Allegroassai (formerly Sincrosoft) is making a play for thehearts and minds of well-connected 21st-century musicians. TheItalian software company has recently developed an integratedsystem of notation software and Web-based music publishing and isactively creating its own online community for musicians. At thecenter of this system is an ever-growing collection of downloadablescores and a family of programs that let users view, print,personalize, and edit those scores. (For more information on thecompany's approach to online music publishing, see the sidebar“Scores Online.”) For this review, I'll focus onOpus 2.6, Allegroassai's flagship notation program, butother “lite” versions of the software are alsoavailable (see the sidebar “The Opus Family”).
Opus 2.6 is a full-feature program able to hold its ownin many respects with the biggest names in the notation-softwarearena. It allows an unlimited number of staves in a score andsupports pages of any size. You can have as many as eight voicesper staff, choose from six time signature formats (see Fig.1), draw tuplets ten different ways, and have 30 documentsopen simultaneously.
If you are not pleased with the program's automatic spacing, youcan always drag any element of an Opus score to adifferent position. You can create multiple lines of lyrics andincorporate different text fonts. You can also customize thedefault spacing of many elements, from ties to dots toaccidentals.
The Toolbar features eight icons that provide one-click accessto functions in the Edit, Notes, Score, and Tools menus. You cancustomize the Toolbar as well, and ensure that your most-usedfunctions are always at your fingertips. To get you startedquickly, Opus provides a number of score templates forcommon types of ensembles.
Opus was originally written for the Macintosh, but ithas been available for Windows since version 2.0. Its Mac heritageshows up in little ways: the program has no right-click functions,no pop-up tool tips, and no F1 Help. In addition, the Windowsversion seems a bit less finished in a few places in the userinterface and documentation. My primary test platform was a Windows98 machine, but I also took Opus for a spin on a Mac G4and found that the two versions are essentially the same inappearance and function. You can share files between platforms, butyou must export your score to the other platform's file formatfirst.
Installing Opus is easy and straightforward with therefreshingly simple antipiracy process of entering a serial numberand password from the back of the manual. The installation asks youto choose among five languages: French, Italian, German, English,and Spanish. The Mac installation looks for Opcode's Open MusicSystem (OMS) and installs it if necessary.
When you create a new document, a three-tab dialog box lets youspecify the page size and margins, and it lets you choose thenumber and type of staves along with their sizes, spacing, andnames. These are not, however, “intelligent” instrumentassignments that understand customary clefs and transpositions;they're merely staves with names.
To set up a transposed score, therefore, you must assign anappropriate key signature to each transposing instrument's staffand then set a transpose value elsewhere in the program to ensureproper MIDI playback. If you then copy something to a staff with adifferent transposition, the notes are copied as written, notsounded, which requires you to transpose them manually. If one partchanges instruments, say from oboe to English horn or flute to altoflute, you have to sacrifice proper appearance or proper sound.This is a frustrating set of shortcomings to someone who writes fora lot of woodwind doublers.
Moreover, Opus only lets you choose European pagesizes. You'll find everything from A0 to B5, but you won't findU.S. letter or legal sizes. American users are left to specifythose page sizes as custom settings. This minor annoyance is madeworse by the fact that the hard-copy manual doesn't say what theunits of those custom settings are. The Help file cites aconversion of 1,420 units per inch; Allegroassai claims the actualnumber is approximately 1,512 units per inch. A letter-size page istherefore 16,641 by 12,859. Margins are measured in the sameway.
One other point should be kept in mind while you're in the NewDocument dialog box: once you choose the order of staves, you can'tchange it. You can change your mind about almost anything else inOpus, but if you decide at a later time to bring a solotrumpet part to the top of the score, for example, you're out ofluck.
To ensure proper playback of your score, you must set up theproper program changes in the MIDI Mixer window. The Mixer controlsthe channel assignments, pan, and part volume, along with Solo,Mute, and Record status. Several patch maps are convenientlyprovided; among them are General MIDI, E-mu Proteus 1 and 2, andKorg M1. You can also create as many as three custom patch maps foryour own devices. Intelligent MIDI playback of dynamic markings issupported as well.
The playback tempo and your score's notated tempo are the same,although you can hide the “real” tempo and enter adisplay-only tempo as a text marking. Through the Tempo Optionsdialog box, Opus also lets you assign a metronomereference click that is different than the time signature'sdenominator. This is a great way to get around the problem oftranslating a fast 6/8 tempo into a more practicaldotted-quarter-note pulse. You can even assign a tuplet value asyour metronome pulse.
