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Opcode Overture

Notation Software By Derek Johnson
Published December 1994

Opcode's new Overture notation program has been called "DTP for music", and aims to bring the arcane art of music notation into the age of user‑friendliness. Derek Johnson finds it's worthy of note...

The history of music typesetting is the story of a struggle against considerable odds to develop a clear and readable system that is as quick and intuitive to use as a pen and manuscript paper, but which also offers the possibility of unlimited, customisable copies. Computer‑based typesetting, like word processing and DTP for text, holds out the promise of bringing this ideal to the masses. While the last few years have seen a steady supply of music notation packages for the Mac and PC, and all ultimately provide a professional printed product, what often lets them down is the user interface. The computer keyboard and its attendant rodent are not the most musically intuitive of input interfaces.

This brings us to Opcode's recently released Overture notation software for the Macintosh, which makes claims to break the mould, following research by the software's developers into what the market wants. Central to the operation of Overture is that no functions are more than a keystroke or mouse‑click away, making it fast and friendly to operate. For the most part, Opcode have succeeded — note entry is quick and logical, especially with a MIDI keyboard attached, and you hardly need to use the mouse at all, which came as a relief to me personally.

The Overture package contains a master disk, as well as an Opcode MIDI System (OMS) installer disk. Manuals are definitely not in short supply: the Getting Started book (80 pages) gently introduces you to the program, takes you through installation and finally gives you a hands‑on tutorial that takes all the mystery out of using the software; the Reference Manual (531 pages) is the definitive source of detailed information; the spiral‑bound Encyclopedia (99 pages) is an alphabetical listing of Overture functions, with brief explanations — your first port of call if you need information fast — there is no on‑line help system, by the way. A disk‑based manual supplement contains up‑to‑the‑minute information, and OMS is explained in a separate 128‑page user manual — and let's not forget the glossy keyboard shortcuts brochure.

Opcode recommend that your Mac be equipped with System 7.0 or higher, 3Mb or more of RAM, a 68020 processor or better and OMS V1.2 or higher if you're using MIDI devices with Overture. The program and its various bits take up just over 1Mb of hard disk space, and it's recommended that you set aside 2Mb of RAM for working. I'll say right now that if you're just buying a Mac or upgrading, get the fastest machine with the most RAM you can afford (or with the most room for expansion). I use an elderly IIsi with 5Mb for my SOS writing, and I installed Overture on that machine. Believe me, this was not an ideal option: some editing functions and screen redraws were rather slow. I highly recommend a large monitor too. Colour isn't necessary — Overture's layout is classy and clear in mono.

Overture Overview

Overture's structure can be fairly easily and logically sectioned off — and the use of musical terminology throughout makes getting around the software not so traumatic for the newcomer to computers. The software is broken down into a number of easy to digest morsels:

  • Symbol — the smallest unit, a Symbol can be a note, accidental, rest, tie or any element of the score.
  • Staff — this is where the action is, where symbols are placed; a staff can have up to 16 lines — great for coming up with percussion and custom staves — and can be virtually any size you like, from 25% to 250% of the basic size.
  • Track — the MIDI equivalent of a Staff; staves notate the MIDI data contained on tracks.
  • System — a group of staves that play together. For example, the two staves needed to notate a piano piece are a system, as are the four staves of a string quartet or the 32 staves of the finale to Mahler's second symphony.
  • Tool — one of many useful gizmos that allow you to edit Symbols on Staves.
  • Palette — a collection of related tools, found under buttons on the overall Tool Bar; for example, the dynamics palette contains all the tools for individual dynamics (mezzoforte, forte and so on).

Window Mania

Overture's main operating environment is the score window; logically enough, it's here where you set up your overall score and input notes and other symbols. There are also a number of subsidiary windows, which include:

  • Tool Bar — the palettes containing the symbols for notation are located on the Tool Bar (see box).
  • Transport — for recording and playing back MIDI data.
  • Tracks — this window allows you to set track parameters (name, MIDI channel, and so on) for MIDI playback of the music notated on a staff.
  • Graphic — this window takes on the appearance of the piano roll, much like a normal sequencer; all MIDI data can be edited here, and the results show up immediately in the score window — and vice versa.
  • Chords — this window contains a list of possible chord suffixes as well as root and bass names; use this window to insert chords into your score.
  • Lyrics — a mini word‑processor window for keying in lyrics; this is very intuitive, with plenty of options for automatically lining up text to tune.
  • Step Input — the window from where you can input notes one step at a time; very intuitive, whether you use keyboard shortcuts or a MIDI controller.

