Bands, brands, and musical preferences

How STOMP research can help get it right without guessing

If you’re at all interested in studies on musical styles, you’ve probably come across the STOMP test. It’s less exciting than it sounds, being the Short Test of Musical Preferences, where you pick the styles you like, and then it tells you what your musical taste is. It’s been updated now to STOMP-R, and is available here. The brainchild of S.D. Gosling, it is not the kind of test that you find on Facebook ‘test your personality’ quizzicles. A lot of people actually find it disappointing (judging by comments posted on the web). After all, you tell it your preferences, and then it more or less tells you what you just told it.

This is because the purpose of STOMP is not to give you some amazing (and typically flattering) insight into your personality (you are bright, attractive, have an IQ of 217 and will die at the age of 431), but to gather data for proper psychological research. And the results are fascinating.

In Samuel Gosling’s and Peter Rentfrow’s original work, they came up with the result that musical tastes tend to break into four underlying styles: Reflective & Complex (Classical, Jazz, Blues, Folk), Intense & Rebellious (Alternative, Rock, Heavy Metal), Upbeat & Conventional (Country, Pop, Religious) and Energetic & Rhythmic (Rap/hip-hop, Soul/funk, Electronica/dance). They were then able to examine some of the characteristics of people who tend to like a particular kind of music, and the characteristics of the music itself. For example, if you are clever but socially awkward, you may be more inclined to like intense music. They also mapped the results onto the ‘big five’ personality attributes of Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness.

So far so good, except that the correlations are not perhaps as strong as you might like. If you notice someone liking Intense music and thereby assumed they were liberal, disagreeable and not especially wealthy, you might well find that your expectation was completely wrong.

In 2011, Rentfrow published a further paper in which they researched further, which suggested five factors that match the data rather better. Their original version was ‘Mellow, Urban, Sophisticated, Intense and Campestral’, which is easily memorable as the acronym ‘MUSIC’, except that no-one ever uses the word ‘campestral’. This was later revised to Mellow, Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense and Contemporary’. However, they noticed that their original musical styles of ‘soundtrack’ and ‘Oldies’ didn’t track with this data.

As set out on Gosling’s web page, this means:

Mellow: electronica/dance, new age, world
Unpretentious: pop, country, religious
Sophisticated: blues, jazz, bluegrass, folk, classical, gospel, opera
Intense: rock, punk, alternative, heavy metal
Contemporary: rap, soul/r&b, funk, reggae

Intuitively, this represents a better formulation than either the one with ‘campestral’ or the original four factor result.

However, let me suggest—and I am speculating and intuiting here, not doing the kind of scientific work that Gosling and Rentfrow did—that we could overcome the problem with soundtrack and oldies by adding in the dimension ‘Nostalgic’. This, unfortunately, ruins the acronym (though I have a solution for that which we’ll come to), but it does give us three pairs, which are implicit in the MUSIC formulation but concealed by the order.

Quite evidently, the same piece of music cannot at the same time by intense and mellow, nor can it be both sophisticated and unpretentious, nor contemporary and nostalgic.

So, our axes become:


I’m not completely persuaded that the dominant factor Contemporary quite describes the grouping, but as a mental concept it is a useful one. Particularly, if you listen to the sounds of the Contemporary grouping, it is those sounds which are so very different from the Nostalgic grouping: square-waves, sweep-filters, monster bass, exaggerated highs, and transistor distortion alongside maximum use of limiting and compression contrast sharply with the gentle valve overdrive, tape saturation and rolled-off highs and lows we associate with nostalgic music, largely because of the limitations of technology back in the day, alongside the most transparent possible use of compressors and limiters because they were seen as an artefact of transmission to tape and vinyl which needed to be minimised, as opposed to a creative tool to produce the pumping, energetic, ‘in your face’ sound of contemporary artists.

If you’re a mathematician or statistician reading this, you will immediately have worked out that these axes can, in binary form, be turned into eight combinations of all three, twelve combinations of two, and the six individual types.

