Capella is a highly evolved and intuitive scoring package that helps you get the job done quicker by cutting down on distractions.
Music notation and computers may not go together exactly like a horse and carriage, but that hasn't stopped software designers from trying to make the combination work. No single approach to solving the problems presented by scoring on computer has all the answers for every composer or music typesetter. From the outside, it also seems that none has the speed and immediacy of going full tilt with a pen and ruled manuscript paper.
But whatever goes onto paper has to be turned into something musicians can play at some point — that is the goal for most composers, after all. Whether that's making copies for an ad hoc performance, or presenting something that a publisher can use for commercial distribution, the notes will benefit from being in a digital form at some point. Thus, composing direct to a scoring package immediately introduces one major time-saver. And given that many composers — even 'serious' ones — create and compose on computer with software sequencers, adding a dedicated notation package makes sense. Most of the hard work of getting a performance into concrete form, via the sequencer, has been done.
But which package? There's a surprising amount of choice, and within this, there are two or three major players, with the rest snapping at their feet vying for your attention. Many of the second-tier packages, though, have rabid devotees, because when someone with a serious need for software notation finds something that really works for them, they tend to stick with it.
This is especially the case with Capella. Originating in Germany about 15 years ago, this PC-only software has quietly carved a niche for itself as affordable, easy to use and capable of producing publishing-quality output. It succeeds on all fronts: check the price at the end of this review for confirmation of the first point. The software has been used for mainstream book and music publications and, due to its streamlined approach, is as likely to be found in primary schools as it is on a professional's desktop. Capella 's following is such that the native format it uses to save score files has become quite widespread on the Internet; they can be displayed with the free Capella Reader software.
The English-language edition was created and continues to be supported by Software Partners, a company set up for this purpose. The whole enterprise has a friendly and responsive feel to it that makes users feel as if they're part of the family.
Initially, Capella feels like every other score package you may have played with. But after a few minutes you realise it's smoother and more responsive. There's also not so much stuff in the way.
This is one of the refreshing aspects of Capella. It has all the tools and widgets you'd expect, but they never seem overwhelming, even if you've set up a job so that lots of them are accessible. Getting used to keyboard shortcuts as you familiarise yourself with the software will help a lot on this score. This learning process will probably be the hardest part of getting into the program, but should be considered essential, just as it should with any music software. Anything that frees you from the mouse is to be welcomed.
The developers have also managed to avoid bolting on the audio and MIDI manipulation tools which have started to weigh down the main front-runners, Sibelius 4 and Finale 2006. It can offer audio proof, albeit limited to 16 MIDI channels and using Windows' system via your soundcard, but it doesn't have slots for you to plug in virtual synths and samplers and so on. That's a good thing, in general.
Capella is and always has been PC-only. I don't blame Capella 's developers for not maintaining a Mac port, since the last few years have seen a lot of upheaval in Apple-based operating systems and hardware that must appear daunting to a smaller company not dedicated to the platform. The end user, too, wouldn't find Capella plus a Mac to be quite as cost-effective a scoring solution as running the software on a PC. But it is worth noting that Capella is written using Guido van Rossum's Python, a cross-platform open-source programming language. A port may not be at all likely but it is, theoretically at least, possible.
So let's have a quick look at what Capella does. Many of the concepts and names encountered when using the software will be familiar to users of other scoring packages. The basic facts are that a Capella score will generally consists of one or more lines of music, and these are dubbed 'systems'. Each system could be a single staff or multiple staves; a piano score, for example, consists of two staves but is considered one system.
You have a free hand as to clefs, key signatures and whether you're using standard staves or tablature. A setup Wizard lets you quickly access a number of standard score types. Further, a sophisticated template system gives you complete control over how staves are created and appear. For example, a tablature staff can have four lines, six lines or up to 11 lines. The same goes for standard note-based staves; no matter what specialised score type you'd like to create, from early music to avant garde presentations, you should be able to create it here. Save your empty score as a template for later recall if you think you'll need it again. Staff lines can be dotted, if you like, and bar lines don't have to run the full height of the staff. Needless to say, there is full control over spacing between staves and systems, beaming between notes, expression markings (such as slurs) and so on.
Within a staff, the software will handle one or more voices, or instruments, up to six. This is an important concept both for audio proof and for note handling — barring and grouping and so on. Again, in a piano score, multiple voices will usually appear on each staff, and a single staff being used by related instruments (say flute 1 and flute 2 in an orchestral score) would require access to individual voices rather than munging all the notes together as a standard MIDI sequencer might. The independence is necessary both conceptually and operationally. A slight exception to the 'voices per staff' rule is that chords of up to 15 notes can be played by one voice.
The graphic elements of a score can also be anchored to chords and rests; move the score element, and the anchored element will also move accordingly. Text is handled just as elegantly, whether in the form of lyrics or descriptive material. Graphics, too, can be imported and incorporated into a score or page. These concepts, and those involving colour coding, become important when laying out a score for educational purposes. Several example scores are provided that show the in-depth analysis of material such as Bach's two-part inventions, using colour coding to highlight themes, inversions and so on. Colour, text and graphic handling is, of course, available for 'straightforward' scoring use, if you'd like performers to react to non-note elements.
