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Meet the team behind Dorico

By Stefan Trowbridge, July 17, 2016

It has been a few years since Steinberg first opened up offices in London and with that brought a whole team of new family members to the table. They have been working hard, developing their state-of-the-art music notation software from scratch. The fourth quarter of this year will see the highly anticipated first version of the software application christened Dorico, and while the entire team’s caught up in tying up loose ends before ETA some of our colleagues were able to spare a few moments to talk to us.

Please introduce yourself.

Daniel: My name’s Daniel Spreadbury, and I’m the Product Marketing Manager for Dorico. I’m responsible for understanding musicians’ needs, and specifying the product’s functionality to meet those needs.

Anthony: I’m Anthony Hughes, I have worked with Daniel on how our customers will interact with Dorico and its features, and I have designed the user interface.

Ben: My name is Ben Timms. I’m the Head of the Scoring Team here in London. My roles are many and varied: from liaising with the Management Team in Hamburg; building tools and refining processes to remove impediments for the team, through to ordering the tea and coffee to keep everyone fully caffeinated.

Paul: I’m Paul Walmsley, and I’m an Architect and Developer on the Scoring Team, based in our London office. My role is to get all the different parts that are required for Dorico working together smoothly, and to design/implement many of the systems required for a modern desktop application, and wrangling the one million or so lines of C++ code that constitute a complex application.

When playing and composing music, does notation still share the same importance in the 21st century as earlier on?

Daniel: For me, absolutely. Any music that is to be performed live by people that is sufficiently complex that it can’t easily be memorized, or easily communicated by the composer directly to the performers, requires music notation. But it’s important to remember that music notation itself is not music — it is only a representation of some aspects of music. Despite all of its complexity, it only truly becomes music when it is brought to life by the performers.

Anthony: I think there are still a number of people who, like us, derive a great sense of pleasure from seeing a piece of beautifully engraved music; the result of a skilled craftsman having learned a centuries-old trade — art form, even. But Daniel’s right, its practical application is communication to performers and that’s still as relevant today as it ever was. Even though some musicians compose music on their computer, it still needs to be transformed into music notation in order for it to be performed. This happens a lot in film scoring, for example, but elsewhere too.

Paul: Notation is still (mostly) the means of communicating music to performers, and as long as there are composers and performers I don’t think it will ever go away. Modern notation practice does change though, and there are many contemporary composers who extend notation in creative ways. One of the challenges for us is how to support some of these new practices while still having excellent support for more traditional conventions.

Ben: I’ve not had much experience with composing, but certainly — as a trumpet player, the music I play is all notation-based. Even though the perception of modern music is that notation is becoming secondary to the audio, I think there’s still a silent majority of musicians, teachers and creators that rely on it to convey and consume music.

From L to R: Akiko, Richard, Toshi, Stefan, András, Paul, Anthony, Andrew, Graham, Ben, James, Bill, Michael, Daniel

What makes developing notation software different from developing any other application?

Daniel: Music notation is a wonderfully complex visual language, with its own conventions, grammar and semantics, and like any language, it’s full of exceptions and corner cases. Artists also like to push at the edges of their chosen language, whether it’s in visual art or literature, and music is no exception. Trying to model the complexity of this language in a way that allows freedom of musical expression while making the software follow the conventions and grammar of the language is a huge challenge.

Ben: You could imagine that developing software to represent music notation is similar to the challenge of developing Microsoft Word — but instead of having to implement support for the characters, words, formatting, spelling and grammar checker for the English language, you have to represent the myriad forms of music: analyzing and codifying the innumerable rules, conventions and details that aren’t obvious to most people who read the music itself. I’d say that it’s much more complex a job than Bill Gates had!

Anthony: In many ways designing music notation software is no different from designing any other software; you still have the same considerations of usability, accessibility, designing for flexibility and efficiency, that kind of thing. The important thing is to design for your customer. This needs to be immediately familiar to a musician, to be in tune (pardon the pun) with the way the mind might organize these concepts. And, as Daniel says, the world of music notation is vast and complex, so Dorico has to be similarly vast and complex; the trick is in designing it to be quick, approachable and flexible. It must cater for each end of the scale so that it's straightforward to quickly produce a sheet required for an impromptu performance and being able to rely on Dorico’s default settings, but also sophisticated enough to produce the most elaborate of projects where you have complete control over every detail.

