Sion QuickScore Elite Level II (Win)
By Allan Metts
Solid sequencing and scoring on a shoestring.
Each sequencer has its own personality. Some offer every feature under the sun with a high price tag and a steep learning curve. Others have comprehensive MIDI capabilities but are weak when it comes to non-MIDI features, such as notation and digital audio. Still others let you create great-looking musical scores, but you pay the price with ineffective or overly complicated MIDI sequencing and editing.
Given its name and $179.95 price tag, I expected Sion Software's QuickScore Elite Level II to be a notation program with some MIDI sequencing thrown in for good measure (pardon the pun). But this sequencing program is surprisingly capable. QuickScore Elite Level II offers powerful notation capabilities, and it also boasts 48 tracks, graphical MIDI-controller editing, MIDI Time Code (MTC) synchronization, guitar tablature, automatic chord generation, and rudimentary digital audio. (Sion Software also sells a 16-track version without chord generation and guitar tablature for $79.95.)
The program installed without a hitch, and I quickly saw a familiar set of editing windows. Like many sequencing programs, QuickScore provides a Track Sheet to manage entire tracks, a Song Editor to arrange the measures of your music, a Piano Roll Editor and Event List, a Score Editor, a Mixer Screen, a Controller Editor, and a window for comments. Across the top of the screen are buttons for selecting note durations, transport controls, punch-in and looping controls, a status bar, a tempo control, and a panic button.
Unfortunately, you can open only one of each type of window. However, all of QuickScore's windows can be locked together by track so that they all change tracks when you do. With a separate setting, you can also lock the windows by cursor, which ensures that they're all located to the same point. You can assign four markers to SMPTE times or bar:beat:step values and jump to them with two mouse clicks. You can also move to any MIDI event or musical symbol by searching for it.
Instead of starting with a completely empty file, QuickScore includes templates that provide a collection of tracks and settings appropriate for the music you want to write. There are eight templates available, including Classical Orchestra, Choir, Instrument and Piano, and String Quartet. I like the templates, but I want more. Fortunately, you can create your own templates by saving any file to the Templs directory, which automatically configures the file as a template.
Recording in QuickScore is simple: just press the Record button and start playing, and all MIDI data will be recorded into the selected track. You can punch in and out, and you can filter or quantize MIDI events during recording. You can also remap MIDI channels, but you cannot automatically remap incoming MIDI data to the channel of the current track. (This feature is found in other sequencers, and it really cuts down on channel changing when working with several tracks.)
In theory, the MIDI and notation resolution is variable from 1 to over 9,000 ppqn; the default is 96. Just for fun, I tried to set the resolution as high as I could, and I found that the system works with values up to 8,000, after which the performance degrades. A value of 9,000 or higher crashes the system. Despite these absurd settings, resolution up to 960 ppqn are easily achieved. According to Sion, this field will be limited to a range of 24 to 960 ppqn in future versions.
You can also tap the beat as you play using any MIDI note or controller. However, this feature doesn't work as I thought it would. I expected and hoped it would automatically insert tempo changes to align the beats with a free-form performance, as with Voyetra's Digital Orchestrator Plus. Instead, QuickScore's Tap Beat feature is more of a step-entry tool. You mark each beat with a MIDI event (e.g., Sustain Pedal as you enter notes, after which QuickScore plays the passage at the currently selected tempo. As a result, the playback could sound drastically different from the recording.
Speaking of playback, QuickScore provides a host of options. You can set up a loop, "chase" controllers when starting in midsong, and determine whether or not each window scrolls during playback. QuickScore can sync to MTC or MIDI Clock, and it can send MIDI Clock information to other programs or devices.
QuickScore's Track Sheet is simpler than most. It contains controls for each track's name, mute/solo status, channel, patch, and Volume. (There is no Record-enable control because the program records all incoming MIDI data to the currently selected track when you hit the Record button.) Unfortunately, QuickScore does not support multiple MIDI ports. Several sets of patch names are available (you can also create your own), and each MIDI channel can use a different patch-name list.
One feature I really like is the program's ability to ascertain whether instrumental parts in the currently selected track exceed their full or practical range. The ranges.ini file includes the lowest and highest MIDI note numbers in the practical and full ranges for 32 common instruments, and you can add your own.
With respect to selecting patches, QuickScore is missing a feature I use quite often: there is no support for Bank Select messages unless you enter them manually using the program's Controller Editor. Most modern sound modules hold several hundred patches, and I want to scan through the banks from the Track Sheet. Every time I try out a new sequencer, I create custom patch-name lists for every bank in my synths. Thereafter, my sequence files accurately reflect the patch I used for a particular track. Unfortunately, QuickScore doesn't let you do this.