Menu, Waiter, Please

Being a Mac program, Overture has a menu bar. Apart from File and Edit menus, which offer similar options to any other Mac program, there are menus labelled:

  • Score — gives access to score‑related tasks, such as staff location and appearance, system layout and page setup.
  • Measure — here you can can access controls to insert and delete measures, set key, meter and tempo and justify symbols in a measure.
  • Notes — allows you to modify notes, transposition, beaming, and grouping, and convert between notation and raw MIDI data.
  • Options — this menu lets you set various operation, editing and display options, such as auto beaming and positioning, metronome values, recording choices, search for incorrect values and range errors, and so on.
  • Windows — makes all the various subsidiary windows available.
  • Font/Size/Style — these options arise when inputting text or lyrics.

Inputting The Notes

You can choose from a range of preset template scores — brass band, full orchestra and so on — or set up your own score. Once you've set up the number of Staves and Systems you need for your job, along with instrument names, key signature, time signature and so on, and grouped the various sections together, you'll want to start placing notes. Each staff can contain up to eight voices; a voice is a single melodic and rhythmic line, which makes editing easier. A voice can, of course, contain chords if you like.

Inputting material can be undertaken in a number of ways. The simplest way is to import an Opcode Vision sequencer file or a Standard MIDI file. Notes, rests and all other symbols can also be input by pointing and clicking with the mouse — which is a little tedious, although there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts. A better option is to record parts in real time (just like a sequencer), which is particularly exciting — you see the raw data being entered onto the staff in almost real time, and when you stop, the raw data is automatically turned into notes, warts and all. But for really accurate input, use the Step option.

Overture's Step input is as close to having a word processor for musical notes as you're likely to get: note values are selected with the number keys on the Mac keyboard (8 = eighth note, 4 = quarter note, and so on — quite logical), and you select note names with keys A‑G or a connected MIDI keyboard; octave shifts are selected with a lower case 'o' to move up an octave and upper case 'O' moving down. Accidentals are chosen with the letters S(harp), F(lat) or N(atural). Hit return to place a note on the staff. The arrow up and down buttons move the current note up or down a semi‑tone, and you can move back and forth through a score, without entering notes, with the left and right arrow buttons. Rests are selected by pressing 'R' and hitting return. Overture will even enter chord names derived from chords played on a MIDI keyboard.

No matter what note entry method you use, note layout more or less takes care of itself: parts are automatically lined up vertically for easy reading. You can alter the look of the page at any time, and change the staff and system spacing, not to mention staff size, whenever you like; Overture always makes the reuslt look good.

The Twiddly Bits

Now that you've got your notes in, you'll want to add the nice graphic touches that make music easy to read by musicians. There is no really easy way to do this: articulation marks, dynamics, etc, all have to be inserted by mouse click, although they can be easily moved using the arrow keys. The really novel thing about dynamics marks — ff, mp and so on — is that they actually affect how the MIDI data is played back. The same goes for tremolandos and trills, but not, unfortunately, crescendos, decrescendos, staccatos and other similar markings. Perhaps these options could be incorporated in some future update.

Being able to input notes over MIDI and play back audio proofs in the same way is a good feature that should be available on all notation packages. The results sometimes sound a little strange — but this is definitely MIDI's fault, since it simply hasn't the resolution to play back really expressive music, from pppp to a full‑on brass fortississimo. A lot of today's synth modules and samplers leave a lot to be desired in this respect as well, but since we're only talking about an audio proof, the facility is excellent.

Worthy of comment is the way in whichthe software handles transposing instruments — those instruments, such as trumpets in B‑flat and the saxophone family, that play different pitches to those actually notated. Transposing parts can be in the correct transposed key while actually playing the right notes over MIDI — a small point, but a useful one.


Any successful music typesetting program is going to have to achieve two things: fast, intuitive note input and editing, and clean, professional printed output. Overture succeeds on both counts. I will qualify this slightly: the user interface is bound to take some people a little while to get used to, but Opcode have done their best to make this painless as possible with regard to keyboard shortcuts and screen layout.

On the topic of printed output, the results on the office laser printer were spectacular: very crisp and readable, even when condensed to quite a small size. The supplied font does produce a professional result. The actual task of printing is simple, and uses the usual Apple tools. Really large pages — too large for your printer — can also be handled quite easily by printing the result in 'tiled' sections.

I've heard Overture referred to as professional DTP for music, and I think I'd agree. Note entry and layout are handled impeccably. Although Opcode provide some sophisticated tools for the experienced music typesetter, the newcomer will find that most of the layout and printing functions are very accessible and operate virtually invisibly. Producing professional‑looking results is more or less a matter of trusting your eyes.

There is hardly a notation situation that Overture won't be able to handle, and if you do find it lacking in the symbol department, you can actually import graphics to use as symbols in scores! Music software may never have an equivalent to the spell checker, but Opcode do have routines for checking 'incorrect rhythms' — bars that don't contain enough or contain too many beats — and for finding parts that go outside an instrument's specified range.