For non-mathematicians and statisticians, it means you could have music which was Intense, Sophisticated and Nostalgic—for example, Joni Mitchell’s Amelia recorded with Pat Metheny on Shadows and Light—or perhaps Contemporary, Intense and Sophisticated, such as Florence and the Machine, or perhaps Nostalgic, Mellow and Sophisticated, such as Norah Jones Don’t Know Why. Carly Rae Jepsen might be more Contemporary, Intense and Unpretentious.

Now, what about our acronym? I’ve ruined MUSIC by adding N (for nostalgic) to it. Could we fix that, and get a worthwhile additional pair of categories out of it?

I think we can. For years I have been apologising for my dancing skills by saying ‘everyone knows that musicians can’t dance’. Actually, I have no particular evidence to support the assertion, but it usually ends the discussion, which is what I’m particularly looking for.

What I have noticed, though, is that there is a big difference between the experience of music as an interactive form from as a listening form. I went to a concert recently where everyone sat stock-still and listened with complete intensity. You would expect that of a classical concert in a concert hall, but this was folk at a pub. A couple of years ago I went to see Maddy Prior and the Carnival Players, who clearly want to get your feet tapping, and are probably not averse to you singing along. At a work’s disco, people who want to dance will dance to classics or the latest hits. When I used to organise work’s parties, I learned fairly early on that you needed to book a band and a DJ to attract the widest audience: some people want to dance, some people want to listen. The disparaging term for ‘contemporary worship’ in churches is ‘happy-clappy’, and the people who tend to use that term prefer a choir which will sing the service, with interaction by the congregation only during the hymns.

You can probably see where I’m going with this: if you add ‘Interactive’ and ‘Audience’, you can end up with the acronym ‘MUSICIAN’.

Now, all this may seem interesting (or not) but largely irrelevant. What is the application—to bands, brands, and not annoying your friends or customers?

You probably recall the culture-clash scene in the Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood ask the barmaid at Bob’s Country Bunker what kind of music they usually play. ‘We’ve got both kinds,’ she replies, ‘Country and Western’.

People have extraordinarily strong opinions about music, but, unlike their opinions about politics, football and religion, they generally can’t articulate them. As a musician, if you’ve experienced the ‘Bob’s Country Bunker’ moment when you realise that the music you have prepared is the opposite of what people at the venue want, you will know what I’m talking about. I’ve known musicians who have been interrupted by venue owners in mid-song—and not because they weren’t ‘good enough’—because the owner felt they were wrecking the ambience. This is not some meta-cultural battle between Mods and Rockers. Play the wrong kind of music, and you can literally have people hissing at you.

Leaving aside my unscientific addition of Nostalgia and perhaps Interactive or Audience, Rentfrow’s Mellow—Unpretentious—Sophisticated—Intense—Contemporary classification goes a long way to explain how (if not why) people come to associate the ‘wrong’ kind of music with ‘wrong’ in other ways. Play the wrong kind of music in a church (sophisticated in a ‘happy-clappy’ church, unpretentious in a traditional church), and people will question your attitude (‘just showing off’/’doesn’t care, shouldn’t be playing’). Play in a bar or café, and they are quite likely to simply pull out the plug on your PA system (as per the Blues Brothers). Even at an open mic night, where you would expect people to be open to anything, you will see hostility. I went to the final of an open mic competition (as audience), and someone in the row behind me decided to explain why some of the acts were terrible and shouldn’t be playing—which was quite a trick, since the music was peaking at the end at 120 db.

Very occasionally, a song or a band is able to take you from one extreme to another. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the perennial popularity of Stairway to Heaven is that it starts as Mellow and Unpretentious (nothing is less pretentious than a descant recorder or a 12-string guitar), and finishes up Intense and Sophisticated (there are few people in the entire world who can play the guitar solo at the end). It also travels, or travelled, from a nostalgic beginning to a (then) contemporary end. That is quite a trick, though even Stairway to Heaven never manages to be intense and mellow at the same time.