Paul: Writing a music notation application is a very challenging activity that cuts across many areas of computer science and platform libraries: graphics, typography, audio, multi-threading, data structures, scripting, etc. We’ve spent a huge amount of time on our “Domain Model” which informs the application of the semantics of source musical data, so that Dorico can apply its intelligence to laying out the score and working out how best to play it back.

How did you go about developing a new notation software from scratch? What have been important milestones along the way?

Daniel: We had the great advantages both of having worked together as a team for many years before we joined Steinberg, and of having worked on similar software before. Having the opportunity to start again was an amazing opportunity, and we spent the first couple of months simply sitting in a circle and mapping out the vision for Dorico, the approach we would take and new ways to tackle challenges both in the architecture of the application we would build and in the capabilities we wanted to create for our customers.

Ben: No matter what you’re creating, starting from a blank piece of paper can be daunting.  Thankfully there was no shortage of ideas about how we could reimagine a new notation application. The challenge was capturing them all in manageable way and setting our expectations as to what we could achieve in the first instance. We’ve been very conscious of the potential of the second-system effect, and it’s been a fine balance between building what you need right now versus anticipating what our software will need to do in the future (with the knowledge that almost everything to do with music notation is “surprisingly complicated”). We’ve had so many milestones in the process of building Dorico that it’s hard to choose one in particular. Like building a new structure, it’s always pleasing when you “get out of the ground”, so to speak — and seeing the first music rendered within the scaffolding of the UI was a key moment for me.

Anthony: I think that when you work on anything for any period of time you start to have your own thoughts on how it could be improved or approached differently, and those first few weeks were key to creating our own plan for Dorico. The technical achievements of the original generation of notation software have been incredible. However, by starting again from scratch, we were able to really consider how musicians think and work today and what their typical workflows might be, so Dorico can be helpful at every stage of their creative process. We’ve designed Dorico to think musically so when you input, say, dynamics or tempo markings and so on, it has a rich, semantic understanding of those objects and how to represent them. If at any point you want to change that representation (for example from a hairpin to the word cresc. or vice versa), it’s easy because it has the same semantic meaning. Equally, we have tried to think about how the program could adapt to different working environments so that Dorico is equally powerful and easy to use regardless of whether you are composing, arranging, editing and so on.

Paul: The idea of being able to write a totally new application from scratch is hugely exciting, and equally scary. As a team we've got a combined 100 years of experience of writing music notation software, which for most of us has occupied all of our professional careers. We have seen the effect of design decisions that we’ve made over the years, and so now we can apply the power of hindsight to make more informed decisions. There have been great advances in C++ (the language Dorico is developed in) over the last five years which have come at a great time for helping us write more efficient and correct code. It’s been great to see new features being added almost every week.

As you are based out of London, what obstacles did you have to overcome when working together with your colleagues situated in Hamburg?

Ben: Reassuringly few. There’s a great deal of mutual respect between the various teams in Steinberg which fosters a very healthy relationship when it comes to exchanging ideas or expressing opinions on the best solutions to any given challenge. Obviously, being remote means that it’s not as easy to wander up to a colleague’s desk and chat about something — but that hasn’t been a huge impediment so far. It’s also quite a relief to only be one hour’s time difference away — no more late night conference calls!

Daniel: With the exception of the HALion team in Siegburg and the Dorico team in London, the rest of Steinberg’s engineers are all in Hamburg, and all of marketing, product planning, sales, finance, manufacturing and so on are also based at HQ. As a result, the company culture is based on working face-to-face, which is wonderful, but it can therefore be a challenge to get the attention of your colleagues when you’re not physically in the same building. However, London and Hamburg are not so far apart, and some of us travel over to HQ on a regular basis to make sure we are staying fully in touch.

Paul: One of the main application areas I’ve been involved in is the playback system, which we’re developing in close co-operation with Hamburg. Members of the Cubase team have been able to extract Cubase’s audio engine for us to be able to use, and I’m integrating it within Dorico. We have weekly video conference calls and occasional visits to keep in touch.  The thing that really struck me on the occasions I’ve been over to Hamburg is how similar the atmosphere is to our office: almost everyone is a musician and that provides a great motivation for your day-to-day work — it’s not just a regular 9-5 job.

To what degree was the community involved in the development process?

Daniel: It was very important to me that the community be as involved as possible in the development process. Steinberg has not generally shared details of its new products or new features publicly prior to the product’s release, but we agreed that I would start blogging about the development of our new scoring application right from the outset. My first post was in February 2013, and since then I have written more than a dozen detailed diary entries outlining what we’ve been working on and sharing aspects of our vision for Dorico. We’ve had a wonderful dialog with our prospective user base as a result, and that dialog has fed directly into what we’ve chosen to work on, and how we’ve approached each aspect of the application.