There are so many nice touches to Overture that this review could simply have been a list of features. I simply have not been able to mention all of them, but I think it would be fair to say that there isn't a necessary feature missing. The sophisticated touches are all good, although some way of translating articulation and other markings over MIDI would be a nice addition to the dynamics response. Other niggles are small: for example, slurs don't re‑orient themselves when a group of notes is transposed, even though note stems do change, and loading a file always defaults to one page to view, whereas I prefer to work with more than one page.

On the question of crashes, I had a couple of small ones, but they have been reported to Opcode, who are paying particular attention to rapid bug‑fixing, and they should be a thing of the past by the time this article hits the streets. It's early days, and Opcode are keen to make sure that their software helps their customers lead a happy and productive life. My only other problems arose when accidentally installing MIDI Manager onto my computer. It didn't affect the software, but the SOS editorial printer did crash regularly. Install a minimal OMS setup — without MIDI Manager — and life really is problem free on the MIDI side.

The bottom line is that Opcode's time and effort are paying off. Overture delivers much of what it promises, and I really wish I'd been able to spend more time exploring it before completing the review — but deadlines don't wait. It's hard to assess the size of the market for a dedicated notation program — it's never going to be as large as, say, DTP or dedicated sequencing software — but perhaps Overture's elegant user interface, allied to a truly professional output, will turn more people onto the possibilities. The software is ideal for day‑to‑day copies, and perhaps an upsurge of people setting up in business as music publishers is on the cards. And why not? Software such as this makes preparing music for publication almost as simple and as economical as preparing a magazine with DTP. On the value for money front, Overture's price of £449 is very good, compared to the general cost of professional Mac software (leading DTP program Quark Xpress weighs in at not much less than £1000, for example). However, keep in mind that you'll want a fast Mac and more RAM — and a large screen should be high on every desktop typesetter's wish list.

I can sum up Overture's chances very simply: if you've been searching for the ideal notation software, this could well be it.

The Tool Bar

This is the Tool bar. Click on any button to access a palette of related symbols — everything you need to produce a score is on here somewhere. Note that there are key commands for virtually every option, so you won't need to use your mouse, or even have any of these windows open once you're familiar with the program's operation. The first three buttons provide you with some cursor options: the first selects the main cursor, the next is the erase cursor and the last is the Scale button, which gives you a cursor that can be used to resize (between 25% and 250%) notes, staves, clefs and dynamics. Note that the main cursor button also hides two score snapshot options: you can grab a score or section of score in EPS or PICT format for pasting into another score or document. The palettes accessed by the rest of the buttons can be 'torn off' the main bar and placed horizontally or vertically anywhere on the screen. The exception is the last, transcription quantise, button; this doesn't quantise MIDI data, just the way the transcribed notation appears on the staff.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Overture's keyboard shortcuts are, for the most part, logical — ie. type a B for the bar lines palette, T for transpose, E for erase tool, C for toggling the cursor. All common Apple shortcuts for file management and cutting and copying are, of course, supported. Shortcuts for notes are quite logical, as shown below:

1: Whole note

2: Half note

3: Triplet toggle

4: Quarter note

5: 32nd note

6: 16th note

8: 8th note

. (full stop): adds dot to notes

F: Flat

G: Grace note

N: Natural

P: Open Note palette

R: Rest of selected value

S: Sharp

Installation & Getting Started

Installation of Overture is simple. First of all, follow Opcode's warning to turn off all virus protection software and system extensions: your computer will behave strangely otherwise. Put the master floppy in the drive and double click on the installer icon. All the correct bits — including a new music font — are put into all the right places on your hard drive — you'll need about 1.5Mb free space. When you first run Overture, you'll be prompted to insert your master disk — write enabled — in order for authorisation to take place. As an official Opcode Overture user, you have two installs on your master disk. You can get back one or both of your installs by de‑authorising the software at any time. This is useful if you change computer, but it's still a bit alarming to be referring to the master disk. This sort of copy protection is pretty common in the Mac world — blame the software pirates. If you want to input or play back music over MIDI, then you'll need to install Opcode MIDI System (OMS). Installation is equally painless, and the supplied master disk isn't copy protected. Using just a Korg X5 keyboard synth, with built‑in computer interface, all I needed was Korg's own MIDI driver to input notes and play back the result. The instructions are all quite clear.


  • Friendly, well‑designed user interface, which makes the program easy to use.
  • As fast as notation by computer gets.
  • Sophisticated MIDI options, including the ability to import MIDI files.
  • Excellent printed output.


  • Printing problems with MIDI Manager installed.
  • MIDI playback could perhaps include all markings.


It's hard to assess a program such as this in a short time, since only working it hard in a professional environment will show up the cracks, if any. However, Overture has so far proved itself to be a flexible, easy to use and comprehensible tool, with a surprisingly well developed MIDI side and a fabulous printed result.