If you are looking for the audio for a brand, or anchoring the sound of a band, then you can pick one of the factors as your key factor, and then move the sliders (as it were) on the others. Listen to a pop album (ok, no-one does any more, because the idea of listening to an entire album straight through is itself a rather nostalgic idea), and you’ll hear that while the basic Unpretentiousness remains, it will have more intense songs and less intense, more danceable songs and more listenable, and, as likely as not, at least one song with a nostalgic sound, or which is an old song freshened up.

In branding terms, it is not so much a question of finding the most popular kind of music as finding the most appropriate and sticking with its feel. Reflecting on contemporary advertising, this is something that advertisers get wrong a lot. Folk music, for example, tends to be used to conjure up country products, or in mocking something unsophisticated. I always felt this jarred, but didn’t know why. Rentfrow’s formulation gives us the answer: folk as a genre is in the category of Sophistication. Country and Western would be a better choice if the ‘simple goodness of the soil’ is what the advertiser is after. In extending a brand (always a risk), you would then want to consider sticking with the core attribute, but varying another. If, for example, your car advert used the introduction from Layla, then you would need to decide whether this ‘just seemed to fit’ at the time because it was Intense, or because it was Nostalgic, or because it was Sophisticated. All three are playing a role here: it’s rock, so its natural zone is intense. But it’s a nostalgic track for many people. And, for those in the know, the introduction is fiendishly difficult (so much so that Eric Clapton later claimed he’d forgotten how to play it—highly modest, and probably not actually true. If you do want to play it, the secret is to pre-bend the top notes before you strike them and then relax them back). If your brand is about an intense driving experience, but you want to be perceived as more up to date, then going with Green Day or Florence and the Machine might be your next step. On the other hand, if you wanted to attract the older (and wealthier) driver to stay with your brand, or return to it, then Nostalgia would be the factor to stay with. Freebird could be the song you were after, or, for a highly dateable sound, All Along the Watchtower. If you decided that it was Sophistication, and you wanted something more recent and more mellow, Norah Jones might be your next step.

The same goes for brand distinctiveness. Al Ries suggested that the way to pick your corporate colour was to look at the colour of your main competitor and pick the opposite. This may explain why about half the leading brands in the world are red, and the other half are blue.  The colour space is over-exploited from a brand perspective. For one major rebrand, we were shifting the dial by degrees to find a blue that would inspire, but not resemble the green or the red of the two main competitors. In a crowded market place, you may end up either forced into mauve or mustard (colours which begin with ‘M’ such as maroon or mulberry are rarely popular), or else reluctantly going with a different shade of an already well-known brand colour.

In music, you have a much better field—except that, until now, nobody could really tell you what the ‘opposite’ was. Rentfrow’s formulation helps us a lot here. Your main competitor is using an intense, nostalgic, sophisticated track? Pick something which is mellow, contemporary and unpretentious—perhaps a trance-influenced hip-hop pop sound, perhaps an update on the 90s trip-hop sound.

What about branding a band?

I spent some time this year working on a brand for a singer/guitarist — cellist duo. To some extent, what you are reading now came from research I did for that project. When you start to try to put the sound of a music act into words, which you have to do if you are ever going to get anyone to listen to the tracks, things start to get difficult. Everyone would like to describe themselves as ‘one of a kind — a life changing performance which you will never forget — touches a nerve and sends shivers down your spine’. However, these are really just superlatives strung together. You might equally write “we’ve got an act we want you to listen to, and they are very, very, very, very, very, very good”. Someone booking an act for a side-show at a local fete is genuinely not interested in whether or not your band is ‘life-changing’ or ‘life-affirming’ or ’empowering’, though if you have too many of these kinds of words they may think that you are going to be troublesome to work with. If you can describe it in Rentfrow’s terms, or versions thereof, you may stand a better chance. “Glock is a mellow, contemporary band with a sophisticated mix that gets people onto the dance-floor”, “WyldSwan is a folk-metal four piece which combines emotional intensity and musicianship with a sound that has burst straight out of the 1970s”, “RootKit is straight up, out-and-out urban dance music”. You can make up your own variations.

