibelius is dead to me. I’m going to make the case for Dorico being the daily driver for my fellow band directors.

This isn’t my attempt to do a comprehensive review of Dorico. I’d be wasting my time, because Scoring Notes has created an unsurpassable work doing just that.1 If you haven’t read it before, I highly recommend their review of the first version of Dorico, as it explains what makes it so unique. They also have reviews of every version of Dorico (v3.0 doesn’t show up on that page for some reason, but they reviewed it too).

Instead, this is my attempt to talk about my use of it, and why I think it’s the notation software to be using in 2021. I want to discuss why I hold that opinion, what I feel Dorico does exceptionally well, and what my complaints are about it as of version 3.5. First, I want to talk about my use of it — not to lend me any bona fides or credibilities (if you want to scrutinize what mine are, then just assume I have none) — but so that you, as a reader, can compare my use to your own needs.

Dorico’s story and mine

If you’re not familiar with Dorico’s story, it’s somewhat interesting, and provides good context. Finale was released in 1988, and Sibelius was released in 1993. In 2006, Avid bought Sibelius, but kept most of the team it had at the time intact2 before canning them all in 2012. That team got scooped up by Steinberg, a division of Yamaha and makers of popular DAW Cubase, who hired them to make a new big dog program in that space.

Not to get too mythical about it, but the Dorico team was able to ask themselves ‘what do we wish the 19 year-old program we were working on could do that was hard because of the fundamental assumptions that were baked into it from its birth?’ Or simply, ‘since we’re starting from scratch, how do we make the best thing possible?’

One amazing part of that story is the stewardship of Steinberg. The Dorico team was given the time they needed to cook the best 1.0 possible. Sure, it wasn’t complete with every feature yet, but it’s very rare to see that kind of work done. And but for one major complaint, Steinberg has been a much better steward of Dorico than Avid has been of Sibelius.3

I tried that first version of Dorico, and while I was impressed with it, it was a bit slow for me and while it was obvious there were a lot of amazing ideas right away, it was not yet the right answer for me.But4 at some point in the 18-19 school year, Dorico Pro 2 had come out and I heard that their generous Crossgrade+Education offer was going to get less generous (it’s $200 today, which is still great and beats Sibelius’s $300 education price). At first, there were still some things I was doing in Sibelius that were easier there, but most things were miles better in Dorico, and my muscle memory quickly shifted that way.

I want to temper my recommendation, because if you have absolutely no problem with the software you’re using today, it’s probably not worth examining a switch…right now. Your existing files work best in the software you made them in, and it’s a pain to transfer. But computers are changing all the time and your next computer might not run your current software. If you’re a Finale user, getting current isn’t too painful, but if you’re a Sibelius user, it is. If you don’t have a current upgrade plan for Sibelius and you’re an educator, it’s cheaper for you to switch to Dorico. And it’s better over here.

Noteheads and ties there and hair[pins]. Oh my!

So what’s better?

In both Finale and Sibelius, the model is fairly based on graphics and objects. In Sibelius, you’ve got your notes as one type of objects; You can apply “symbols” (like trills or caeusuras); You can put text on things (like dynamic markings and other “expressive” text, or tempo changes or regular text). You can put on lines (slurs, hairpin crescendos/decrescendos, and 8va lines). There’s some relative siloing between these ideas and how you interact with these things. Finale is similar in these regards, and the different types of “tools” represent these silos.

In Dorico, the model is based around the type of musical element something is, rather than how you’re going to make it or how the software is manifesting it. Text saying “cresc…” and a hairpin crescendo are both dynamics; one isn’t handled with a text tool and the other with a line tool. The program understands them as essentially different ways of representing the same thing, and you can actually toggle between them. It’s more intuitive, and they’re grouped with your other dynamic markings at the same time.

This sounds like a small distinction, but you become much better attuned to what you’re doing when you’re working on actual music. There’s far more examples than this, and that’s true of all the points I make — the Scoring Notes reviews are a much more comprehensive listing of these sorts of things if you really want to geek out over it.

Opinionated Software

Dorico doesn’t want to understand things as symbols with limits defined by measures. It wants to understand everything as music. And because of that, it’s doing a lot of work for you to adhere things to its understanding. If you start a bar of 4/4 with a quarter note and tie an eighth note to it, for example, it won’t give you a quarter note tied to an eighth. It’ll transform it into a dotted-quarter note.

Now there are definitely times you don’t want the software making decisions for you like that. Dorico lets you override that through the “force duration” trigger. Most other decisions can be overridden in the “properties” pane at the bottom of the screen. But Dorico would prefer you don’t have to override any of these settings on a case-by-case basis; it has amazingly in-depth options under its “Engraving Options” and “Notation Options” for everything it thinks you should want to change. Its defaults are really good, but you’re best off changing project-wide settings in here (and you can change them as a program default or just for a project).

