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Notion Music Progression

Scorewriting Software For Guitarists
By Sam Inglis

With the emphasis on affordability and ease of use, Notion Music's latest notation package is aimed squarely at guitarists.

Notion Music ProgressionPersuading guitarists to embrace new technology has always been a challenge, a bit like getting children to eat spinach, or generating public affection for Heather Mills. But you can't blame people for trying: there are so many guitarists out there that converting even a small proportion would bring rewards beyond the wildest dreams of your average synth manufacturer or plug–in programmer.

Five years ago (how time flies) I reviewed Sibelius Software's attempt to introduce the great unwashed to the joys of notation software. G7 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul03/articles/sibeliusg7.asp) is still a current product, but although the flagship Sibelius program has since reached version 5, G7 is stuck at version 3. This means, among other things, no support for Intel Macs, and suggests that the market for guitarist–friendly notation software hasn't proved as fertile as Sibelius hoped.

When G7 was launched, Notion Music didn't even exist, but they've since attracted a lot of attention in the classical community with their eponymous scorewriting software, and they too have now spun off a notation package aimed at guitarists. Rather like G7, Progression combines the key features of the 'mothership' program with an interface tailored to those who favour the fretboard over the keyboard. It also features playback capabilities designed to render your compositions using sample–based soft synths.

Progression is installed from DVD, and has to be registered on–line within a couple of weeks if you want to continue to use it. I know people moan about dongles, but personally, I would rather have copy protection handled by iLoks and the like than hand over the personal data required to register a copy of Progression (why on earth do they need to know my age?). There's no manual, as such, nor any tooltips, context–dependent help, or example scores, but there is a fairly decent interactive Help document, and a small collection of video tutorials on Notion Music's web site. Printed documentation is limited to a handy card with all the keyboard shortcuts printed on it.

What It Looks Like

The interface arguably tries a bit too hard to appeal to the guitar fraternity, with its entirely gratuitous 'tolex' frame and volume dial that goes to 11. The score currently being edited is displayed in a resizable window in the centre of the screen. To its left and right, respectively, are panels that show a graphical representation of a guitar or bass fretboard, and a palette of musical symbols. Clicking on one of these symbols, or hitting the appropriate single–key shortcut, transfers that symbol to the mouse pointer, ready to be positioned on the score with another click. There is no control over which symbols are displayed in the palette, and the selection on offer is a bit quirky. For instance, the pause (fermata) symbol is not visible, and is available only via a keystroke, which took me a while to figure out. Another weirdness is that unless it's set to the default arrow symbol, the mouse pointer disappears when you move the mouse over a grey area of screen.

G7 included a large number of preset instrument types that you could notate for, but no facility to define your own instruments if they weren't part of the default set. Progression take the opposite approach: the range of pre–defined instruments is quite small, covering just electric, acoustic and bass guitars, piano, electric piano, Clavinet, drum kit and human voice, but if you want to use any other instrument, you can choose a 'basic staff' and configure it manually. It is possible to set up such a staff for a transposing instrument such as trumpet, or as a single–line stave for percussion. However, there is no way to save user–defined instruments for use in future scores, although you could save blank scores with appropriately configured instruments and use them as templates. Guitars and basses can be set up with any tuning and any number of strings you require.

Progression's own sound set is limited to the basic guitars, keyboards and drums, so if you want to hear your vocal lines or user–defined instruments, you'll need to set up MIDI output for those instruments to something that can play them back. Up to four MIDI outputs are supported, each with the usual 16 channels, so it should be possible to route MIDI output to stand–alone hardware or software synths, but Progression doesn't host VST or Audio Units Instrument plug–ins. In practice, I ended up calling all my instruments guitars for the purposes of checking how my notated parts sounded.

Dots On Lines

Note entry into a Progression score can be achieved in several different ways. You can select note or rest lengths in the palette at the right–hand side of the screen, then click in the appropriate line on the staff; this is intuitive, and surprisingly fast once you get to know the basic keyboard shortcuts for switching note lengths. Alternatively, if you're working with an instrument that uses tab, you can click on a string line in the tab. This causes a text box to appear where you can type in a fret number.

When you create a note on a staff or tab line, it appears as a marker on the virtual fretboard, which can be picked up, moved around and added to by clicking with the mouse. Bafflingly, notes on the conventional staff follow when you move them on the fretboard, as do pre–existing notes on tab lines, but with newly created notes where you have a text box open on a tab line, the number must be calculated and entered manually. If you move a note in the conventional staff, Progression recalculates the fret number, but it is not clever enough to assign it to a new string when you go too far down.

Progression also suffers from the same lapse in artificial intelligence that G7 does, whereby accidentals on notes entered from the fretboard are spelled without reference to the key of your song. For example, if your song is in A major and you enter a B major chord, the note of D–sharp is incorrectly notated as an E–flat in the score. This seems such a simple and obvious thing that I'm surprised no–one seems able to get it right, and it's especially annoying because there's no global 're–spell accidentals' option as there is in G7 and Sibelius, so you have to change every case individually.