Opus lets you enter notes in any of four ways:mouse-clicking, real-time MIDI recording, step-time MIDI input, andimporting Standard MIDI Files. Mouse entry is by far the simplestand most direct way to enter notes and markings, but it is also theleast efficient. Nonetheless, in any notation program I find myselfrelying on mouse entry at least part of the time.
The program also provides a healthy assortment of palettes fromwhich to choose notes, rests, symbols, and markings (see Fig.2). For a novice, this makes data entry a simple matter ofselecting an item and placing it on the page with a click. To speedthings along, Opus lets you select a note's duration withyour computer keyboard's number keys. In fact, when you select arhythmic value in this way, Opus thoughtfully sets themouse pointer to the Pencil tool, so you're ready to enter notes.You can also turn any note into a rest by pressing the R key onyour keyboard.
This keyboard and mouse synergy is one of my favorite aspects ofOpus, because it saves me from having to go back to theNote palette to select a new rhythmic value. It would be evenbetter if you could add a sharp, flat, natural, or dot to a note asyou enter it. Unfortunately, to make a dotted note you must enterthe note without the dot, choose the dot from the Note palette, andclick on the note head. Accidentals have mnemonic hotkeys but mustalso be added by clicking on a note after the note has beenentered. This breaks the flow of what would otherwise be anefficient method of note entry.
Real-time MIDI recording in Opus is simple andeffective, but the setup procedure is a bit quirky. In the RecordSetup dialog box (see Fig. 3), you can select the MIDIinput device, provided you know to click on the device's name. Thedocumentation instructs you to click on the Receive Input on Portbox, but no such box exists in the Windows version.
Next you must record-enable a staff from the Mixer window. Thereagain Opus clearly favors simplicity over efficiency,because enabling a different track requires another trip throughthe Mixer. If the Mixer window had a hotkey (or could be minimizedor resized in the Windows version), the annoyance factor would beconsiderably reduced.
Last, you must set a recording start and end time in the Audio(transport) window. This lets you set precise punch-in andpunch-out points, but it means that you can't just click on the barwhere you want to start recording as you generally can in otherprograms.
Step-recording with MIDI input shares good and bad points withmouse entry. Selecting notes from the MIDI keyboard with one handwhile you select durations from the computer keyboard with yourother hand is a recipe for speedy copying, but the dotted-noteproblem is even worse here because Opus won't advance tothe next bar until the current bar is rhythmically full.
Opus does a respectable job of importing MIDI files andprovides control over quantization, tuplets, and voice splitting.After you import the file, you'll probably want to set a keysignature for the score, and this can require much reworking ofaccidentals. The Notes menu has tools to expedite the process, butit still demands a good deal of manual effort.
Entering dynamics, articulations, fingerings, and otherexpressive markings from a collection of palettes is atried-and-true system, and Opus offers a range of markingscovering most classical-music situations. Bowings, fingerings,mallets, mordents, rolls, repeats, harmonics, and harp pedalingsare easily entered. However, jazz markings such as bends and fallsare conspicuously absent, and there is no provision for importingcustom symbols or for creating them from scratch.
The Text palette enables you to enter expressive instructions,guitar chord symbols, tempo markings, and lyrics. This is astraightforward procedure once you guess that you must double-clickon one of the palette's buttons to open a dialog box (in theWindows version) — a minor but frustrating omission from thewritten manual that is corrected in the Help file.
The Text, Lyric, and Frets (guitar chord) dialog boxes employ asimilar approach. They first ask you to enter the desired text orchoose the appropriate chord. When you close the dialog box byclicking OK, the cursor turns to a crosshair with which you placethe marking into the score. You can apply the same lyric, textmarking, or chord symbol repeatedly without retyping it, becausethe crosshair remains “loaded” until you select anothertool. In fact, Opus remembers the last text entered, so ifyou want to use it again, you can simply click once on the Textbutton, and the crosshair is armed and ready to go. The Frets andText dialog boxes are somehow intertwined, though, and I sometimesgot strange results, such as a text marking showing up in theOpusFrets font.
The procedure for entering text clearly shows the program'spreference for simplicity over power, a good or bad thing dependingon your perspective. Each time you want to enter a text marking,you have to type it into the dialog box, rather than select it froma user-definable list of often-used words. Instead of editinglyrics, chord symbols, or text, you simply delete the originalmarking and create a new one from scratch. Fortunately, you candelete individual syllables of lyrics and replace them, saving youthe nightmare of replacing an entire verse because of a singletypo.