I really value this for a number of reasons. First off, it helps me not make dumb mistakes. Finale and Sibelius will much more readily let you make whatever mistakes your heart desires. Feel like restating the same time signature in measures 3, 4, and 5? You may. But not in Dorico; it won’t let you put in redundant, unnecessary things that are bad engraving practices.

If you’ve ever explored any of the scores on, you’ve seen some great examples of technically correct, but notationally abhorrent rhythms. In Dorico, if you type in a rhythm like that, it will automatically be corrected for you. For example in 4/4 if I input a bar of 5 dotted-eighth notes, this is what I wind up with from the defaults,

Dotted eighth, followed by a sixteenth note tied to an eighth note, followed by an eighth note tied to a sixteenth note, followed by two dotted-eighth notes. I'm bad at alt text, I'm sorry.

There are things about this that sometimes push back at the user — where the program’s handling falls short, there are very few ways to do any kind of workaround. It’s a truly noble goal that the program shouldn’t ever fall short, and in actual practice, it does an amazing job of hitting the mark. Even if you’re working with a lot of more modern/contemporary practices — aleatoric notation, custom symbols for extended techniques — the program will meet your needs very well. But in its very few blindspots, you don’t get so much as a “hide this” button.

Where it shines for educators — flows and layouts

While the aforementioned features are certainly nice and speed up my work, I think it’s the unique document model that makes Dorico shine for educators above other applications. Every separate file you are actually working with in Dorico is a “project.” Within each project, though, you can have multiple “flows.” These can represent any number of things; the archetypal example is different movements of a longer work, but creatively splitting things between flows lets a user make some pretty interesting things. For example, on a scale sheet, I could make each individual scale a different flow and handle the names of them at the flow level, rather than as text that I have to independently assign to each one individually. Or I could have totally separate musical examples on a worksheet. I could do the same thing in Sibelius by stretching out the space between the examples, but the program would be trying to reunite them if I made too many changes.

The other handy thing on Dorico is “layouts.” For regular usage, layouts are pretty easy to ignore the power of — by default, they’re just your full score and parts. But you can make layouts go very far for you. You can easily make custom scores that are maybe condensed5 or feature only a few of the parts you’re working with. You can even assign different flows or parts to different layouts, which is something I’ve made creative use of for various playing assessment resources I wanted students to have. My two favorite examples of this I’ll be sharing later this summer — the chromatic scale pages I give to students, and the rhythm assessments I assign.

Using these features together with Dorico’s flexible (if sometimes a bit arcane) Engrave Mode, by totally breaking away from the defaults and making your own frames, lets you make some really incredible things with ease. This whole summer I plan to share a lot of resources and worksheets I’ve made that leaned on Dorico’s special features.

Why I recommend Dorico today

Dorico’s got its strengths, but I think it’s worth comparing it to the other big pieces of software out on the market today to highlight why it’s the right choice for music educators.

Finale has just released its major upgrade in v27. It was the first program I learned to use really well, but I still think its downsides are really major. In v26, they made their first serious stab at automatically handling collision alignment. Sibelius’s Magnetic Layout has always been pretty good, but Dorico puts both to shame with how it handles collisions. Magnetic Layout can still be very fiddly, but in Dorico, the only time I ever find myself thinking about collisions are when I want the music significantly denser than it thinks to put in automatic line breaks. Finale is a lot slower to use than anything else today still; even drawing a slur or hairpin dynamics requires you to take your hands off the keyboard and use your mouse, even if you’ve taken the time to learn their “metatools” shortcuts.

Finale is old, and they simply haven’t been making the investments in development to keep up with what their program needs. It’s constantly playing catch-up, with Finale 2016 being dedicated entirely to making the program 64-bit compatible. There’s a lot of what is called “technical debt” in the program. Old code, or code for old systems that would take a lot of actively invested time to revise for (likely) no immediate pay-off for the users. But paying down tech debt is a part of running a software business. It’s like home maintenance.

Now how is Sibelius itself these days? After hiring new developers, they’ve gotten back to some good, consistent updates, and have come out with some interesting new things. And Sibelius remains pretty fast at a lot of tasks. If I was captured by psychopaths who put a giant bomb in the building I was in and I was up against a timer to make great looking scale sheets as fast as I could or be blown to bits,6 despite the fact that I know Dorico really well and haven’t used Sibelius for anything serious in probably two years now, I think I’d still choose Sibelius for that task.

