Notion Music Notion 3 (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Notion 3 can easily produce large orchestral scores. Grouping of staves is automatic, and dozens of standard symbols are included. The floating tool palette is always available.

For much of his career, Johann Sebastian Bach was a church music director. He would have felt right at home with Notion 3. In the secular world, stage shows'' music directors may appreciate Notion, too. Its feature set, while not power-packed or groundbreaking, is aimed squarely at people who are comfortable with notation-based composing and arranging, need a good library of orchestral sounds, and plan to use computer-generated sounds while performing with live ensembles that aren''t playing to a click track.

The big news in version 3 is that Notion now offers support for third-party VST instrument and effects plug-ins, as well as MIDI output and ReWire. The program ships with a decent library of sampled orchestral instruments, but VST support allows you to augment the Notion library with third-party sounds from Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan, and other developers.

Also new are Sequencer Staffs. (Notion''s manual consistently uses staffs as the plural of staff rather than the more usual staves.) Though very limited, these resemble the tracks in a MIDI sequencer and are useful for recording parts that will be played by VST instruments or external hardware synthesizers. The ReWire support will be a lifesaver if you need to use Notion with sampled loops or audio-file playback. Notion will play back 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV files, but it won''t record them. In playback, it can only play the file starting from the beginning, which makes developing an audio-based piece awkward.

Peter Hamlin reviewed Notion 2.2 in the July 2008 EM. That review remains substantially accurate with respect to the notation-editing features. This review will take a close look at the version 3 features and offer a second perspective on some of the older features and functionality.

Duly Noted
Notion''s tools for editing and printing notation are not fancy, but they''re certainly good enough to get the job done quickly and efficiently. I use Avid Sibelius for my scoring needs, so I''m used to having complete control over the placement of symbols and the appearance of the page. Notion''s approach is simpler—and to be fair, Notion costs far less than Sibelius.

You can enter your music with the mouse or by real-time or step recording from a MIDI keyboard. The keyboard shortcuts for choosing rhythms during step input (Q for quarter-note, E for eighth-note, and so on) are easy to learn. Placement of dynamics, articulations, and other symbols will naturally have to be done with the mouse. MIDI velocities are recorded during real-time input. Velocities are ignored during step entry, but will be controlled on playback by dynamics symbols placed in the part.

When using real-time entry on a grand staff (usually a piano part), you''ll need to play both hands at once. Notion can''t overdub a left-hand recording into a grand staff that already has right-hand notes, or vice-versa. However, you can record one hand in real time and then enter notes for the other hand using step or mouse entry.

Notion''s default placement of symbols is generally good, and you can move them vertically or flip them from above the staff to below it if needed, but horizontal placement and niceties like the curvature of slurs are not editable. Horizontal placement becomes a real issue in bar 1 if you have a metronome marking, a performance indication such as Swing, and a chord symbol such as D7 because they''ll all have to be stacked vertically above beat 1.

Music directors who work with live ensembles will appreciate the included chord symbols, guitar tablature, guitar fretboard diagrams, alternate noteheads for drum parts, and multiple verses of lyrics. The fretboard diagrams let you choose from among a number of ways to voice any given chord, and you can edit the finger placement if you need to. If your lead vocalist needs a piece transposed to a different key, Notion will do it with a few quick clicks. Even the chord symbols will be transposed (although the fretboard diagrams will go blank after a transpose operation until you reselect them).

Printing out parts is quick and easy, and multibar rests are supported in parts. A nice-looking, pseudo-handwritten jazz font is supplied. To control the page layout, you can separate bars or force them to stay together. Automatic bar numbering is available.

Notion is not designed to handle the needs of classical sheet-music publishers. It won''t do cross-staff or cross-bar-line beams, for instance, nor nonstandard key signatures. But it does clef changes (with automatic staff transposition of already entered notes that follow the clef change), compound time signatures, tuplets, repeat bar lines, and most of the other things that you may need to put together and print out charts.

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FIG. 2: Each channel in the Notion mixer has a level fader, pan pot, and mute and solo buttons. Each channel has four sends, one for each of the mixer''s four aux buses, and can have up to four insert effects.

Notion''s Sequencer Staff feature gives you a little more control over parts that are mainly intended for synthesizer playback. You can edit the start times and durations of notes freely, a function that traditional notation doesn''t allow. You change start times, durations, and velocities by selecting single notes and tapping the computer''s arrow keys; it''s slow and fiddly, but it works. Overdubbing new notes into a Sequencer Staff that already has notes is supported. (Overdubbing doesn''t work in ordinary notation staves, as mentioned earlier.)

Note velocities in normal staves can be edited numerically, one note at a time, by switching to Sequencer Overlay mode. The velocity-overdub feature, which you can use to replace velocities in already recorded notation tracks, doesn''t work with a Sequencer Staff, but you can convert a Sequencer Staff to an ordinary staff, after which velocity overdubbing is allowed.

