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Notion app review – An outstanding composition tool for your iPad

If you're like me, you've had dreams of creating The Epic Masterpiece. Visions of furiously scribbling notes with a quill and ink by candlelight, huddled over a grand piano. While this may have been how the masters did it, today we have the luxury of creating our own masterpieces on our iPads. If this is your goal, then Notion for iPad by PreSonus may be the tool to achieve that goal.

While most of the apps I review on the site are instrument-based (synths, grooveboxes, guitar sims, etc.), this app is a bit of a departure from my normal review. Many of us musicians have a long background in music making, but I'm not certain how many of us have a background in actually composing music. This is specifically why I wanted to review Notion for the site.

Notion is at its core a composition tool. It doesn't have Audiobus or IAA compatibility (although it does have some great in-app sounds which can be exported - more on that later). With Notion, you are creating your song on a blank canvas. Thankfully, this app makes it incredibly easy to get started and get on your way. The interface is set up great for the touchscreen, and in a few moments you'll have it figured out.

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Notion comes with several instruments as standard, with many more available via in-app purchase. The base package included with the apps contains strings (violins, cello, violas), woodwinds (flute, clarinet, oboe, etc.), brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, etc.), pianos, acoustic and electric guitar and bass, and also quite a few percussion instruments. When I say it "includes" these instruments, I mean it includes samples from these instruments for playback within the app. And these aren't cheap sounding samples. These samples were performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios. Nice. They sound great, of course. This comes into play later when I tell you about exporting your masterpiece.

Depending on how you feel most comfortable, there are several ways of inputting notes into your score. You can enter the notes by hand right onto the score. Once you've selected what instruments will be in your song, you'll see these laid out on the staff. By tapping on the pencil tool, you can then place your notes right on the staff. Select what duration the notes will be by tapping "note/rest" icon (seen here above C#3 in the picture above), and it's just that easy. You'll hear the note play as you place the notes, and these can be dragged up and down if needed. A pinch-and-zoom function is available here for more precise placement of notes, but I just used my stylus, and had no difficulty getting the notes in the right place.

If you'd rather play the onscreen keyboard (or fretboard or pads, depending on the instrument), you can record your notes "live" into the score. This has the advantage of having Notion enter the duration of your notes for you. The onscreen keyboard worked well for me, but you can also plug in an external MIDI keyboard for more range.

Editing notes in Notion is a breeze as well. Double-tapping on a section will give you basic functionality such as cut, copy, paste, delete, etc. But digging deeper, you can also transpose full measures, tweak the dynamics, add articulations and so, so much more. It is all very intuitive, but if you have any problems along the way, a handy undo/redo option is available.

There is also an onboard mixer that allows you to adjust levels of each track, as well as basic panning and some simple effects. Along with this mixer and playback buttons on the bottom row is a very helpful quick reference guide, and access to the deep manual. I've barely touched on all of the specific articulations and dynamics that can be added to your score, but they are all covered in the manual.

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My first masterpiece - created in five minutes (seriously)

Once you've finished your masterpiece, you'll need to share it with the world. Notion gives you quite a few ways to do so. You can either save or email your score in the .notion format, so if you've got the desktop version of Notion, you can continue working on your score there. Or, if you've got a friend with Notion, you can share and collaborate with them. You can also export your score in several other ways, including MusicXML, MIDI, as a .pdf file, or as a WAV or AAC. As I said before, the instruments sound so nice, a full score exported as a WAV file may be all you need. This WAV file can be saved to your device, into Dropbox, or exported directly to SoundCloud.

If you want to export your file as MIDI, for use in a desktop or iOS DAW, this can be done right from Notion as well. I had no problem at all exporting my MIDI file to Dropbox, and then just opening up in Cubasis on my iPad. With this MIDI file loaded into Cubasis, I very easily could have used any number of my iOS synths as audio devices.

Working from the other direction, Notion also lets you import Notion files, MIDI, MusicXML and even Guitar Pro tab files (did you hear that guitarists?). Speaking of guitar, the note entry for creating guitar tabs here is outstanding, with a virtual 24-fret fretboard, and features such as bends, hammer-on and pull-offs. Honestly, I wasn't expecting such nice features for guitarists, so bonus points there.

As I am primarily a guitarist, and a self-taught one at that, I didn't spend much time learning theory and sight-reading when I started out playing. A Fender Strat knockoff, a second-hand Peavey amp, and a Boss Distortion pedal and I was on my way. But I've always wanted to get deeper into the music. After taking some online theory courses, I've started doing more thinking about song composition, rather than just "winging it". I think many of us get stuck in a rut, doing the same routine with song creation. Using Notion has opened up a new way for me to create music. Ultimately, I think that has to be considered a good investment for any musician. If you have any interest in learning more about composition, or just want to take your composing skills on a mobile platform, Notion for iPad is a top choice.

If you're thinking about buying Notion, please consider clicking through our App Store link below. Thanks!

Notion (AppStore Link) Notion
Developer: Notion Music, Inc.
Rated: 4+3
Price: $20.99 Download

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