There are things that Dorico does better than Sibelius, but there’s also areas where Sibelius shines in Dorico’s weak spots. Maybe for me personally, SIbelius would be a better choice on those grounds alone. But those aren’t the only grounds that I can evaluate the programs on. There’s of course the long-term trajectory of each application, but the bigger one is the business model. The only way I feel I could follow the path Avid wants me to go down is if Sibelius were the only application I’m using. Even if there’s some small ways that Sibelius has the edge, Dorico is too enticing to financially chain myself to Sibelius.

Outside of the big three commercial applications, there’s a whole host of other things to consider. Web-based tools like Noteflight and are interesting, but I only see them useful for putting in front of students, not for making my own resources. MuseScore has brought on some new talent and continues to get better, but I still don’t consider it up to the task of being a serious competitor with Sibelius or Dorico. It requires far too much manual adjustment and has too atrocious of defaults to quickly make anything I’m willing to put in front of a student.

Honest Criticisms

As much as I do like Dorico, I also want to lay out where I have some complaints. At its launch, it didn’t have some of the features that most users would expect from its competitors from their long histories, but now that we’re five years in, I feel all of these complaints are fair. Dorico 4.0 should be coming out relatively soon, so when it does, I’ll check in on these complaints.

I really do love Dorico, I wouldn’t have this much to write about its problems if I didn’t.

The two big ones

Two complaints stand above the rest, in its percussion handling and lack of templating.

Dorico comes with a handful of reasonable templates, but their support for templates ends there. You can’t make your own custom ensembles, which is a major pain at this point in time. You can store some things, like a custom percussion kit, as files that you can later load, but even that feels like a half-measure when you should be able to have custom percussion kits available in your instrument list.

Dorico has so many different options, and you can save what you like as a new set of defaults. However, you can’t have multiple sets of defaults to switch between for different projects, requiring you to remember how to reconfigure them each time. I’m not asking for an exact implementation of Sibelius’s “House Styles,” which is a really elegant way to store a bunch of options, font decisions, etc. at once. But this is one of the two things that I can’t believe isn’t better yet.

The other is all sorts of weirdness with percussion. I’ll start with the most egregious: Rolls. Despite all of Dorico’s smarts, including some harp pedaling intelligence and the ability to handle transposing figured bass notation, it doesn’t understand that percussion rolls work differently than tremolos. Dorico treats tied notes as a single note, which is generally how you want them, unless you’re writing a percussion roll. Because they’re a single entity, Dorico defaults to putting the roll on both parts of the note. To fix this, you have to go to a different mode (engrave mode) and untick a box that requires horizontally scrolling over for each instance. One of these days I’ll make a macro for this, but it pains me having to do this at all.

The percussion pains don’t end there, though. Dorico makes putting in cues a breeze for any other instruments, but if you’re dealing with unpitched percussion, you can’t put in a pitched cue. It also doesn’t extend its smarts to making flams look halfway decent by default. And drum set parts can be a mess in terms of how it handles voices.

There are percussion strengths — it’s very fluid in moving between a five-line staff, a grid, or single line instruments in different layouts — but actually writing percussion parts feels like a chore.

Engrave Mode and Learning Curve

Engrave Mode is very powerful, and I feel it lends a lot of flexibility. I also think it needs some rethinking. If you’re familiar with a program like Adobe InDesign, you understand things like Master Page Sets, but following the Facebook group for Dorico, it’s clear that it’s a barrier to entry.

Having done some really powerful stuff with Engrave Mode leaves me wanting several things it doesn’t currently have. The first is the ability for guides to snap with frames — dealing with the numbers in the properties tab is not an effective way of doing things for me, and requires a lot of math. I also wish that there were a way to more easily see your changes in the massive options panes (Engraving Options, Notation Options, Layout Options…) in the parts you’re working on as you’re tweaking them. There are ways to do this with multiple windows or monitors, but I’d like to not need a special set-up for it. The Sibelius ribbon is…well, contentious, but seeing my staff size update live helped make informed decisions on my 13” screen.

All notation software has a learning curve, and Dorico is no different. Because it wasn’t my first application, I can’t judge how hard it really is, but I think it’s important for Steinberg to be really cognizant of. The new properties settings of “local” vs “global” changes were hard to get my head around, and I still find myself going to Scoring Notes for clarity on all sorts of things. Steinberg has a lot of videos on their YouTube channel, but if I were advising someone new on how to learn Dorico, I don’t know where I’d start in terms of their videos. I don’t know if it’s possible to make a feature like Frame Chains intuitive, but it definitely required a trip to the documentation for me.