Jazz and commercial musicians will find the Frets functioninadequate for the lead-sheet chord notation common in thosegenres. You can't display the chord name without the fretboardfingering display, so chord changes end up looking like commercialsheet music instead of professional lead sheets. Getting thetraditional look requires entering chord symbols as regular textmarkings, and if you need chord slashes, you must enter themfree-form from one of the Symbol palettes.
SPACING: THE FINAL FRONTIER
Written music is an extremely complex language, and designingappropriate rules of spacing and layout is the biggest challenge inwriting notation software. Opus has an easy-to-readappearance in its default spacing onscreen and in print, but theprogram sometimes lets elements overlap when they shouldn't (seeFig. 4). The fact that you can drag any symbol to a betterlocation mitigates the problem considerably, but a serious notationprogram shouldn't let symbols collide under most conditions.
It would also be nice if Opus recognized more relateditems. For example, I moved the notes of a triplet down a line, andthe beam and slur didn't move with them. Articulations move withnotes, but you must drag beams and slurs manually.
Opus offers flexible control over the beaming of notes,and the two pertinent dialog boxes provide helpful graphic examplesof the alternatives. You can specify the default position, length,or width of stems, ties, beams, dots, and other elements for acustom appearance. Four alternative note heads are provided, andany symbol from any installed font can be used as a note head.Complex slurs can be created by dragging the four handles of aslur, and slurs and hairpins automatically continue onto the nextline, a very handy feature.
Although a wide range of zoom settings is available, the programlacks scroll and two-page views, as well as a true print preview.The only available view is a sort of page view on a whitebackground, with the edges of the page represented by a red line ifyou choose to show margins.
The behavior of Opus's part-extraction function was attimes unpredictable; I found it difficult to know which scoremarkings would carry over into the extracted parts. On the positiveside, Opus lets you mark certain instructions, such astempo, dynamics, and text-based repeats on a score's top staff andthen specify which markings are to be included in the extractedparts. The Text dialog box offers the option of attaching yourtempo marking to the page, to the selected staff, or to all staves.When I attached my marking to all staves, each extracted partproperly specified the tempo.
Unfortunately, other markings don't offer the same choices. Forexample, I entered a D.S. al Coda instruction through theScore menu, and it would only display correctly in the extractedparts if the measure in which it had been placed wasn't part of amultimeasure (consolidated) rest. The Segno andCoda markings to which the instruction referred are on oneof the Symbol palettes, and they didn't appear in the parts unlessI placed them individually in each staff of the score. Even then Icouldn't count on them appearing in the right spot in the extractedpart if they fell within a multimeasure rest.
To extract individual parts from a score, simply choose ExtractParts from the Tools menu and select what you want to extract froma list of all the staves. If you select all the staves forextraction, though, you end up with a copy of the score. The dialogbox isn't asking which individual parts you want to end up with,it's asking which staves you want included in the single partyou're extracting. This makes it easy to generate parts such asViolins 1 and 2 or a combined percussion part with multiple staves,but for every part you want to extract, you must go through thedialog box process manually. A 15-staff score requires dozens ofmouse clicks, not to mention typing a file name for each part.
Several little things give Opus an unnecessarilycumbersome feel. For instance, no keystroke is provided to movefrom page to page within a score; you must use the Go to Pagedialog box or the Page pull-down menu on the toolbar. In general,the user interface relies too heavily on multiple-tab dialog boxesthat force you to page through small groups of parameters to find aparticular setting. Larger dialog boxes with all the parametersvisible at once would greatly streamline the program.
Although you can drag notes and accidentals wherever you want,editing slurs and some other markings requires displaying theirControl Points using the Tools menu. That would be fine, except youhave to select each marking type (slurs, ties, tuplet brackets, andso on) separately from a pull-down menu. The Control Points areshown for only one type of mark at a time. When you delete one ofthe related items in the score, all remaining Control Pointsdisappear, forcing you to select them again from the menu.Drag-copying and drag-moving are not supported except for movingindividual notes, and Opus only offers a single level Undocommand.
In spite of a relatively simple and straightforward userinterface, some common tasks are surprisingly convoluted inOpus. To add a pick-up note to the beginning of a 6/8score, for example, you must start with a bar of 1/8, then insert a6/8 time signature for the rest of the piece. Next you must hideboth time signatures and use the Text tool to enter a 6 over an 8at the beginning of the first bar. (This information isn't providedin the manual or the Help file.)
