Rudimental and David William Hearn at the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 launch party



We caught up with David William Hearn backstage at the Surface Pro 4 launch party...

Microsoft kicked off their Surface Pro 4 launch party at Koko with a special performance from Rudimental. The band was looking a little larger than usual, having brought along over 60 new members – a full orchestra – in order to play three specially remixed versions of their songs.

Composer and all-round musical genius David William Hearn had stepped up to the plate to create these new arrangements for the huge orchestra, using the Surface Pro 4 and his new app StaffPad.

Hearn, who has previously had a background in Film and TV music, realised the unique capabilities of the Surface Pro 4 allowed for a new and innovative approach to composing on a computer – an approach with roots stretching back for as long as music has been written down.

 

 

 

We were lucky enough to catch up with him backstage at Koko, and he generously took time out to talk to us about StaffPad, the Surface Pro 4 and the future of music…

TechTalk

So what is StaffPad?

David William Hearn

The StaffPad app is music notation designed for pen and touch. You handwrite the music, StaffPad turns it into musical score and you can hear what you’ve written straight away.

So, about seven years ago I was working with an orchestrator who worked primarily on pen and paper – like old manuscript. He was, and still is, one of those genius sort of guys who you think, you know, I just want to be like him, and I was very much thinking how could I get some of that effortless workflow back?

It’s quite romantic in a way – you just scribble away – think about the music and scribble it down, rather than sit down at your computer in the morning and deal with an error message, then some plug-in thing… I wanted to just try to get back to writing music rather than manipulating technology.

So, we started this thing about five years ago, thinking about how we could do it. The only way I could think of was using something like a Wacom screen and pen – those things that artists use. I teamed up with Matthew Tesch, and we started this journey.

Four years ago we started doing it for Windows, as it’s really the only platform that supports pen in any meaningful way. We were working to try and recreate this natural input method – pen and paper, which just lets you scribble stuff down and write what you want to write.

TechTalk

Who would you say the software is aimed at?

David William Hearn

It’s a selfish app, really – I sort of did it for me! But any composer, orchestrator or arranger. Because it’s so simple to pick up and use – if you can read music you can normally write music, and if you can write music then you can use the app. There’s no learning curve, as you just open it up and start scribbling.

It’s also really good for musicians, people who normally wouldn’t invest in really expensive composition software, but still have ideas they want to get down. Also, it’s great in schools. It’s a fabulous way to learn.

It’s really across the board. It’s easy to use – it’s not elitist or difficult to use. It’s really intuitive. I’m hoping it finds favour with a huge range of people. We’ve had emails from seven year old kids and their mums, and 91 year old grandmas, so it’s right across the age barrier.

Techtalk

When people think about writing music on a computer these days, the first thing they think about is piano roll, but you’re really taking it back to the roots of notation.

David William Hearn

Yes. Notation is a much better way of describing music. MIDI is not really designed to describe music – it’s a computer protocol really. “Note on, note off”. You can’t hand that to musicians – it’s zeros and ones. Notation is a brilliant way of codifying it, but it’s got a lot of similarities with MIDI in a way. It’s basically a different way of displaying the same information in a more human, readable way.

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Techtalk

One of the really nice thing about a lot of the modern Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) is they help people who don’t have a traditional musical background express their ideas. Even if they’ve not got a theoretical background or the ability to write music, they can still start to create. How does StaffPad work for these people?

David William Hearn

Well, what it doesn’t do is let you plug in a MIDI keyboard and make a noise. You can draw a note and make a noise. What I’m hoping is… it’s a different way of achieving things. I mean, if you want to make a dance record, maybe it’s not for you – you need a program like Bitwig Studio or something. If you want to write down a melody, or any time you want to interact with other musicians, that’s when StaffPad comes in.

I think DAWs, especially the new ones like Ableton, are designed for music that stays inside the computer. It’s in digital form and isn’t played by other musicians in the traditional sense – it’s sort of a solo activity. Whereas music for me is more about bringing people together and playing as an ensemble - interacting. It’s a form of human expression, basically.

A lot of those things you can’t necessarily get in Ableton or another DAW – I mean, they’re brilliant programs, but they do a certain thing. Hopefully some of these guys will be interesting in seeing how you can quite easily write down some of their ideas and then play it with their friends, because they can all understand the same musical language.

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Techtalk

And going back to what you were saying about schools, this would be a really good way of learning for people who don’t have any musical knowledge at all. They’ll be able to correlate what they’re doing on the staves and hear the results straight away.