There’s a number of other things in Engrave Mode that are particularly unfriendly or don’t work quite right. Flow headings have a mind-boggling behavior if you’re getting particularly creative with the way frames are laid out rather than following the order you’ve laid out in the frame chains. Selecting objects to make into a single system sometimes feels fragile as to what you actually have selected. Smaller things, but still important to get right in my book.

Keys to the Kingdom

Out of all the complimentary or critical things I have to say about Dorico, this might be the one that more people disagree with me on than any other: Dorico doesn’t have enough actions bound to keyboard shortcuts by default.

I’ll be clear, it has a lot of them bound! Every popover (for putting in dynamics, or a tempo, or a repeat…) has a good keybinding. Toggling important options on and off in write mode has good bindings. But if you look at the open keys on the keyboard, there’s a lot of territory that they didn’t try and bind, and a lot of important actions that don’t have a default binding.

Now I’ll be even more clear: Dorico does a perfectly fine job of letting you bind keyboard shortcuts. You can bind just about anything you want — all the things I’m most grumpy about not being bound by default are all in the regular menu for keyboard bindings. And if you follow some advice from some power users, you can even bind some macros yourself.

”So what are you actually complaining about?” you might be asking.

I love to bind my own custom shortcuts. In fact, my most popular blog post is on a set of keyboard shortcuts that I think makes Sibelius vastly better. But the lack of existing keybindings make it harder to intelligently bind my shortcuts in a way that sticks.

You see, Dorico is still evolving, much more than Sibelius or Finale at this point. Each major version release has added some great new features that require some new keyboard shortcuts that they’ve happily bound. But because there’s such a wasteland of unbound keys, I don’t trust that anything I bind myself won’t get overridden in the next major release.

You might say that part of that is silly, as they could just as easily revise their own bindings from version to version. You’d be right, but I could at least take cues from how they’ve moved things around to find new places for my own shortcuts.

I’m serious in this being an actual problem, by the way. Part of using music notation software efficiently is learning the shortcuts, but in Dorico, there’s an awful lot of important things not bound. Things like the sub-modes within the Engrave mode need to be bound. It’s one thing to expect your power-users to change the bindings, but it’s frankly a cop-out to leave so many things unbound. These are decisions that should be made by the developers. Undecided decisions are a shortcoming in your design; after all, to quote a guy who was an okay semi-successful designer: “Design is how it works.”

I’ve personally been paralyzed for the last three years in getting a great shortcut flow down for myself. I’ve made some custom bindings, but other things occur to me as needing a binding, with no obvious thing to bind them to; not enough of an existing framework to use as the basis for any major reworking of the shortcuts myself. It’s bumming me out. Once I have some better shortcuts to share, though, I’ll share them. But I’d be much happier if Steinberg took a step first in setting more up.


There’s a number of complaints that I’d originally laid out in my outline quite some time ago that are no longer relevant. I had some complaints about the lack of fonts available, but that’s gotten substantially better just in the last year. I also was going to take a (very fair) jab at how atrocious the Steinberg eLicenser is, but they’ve recently announced that they’re doing away with it, and not a moment too soon. Even if it’s there today, it’s on the way out very soon.

There were a few last things I wanted to touch on that I couldn’t fit anywhere else. The first is Insert Mode which is mostly a blessing, but carries some danger with it. When I’m doing a transcription of something, it’s very easy to jump over a measure or even a line. Then you have to cut and paste the whole bit you were just on…and not with Dorico you don’t. You can just jump back to where you diverged, hit the “insert” mode trigger, and just like in a text editor or word processor, the things ahead of it will move where they need to be.7 The only issues that pop up are for brand new people who mistake it for the button to start inputting notes at all (and I was personally quite a bit perplexed with getting note input started once upon a time).

Finally, I want to mention the videos of Tantacrul on all the notation software. He has some legitimate digs at Dorico, though thankfully the worst are getting better with the changes to the eLicenser. Properties mode can still be a bit fidgety, and I will occasionally get a bit frustrated with handling players from time to time in Setup mode.8

In spite of my complaints, I can’t recommend Dorico enough to my fellow educators. If any reasons are starting to accrue for leaving Sibelius or Finale, you should really look at jumping over. Steinberg mentioned when v3.5 shipped in 2020 that they were hoping to move to a spring release schedule…working from home during COVID is probably the culprit of v4 not being out yet, but I’m eagerly expecting it any day now.

If you have any questions about Dorico, I’d be happy to answer them, or maybe write about them — I’m @_ehler on Twitter. I plan to be posting some projects I’ve made in Dorico to give other people ideas and things to steal throughout the remainder of the summer. I recommend picking up Dorico SE for anyone who doesn’t already have a full version of Dorico (though their trial is pretty lucrative.) The Facebook group and forums are great resources out there for anyone trying to get a handle on it.