The brand synergy comes when you underline the musical style with the lyrical style (according to Gosling’s research these are tightly linked) and find a name and a visual style which matches that. Perhaps you are thinking ‘but all bands do that’. Well, all the bands you’ve heard of do. The bands you haven’t heard of are often the ones which are giving a visual impression of contemporary cool (because their designer listens a lot to P!nk) but are actually playing nostalgic, intense music. Most people’s first bands are nowhere near as sophisticated as they think they are. As their musical skills develop, their playing tends to get more elaborate. They may think they’re still appealing to the unpretentious audience that first loved them, but they have actually moved to the opposite end of the sophisticated—unpretentious spectrum.

The point here is that, just like home-made logos and ‘all the fonts we could find’ brochures put together by the salesteam, most musical brands are actually incoherent. Exactly what your logo, typography, audio signature and self-description are can vary almost infinitely, but all four of them must be appropriate to each other, otherwise the result is diffuse and lacks credibility, clarity or relevance.

In the Mix

This section is a bit audio-technical. If you’re a business owner, band manager or merely curious, you can probably stop reading now. If you’re a producer, sound engineer, or just the guy who calls the shots on the sound, this may help you.

The table below gives eighteen elements often found in a song mix, along with characteristics which tend to go with Unpretentious, Sophisticated, Intense, Mellow, Contemporary and Nostalgic. These are very much starters to think about. Not all Unpretentious music has simple, repetitive melodies, and a song may be sophisticated and still work in an established song structure. On the other hand, if you are working on a track and it keeps on getting away from the core sound of your band, then some of the things here may help you. Equally, if you are using a signal chain or preset that ‘always works’, but it isn’t working, you may be doing something which is germane to a particular musical characteristic, but doesn’t fit what you are doing.

U: Unpretentious, S: Sophisticated, I: Intense, M: Mellow, C: Contemporary, N: Nostalgic.

  U S I M C N
Melodies Simple, repetitive Complex High, large jumps Low, flowing Rhythmic Naïve
Song structure VCVC8CC Amorphous Climactic Constant Distinctive elements, eg rap section VCVCVC, 12 bar or 8 bar
Bass line Simple Melodic Driving Sub-bass Synth Fender bass or acoustic
Drums Patterned, high Improvised Pounding, follow song Smooth, solid platform Beats Acoustic kit, muffled
Pads Swells, strings No Low in mix High in mix New sounds Elec piano, organ etc
Guitars Strum Melodic Electric Acoustic No Classic sounds
Harmonies Simple Modulation Rich Sweet or none Counterpoint Ring & Lock
Accents Strong none     Strong  
Track Compression Solid Minimal Intrinsic (eg, overdrive) High Pumping Analogue
Echo & Reverb Bright Natural Expansive Floating Low Plate or spring
Main vocal Light Rich Towards screaming Breathed Talk Sing
Sound effects Literal Authentic Deep Ambient Industrial Radio drama
Buss compression Heavy Minimal Low Total Pumping Tape saturation
Transients Naive Articulated High Low Max Reduced
Harmonic enrichment Fizz None Burn Air High Low
Buss reverb Wet Ambient Drum ambience High Low Ringing
Final EQ Bright Natural Full or scooped Smile curve Bass and Top Muffled
Limiting Heavy Minimal Maximised Smooth Clipping Soft

Subscription or buy-to-own: two software models, one aim, which is better?

Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud are now available principally (MS) or only (CC) as a subscription model. Strata3D offers both a subscription and a buy-to-own model. TypeDNA began as buy-to-own but, for new buyers, is only available as subscription. On the other hand, Apple Store applications are sold on a buy-once, can’t upgrade basis. Upgrades are either free—such as Apple’s own Logic and Final Cut software—or require buying the software all over again. On the other hand, App Store applications tend to be much cheaper to acquire. In the mean time, firms such as Quark Software Inc., persevere with the ‘old’ model of the user buying to own, and the manufacturer then having to persuade them to upgrade.