The Song Editor includes the basic functions for arranging your material on a measure-by-measure basis. You see every track and measure with color codes that indicate the type of events in each measure. You can cut, copy, paste, and insert blank measures. Pasted data always merges with what's there; you can't replace or insert the data during a paste. Right-clicking a measure in the Song Editor pops up a menu that takes you to the Piano Roll, Score, Event List, or Controller Editor.
Notation editing is definitely QuickScore's strongest suit. This program combines an intuitive approach to editing symbols on the staff with a slew of goodies to put just what you need into your printed music.
All notation editing takes place in the Score Editor. There are two important groups of controls at the top of this window. In the upper left, the Toolbar chooses what the mouse does (select, enter, erase, move), while the Object Type palette determines the type of object (notes, lyrics, expressions, text, symbols, clefs) affected by the mouse. While working in the Score Editor, you can see one track or the entire score, and you can preview just how the page will appear when printed.
Clicking on an item with the Arrow tool selects it for editing. You can also Control-click with this tool to select discontiguous objects or drag to select all items in a range of time. Unfortunately, you cannot drag a rectangle and select only the objects enclosed within it.
However, you can refine your selection by using QuickScore's Note Filter, which allows you to restrict your editing operation to only those notes that fall within user-specified ranges of pitches, velocities, channels, beats, and/or steps. You can also filter by Voices, of which there are four types: Default (stem direction determined by user-specified break point), Voice 1 (stems up), Voice 2 (stems down) or Grace (grace notes). I like the Note Filter, but I don't like the fact that QuickScore provides no visual feedback about what is filtered. You must take it on faith that only the filtered notes will be altered, even though you might have selected an entire range.
After you select something for editing, the Edit menu drops down and presents you with several operations that can be performed on the selected events. (The Edit menu changes depending on the selected Object Type.) For notes, the basic operations include cut, copy, transpose, and quantize.
Other note-editing operations let you change the stem height, Voice, staff type (single or grand), accidental position, and ties (on, off, or default). I particularly like the Generate Chords feature, which analyzes the music and automatically inserts appropriate chord names or guitar chord symbols. I also like the Explode feature, which splits chordal music into individual tracks.
Also present in the Toolbar are Pencil and Eraser tools, which add and remove objects of the currently selected Object Type. The directional tools include NS (north-south), EW (east-west), and NSEW. The NS tool can move an object in any direction. This is the first time I've seen such specialized moving tools, and I heartily applaud such creative thinking.
The Spacing tool moves notes left or right without affecting the music. This tool is handy for tweaking the score's appearance on those rare occasions when the notes and symbols get a little too close together.
IT SHOOTS, IT SCORES!
Of course, QuickScore automatically transcribes MIDI data in the sequencer tracks. You can also insert individual notes using the Arrow tool and the Note object type. You select a note duration from the program's main control panel and a Voice. Then you simply click where you want the note, and QuickScore inserts it and advances the cursor by the notes duration. It's that easy. You can also use a MIDI keyboard to enter notes in step time.
QuickScore offers many different types of text, and each type uses its own fonts and positioning tools. Expression markings, such as a tempo, can be placed anywhere in the score, and you can type in your own or select from a drop-down list of common ones. With the Text object type, you can put multiple lines of text anywhere you want in the score.
You can enter up to four lines of lyrics per staff, using the Tab key to move to the next note. Typing Control-Hyphen before hitting the Tab key inserts a hyphen between syllables, and Control-Shift-Hyphen inserts a double hyphen. Unfortunately, the hyphen's positions don't shift when you change the positions of the notes. The lyric text attached to a note doesn't move when you move the note, either, which is a real drag.
QuickScore provides hundreds of musical symbols that can be placed anywhere in the score. All the basics are covered here, including dynamics, embellishments, multiple endings, and accents. Of particular interest is the ability to create your own chord names, guitar-chord symbols, and figured bass markings. Many symbols, such as phrase and crescendo markings, include "handles" that let you adjust their size, shape, and position on the screen. In addition, you have complete access to every symbol in the Mozart TrueType font (which is installed with QuickScore). If you have favorite symbols in other fonts, you can use them, as well.
The Toolbar and Object Type palette are great for entering and editing individual notes, symbols, and text elements in your score. To affect entire measures or tracks at once, use the program's Display menu, which lets you change settings for the current score, page, track, or bar. This menu gives you complete control over the appearance of the score. You can adjust stems, beaming, rests, ties, clefs, key signatures, time signatures, and spacing. You can also control how the display is transposed or quantized. There are settings for bar numbering, track and score titles, multiple bars of rests, braces, and clefs.