Worse still, accidentals are also mis-spelled when you use the other main way to enter notes into Progression: from a MIDI device. Unlike G7, Progression actually acknowledges the existence of MIDI guitars, which is refreshing, although it doesn't include any options to 'clean up' input from MIDI guitar by deleting low–velocity notes, or similar. You can record MIDI in real or step time. If you choose the former option, Progression will offer you a metronome beat in quarter notes (which is not ideal in 6/8, and hopeless in 9/8), although, annoyingly, there's no pre–roll option. I found real–time entry to be more trouble than it was worth, because for some reason it always seemed to assign diamond–shaped note-heads to half my notes, along with bizarre note lengths that bore no resemblance to what I had actually played. Notion Music told me that Progression does this when it "doesn't understand" the rhythm of the part being input, so I'm willing to believe that a less sloppy keyboard player might achieve better results. Step–time entry, by contrast, worked pretty well, at least until I made a mistake and wanted to delete some of what I'd done. This sometimes resulted in weirdness whereby I couldn't select the correct note length, and on one occasion, landed me in a situation where Progression was convinced that a 4/4 bar containing three crotchets and a quaver didn't have room for another quaver.

Not So Pretty Poly

My suspicion is that the odd note lengths I encountered in real–time mode probably had something to do with Progression's handling of musical polyphony. Guitars and pianos are among a relatively small band of instruments that are genuinely polyphonic, in the sense that two or more separate parts (voices) can be played at the same time. Even a simple piano part will usually involve musically distinct parts in the left and right hand, for example. The challenge for a program like Progression is how to notate these multiple voices on a single staff — because whereas piano music uses two staves, classical guitar notation typically uses only one.

The rival G7, like its parent program Sibelius, provides up to four voices per staff, which are colour–coded on screen; each voice is completely independent, except that the voices on a staff always play back on the same MIDI channel. Progression, by contrast, only offers two voices per staff, and they're not colour–coded; instead, one always has its note handles pointing upwards, while the other has them pointing downwards. This means that you can't distinguish the two voices on a line of tab, and it's very easy to forget which voice you're currently entering data for. On the plus side, though, the two voices play back independently if you're using Progression's own sounds, so you can, for example, hear a string bend in one voice against a non–bent string in another. Visually, Progression does a reasonably good job of presenting the two voices clearly, although I found that where you have rests in one voice only, they often end up in weird places, and can't be moved.

The key restriction that Progression shares with G7 is that although voices can contain chords, all the notes within a chord must start at the same time, and be the same length. The upshot of this is that it is impossible to notate many guitar pieces correctly, because the note lengths cannot be properly indicated. Take the simple example of an arpeggiated chord where every note is sustained to the end of the bar. This is not 'polyphonic' in any musically interesting sense, but notating it correctly requires the ability to indicate new notes being played while existing notes are being sustained. Because notes within a voice can't overlap, you would actually need up to six voices of polyphony (as implemented in Progression or G7) to notate a six–string arpeggiated chord properly.

This is not a huge problem for pop and rock guitar, because parts are more likely to be presented in tab format. However, it's a fairly major obstacle to notating classical guitar pieces in Progression. G7's four polyphonic voices at least provide enough independence that more or less any playable piece can be notated, albeit in rather inelegant fashion (you'll typically end up using two or more G7 voices to represent what is, in a purely musical sense, a single voice). Progression's two voices are simply not enough. (It also makes the entry of drum notation more awkward than it needs to be, but I won't go into details.)

Out Of The Box

The box chord tool generates a  list of suggested chord shapes based on your choice of root note.The box chord tool generates a list of suggested chord shapes based on your choice of root note.The other main element of guitar–related notation is chord boxes. To create a chord box in Progression, you select the chord–box tool in the palette at the right–hand side of the screen, then click at the appropriate place in the score. When you do so, you'll see a palette at the bottom of the screen where you can select the tonic note of the chord, its bass note (if different), whether it should be major, minor, diminished and so on, and any extended notes that should be included. Your selection is then reflected in a list of chord shapes at the right–hand side, from which you can choose. It's also transferred to the fretboard to the left of the editing window, where you can change it if you wish. When you've finalised the chord, you press Enter and move on to the next one.

This is a fairly intuitive system — or would be, if it worked properly. Unfortunately, I encountered several bugs and design flaws that made it more frustrating to use than it should have been. The worst of these was that selecting any sharp note as the tonic simply resulted in an empty list of chord shapes, regardless of what else was selected. Every time I wanted to use even a basic F–sharp chord in a score, for instance, I had to define it manually using the fretboard, or copy and paste a previous instance. Natural or flat tonic notes did at least generate a list of chord shapes, but this was often somewhat odd, either burying the most obvious shapes right at the end of the third page, or classifying chords in slightly dubious ways — personally, I wouldn't describe a chord as being C/A unless the A was actually the lowest note in the chord. Finally, the interaction between the fretboard, the chord box and the chord naming is not as helpful as it might be.