If you record MIDI pitch-bend or controller data, you''ll see it displayed graphically above the Sequencer Staff, but again, you can''t edit this data. If you didn''t get it right the first time, your only option is to undo and record it again. Recording program-change data is not supported, so you''ll need to manually switch your external hardware synth to a new preset before the next song starts.

I''m mystified why Notion''s MIDI implementation isn''t more robust. MIDI sequencers with features far more powerful than what Notion''s Sequencer Staffs offer were common 20 years ago. Fortunately, if you need better MIDI editing, you can buy a real sequencer and take advantage of Notion''s ReWire implementation. Using ReWire to connect the two programs, you can use Notion for composition and printing and get far more musical performance out of your VST and hardware instruments.

On Tap
If you need to do a live show using sampled orchestral instruments, you''ll find Notion''s performance features quite useful. Common symbols such as dynamic indications, slurs and ties, accents, and staccato dots will be executed on playback. (According to Notion Software, properly programmed third-party libraries will respond to these symbols automatically, without any special programming on the user''s part.) You can vamp until the singer is ready or jump forward or back to a rehearsal mark to coordinate with spontaneous or unplanned changes onstage. A large display shows the current bar and beat, the current rehearsal mark, and so on.

Using tap tempo, which Notion calls NTempo, you can tap either a MIDI key or a computer key in the ASDF row. Notion will play a quarter-note''s worth of data and then wait for your next tap. You can also switch from manual tapping to Auto-Cruise mode; I found that this requires a bit of practice. If your last two taps are a little too close together, when you switch to Auto-Cruise, Notion will gallop off at a faster tempo than you intended.

If your music contains a passage in quarter-note triplets or some other situation where the pulse changes, you can set up an NTempo track. Your tapping will then advance the clock in terms of the note values in the NTempo track. For a dramatic pause in the middle of a piece, you can tap the Q key, which will shut off any sounding notes. For real-time volume control of Notion''s audio output, your only option is to grab mixer faders with the mouse (see Fig. 2 and the Online Bonus Material “The Notion Mixer”).

Sometimes a Great Notion
The new features in Notion 3 will be welcome to music directors who need higher-quality sounds, audio tracks, or control of external hardware synthesizers. The program''s MIDI sequencing is primitive, but thanks to the ReWire support, you can use a better sequencer along with Notion. The score and part printing is more than good enough for printing out parts for your players or conductor to use at a gig. Being able to use a flexible tap-tempo option in performance is bound to appeal to anyone who works with mixed groups of traditional instruments. Notion will have less appeal for technologically savvy pop musicians, but it fills a definite niche in the market, and does so in a reasonable manner.

Jim Aikin writes about electronic music technology, plays classical cello, and sometimes programs text-based computer games.

The Notion Mixer
Each staff in a Notion score has its own mixer channel. Each channel has the expected level fader, pan pot, and mute and solo buttons. Each channel can load as many as four insert effects, but the effects have no bypass buttons. Each channel also has four sends—one for each of the mixer''s four aux buses—and you can use the buses for submix groups. If you have multi-output audio hardware, you can route individual mixer channels to different outputs.

I had less than complete success getting Notion''s VST Manager to load my effects. The u-he Uhbik effects, for instance, couldn''t be enabled. Notion ships with two effects from IK Multimedia: a reverb and an amp/speaker simulator.

Comparing the Notion mixer to DAW software would be a mistake. For one thing, it can''t be automated, and Notion doesn''t support real-time MIDI control over the faders.

Picks and Pans
Notion''s handy floating palette gives you one-click access to dozens of useful symbols and text indications (such as cup mute for brass), which can be inserted where needed on staves. You can also insert whatever text you may need using the text tool. However, Notion gives you no control over font or font size for any text item. The title of a piece will appear in a large size, but its size is not adjustable. I found Notion''s font size for fingerings too small for my tired old eyes to read on a music stand, so not being able to specify a larger size is a problem for me.

You can specify nonstandard beam groupings for any time signature. A tricky workaround lets you change the beam groupings during a piece, even when the time signature doesn''t change: You can insert a new time signature that''s the same as the existing one, give it a different beam grouping, and then hide it so that it doesn''t appear in the score. This works nicely, but all of the staves in a score will have the same beam grouping(s), so it''s not possible to beam one instrument differently from another.

If you need to enter a new key signature after you''ve entered some music (either because you forgot or because you decide a passage would be easier to read in a different key), you''ll be pleased to find that Notion will automatically add or remove accidentals as needed. Each staff in a score can has its own key signature if needed. (Transposing instruments are supported, by the way.) During MIDI note entry, Notion will misspell some of the black keys as sharps when you wanted flats or vice-versa, but fixing them is not difficult.

Notes are played back while you''re entering them with the mouse or in step entry as well as with real-time entry, providing some useful aural feedback. I found that real-time entry of a piano part on a grand staff worked in a less than ideal way, because the split point between the upper and lower staves is not user-adjustable, and you can''t drag notes from one staff to the other after recording. Your only alternative is to delete the notes from one staff and re-enter them by hand in the other staff. This is one of a number of areas where Notion gets the job done, but in a less than ideal manner.