Software firms all have the same objective: profit. They are not individuals labouring on open-source for the general betterment of the human condition. At the same time, they are full of individuals who want to make the best product they can. Clearly, if the software makes no profit, it will eventually be bought up by some other company, as happened with Siri and with NIK, to be rolled into something, or simply abandoned, such as the much-lamented Macromedia Freehand.

Which is best for the industry as a whole? Which is best for the customer?

The idea that you can buy something, and a year later it will be better than when you first bought it, is something that makes no sense outside of the software industry. Fridges don’t improve with time, neither do cars, no matter what personalised upgrades you try to fit (unless it’s a Land Rover, in which case you can carry on replacing bits of it forever, but that’s an unusual case).  Art and houses may appreciate, but they don’t improve.

Traditionally, software houses offered intermediate upgrades for free, introducing minor features, and then major upgrades with a new version, which had a commensurate upgrade price attached to it. You could hop from WordPerfect to Word and back again via competitive upgrades if you wanted. We actually went from Claris Works to Microsoft Office by that route.

Some kinds of software—typically very large enterprise systems—have always been done on a lease-basis. It was Microsoft who first introduced the notion of annual payment for an always-up-to-date plan. Adobe followed suit, then various kinds of accounting software, other utilities, and so on.

Some things are clearly better if the software is automatically updated. Virus checkers and accounting packages are the most obvious. But Microsoft was facing a big problem: everybody who wanted one already owned a copy of Office, complete with the docx and xlsx format, which was the last main reason to upgrade. People were increasingly only upgrading their OS when they changed their computer, and computers were already so fast that there was no longer much reason to upgrade.

This is a far cry from the 1980s, when any computer you could possibly buy was underpowered for any reasonable task you might have wanted it for. It was WYSIWYG which had introduced this particular arms race. Until then WordPerfect, Word and WordStar for DOS were all fast enough. But WordStar had a problem: it was already feature complete, and did not add new features. Word and WordPerfect, by contrast, were busy adding features. They weren’t necessarily useful features, but they were new features. As soon as WYSIWYG came in, there was a perpetual cycle of buying a new computer that could cope with the latest software, and new software coming out to take advantage of the new computers. WordStar and its ilk which did not offer new features were left behind.

At a particular point, graphics software moved into the lead on this race. I remember my first 200 MHz computer, which was the first time you could draw with Illustrator freehand and not have to wait around for the line to appear. Photoshop was still slow.

Today, WordProcessors, Photo-editors and Illustration packages do everything we can reasonably want them to, and today’s computers do most of it instantly, as far as the 18ms minimum human reaction time is concerned.

So how do you persuade people to keep giving you money?

Subscription is clearly a good model if you are the only product in the market. The demise of WordPerfect as a serious player meant that MS Office was the only commercial show in town. Libre Office and other open source alternatives were fine for those who wanted them, but many IT departments don’t like open source software. ‘Professional services is the hidden cost in open source’, as someone once told me.

Microsoft’s problem, though, is that the only thing that it really offers is compatibility. There are hundreds of low cost word processors out there. Apple’s own office suite is a pleasanter environment for word processing. Email software does as much in the way of formatting as most people should ever need, and many documents will never make their way off email.

Recognising that it isn’t Microsoft, Adobe has gone a different route. Almost everything you could possibly want is bundled with Adobe Creative Cloud. Design, DTP, photo-editing, video, HTML editing, sound recording, RAW photo developing and cataloging. On the other hand, aside from Photoshop and Illustrator, none of these are actually the best choice for what you want to do. InDesign was a bit ahead of QuarkXPRESS for quite a long time, neck and neck for a bit, but is now clearly lagging, suffering as Quark piles on more features with every new version. Dreamweaver, of course, is Dreamweaver, but real coders prefer text editors, and everyone else is now moving onto Content Management Systems, which Dreamweaver supports only poorly, or via specialist plugins. If you don’t like FinalCut Pro, you would be far better getting Avid than Adobe Premier. Lightroom is fine, but if you are happy with Lightroom, you probably don’t need Photoshop. Lightroom itself isn’t as good a Digital Assets Manager as Media Pro, nor as good a raw developer as Capture One or DxO.