For anyone from Steinberg reading this9 who spotted a mistake I made, I will happily correct it as I previously have.

  1. In this post I believe I will levy a lot more complaints than they do; just a different tone and a different set of goals. Read their dang reviews. 
  2. At some point in this timeline, the founders, Jonathan and Ben Finn moved on from the company. I don’t have an exact idea of when certain people began at the company and when others left but we don’t need to get any more bogged down in this. 
  3. For those wondering, that complaint is the eLicenser that I touch on later. It’s worth noting that Avid’s DRM has gotten much, much worse since 2012. 
  4. I tested it pretty thoroughly too; I’d recommend anyone kicking the tires on new notation software do so by transcribing something off of IMSLP. I did a Saint-Saëns bassoon sonata. Try something with piano for sure, because playing with voices/layers is key to getting a feel for a program 
  5. And Dorico’s condensing and cue features are incredible. Scoring Notes covers this well. Are you noticing a theme? 
  6. Yes this is a practical consideration to think about. Also… 
  7. Yes, even if there are triplets. 
  8. I also wish I could get most instruments not to write out their transposition by default in the part layout name. There are ways to do this in the score, but I don’t need “(B flat)” written in the file output for every clarinet and trumpet part. 
  9. They have a commendable social media presence, including John Barron of Steinberg is actually very active on their Facebook group answering questions and Daniel Spreadbury going on the Scoring Notes podcast frequently. 

On Subscriptions (Part Two)

In my last post, I laid out a lot of subscriptions for apps that I pay for quite happily. In that article, I laid out some of the logic behind why I found those particular apps to be worth the money, and in this one, I wanted to lay out some apps I’m not subscribing to, with one in particular I want to touch on.

There are all sorts of reasons not to be willing to subscribe to an app — it’s a simple question of whether the value proposition is there. But I think it’s significant that it’s a different value proposition than whether it would be worth it to buy an app outright or not.

I consider apps that I’m thinking of buying like some people buy books or others kitchen gadgets. “Will I ever get use out of this?” I live an enchanted life in that regard — yes, I was in a dire situation in which I absolutely needed the newest version of Roxio Toast to burn DVDs once. I use all sorts of text transformation tools to make my life easier. I have silly iWork and Office templates collection apps that I will occasionally search through before being disappointed that there’s nothing quite right.

But with subscriptions, it’s a very different question. It’s really “is this functionality (or the increased functionality over the free version) going to be worth the money over the next year?” That’s a much harder yes, and while I did describe a number of my “yes”es, now I want to dig into the “no”s. Most of these are great apps, just…not great enough for me for their price. Most of these apps are also ones that I’ve actually bought prior to their transitioning to a subscription model.

Capo is the first one that comes to mind. I never had The Amazing Slow Downer or anything in that space prior to Capo, and I think it was one of the first major purchases I made on the Mac App Store after owning a Mac. It was the first app I had that could modify tempo independent of pitch or vice versa. It’s also got some neat isolation features, but at the end of the day, it’s really made for guitarists which I am not. It’s alright for identifying the chord changes of something, but that’s not a real need I have. Even independent of its subscription transition, I found that for serious use, AnyTune Pro+ was a better fit for me.[1] So while I hope the best for Capo’s team, it was very easy for me to decide not to jump onto at $20/yr.

Instapaper and Pocket are services I’ve gotten amazing use out of that I’ve never been able to justify the premium versions for. I started off on Instapaper originally during the period of time it was owned by Pinterest (well after Marco Arment sold it). At that point in time, it actually rolled in the features that had previously been on its premium tier for free, and there was no option to pay money. They’ve since gone back to that model with a transfer in ownership again. For unrelated reasons, I’ve actually moved to Pocket in the last year. There’s only one really strong reason,[2] the rest is all sort of amorphous preference, and I could easily transition back if I were so inclined.

Both offer pretty similar premium features at $45/yr on Pocket and $30/yr for Instapaper: Full text search for articles and a removal of limits to highlights and notes. Each app has a few more distinguishing features on top of that (some speed reading and text-to-speech features on Instapaper and fancy fonts on Pocket), but at those prices, those features aren’t worth it to me. I’d love to support the development of them — both show some serious age — but I can’t justify those prices for those features. Instead, if I want to mark up an article in a serious fashion or save it to search later, I’m better off putting it into DEVONThink where it can live with all sorts of other content anyway.

PDF Expert is my PDF app of choice on macOS and iOS. I bought it upfront on both platforms, and there’s actually no subscription associated with the Mac version at all. While it lacks the OCR features of an app like PDFPenPro (or DEVONThink where I’m actually doing most of my OCR these days), it’s a much smoother experience for me for just about every other kind of PDF manipulation under the sun. It kind of breaks my heart that it’s gone to a subscription model, because it’s not just not right for me, but I don’t think it’s worth $50/yr for anyone. I didn’t lose any features with its transition to a subscription model, but I did lose my go-to recommendation for a PDF app for friends and family on iOS.

