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Noteheads Igor Engraver 1.6 - Music Notation Software Review

August 1, 2002
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Igor Engraver from NoteHeads is a recent entry in the field of high-end music-notation software. In price and in its feature set, it takes direct aim at well-established programs such as Coda Music's Finale and Sibelius Software's Sibelius. Originally available for the Mac (see Fig. 1), Igor Engraver offers Windows and Mac users nearly identical functionality as of version 1.6, and scores are completely portable between platforms.

Igor Engraver's biggest selling point may be its well-developed sense of interpretive MIDI playback. NoteHeads has gone to great lengths to build “musical intelligence” into the program, and even on a simple General MIDI software synthesizer, Igor Engraver plays scores back with attention to articulations, dynamics, and other markings. Synthesizer profiles called Matrices are provided for many common sound modules to maximize their expressive potential, and NoteHeads distributes a free (unsupported) program called Matrix Maker by António Nunes for creating and exchanging Matrices for nonstandard synths and setups.

For a relative newcomer, NoteHeads has done a good job of covering all the expected features of a notation program, from quality output to e-commerce. NoteHeads's Web site allows users and other musicians to set up their own free home pages to sell their works, and a free viewer lets potential customers see and hear the music before they buy.

GIVE PIECE A CHANCE

A new Igor work is created in the Piece window (see Fig. 2), a two-pane alternative to the “wizards” some programs use to start a new score. In the right pane, you create Musicians and assign the instruments they will play, and in the left pane, you create Layouts, which represent the parts played by each Musician as well as the score itself.

This approach has some interesting ramifications. For example, Igor does not require you to “extract” parts from a score — they coexist from the beginning. Furthermore, parts and scores are dynamically linked so that updates to one are reflected in the other. I'm sure I'm not the only one who will be happy to say good-bye to the part-extraction process. (In fact, I have colleagues who regularly bypass the part-extraction process of their well-known notation program for reasons of quality and efficiency.)

It's also possible to recombine Musicians into different scores to create, for example, band and orchestra versions of a work. At first glance, that looks like a huge time-saver, but after using it, I'm somewhat less enthusiastic. It's not that the feature doesn't work the way it's intended to; rather, it's less practical than it seems. To take the band-orchestra example a step further, both scores would have clarinet parts and flute parts, but the band clarinet and band flute parts would almost certainly be different from their orchestral counterparts, most likely picking up large parts of the orchestral violin parts. Still, if there are any parts at all that are identical between orchestrations, you may save a little time. In general, the usefulness of this feature depends on the kind of music that you work with; for some people, the feature could come in handy. You could easily create a choir piece with and without an organ accompaniment, for instance.

In a rather odd design decision, the Piece window's various buttons are blanked out when they are not available, making it look as though something is wrong with the window. It's customary to merely gray out a button or menu item when it doesn't apply — for example, a Delete button when nothing has been selected. Once you get used to Igor's approach, it doesn't matter, but to a beginner, it's quite curious.

FINALLY, A HECKELPHONE!

Igor boasts an amazingly long list of instruments (more than 300) for Musicians to play. When you create a Musician, you choose one or more instruments from standard categories such as Bowed Instruments or Woodwind Instruments, but the list goes on for days, including everything from zither to automobile-brake drums to Moog bass to contrabass saxophone. Do you have any idea how few contrabass saxophones there are in the world?

This may seem like extreme overkill, but it's justified by the fact that each instrument definition contains not just information about appropriate clef, transposition, and instrument name (full and abbreviated in six languages) but also proper range, suitable synth patch, and intelligent performance information. For example, a trill means something different on timpani than it does on a clarinet, and Igor treats them differently. Some articulations even trigger patch changes, such as when switching between pizzicato and arco strings. That kind of information in the instrument definitions is subsequently interpreted by the Synth Matrices.

As a woodwind doubler, I had hoped that Igor's approach would solve the age-old problem of switching instruments in the middle of a piece. All I would have to do is assign alto flute, bass clarinet, piccolo, and baritone saxophone to a single Musician and then switch between them, right? Unfortunately, it's not that simple, and I was unable to get the display I wanted with the proper playback. That's rarely a smooth process in any notation program, though, especially if you want proper playback of the various instruments.