David William Hearn

I think it demystifies it a little bit. People look at notation and think “Wow! What is that?” but it’s actually quite simple. It’s much easier than learning the alphabet, for example. It might even encourage a few people to unlock the mystery of it.

TechTalk

So is it “simply” a notation program, or can you use StaffPad to trigger samples, virtual instruments and the like?

David William Hearn

That was exactly the thing I was trying to get away from! You know; “Ah! I’ve got an idea… open new project… load MIDI… load Kontakt… load sample libraries…” then it’s twenty minutes later and you go “OK… I can start”. StaffPad is the opposite of that. You just pick up the pen and off you go.

There’s a big sound library built in – you’ve got 52 instruments built in, and you can buy some more. Some of these instruments are not what you think a notation program would come with. I mean, we’ve got drums made of snow… just because. You can make that a synth or a drum machine…

TechTalk

And can you export the ideas?

David William Hearn

Once you’ve written it, you can export MIDI and music XML. And you can also import MIDI and music XML as well, so if you’ve started in a sequencer and want the notation, it will display it and keep working on it. If you’ve written your piece and you want to go into Siebelius or Finale you can go into that and work on the layout. StaffPad is not a layout app – it’s for composition, and all the fiddly layout stuff you’re still better off doing in another program.

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TechTalk

You say StaffPad works best on the Surface Pro?

David William Hearn

Yes. There are a lot of devices out there but, genuinely, when Microsoft announced the first Surface, both Matt and I had been working on the app for about seven or eight months and our biggest worry was “How are people actually going to be able to use this thing?”

There were a couple of things that were really expensive or pads that had basic pen features, and then Microsoft announced the Surface Pro and we went “OK!” We could target one thing and do it well for that one device. Pick one thing and focus on that – make sure it works really well.

And for the best experience you want to be able to switch this on, pick up the pen and have a good experience, so you have to go for the Surface Pro…

TechTalk

You talk quite a lot about the pen – how integral to the experience is it?

David William Hearn

Totally! For a start, the app doesn’t work without the pen – at all. The difference between pen and touch is the key to making the app feel natural. You’re going to use one hand to move around the screen and the other hand to write. You don’t want to be switching a mode or trying some weird interaction where you use two fingers to scroll. That doesn’t feel natural, it doesn’t work.

The pen, really, is the whole, entire reason that the app exists in the first place.

TechTalk

So when you’re inputting the different notes, do you just draw the symbols?

David William Hearn

I’ll show you! So, you can set up a new score, and even talk to it. You can say “add strings” and it’ll add the staves. Without using any kind of menu at all you’ve added that.

Then you just literally draw the symbols in… It recognises the notes and extra stuff… dynamics… rests, if you want to… You can move the notes up and down, edit them how you would. Even select stuff and move it around, copy it… and I’m doing all of this without switching a mode or a toggle… anything. Just moving the screen and being able to put your hand on it while keeping writing… It’s super, super quick – then you turn the pen over if you make a mistake and erase it.

That’s the whole reason it exists. You can do stuff with the pen you couldn’t do with just touch. You couldn’t do this on a regular desktop

TechTalk

It’s so intuitive. Just looking at it you know exactly what you have to do, and it’s that direct connection between brain… straight down…

David William Hearn

…Virtual manuscript.

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TechTalk

It’s interesting to see how hardware like the Surface Pro and music production software is coming together more. A really nice example of that is Robin Vincent from Molten Music’s series of videos on how the Surface Pro 3 worked with the touchscreen features of some of the latest DAWs. How do you think this is going to develop in the future?

David William Hearn

Well! If I told you… (laughs)

Certainly from my point of view, this is only the first half of what I want to do. You have to do this before you can do the full vision. I think anytime you get technology that makes it easier to create, and easier to create with other people… what’s nice for me is being able to write stuff that’s played by other human beings.

I know it sounds silly, but you can get so sucked into the bubble of virtual instruments and virtual this and that… You can press play and hear it back, but when you get musicians like the Rudimental guys and the orchestra downstairs… that’s when it becomes music. Until then, it’s just dots on a piece of paper or a screen.

TechTalk

And you can see the effect those “dots” were having on the guys when they could hear the full orchestra, and the audience reaction…

David William Hearn

(Laughs) Yeah, they’re top guys! And any time you can make it easier to get those ideas out of your head and onto the musician’s stands, that’s always a good thing.

So, for me, I want to continue to make that process easier. I can’t say any more about what’s coming next at the moment, but… it’s going to be cool! Watch this space…

For more information on StaffPad, click here

To view the Surface Pro 4, click here