All this is great for the enthusiast market, but there are not many people who can shoot pictures, edit images, illustrate, do DTP, make videos, record sounds and edit HTML. Adobe CC pushes people towards the unproductive world of Jack of all Trades, Master of None.

Another offer that Adobe makes, and is also made by Monotype and others, is font subscriptions. Typekit, Skyfonts and so on give users access to a font library, though, quite possibly, not the library they would actually want.

The risk for users of going down the subscription route is that, one day, if they don’t, can’t or won’t keep up their subscriptions, they will no longer be able to open their own legacy documents. What is worse, if the software is eventually withdrawn, or the company goes out of business, you can’t even reactivate your subscription. You may decide that MS and Adobe are too big to go out of business—but that’s a risk you have to take.

What about buy to own?

The problem for buy-to-own software houses is that unless they can continually expand their market, they will only ever sell more software if they can come up with new features which are worth the upgrade price. All of the big features, though, have surely already been introduced. New features are likely to be more and more vertical market, and the cost of implementing them dwarfs the increased sales that they will produce. When was the last time Photoshop introduced a new feature that you actually wanted, and had not already purchased a plugin that did it? It isn’t just a question of coding. Software houses have to have creative vision to introduce new things that could never have been done before, but are useful to many users.

Photoshop essentially is a digital darkroom. The processes that are at its core have analogues in the physical dark rooms that Photoshop replaced. It’s extended now into being a camera enhancement, enabling you to make some decisions in the software that you previously had to make in camera. However, as it has moved away from the darkroom, the new features have become less groundbreaking. Illustrator is a draftsman’s desk. InDesign and QuarkXPRESS are layout artists’ drafting desks.

For a long time, software was catching up with what you could achieve physically. Now, it has surpassed it, along with camera technology. For years, I longed for a dSLR that was as responsive as my old OM 1, produced as high a resolution, and yet would fit in a coat pocket. With the Df, Nikon surpassed the OM 1 in every possible respect.

This brings us back to the problem of creative vision. When you have done everything your users expect, what do you offer next? If you can keep imagining, you can keep creating, and people will keep buying. If you can’t, they stick with the old software and expect you to provide compatibility updates for free.

The verdict on subscription versus buy-to-own

Ultimately, subscription software is a good deal for the software house, but not for the customer—unless, of course, it is the only thing that keeps the software house in business, and thus means that your software continues to be upgraded and security-patched. The longer you use it, the deeper your back-catalogue of files that require that software to open it.

By contrast, buy-to-own is good for the customer, but not for the software house unless it can figure out new, useful features that persuade people to keep buying. WordStar died on the basis of not being able to persuade new users to buy it in the face of WordPerfect and Word. Because WordStar was a standard, everything that came after could import its files. But that is exceptional. I have a lot of software scattered over old computers that died when the manufacturer withdrew it, or simply went out of business.

QuarkXPress 2016 and breaking the vicious cycle

I’ve written about QuarkXPRESS a couple of times recently. Since I joined their Facebook community a year ago, I have been deeply impressed by the company’s responsiveness to users. The software is also getting better and better, and has now left InDesign far behind, though the inertia of InDesign users will keep Adobe’s offer afloat at least for a while, in which time they will perhaps have caught up to today’s features. What is impressive about Quark, though, is not so much the new features, but the crowdsourcing approach to them. I was astonished, when I was told about the new features of QuarkXPRESS 2016, how much they reflected the wish list of the members of the group. This is more than just being responsive, this is finding inspiration in the user community. There are inevitably far more users who say ‘there should be a feature that does’ than people who could code it into a plugin or an Xtension. A thousand users, though, all voting about what features they want, presents a constant challenge to the developers to deliver. Instead of scratching round the Internet and backwards-engineering competing software, or trying to create some kind of hybrid fridge-toaster that brings in bloat ware features that are already fully covered by other software, Quark Software Inc., has been able to find the features that users really want, which nothing else does.