Ben: I’m so pleased that we could share the progress of Dorico’s development on the Making Notes blog. Daniel writes such beautifully crafted and meticulously detailed posts that really communicate what we’re trying to achieve. Watching the comments section fill up with threads of conversation from excited users, asking great questions and giving Daniel useful feedback is a thrill to see. Now the pre-release forum is also live, it’s given our prospective customers another avenue to find out more about what we’re planning and provide the opportunity to help shape that. The fact that Daniel doesn’t sleep and has a 36-hour wristwatch helps. ;-)

Paul: Now that we’ve been able to make the public announcement about Dorico, we’ve been able to engage with users on the Steinberg Forum. This has been a great source of feedback on some of the feature areas that we've been discussing there. It’s great to be able to talk to the users to explain our thinking on some of our design choices and to let them know that we're listening.

Please specify the users that will be using Dorico?

Daniel: Ultimately we want Dorico to be used by musicians of all kinds, whether they’re composers and arrangers, teachers, students, working in music for media, working in publishing, musical theater… you name it!

Ben: I wouldn’t want to specify the users, as that implies that there are limits! Anyone who wants to learn about, create or interact with music notation. You might also say that anyone reading music produced by Dorico is an end-user too!

Paul: Everyone who has a need to interact with music notation!

Will Dorico only be used by professionals, and how can hobbyists benefit from the features that Dorico will have to offer?

Daniel: Dorico is certainly targeted at the professional musician, but I hope that aspiring professionals and keen amateurs will also find the software useful and enjoyable to use. Dorico’s deep knowledge and understanding of the rules of music theory and intelligent automatic engraving will enable anybody to get great-looking, legible results out of the software quickly and easily.

Ben: The idea is that because Dorico caters to the needs of professionals then the standard is set at a sufficiently high level that it automatically benefits someone who just wants great results without needing to know all the finer points of music engraving. 

Anthony: This is something that we have kept at the forefront of our minds as we have designed the entire application. The truth is that there are so many different types of people that we would love to see using Dorico that we needed to ensure it was relevant to each of those groups. One way we have done this is by compartmentalizing the structure of Dorico so, for example, writing or arranging music is kept entirely separate from tweaking the visual appearance of that music, which in turn is kept separate from where you control the playback of that music. In this way, a hobbyist is protected from doing any “damage” to the music they have entered and then, as they become more adventurous, can explore new areas of the program that unlock more power and features.

Paul: Initially I expect our main audience will be professional composers, engravers and arrangers who will see how Dorico’s features will save them huge amounts of time and enable them to create very high-quality results. I think many amateurs and hobbyists will appreciate the quality of the output and the flexibility in the layout and playback.

What makes Dorico stand out from other notation software?

Daniel: We had three main goals: to make Dorico faster, easier and more flexible than its competitors; to produce more beautiful graphical results more quickly than its competitors; and to take advantage of the incredible audio expertise that exists within Steinberg to make the performance and realization of the music as flexible as possible. It will take time for us to broaden Dorico’s feature set to match the breadth of our more established competition, but I believe we’re off to a great start.

Anthony: Dorico’s rich, musical awareness and comprehensive knowledge of engraving rules mean that it’s easier than ever to get beautiful results as you are inputting your music. On top of that are the features such as managing multiple pieces of music in one project and the advanced page layout capabilities meaning you don't have to rely on other software to complete your final prints or graphics files. It really does handle a true end-to-end workflow.

Ben: Dorico is a fresh start in the world of music notation: built from the ground up to make use of the advances in technology available to us in terms of the underlying hardware, employ the latest techniques in how the code is designed and built, and giving us the freedom to apply the massive amount of knowledge and experience of how to represent music notation. This will translate directly into Dorico being more flexible, faster and functional than our competitors. Steinberg’s commitment to realizing this vision is also unique and the combination of our amazing team and the right environment will be hard to beat.

Paul: I think Dorico’s stand-out feature is the separation of different parts of your workflow, so that it can provide a user interface in each mode that is optimized for the task at hand. This is great for reducing visual clutter, and also prevents you from accidentally changing things you didn't mean to. Obviously, as it’s close to my heart, I’d say the playback features will eventually give the user amazing flexibility that will scale to match whatever sound libraries you have installed.