Start up Capella, and you see an empty page with a single staff in it. You'll also probably see a little on-screen keyboard, for note entry. You don't have to mouse-click this while composing or laying out: MIDI note entry from an attached keyboard is possible, as is note entry via the computer keyboard (using note name letters rather than a music keyboard-style layout). As much as you might think a MIDI keyboard would be the best note-entry option, I found staying at the computer to be more satisfactory most of the time. A range of keyboard shortcuts makes for quick changes in note length, including irregular values such as triplets and septuplets, and register. Left and right shift keys, for example, transpose a note to be entered down and up respectively. Rests are also as accessible as notes.
Use either the wizard or the template system to add the staves you need, or just start inputting notes. The on-screen staff grows as notes are added. Hit Return to create a 'line break', and when things get messy, justify the display. There are word-processor analogies all through Capella 2004 that make working with notes almost as easy as text. If you haven't read the manual and just poke away with arrow keys to move the cursor and so on, you'll find many functions are quite logical. What you won't find is real-time performance capture and the related MIDI correction and manipulation tools. If this is how you'd like to generate a score, use a MIDI sequencer (there are free or budget options on-line) for the job and export the result as a MIDI file.
Entering expression and other graphic elements is a little more complicated and can be done from palettes, drop-down menus accessible from the menu bar, on-screen graphics, or by direct entry in most cases. The system is flexible enough to adapt to your way of working. Even the main palette of music symbols can be handled mostly by keyboard shortcuts. Dynamics, performance marks, rests and other elements can be found in a layered palette. Slurs, crescendo and decrescendo, trills, guitar chord boxes and some other elements are always input directly.
Non-visible features such as transposition handling are also easy to access. It's up to you whether you input notes for a transposing instrument at concert or the transposed pitch; the instrument's system in the finished score can be set in its correct transposed form at any point, with no effect on audio proof during score creation.
Playback is possible, though there is no on-screen button for the job: Ctrl+F9 or a drop-down menu option does the job, and you can listen to one system or the whole score. Dynamics and other score elements are reflected in the playback, so you'll here crescendos and trills and so on.
Capella 2004 is just part of a range of music software distributed by Software Partners. I also had a chance to play with Capella Scan 6 (£116) and Capella Play Along 2 (£81). Coincidentally, these two programs can be purchased in a bundle with Capella 2004 for just £253, saving £60.
Capella Scan 6, as you might expect, offers a dedicated suite of tools for digitising sheet music. You need a scanner, of course, and the software will work with all standard drivers. It offers note and text recognition that is surprisingly effective — well, it surprised me! Clean and tidy manuscripts, whether printed or clearly handwritten, scan in very well. The resulting file becomes, in essence, an editable Capella 2004 file that can be loaded into Capella itself for fixing up fluffed notes and so on. From here, output the result on paper, as a graphics file or as a MIDI file.
If instant accompaniments are what you're after, Capella Play Along 2 may be up your street. Your system will need a CD burner of some kind installed, since the software is taking a Capella file and creating an audio file that it burns to CD. It's perfect for 'music-minus-one' situations, for instrumentalists or singers at any level, where it might be useful to have an orchestra or similarly otherwise inaccessible ensemble to play with. The musician could be a soloist or just one of the group, learning repertoire 'in situ'. Obviously, this is a great package for educators of any kind.
The software provides complete control over performance tempo, which instruments will be in the mix, their level, pan position, transposition and so on. No fewer than 7500 scores are provided to get the new user started; the collection is hard to summarise, but appears to be eclectic on quick examination. Any work you create in Capella can be so reduced, as can any of the hundreds of compatible scores to be found on the Internet, MIDI files and Music XML files.
Workflow is logical throughout, and quite massive scores can be handled by this software, with the only drawback being the limitations of the computer screen. A big Mahler score, for example, would not be visible in its entirety except if zoomed out to a ridiculous degree. Otherwise, what you see is what you get — even graphics-heavy pages look good at all levels of zoom.
Once you have something to output, the options are again very flexible. Simply printing work from the software can produce excellent results, and will be the best option for teachers, students and many composers distributing one or two copies of small-to-medium-sized works. Postscript export is also provided, so files can be sent to non-Capella owners for accurate printout as long as they have a Postscript-compatible printer. Though Capella has only a shallow nod towards MIDI, a finished score can also be exported as a Standard MIDI File.
If the material you're working on needs to be moved to a more comprehensive desktop publishing environment — you might be producing musical examples for a book — the software complies. It can create a bitmap of whatever you're exporting — the whole page with or without margins, a line of music, or the contents of the current window. Output files can be in GIF, PNG, BMP, TIFF or JPEG formats, with plenty of options for manipulating size and resolution of the final file.
I have very few gripes with this software, as would anyone not requiring video playback or the hosting of soft samplers. My main issue is fairly trivial — the use of 'crotchets' and 'quavers' and related archaic terms in the (very) English edition seems rather quaint in the 21st century. Surely, musicians in Britain must be aware of the more logical note length nomenclature based on rational sub-divisions?
If I point out a lack of MIDI or audio sophistication, I'm not complaining or exposing a flaw. But users new to the general field of music technology may need to be reminded of the difference between, say, a full-on digital audio workstation package that has score-based note entry as an option, and a specialised package such as this, dedicated to score output only. You, and your computer, don't get and generally won't need the overheads of handling modern audio playback and the distractions of manipulating MIDI data. If you understand the limitations of this sort of program, then Capella could well be the answer you're looking for, whether you're a professional media composer, a music teacher, or anyone else needing flexible, easy-to-use scoring and quality output.