By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
When David William Hearn and Matthew Tesch introduced their StaffPad app in 2015, they described it as “the music composition app designed for pen and touch, and built for composers.” But since an iPad with stylus support was unavailable during the development of StaffPad, the team’s first solutions were for Windows using large graphic tablets. Then, when Apple’s iPad Pro added stylus support in 2015, Hearn and Tesch knew they had found the perfect canvas for their paperless scores. “The ability to pick up a super-light tablet and just write your music and not have to worry about plugging in a keyboard,” Hearn says, “that was the iPad experience.”
When I showed StaffPad and its free companion app Staffpad Reader to violinist, arranger, composer, producer, and studio musician Eric Gorfain, he said, “I didn’t know about StaffPad, but now that I’ve seen it, I want it. I’ve been waiting years for this sort of technology.”
“Any composer who’s written with pencil and paper and then seen an iPad probably put that kind of idea together themselves,” Hearn comments. “I think that’s one of the reasons why people see it and want it.”
What was the genesis of StaffPad?
I had updated my digital workstation to the latest version and was wondering whether my EyeLock was going to work. These were the kind of steps my brain was going through that were non-musical; they were technical. Then I started to think, “Can I even compose if I’m not sitting in front of my Mac with my huge MIDI keyboard and all of the sampling?” I was losing the musicality.
At the same time, I was working with people whose composing processes were pen and paper, and those guys just flew through writing a chart. They were thinking about the music they were writing. That’s all that concerned them. And I was really jealous, even though those guys with the pen and paper still would need somebody to typeset it or make a demo.
That’s where I saw the gap: We had amazing technical tools for audio engineers. We had amazing technical tools for music engravers and publishers. But there wasn’t a tool for a composer who wanted to think just about the music, needed the score to look not amazing but OK, and
the demo to sound good enough to inspire them—and also to inspire others, like the director or whomever they’re working with. And so really that’s where I started to focus the attention.
And that meant music notation?
Music notation is interesting because generally, unless you’re writing very small pieces of music, the more you can see, the better. The canvas of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro gives you a lot more information that you can actually digest and use, especially when you’re writing for an ensemble, and of course the resolution is super high. You also have the smooth pinch-to-zoom, and that kind of thing that allows you to move around the canvas very quickly and naturally.
Is there an ideal iPad for every StaffPad user?
I’m using the iPad Pro myself as the conductor/composer, and the musicians often play from the standard 9.7-inch iPad using StaffPad Reader. An iPad Mini might be quite useful if you’re in a band or something where you want it actually clipped to your instrument—like a marching band—or you don’t need a huge canvas to see your part.
What is the purpose of the StaffPad Reader?
With StaffPad Reader we addressed performance aspects for musicians: Once you’ve written your piece, what do you do? Do you print it out? Probably not because you might want to change it during rehearsal. So, we had this idea of a connected music stand that would display the individual parts of a StaffPad Score, in real time, across multiple devices. Any changes made to the score in StaffPad update instantly on every connected reader. Annotations and playback work in perfect sync—all you need is a simple Wi-Fi connection.
How much of a gamechanger was the Apple Pencil?
The number one thing with StaffPad is that the input method is the Apple Pencil; we were able to simplify the whole experience and kind of give you that paper feeling of writing music down again, and the key was focusing entirely on handwriting recognition.
Why did it take so long to move the Windows version over?
We were a new company, young guys figuring this stuff out, and it took us five years to make that first version for Windows. But it was a proof of concept and it worked really well. When we got to 2015 and launched it, we thought maybe a few music nerds like us might be into it. But we found out there was a big appetite for it when a video on Facebook got something like 17 million views—which in 2015 was quite a big deal.
It was a moment for us to consider whether to upgrade the app, expand the team, and invest a bit more money, which at the time was our personal money. So, it was quite a big decision. And simultaneously we wanted to do the reader because it was a super important part of moving to a paperless score. It’s so convenient to be able to make a change and have it go to an entire orchestra rather than have to reprint or dictate. All of these things came together at the same time Apple released the first iPad Pro, which had a pencil.
But in order to do this properly, and to work with a reader app, we needed to rebuild StaffPad itself. We knew we had done stuff wrong the first time. We knew we could do a couple of things better. The processing power was greater, and the landscape was different for the hardware, but even in the five years that we had been building, the whole thing had changed. And suddenly this new platform, the creative platform of iOS, became viable. So we sat down and started again, building with a different technical architecture that would enable all these experiences for a ten-year road. We put our noses to the grindstone for the next five years.
What assumptions does StaffPad make about users in terms of musical literacy?
It assumes that you’re comfortable with and can write notation. There are teachers using it very effectively in the classroom because it gives them that very tangible relationship with notation. You can create notes and move them up and down on the staff. It seems to make notation more understandable.