There are two more apps that I hesitate to include at all, because they haven’t migrated to a subscription option — they both offer it as an alternative to buying the app outright — but I think it’s worth highlighting that I think buying them outright continues to be the best option. The first is OmniFocus, but really all of the OmniGroup’s apps. I won’t break down the full offering of their different subscription options, but I’m not sure who it makes sense for unless someone is really inclined to feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for upgrades to apps, yet they don’t mind subscriptions. I don’t think that imaginary person exists. Maybe for someone who’s using OmniPlan plus all of Omni’s other apps the math works out. I don’t know. The other is DEVONThink To Go, and the subscription is only even an option on their mobile app, and is a totally optional alternative to buying it upfront. Again, I’ve just bought each outright, but I have no objections to this model.

In a similar vein, I’ve seen lots of smaller developers who started subscription only — with prices points in the $1015/yr ranges — come out with “lifetime access” options well after the fact for about 22.5x the price of their yearly subscriptions. This is exciting to me to see, and makes me more willing to look at their premium versions in the first place if I was making do with their free versions.

But the fun is over on this post, on to the whining.

The Trouble with Sibelius

Out of the big three commercial notation applications in 2021 — Sibelius, Dorico, and Finale — Sibelius is the only one to offer a subscription option..[3] They’ve been offering a subscription version for a while now, and for a time, it was basically easiest to just ignore it if you wanted to be using a perpetual license. And today, it’s still not the only option.

The only real difference between the models for the big three programs (if you were on the perpetual license), was that Sibelius had an “upgrade plan,” rather than charging you for occasional ‘major’ version changes. You would basically buy a year of updates for a single price, and you could keep renewing that or just buy a new upgrade plan down the road when you were ready/incentivized by the features. It was frankly, very user friendly.

But in 2019, they made a change to the upgrading of perpetual licenses. If your upgrade license ever lapsed, you couldn’t get a new one without buying a brand new, full-price perpetual license. This is incredibly user-hostile.

By the time Sibelius made this change, I was using Dorico and my Sibelius upgrades had lapsed and I didn’t hop on, so I would have to buy it at the full education price of $300 again. The only benefit I can possibly get for previously buying a license of Sibelius compared to someone who has never given Avid money before, is if I’m willing to shift to a subscription at a discounted rate, and that subscription discount returns to the normal rate after a period of time.

In fairness to Avid, I understand why they did this. Before, I’m sure many users were letting go of their upgrade plans waiting for a feature that was lucrative enough to bring them current, meaning that Avid was getting very little money from most of their user base. But this is too far in the other direction.

I don’t actually use Finale for anything these days, but because I used to and because we live in a connected age, I regularly keep an eye out for deals on Finale upgrades and have given MakeMusic more money after ceasing to be a real Finale user. This is what I planned for Sibelius as well, but that’s off the table now. I’m not willing to pay full price all over again for the updates since it lapsed for me, and because of that, there’s no chance I ever become a Sibelius user again unless Dorico completely drops the ball (and I don’t see that happening — they’re the best team in this business right now).

I do want to contextualize my complaints, as being an educator and a notation software hobbyist.[4] For professional composers and engravers, it was probably much easier to never let it lapse, and the importance of Sibelius to their workflows (and the disruption that it would cause to change software) means that it’s worth it to suffer Avid’s abuse and user-hostile behavior. And I know that sounds overdramatic, but I think it’s also accurate — Sibelius is still the most popular software in the industry by my estimation, and they can get away with this solely because it’s so important to people’s work. Some people are getting by with their work on old versions, but as someone who doesn’t have a career-level dependence on Sibelius, I’m completely done with Avid.

As I mentioned, I’m using Dorico now, and I’ll be sharing soon on here just why I think it’s the best option for educators right now.

  1. Credit to Robby Burns for recommending AnyTune.  ↩
  2. I’m quite colorblind, and I also happen to prefer dark mode on just about every app. In Instapaper, the dark modes make it incredibly difficult for me to to tell links from their surrounding text.  ↩
  3. It’s actually a bit confusing keeping track of their current product offerings, but Scoring Notes has done a pretty good job of breaking it down. In addition to that podcast episode, they’ve got a number of good articles explaining it.  ↩
  4. I think they used to have a label in the DSM for “notation software hobbyists.”  ↩

On Subscriptions (Part One)

Over the last few years, the number of subscriptions I have for apps has grown by quite a bit, and a lot of apps that I’d previously bought on their own have transitioned to subscriptions. I wanted to spend some time on my thoughts on what I’ve found worth it and why that might be; perhaps as an encouragement to others to try certain apps in spite of their subscriptions, or maybe as a bit of catharsis to justify what I spend on apps that will just go out to the void.