The most notable absence from Igor's list of instruments is a drum kit. It's hard to justify having eight tuba definitions and one for an Ondes Martenot (talk about rare!) without accounting for a drum kit. Credit is due to the manual's author for clearly laying out a moderately complex work-around, but this is one shortcoming that needs fixing right away. (According to NoteHeads, a drum-kit editor is planned for a future version.)

NOTE ENTRY

When I edited my first Igor score, I was initially put off by the sight of 20 palette icons. Palette-based entry is slow and tedious for most functions, and when I determined that there weren't even any shortcut keys to choose among the different palettes, my heart sank.

Fortunately, NoteHeads agrees with me, and the palettes are mostly there for users who are just getting acquainted with the program. Serious music entry happens in Input mode, in which note values, pitches, articulations, and dynamics can be entered from the computer keyboard or a MIDI keyboard. Double-clicking on any bar displays the blue Input Caret (a cursor that shows the current point of insertion) and the Music Entry window, which shows the current pitch, rhythmic value, key, time signature, and more (see Fig. 3).

Notes are entered by selecting a rhythmic value with the numeric keys, choosing a pitch with the up and down arrow keys, and pressing Enter to enter the note. Pressing Alt + Enter enters the note lowered a half step, and pressing Control + Enter enters the note raised a half step. Even quicker, you can use the Function keys (F1 to F8) to select and enter pitches in a single keystroke. Adding the Control key to a Function key enters a lowered note, and adding both Control and Alt to a Function key enters a raised note. That is efficient but backward from the behavior of Control + Enter and Alt + Enter. (The Mac version is more consistent: adding Control to a Function key raises the note.)

DOTTING THE Is

Dynamics and articulations can be entered concurrently with notes using single-key commands in Input mode. Simply press T after entering a note, and it will be tied to the following note. Pressing L starts and ends a slur, and C and D are used to begin and end crescendo and decrescendo “hairpins,” respectively.

If you prefer, you can enter notes on one pass and then go back and enter articulations and dynamics. In Input mode, you simply use the right- and left-arrow keys to walk through the score while entering the markings with the same mnemonic keys. To enter a crescendo hairpin, for example, select a passage and press C; a hairpin will appear with grab handles for making adjustments.

Igor offers a couple of interesting and powerful entry techniques. One, called Mirroring, allows you to use the rhythms of one staff as the basis for entering notes in another staff. For example, when a brass section is playing a harmonized line, you simply enter the notes for the Second Trumpet part while Igor applies the rhythms of the First Trumpet part. That sort of thing happens often enough that Mirroring could be a real time-saver. If NoteHeads could incorporate a way to turn Mirroring off and on for the occasional independent rhythm without time-wasting mouse-clicks, I'd really fly.

I'VE GOT RHYTHM

I especially like Igor's ability to notate a rhythm that ties across a bar line without forcing you to manually break and tie the note. For example, to get two eighth notes tied across a bar line, you can simply enter a quarter note: Igor sees that there's not enough room in the first measure, breaks the quarter note into two eighth notes, and ties them together (see Fig. 4). Creating such a figure manually is time-consuming in almost any notation program. It would be even better if Igor could be set to break syncopated quarter notes between beats two and three — that's a common practice.

I also love the user-definable Key Bindings, which allow you to reassign any or all of Igor's key-based commands. For example, on a notebook computer, where you don't have a separate numeric keypad, using the numeric keys to choose durations while using the F-keys to enter pitches could mean holding your right hand over your left hand, which is not a comfortable way to work. That really aggravated me until I realized I could customize all those hotkeys into a comfortable arrangement on my notebook keyboard.

I assigned all of the pitches to keys A through G and all of the durations to a cluster under my right hand; efficient note entry was just at my fingertips. The only real drawback is that there are so many key bindings that changing one assignment almost always has a domino effect. In my case, reassigning the pitches often required changing two other assignments to make the A through G keys available. NoteHeads could make the process easier by adding “sort by assignment” and similar editing functions to the Key Bindings window.