The other side—and this is something that should worry Adobe—is that by introducing native conversion from PDF, Quark has made anyone’s entire back catalogue of PDF files future-compatible. No InDesign to QuarkXPRESS conversion is needed, because Quark can pull in the finished PDF file without any intervening software. More than anything, this breaks the hold that subscription providers have. If you cease paying your CC subscription, you will still be able to load all your finished layouts into QuarkXPRESS. Since other software already opens and edits Photoshop and Illustrator, it may well be that Adobe has overplayed its hand.

I haven’t upgraded to Microsoft subscription, and I almost certainly won’t. I do currently subscribe to Adobe CC, but it may be my last year of doing so. Affinity has good packages that do Photoshop and Illustrator functions. Pinegrow is better for me than Dreamweaver. I abandoned Lightroom years ago for Capture One and Media Pro. If I didn’t know anything, the Adobe bundle would be hugely attractive. However, the price, and the knowledge that there is something better out there for everything the bundle does, gives me pause for thought. I’m not quite ready to give up on Photoshop or Illustrator, but I almost am.

The future

The most valuable commodity is creativity. Microsoft has stalled with Office: no one can think of anything they want Office to do that it doesn’t already do. Adobe is innovating by adding more to the bundle, but the bundle itself is fairly static. To me, it is the Quark model of turning over your development route to the advice of your users which—for now at least—renders the most, best and fastest results. Perhaps it is this, rather than the buy-to-own rather than subscription model, which is the key.



How QuarkXPress 2016 changes the DTP game

QuarkXPress 2016 was released today.

It’s been my great privilege to work with the Quark team as one of their testers in the weeks leading up to it. You may have seen my post before about conversion to native objects. That is a game changer. There is more, though. For the first time, we can create seamless HTML5 apps straight from desktop publishing software. It’s been tried before, in a number of ways. But the result has always been clunky, sub-standard, not quite right.

Quark now changes all of that. You can turn a relatively simple print publication into a web-app for the iPad, other tablets or smartphones in about six clicks. You can turn it into an interactive one in about half an hour. Of course, like all things interactive, the magic comes when you develop specific resources that make the most of it. You can put any audio on, but pristine audio recorded in a studio (even a home studio, with proper equipment and sound-damping) will help to perfect it, whereas substandard audio or (worse) a standard audio track that everyone knows will dissolve the magic. The point is that print suddenly goes Harry Potter—like those photographs which people wander in and out of. Combine it with Flixels or other looping video stills, and you have something that will bring people back again and again.

QuarkXPress 2016 has a lot of other new features. If you want to know what they are, you could do worse than buy my book: Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress 2016. Heck, if you desperately want to know and can’t afford to buy the book, email me and I’ll let you have a look at the PDF. There may also be an HTML5 version coming…

The thing is, it isn’t Quark’s new features that take it right past Adobe InDesign. It’s the other things.

User responsive

The Quark interface has always run quicker than InDesign’s, but that’s not what I mean here. Quark the company is exceptionally responsive to its users. Maybe you’re saying it needed to be: Quark did have the reputation of being aloof, even arrogant. I have to say that I never really engaged with Quark as an organisation back in the 2000s when this was supposed to be the case, except occasional contact when I upgraded. (I see from my account that I have been upgrading since 1997.) A year ago, though, I joined Quark’s Facebook group. There are about 1,200 people on it. Half the posts are by users, and half the posts are by Quark’s own team, including developers, quality controllers, and the guy in charge of the whole QuarkXPress outfit. It’s quite unlike any other commercial Facebook group (or forum) I’ve ever been part of. On occasion I’ve seen bugs reported by users and fixed by Quark’s engineers on the same day. Obviously this doesn’t always happen, especially not for feature requests, and there are still people who are insisting that the one feature they need has to be the next one implemented. Even so, the willingness to help, sort out problems, give advice and generally make it fun if quite unparalleled.