As it was well-put on Mac Power Users, there’s a lot of good reasons for an application to change their business model to be based on subscriptions. It creates sustainable income for developers when the current models are failing. Apple takes quite a bit of blame for this in their lack of support for the traditional model of versions and upgrades with the App Store on both Mac and iOS. Additionally, Apple has encouraged it via a better revenue split for developers on the second year of any subscription.

But as a user, each subscription has to be justified. In theory, any purchase should be justified, but up to a certain amount, I personally have a pretty low bar for an app purchase if I think I ever might get use out of it. But if I have to pay for it again next year, I have to ask myself if it’s worth that money this year.

And even for apps I know I get use out of, it’s not always an obvious slam-dunk for a subscription. If I can see how the feature roadmap benefits me, then I might be more inclined to go forward with a subscription. Or if I can see where the recurring costs (usually in server hosting) for a developer are, then I’m more sympathetic. But I know I’m not totally consistent in my reasoning — and my choices might be totally different from someone else in very similar shoes, and if someone were trying to break these down as a market study, it might be totally useless data.

Great Subscriptions

The first app I can remember subscribing to is Bear. I was unhappy with how I was using Apple Notes, and an article on The Sweet Setup persuaded me to give it a whirl. At $15/yr, Bear became a somewhat unfair measuring stick for the value of other apps. It’s usable without that subscription, but only technically — sync is locked behind that paywall.

Bear doesn’t run its own servers for that sync, but rather syncs through iCloud. The subscription entirely goes to the cost of development, but it’s a totally reasonable fee to me. Bear launched originally as an upfront purchase app before being one of the earlier popular apps to have a subscription fee. I never got in before it was subscription-only.

Some Bear users are a bit upset that updates aren’t faster, but the developers are actively working on a major rewrite of the editor and are very responsive. Many users want to see a web version which is apparently coming, but is probably more than a year off. I’m very happy with the way things are in Bear, though, even if I will appreciate a lot of the new features coming.

Overcast is the app I could most easily get away without subscribing to. Its free version is more than comprehensive, and if I needed to save the $10/yr all of the sudden, I could live without its premium features. It’s supported by some very reasonable ads without the subscription, reasonable enough that back when I was on an iPhone 6 Plus, I actually kept the ads on after I was subscribing because I felt the UI was more balanced with them on. Since upgrading to an XS Max in 2018, I’ve turned them off, but they’re just ads for podcasts.

I don’t pay that subscription to get rid of the ads, obviously. I pay it for the very useful feature of being able to upload any audio file I want and listen to it with Overcast’s powerful Smart Speed (and other audio adjustment) features. This is most useful in using youtube-dl to pull the audio from a video that I really only want to listen to, and being able to consume it faster and without giving it more attention. There’s a post brewing on that workflow.

Jumping up in price, Drafts has, since moving to a subscription model, been $20/yr, but starting in 2021 is now $30/yr for new subscribers (I’m grandfathered in at $20/yr). I wrote at the end of 2018 about the place I found for Drafts in my workflow, and it’s an app that I’m not done writing about. I can’t really do it justice on my own to explain, and I don’t have easy links compiled to break down why it’s so useful, but Robby Burns wrote a great review when it launched version 5, and did a recommendable podcast episode with its developer Greg Pierce.

The subscription funding of Drafts has allowed Greg to go nuts with his development pace. It’s now his full-time job, and he’s put in incredible and powerful features regularly. The features that this subscription adds beyond the free version are really essential for anyone who’s serious about pushing the app to its limits.

I have a love-hate relationship with my email app of choice, Airmail. When I started using it during my student-teaching, it helped me get my email life under control. The number one feature of it to me is that you can extract a URL scheme for every message on both macOS and iOS.[1] This is incredibly valuable for being able to point to a message from another app; I can have a Bear note on a certain topic and reference the emails on it. I can have an OmniFocus task to reply to an email or follow up on the action of an email (when that’s the appropriate way to manage it, which it often isn’t). Airmail has a bunch of other features I like, but none of them are as important as its URL schemes.

It has a Markdown email composer (on Mac but not on iOS) which lets me write long informational emails to families in Drafts with appropriate links and styles in Markdown, tag them and archive them in Drafts (rather than deleting the Draft) so I can look at it in future years and reuse parts of it, and then send it off with as little friction as possible. The only problem is that there’s terrible bugs in both their raw HTML editor and Markdown composer; I’ve solved the Markdown bug, but fixing the bug requires me to go through an annoying process every time Airmail updates.