Speaking of clefs, a magical thing happens when you choose the Guitar Tab clef: the music is instantly transformed into guitar tablature! I'm not a natural-born guitarist, so I got a real kick out of playing tunes on my guitar that I could previously play only on keyboards. QuickScore makes conservative choices of strings and frets - the notes always seem to be in the first five frets - and I seldom ran into tablature that was impossible for my feeble fingers to play. In addition, you can edit the tablature directly.
You can set the clef to Drum 5-line or 1-line. These two options turn the track into a percussion track, with complete control over note-head style and placement.
Interestingly, the program's resolution is specified by selecting the Score item in the Display menu. This parameter also affects the notation in an unusual way: if you have existing notation in the current file and you change the resolution, the rhythmic values of the notes change. For example, if you record quarter notes with a 96 ppqn resolution and then change the resolution to 192 ppqn, the quarter notes become eighth notes. The documentation warns of this phenomenon and recommends that you set the desired resolution before recording or loading a file. All in all, the Display menu is highly intuitive and easy to use. I especially like the font settings, which let you completely configure the fonts for every type of text object that appears on the page. After counting them, I realized you can put 24 different fonts on one printed page. (Can you say "add printer memory"?)
Once the score looks just the way you want it, you can print any part or the entire score. You can also export the score to a BMP, TIFF, or Copyist file. You can even print blank score and part paper.
In addition to QuickScore's comprehensive notation capabilities, the program also includes a traditional Piano Roll Editor. I was happy to see that this editor works in much the same fashion as the Score Editor. The Toolbar includes the same Arrow, Pencil, Eraser, and movement (NS, EW, NSEW) tools. The Score Editor's spacing tool isn't appropriate here, but you get a Duration tool and a Multi tool (which can change the pitch, start time, or duration of a note). You use the note-duration buttons in the Main Control bar to enter notes in step time, and the Edit menu offers an assortment of note-editing operations after you select one or more items.
Unfortunately, there is no partial quantization or humanization (randomization) feature. You can set (but not scale or offset) Velocities and durations, and you can scale note start times and stretch or squeeze a passage to fit within a specific amount of time. However, you cannot offset notes by a fixed amount of time.
The Piano Roll Editor also provides access to QuickScore's rudimentary digital audio capabilities. You can insert a WAV file above the Piano Roll display using the Pencil tool. This feature is useful only for simple digital audio needs, such as inserting short special effects. Long audio files take a second or two to sound, and files that require more than the available RAM cannot be used. In addition, when I first got the program, it crashed when two WAV files overlapped. Sion sent me a file to fix this, but now the program ignores the second overlapping WAV file. The company is working on expanding this capability in future versions.
I like QuickScore's Controller Editor, which offers the same familiar Toolbar plus selectors for controller type, track, and channel. Controller events are displayed as vertical bars with notes optionally overlaid in piano-roll style for reference. To edit controller events, use the NS tool to change their values and the EW tool to change their placement in time. The Pencil tool draws a stream of controller events of varying density, depending on how fast you move the mouse. Support for tempo events, Program Changes, Velocity, and Aftertouch (Channel and Polyphonic) are provided here, as well.
Selecting controller events drops down the Edit menu, which includes some additional operations. You can interpolate between events, scale event values from 0 to 1,000 percent, or limit them to the nearest value between a user-defined ceiling and floor. You can also copy them to the clipboard or fit them to a specific time.
If the other windows don't provide enough resolution, you can always use the Event List Editor. All events in the song appear with color codes that match those in the Song Editor (including Symbol and Text objects). As in the other Editors, you can cut, copy, and paste contiguous and discontiguous events, and you can double-click an event to change its values. However, you can't enter anything into the Event List; you can only change or select existing events.
Rounding out QuickScore's bag of goodies is the Mixer, which can be used to record any type of controller information (including Aftertouch and Pitch Bend) into all sixteen channels at once. You can even record real-time tempo changes in this screen. Faders can be grouped together and moved as one, and their relative positions are maintained. Knobs for Volume, Pan and Expression are always available beneath the faders for each of the program's 48 tracks.
I especially like the Mixer's snapshot feature. You can move to a specific point in your song, set the faders as you want them, and hit the Snapshot button. A user-selected controller event representing the fader position is inserted into each track at that position. This feature is perfect for abrupt changes in the song.
QuickScore Elite Level II is a solid package. The program's documentation is equally good, with a well-written manual and context-sensitive help. If I were building a MIDI sequencer, this is what it would look like, albeit with a few additions. Specifically, I would add support for multiple MIDI ports and enhanced support for Bank Select messages. I would also add more MIDI editing operations, such as Velocity scaling and partial quantization.
I like this program. If your musical endeavors take you anywhere near musical scores and notation, I highly recommend it.
Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, producer, consultant, and software designer.
Electronic Musician April 1997