I look forward to better things from Opus in futurereleases. Allegroassai has already solved the hardest problem:getting good output without a steep learning curve. If the companybrings the program's interface up to the level of its notationcapabilities and adds a few more features, Opus mightbecome a serious contender in the notation-software realm,especially considering Allegroassai's strong commitment to Internetmusic publishing.
Brian Smithers is associate course director of MIDI at FullSail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida. You can reachhim through his Web site members.aol.com/notebooks1.
Minimum System Requirements
PC: Pentium processor or equivalent; Windows95/98/NT/2000; 16 MB RAM (32 MB recommended)
MAC: 68040 processor (PPC recommended); Mac OS 7 orhigher; 8 MB RAM (16 MB recommended)
Allegroassai has leveraged its experience in developing notationsoftware into a push to become a major online music publisher. Thecompany has more than 1,700 titles for sale in its Opusfile format, and you can purchase and download the scores even ifyou don't own Opus 2.6.
A display-only version of the software, Opus Viewer, isavailable as a free download; it lets you view and print the scoresthat you purchase. Two reduced-feature versions of Opusare also available at a modest cost, so you can customize yourscores (see the sidebar “The Opus Family”). Theseprograms let you perform such tasks as transposing the score,changing articulations, and adding fingerings.
So far Allegroassai's catalog consists mainly of standards fromthe romantic, classical, and baroque periods, which are in thepublic domain. Certainly thousands of pieces from these periods areworthy of study and performance, but one has to hope thateventually Allegroassai will also offer newer works.
At the Allegroassai Web site, you can browse the catalog orsearch for specific titles. When you find something of interest,you can obtain additional information and then decide whether topurchase the music. Allegroassai has made first-page previewsavailable for most of its titles to help you locate and identify aparticular composition.
According to the company, each score undergoes at least fourquality-control steps to ensure that the online scores are equal toor better than most published hard-copy scores. In addition,particular attention is paid to the layout of the scores so thatthey fit various printer formats, including U.S. letter size.
Online music publishing has great potential because it lets youedit and customize parts and scores and keeps the cost low throughnonphysical distribution. Allegroassai has made the process simplewhile providing for high-quality results.
THE OPUS FAMILY
For the musician who doesn't need industrial-strength notationsoftware or for someone seeking an inexpensive way to view, edit,or annotate downloaded Opus scores, Allegroassai has somelittle “opi” from which to choose. Amadeus OpusLite ($89) is the company's entry-level notation program. Ithas the same interface as Opus but a reduced feature set.It lets users create scores with as many as 16 staves yet stillpermits eight voices per staff. Amadeus features the samenote-entry techniques as Opus, except that it won't accepttuplets when importing a MIDI file.
Amadeus can open only two documents at once; supportsonly a five-line staff or percussion staff; has fewer zoom options;and can hide only rests, not note heads, stems, or tuplets. Itwon't insert quarter-tone accidentals, but it will display them ina score prepared using Opus. Its palettes are otherwisenearly identical to those in Opus. Amadeus won'tdo tweaky little things such as display stems on rests or extendbeams to the next rest, but in the features that count the most— note entry, spacing, layout, and output quality —it's virtually identical to Opus. Although it shares thesame shortcomings, those shortcomings are much easier to forgive atless than $90 than they are at nearly $300.
Purchasers of Allegroassai's downloadable scores can save evenmore money by getting Opus Editor ($19.95). This extremelystripped-down version of Opus can edit articulations, addnotes, and play and print downloaded scores. It cannot create newdocuments, but it can open scores created in Opus orAmadeus. Only mouse entry of notes and symbols issupported, but Opus Editor does let users transposescores.
Finally, Allegroassai offers the free Opus Viewer forviewing, printing, and MIDI playback of downloaded scores. Itsfeatures include changing MIDI instrument assignments and allowingas many documents to be open simultaneously as users want. Thesystem requirements for Amadeus, Opus Editor, and OpusViewer are the same as for Opus.
Opus 2.6(Mac/Win) notation software $299 (educational/theological discountsavailable)
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE3.5DOCUMENTATION2.0VALUE2.5 Rating products from 1 to 5
PROS: Good print quality. Easy to learn. Goodcomplement of traditional markings. Good control over spacing andlayout.
CONS: Inefficient user interface. Weak part extraction.Poor implementation of jazz and commercial markings. Too dependenton menus and multiple-tab dialog boxes. Poor Help function.