When I started using Airmail, it was a one-time purchase, and despite its many flaws, I was happy to pay a subscription of just $10/yr (in hopes that it would solve some of the flaws and keep development ongoing; only the latter has worked out). When I bought it, it worked great with Alfred’s incredible file attachment actions (thanks to custom work from Alfred’s devs), but it has been broken for some time now and is another reason I’ve thought of leaving Airmail.

Day One isn’t one of the top apps I use, but it has changed how I think about buying apps. I bought it on macOS as a standalone app initially, and after trying to push myself to get into journaling, gave up on it. At first, I felt a bit stung by the app; I thought it was essentially just a glorified notes app, storing text files as a “journal,” not really seeing the utility in it. I wasn’t yet into Markdown, and I didn’t bother to pick up the iOS app, feeling that it wasn’t worth another $10 to me.

Somewhere down the road, though, my feelings about it changed. It was that Sweet Setup article I’d already mentioned, and something about the notion of being able to just take pictures of birthday and Christmas cards into Day One and chuck the physical versions sounded freeing. The notion of going back really began to click, and on top of that idea of putting physical things into Day One, I started to actually get into journaling.

In between I had originally bought it and had this change of heart, though, Day One shifted to a subscription model. Having not picked up the iOS app originally, if I wanted it to sync with iOS, I had no choice but to go forward with the subscription. I think at the time, my calculus was that if I had bought the iOS app originally, the subscription wouldn’t be necessary for my needs at all, which has made me much more willing to jump on upfront purchase apps I see. I’ve seen a lot of them, whether they were of interest to me or not, move to subscription pricing over time, and there’s often a benefit to previous purchase-users if it later goes to subscription pricing. I’m paying $25/yr for Day One; for those who had bought the initial Mac app, they have offered that as a discount from their standard $35/yr for everyone else, which I appreciate.

Which brings me to Fantastical, the app that initially inspired to write this article quite awhile ago.[2]


When I was growing up, I had an email address from around the age of seven, I would guess. I remember loading that email address into Microsoft Outlook the day I finally got it (I played with Eudora instead of Outlook Express as a child on the versions of Windows that had it), and I was hooked. I fantasized about being an adult who could actually get to use the cool features involved in Outlook’s calendaring system for comparing availability. It seemed so neat.

I was a weird kid, but it might have something to do with how much I love apps like OmniFocus today.

For the longest time, I used my calendar app on my smartphone and then eventually on my Mac (usually the stock calendar app) I used it just to manage events that were exceptions. I needed to be able to see at a glance when I’d have a doctor’s appointment coming up later in the month, or when a concert was. There was, in essence, one way I could manage my calendar effectively, and that was the most worthwhile one to me. I knew my daily schedule, so I wasn’t going to use my calendar for that; if I did, I would wind up ignoring my calendar app most of the time, and it would be a slog to find the exceptional events that I needed to stay apprised of.

When I bought Fantastical for Mac, it changed the way I was able to actually use calendars in my life. There are a whole host of great features in the app, but the biggest to me has always been its calendar sets feature. One set could be for the events I just described and another could be for my class schedule. Or for timeblocking.[3] Or my school’s activity calendar. Or, you know, all of the above with me quickly jumping between each one with an easy shortcut.

There’s other great features to Fantastical too — its natural language input and support for dumping into that natural language input from outside sources like Drafts saves a lot of time — but calendar sets on its own made it worth the $50 cost of Fantastical 2. When Fantastical 3 came out and pivoted to a subscription, they also brought a bunch of other great new features, including calendar sets on iOS, and it was a no-brainer. Some of these features require a server-side component on their end (like their new “proposed date” feature) or API access to third-party data that the developers are paying for (like integrated weather data), which further helps me justify the cost to myself, but I think I had subscribed before I’d read about those features. Recently they also added access to the new premium features in their excellent contacts app Cardhop to the same subscription bundle at $40/yr.

I wanted to lay these out for a whole host of reasons including trying to help others justify subscribing to apps that they might have, but my greater motivation was to lay out the case for what I don’t subscribe to, with one app in particular in mind. Looking at my word count, though, I better split that off for a separate post.

  1. For brevity’s sake, I won’t name iPadOS separately from iOS, but I mean to include it every time I say iOS.  ↩
  2. Somewhere over a year ago. It’s been hard to write.  ↩
  3. I’m not doing timeblocking in any super meaningful sense, but I’ve dabbled a bit over the last few months. I have a dedicated calendar and calendar set for it, regardless.  ↩