Making accurate, readable score parts from DAW midi tracks takes a bit more know-how, elbow grease and time than most people are willing to devote. Among the biggest challenges from session to page are the optimum stemming of notes (the grouping of sub-divided beats to be most easily readable), dynamic markings and articulations. And when working with a copyist, any vagaries in your midi file can add up to extra charges while the copyist verifies all instrument, mute and articulation changes.
Enter Audio Impressions’ Notation Switchblade. The company claims that Switchblade can save you time by interpreting your midi data and simplifying some of these chores for you. Switchblade reads standard midi files (.smf) and outputs Music XML (MXML) for importing into score preparation apps like Finale and Sibelius.
Installation on Mac OS was a snap, just open the .dmg and drag the Notation Switchblade folder to your Applications folder. But be aware that you should keep your own config files stored elsewhere on you computer, as you risk overwriting them with updates in the future if you use the config folder in the Notation Switchblade folder itself.
Midi file prep
Before importing a midi file into Switchblade, the manual suggests that all midi information be quantized in the DAW session prior to export as an .smf. This often means going through each track in your session that you want in the score and quantizing sections individually as often no one setting (i.e. 16th’s) will cover all the phrasing and can possibly even mess up any tuplets used in the track. Quantization like this must be done for direct import in Finale and Sibelius as well. Switchblade does have a quantization option that ignores any tuplet that matches one set in the Tuplet Settings page. It has a basic quantize threshold control, similar to the one in Finale’s import option, but quantizing before the file hits Switchblade still yielded better results.
Switchblade has many set-up options which must be configured before converting an .smf to an MXML file, and all must be set manually. Though data like track name or file PPQ (pulse per quarter note, the basic resolution of the midi file) are easily readable in any .smf (both Finale and Sibelius do this automatically with ease, as do all DAW’s), Switchblade surprisingly requires both to be set manually. Track names must be entered in the same order they occur in the midi file. This requires access to the original session or midi file (I ended up taking screenshots of my sessions for the purpose) so that the user can copy the info into Switchblade. For files with many tracks, this can take quite a bit of time and is an extra step not necessary for direct import into other applications.
Setting the correct PPQ requires a knowledge of the host DAW that many users might not have, as often the .smf output PPQ is different than the native PPQ of the program, leaving the user to guess the correct Switchblade setting. In our tests, a mismatched PPQ setting caused the program to crash. Switchblade ships with config files for 480 and 9600 PPQ.
Of course, you can save all of your settings (including track names, etc.) as a Switchblade config .xml file, so you can match your DAW composition template and make this process much quicker in the future.
In addition to manual track naming, Switchblade also requires that you manually set the clef for each track, including the staff line that that track’s clef is centered on. The centering always defaults to line 2, making a manual change for bass clef to line 4 necessary. Strangely, there is no provision for grand staff (a grouped treble and bass clef), so piano and harp would need to be split into two tracks in the DAW session.
One of the most attractive and powerful features of Switchblade are the Patch Settings, facilities to make intelligent articulation markings in score parts based on key switches, controller info and other devices used for expression and articulation control in various libraries (EWSO, Vienna Ensemble, etc). However, aside from Audio Impressions’ own 70 DVZ Strings library, there are no pre-programmed Patch Settings that ship with Switchblade, leaving the user the odious chore of configuring their own. Once completed, these settings can be saved and imported for re-use, but you have to really want to spend the time to configure settings for all the libraries you use. I’d like to see Audio Impressions ship standard set-ups for the most popular libraries along with a user’s group to share further modifications to these.
For our tests, we used one midi file with a single track of violin parts with divisi (file 1) and another multitrack file with violin, viola, celli, basses and harp (file 2). We took the .smf’s and imported them straight into Finale 2010 and Sibelius. We then ran the files through Switchblade and imported the resultant MXML files into each program again.
￼ Above is an excerpt from the final copy work done from test midi file 1. Please note that the following examples have two count-off measures so the bar number differ from the final. The project copyist used Sibelius for this job.
Ex. 1 Direct import of file 1 into Sibelius. Many quarter notes have incorrectly been interpreted as eighths with rests. Note the 3 part divisi in measures 18 and 19 where the top F and then B natural sustain over the sixteenth notes that continue. This is incorrectly beamed. Also, some stems on top divisi are up instead of down and look at the interpretation of the short eighth notes in m. 32. This part isn’t bad but needs some tweaking.
Ex. 2 Direct import of file 1 into Finale. Finale ignored the divisi in m.18 and m.19, but handled all the stems in a much more readable style. Also, m.32 is correctly written as eighths, though staccato markings will need to be added. This part is very usable though it needs the missing notes added in m.18-20.
Ex. 3 Import of Switchblade MXML into Finale. Aside from the fact that Switchblade output the wrong pitches (a problem we never were able to correct with file 1), using the Switchblade file was not an improvement over direct import. The Switchblade file split the divisi beams (as did Sibelius) and spacing and placement of rests has been upset. Switchblade did, however, correctly beam the top divisi note in m.18 and m.19. It is worth mentioning that Switchblade’s file is the only one that automatically added any dynamic markings, and though we never did really tweak the ranges to get the best results, a simple velocity based scale seemed to work.
Our results from midi file 2, the multi-track file, were similar, and there were no problems with the pitches in the Switchblade MXML file this time. We could only get the harp part written on a grand staff with direct import into Finale and Sibelius, not via Switchblade. The MXML output from Switchblade offered us no improvement over direct import into Finale and Sibelius.
Audio Impressions seems committed to filling a real need for composers. Notation Switchblade touches on automating many of the tedious tasks required when making good score parts from DAW sessions. The support response from the company was fast, courteous and thoughtful.
No preset patch settings except for 70 DVZ
Odious manual settings of clefs, track names, tuplet settings etc.
Access to original file necessary, often difficult for copyists
No Grand Staff
In my opinion, Notation Switchblade has a long way to go to be a truly helpful translation tool. Aside from the bizarre pitch shifting we experienced (which the company assured us they are looking into), automation of a far deeper level is necessary before there is any advantage over direct import into one of today’s notation applications.
Perhaps better results are possible with a more thorough mastery of Switchblade itself, as the companies promo video illustrates. But for now, though the promise is there, a bit more work must still be done before Switchblade can fulfill it.
Reviewed for G.A.N.G., the Game Audio Network Guild. Special thanks to Mike Casteel, Casteel Music Services, for his help.