Dorico: A Good Alternative to Sibelius?

Exploring the latest serious score writer from Steinberg.

Let’s face it, Sibelius has been the go to music notation program for publishers, teachers, composers and other music professionals for a couple of decades, and there is no doubting the credentials of its original designers and developers. Or that it been very successful at every level of printed music production.

So why swap after years of using this program, hours of accumulated expertise and hundreds of well produced compositions and arrangements?

I admit to looking for something new because of frustrations with Avid customer service and dissatisfaction with the changes to the Sibelius interface. Steinberg’s Dorico seemed the obvious choice; it was new and claimed to do everything one might need. The published examples looked very impressive from an engraving viewpoint. So, I downloaded the trial version and set to work on my latest score.

It was not easy at first. Things just don’t happen the same way as they do in Sibelius. I would say it took me at least a couple of months of trial and error and reading the (very good) online manual to get to grips with the main functions.

I thought a good test of the program would be to typeset a variety of different types of music. So, I decided on a jazz lead sheet including lyrics and chord symbols, a jazz combo score including a drum part, chord symbols and slash bars, a piece of classical chamber music and a piece of sacred choral music with multiple voices on each stave. I recently typeset an arrangement of a Lutosławski piece that has different concurrent time signatures and a guitar piece that includes all the standard fingering indications. I got excellent results with all these scores and their parts.

I am about nine months in (having purchased Dorico and moved on from my trial version) and now that I am understanding how the program works, I am getting great results with all kinds of scores. Dorico is a program that wants you to follow proper engraving rules. At first, it can be a bit hard to see how flexible the program is, because it really wants to educate you in all the conventions of correctly printed music. Foremost amongst those, of course, is that your score can be readily understood by any musician, whether he/she is a child in your GCSE Music class or a professional session musician in a studio.

I still find myself dipping into the manual from time to time, but if I stop and reflect on how long it took to become an expert with Sibelius, I would say I have got to grips with Dorico much more quickly (I would consider myself to be an advanced user who does take advantage of a high percentage of the features). I do typeset music professionally, so it really does matter to me what the results look like as well as wanting to (sometimes) produce a score quickly and at the last minute.

Let me give you a bit of a view on the way the program works. Dorico has modes that you can swap between depending on what you want to do. This may seem like an unnecessary complication at first, but it means that you cannot (for example) accidentally make a notational change to your score whilst altering margins. One has to be done in ‘write’ mode and the other in ‘engrave’ mode. Initially, there is ‘set up’ mode where you set the main parameters of your piece: players and their instruments being the main one. The starting point being a player rather than an instrument is a useful concept, because it means that one musician can easily be in charge of several instruments on the same stave (eg doubling on clarinet and sax).

Once you have ‘set up’ your score, you go to write mode to enter key and time signatures and get the notes in place. I generally do this with one hand on my qwerty keyboard for values and the other hand on my Midi keyboard for pitch, but there are other options. The screen layout is very logical, with the things you need in sensible groups. I won’t describe it here, but it’s easy enough to work out where things are.

‘Engrave’ mode allows you to deal with things like margins and positions of things like titles etc. ‘Play’ mode gives you a sequencer style view of your music, although you can also play it back in write mode. ‘Print’ mode gives you all the usual print and export options.

There is a neat feature called ‘project info’. You type all the score details (title, composer, copyright etc) into a table and all these things automatically appear in all the right places in your score and every part (because of the ‘tokens’ you will see in the ‘layouts’ section). This is an example of how well Dorico does in the engraving department. This concept of allowing the software to put various text items on the page (rather than placing them manually) means they are always in exactly the right place from a publisher’s point of view.

If you go to ‘engrave’ mode, you will discover that certain text items (eg. title, page numbers) and all the music appears in ‘frames’. A frame defines where on the page something can appear. This gives you very precise control over the appearance of your score. It both restricts you in terms of preventing errors, but also gives you great flexibility for more unusual scores or worksheets and so on. It also is a way of ensuring your pages follow the same format.

This emphasis on respecting the conventions of printed music means that (for me) I have never really made any use of the various templates (but there are plenty); everything turns out how it is supposed to with very little need to ever adjust anything. The main thing I do adjust is the print size of the music in conjunction with how many printed pages the score takes. Even here, Dorico includes all the normal print sizes the publishers generally use, making it easy to produce a publisher-ready score.

Dorico creates music in ‘flows’. ‘Flow 1’ is created when you set up your score and you can add further flows. A flow can represent (eg) a movement in a string quartet or a number in a musical. Each flow can have its own title and/or number and Dorico automatically observes all the usual conventions for the beginning of each new movement: resetting bar numbers, labelling of staves, resetting signatures. This is a very useful feature which avoids a whole host of problems I have encountered with other music software.

Most other music programs I have used (and I have experience of quite a few) require ‘workarounds’ for one thing or another. By this, I mean there is something that the program will not actually do, but there is a way of making the music look right even though a feature you need is not present. So far, I have not needed any workarounds with Dorico. Also, there is a beautiful logic to the way it constructs your score as you input the music. Sometimes I have tried and failed to make a score look a certain way (eg positioning of a text item on a page) only to discover that the way I have been trying to make it look is not actually correct and that Dorico is actually helping me out with my engraving.

In conclusion, I think Dorico is a great program. Whether you want to produce high quality scores and parts, worksheets, use it as a composition ‘notebook’ or set your pupils to work on their own projects, you will get great results. I will be sticking with it for the foreseeable future. I have got to the stage where I can work more quickly and efficiently than I have with any previous program.

For Sibelius users, one obvious concern would be what happens with all my old scores if I switch? I tried moving one across to Dorico by exporting from Sibelius as XML. This worked extremely well. There was a little bit of editing to do, but even the initial transfer was a usable score.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that the team who were responsible for much of the past development of Sibelius have come up with such a great program in Dorico, given all the experience they have. But this is a very different program and represents a complete rethink of how a music score writing program should work. If you want to get the best from it, you will need to commit to learning it properly. One final hint: you will do well with Dorico by NOT changing the default settings.

Mike Halliday

Mike is a UK-based clarinet and saxophone specialist and founder of this site. When not out performing, he is usually at the computer composing, arranging, or engraving and editing music.