THE OTHER SHOE

Igor Engraver provides excellence in the “big three” requirements of a notation program: print quality, feature set, and user interface. Igor's output is of professional caliber, even on an ink-jet, and it prints on any size paper. The program's list of features is way beyond the scope of what I can list here, but it includes harp diagrams, quarter-tone (even sixth-tone!) accidentals, staves with user-definable numbers of lines, and alternate music fonts. Almost every aspect of score layout, appearance, and playback can be customized.

Igor's user interface is well conceived, and once I learned my way around, I was able to be reasonably efficient. There are, however, some eccentric behaviors that stand between Igor and the big leagues. Some are real obstacles; others are merely annoying.

As an example of the former, Igor has no efficient method for navigating a score. None of the keys that you might think would be used to move around a score — PageUp, PageDown, the arrow keys, Home, or End — have any effect. A Hand Tool allows you to grab and move the page with the mouse, but it requires selecting the Hand Tool with the mouse and then switching back to the pointer when you're done positioning the page.

Clicking on the scrollbars works as expected except that it often moves a page to a point halfway offscreen, making you fine-tune the page position. There is a Go To Page button, but the resulting dialog box requires that you manually delete the current page number and type in the target page number. At that point, you would expect to be able to hit Enter and be taken to the new page, but instead you need to tab the highlight to the OK button and hit Enter or click on the OK button with the mouse. If you're drawing a quick lead sheet, the lack of navigation tools is no big deal, but if you're doing a sizable score, it's way more than a molehill.

Less serious idiosyncrasies include the fact that scores don't remember their window layouts. I have to maximize the Score window each time I open one. More often than not, the score opens partially offscreen. The Time Signature dialog requires you to select the current time signature with the mouse (Tab doesn't work) and enter the new value and then click on OK (Enter doesn't work). If you change your mind, you must click on Cancel, because the Escape key doesn't work. To delete selected objects in a score under Windows, you must right-click and choose Delete Objects or remember that a Mac's Delete key is equivalent to a PC's Backspace key, because you can press your PC's Delete key all day, and nothing will happen.

Igor includes a well-written manual with useful tutorials, but the program provides no Help file at all. Multiple Undo is available, but if you undo off the current page, you'll be flying blind, because the page won't scroll to follow your undoing. I also found some display issues on my notebook that weren't present on my desktop, such as an odd, imprecise blob of a cursor when I tried to use the Note Entry palette.

THE FINAL SCORE

I like Igor Engraver well enough that I hope these eccentricities are fixed soon. In its conception and in much of its current behavior, it deserves to be considered in the company of the high-end notation programs. To its credit, NoteHeads has an efficient “patch-as-you-go” scheme built in to Igor. Under the Edit menu, a Check for Patches function searches the NoteHeads Web site for updates. More than once, I inquired about an issue and found that a patch was waiting online or in the works.

If you're looking for an alternative notation program, especially one that supports multiple languages, check out the demo version of Igor. It's the full version in a 30-day trial with nothing disabled. While you're at it, subscribe to the users mailing list. You'll have direct access not only to experienced users but also to the NoteHeads representatives themselves, from techies to developers to the head honchos.


Brian Smithers is a musician and writer in Orlando, Florida. He teaches at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park.

Minimum System Requirements

Igor Engraver

MAC: PPC; 32 MB RAM (G3 with 64 MB RAM recommended); OS 8.5; OMS for playback

PC: Pentium II: 64 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/ME/XP

PRODUCT SUMMARY

NoteHeads
Igor Engraver 1.6 (Mac/Win)
music-notation software
$295

FEATURES 3.0
EASE OF USE 3.5
DOCUMENTATION 3.5
VALUE 3.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: High-quality output. Support for multiple languages. Extensive feature list. Excellent playback. Cross-platform files. Parts and score are dynamically linked (no extraction required).

CONS: Poor score-navigation tools. Some dialogs are poorly implemented. No Help file.

Manufacturer

NoteHeads Musical Expert Systems
e-mail info@noteheads.com
Web www.noteheads.com

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