There are also a few obvious ways in which the chord–box functionality could be made more useful. It would be handy to have some kind of temporary palette to store chord shapes that recur throughout a song, while, in a program that makes such a big deal out of its ability to play back guitar parts realistically, it would have been nice if box chords in a score could have been played back too.

Words & Pictures

The ability to add lyrics to a score is something that will be important to most songwriters. It's perfectly possible in Progression, although I have to say that this is an area where the program could have been easier to use. To begin entering a lyric, you select the appropriate tool from the palette on the right–hand side and click on the note where you want it to start. You then enter the first note or syllable, before pressing Tab to move onto the next one. This works well enough, but it would be more intuitive if the space bar could be used instead of the Tab key. It would also be nice if there was some way to import lyrics from text files.

When you've created and checked your score, you will naturally want to print it out. The basic quality of Progression's printed scores is pretty good, which is lucky, because there's not much you can do to change things if the default settings don't work out. Among the things that music publishers and engravers might want to do, but can't, are moving the elements of the score around, adding text except in a few fixed places, changing the spacing of the staves, and specifying page breaks at convenient musical positions. There's also no neat way to create individual parts from a multi–instrument score, as far as I can tell. Nor is it possible to export Progression scores in any format that a typical graphics package can understand, although export as MusicXML is supported.

Summing Up

Looking back over this review, I seem to have made quite a lot of complaints about things that Progression can't do, or doesn't do in the way I'd expected. I raised these concerns with Notion Music, and I'm pleased to report that many of the bugs are currently being addressed. And with respect to the feature set, it could be argued that the limited functionality helps to streamline the package for its target audience by taking out features that such users won't need. Certainly, Progression presents a much less intimidating learning curve than other notation packages, including G7.

The basic process of putting notes onto lines is commendably simple and trouble–free, and as long as your notation requirements are fairly basic and narrowly guitar–oriented, Progression may well be able to meet them with a minimum of mucking about. For instance, if you're a songwriter needing to present basic outlines of your material to a band, or a secondary school teacher looking to introduce students to scoring, it's definitely worth considering. It also provides a good range of the special symbols that are used to indicate techniques peculiar to electric guitar, so it might also appeal to those who need to do accurate transcriptions of twiddly guitar solos, with the much–trumpeted sample library offering useful potential for checking them. There are some really nice touches here, such as the string–bend symbols that have moveable breakpoints, allowing you to shape the look and sound of the bend.

However, I must say that Progression feels like a program that would benefit from further development. Restrictions on polyphony mean that it's of limited use for notating classical guitar, while anyone needing a notation package for serious music publishing will be put off by its inflexibility of presentation. And although they don't make it unusable, the catalogue of bugs and minor design flaws I've outlined above certainly detract from the experience of using Progression. Still, this is a very affordable package that does a job, and at this price perhaps some of the negatives can be overlooked.

Progression Playback: The Sample Library

Progression's guitar samples can be routed through the bundled version of Revalver SE.Progression's guitar samples can be routed through the bundled version of Revalver SE.A major selling point of Notion Music's flagship Notion program is its built–in sound library, which was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road, and arguably represents a step forward in realism for orchestral playback in a notation package. Likewise, the company's promotional material for Progression makes a big deal out of Progression's ability to play back guitar (and drum, and keyboard) parts realistically using samples. The sample library includes bends, palm muting, hammer–ons, pull–offs and similar techniques commonly used on electric guitar (although others, like harmonics, are not included) and your virtual guitar parts can be run through a bank of equally virtual amps and effects, courtesy of licensed versions of Alien Connections' Revalver SE and IK Multimedia's Amplitube Duo.

With some effort, it's possible to produce surprisingly realistic results, at least as far as electric guitars go, but I can't help wondering what the point of it all is. When you're writing music for an orchestra, there is obvious value in being able to hear a realistic computer–generated approximation of the end result. However, the target user for Progression is, presumably, someone who plays guitar, and wants a package that will allow him (or her) to write down the parts that he's come up with. Basic playback facilities come in very handy for checking the accuracy of such a transcription, but I can't understand why users really need more than this — if I want to hear how my guitar parts sound on a guitar, I'll play them myself, thank you!

If further proof were needed that Progression is not being aimed at the classical fraternity, one could cite the fact that no nylon–strung guitar samples are included at all, which seems a shame.

Pros

  • Very affordable.
  • The basic notation features are intuitive and easy to learn.
  • Can generate very presentable scores with a minimum of fuss.
  • Can notate many special techniques for electric guitar.
  • Offers good–quality sample playback for the few instruments that are included.

Cons

  • Buggy.
  • Two voices per stave are insufficient to notate many classical guitar pieces correctly.
  • Limited range of instruments included.
  • There's almost nothing you can do to change the way a Progression score looks.
  • Documentation could be better.

Summary

Progression presents basic notation features for guitarists in a friendly, affordable and intuitive fashion, but in its present form is undermined by a number of bugs and limitations.

information

£69 including VAT.

Notion Music +44 (0)800 112 3991.

www.notionmusic.com

Published July 2008