This goes through to the new features themselves. About eighteen months ago, someone rang me up from Quark (long before I got involved with them) and asked me what I thought of their App Studio. App Studio makes smartphone and tablet native apps from Quark documents. I told her I thought it looked really good, but it was far too expensive and I couldn’t imagine any client ever wanting to fork out for it. Actually, I can think of a few clients now who would be best off pursuing that route, but that’s what I said at the time. “What do you think we should do, then?” she said. “Make it free,” I said. “Let me publish HTML web-apps, you know, the kind that were all the rage when the iPhone first came out before native apps did.” The kind of thing, for example, that we’re seeing increasingly with Hive and IFTT.

Eighteen months later, HTML5 publishing does exactly that—exactly, even down to the level that you can prepare your app for HTML5 publishing, put it out there, and have the App Studio version available later without having to recode.

You may or may not want that, but it’s an example of the phenomenal responsiveness I’ve experienced. The key new features, HTML5 and native vector conversion, are probably driven more by business need than by user requests, but most of the rest have been prioritised based on what people said they wanted. It’s done very simply by Facebook polling. I wanted colour transformations in Open Type so I could use the Chartwell fonts. I voted for that, it’s now in there. Others wanted the eye-dropper tool back. It’s now back. Others wanted an improvement to footnotes. They’ve been improved. Still others wanted fit-box-to-text. It’s in there. The list goes on and on. I haven’t got everything I wanted yet, but I’ve got more of what I wanted from this software release than any release of any other software I’ve seen before—probably because this is the first time anybody asked me what I wanted.

Without wishing to talk Adobe or others down, this is not what we usually experience. The subscription model for Adobe particularly keeps delivering incremental upgrades to software that I don’t actually need, which, in turn, stop plugins working that I actually rely on. To upgrade all of my plugins would cost thousands, even if the upgrades were available, which they often aren’t.

Quark has also been working with its users to debug. When Mac OS X El Capitan came out, Quark was the first to have a (free) El Capitan-ready upgrade. Not all the Xtensions worked, so Quark’s team brokered conversations between Extensis, one of the main sufferers, and its users. The problems were quickly solved.

Speaking of that, if you do join that group, be careful what you say about Xtensions. You’ll find that if you start saying ‘this Xtension is rubbish’, you’ll actually have the guy who owns the company which makes it respond to you. Politely, of course, and they work hard to fix problems, but it’s a good reason not to mouth-off. Generally, people don’t.

Buy once, keep forever

Quark always used to be an expensive product. It still is, in certain ways. It is not, and never will be, bargain basement ‘my-first-DTP’. Cost of first acquisition is ludicrously cheap for students, quite cheap for not-for-profits, but a fair whack for everyone else. Upgrades, though, are very reasonably priced. Any version of QuarkXPress, including version 1, lets you upgrade to the current version at the same price. If you have QuarkXPress 2015, you upgrade for half that price, which, coincidentally, is the same as the not-for-profit price. By my calculation, staying up to date with QuarkXPress costs me about £10 a month, but there’s no obligation to do that. Quark has kept on unofficially supporting the older versions, so that even version 9 still works on El Capitan. There are people on the Facebook group stolidly refusing to upgrade from version 7, and they’re still getting same courteous help and advice, though not the bug fixes (even Quark has to stop somewhere).

When InDesign came out, it was given away for free. First literally for free, and then bundled with Creative Suite, and subsequently Creative Cloud, so that if you need both Photoshop and Illustrator, it was cheaper to get the whole bundle. It did this while Quark was struggling with the transition to OS X, and a lot of people were sticking with Mac OS 9 and QuarkXpress 4 or even 3.32. It was a good piece of business by Adobe. They had no legacy users to keep happy, they were able to construct the whole thing from the ground up as OS X native, and they could still make money by selling people upgrades that they didn’t necessarily need, but which gave them the brand new, more-or-less free, InDesign.

The publishing world went wild for it. InDesign had so many more exciting features. And it was free. People used to tell me that InDesign could do so much that Quark couldn’t. When we checked, it was usually that the current version of InDesign could do a lot of things that the five-year old version of Quark they had used before couldn’t. Well, ok. As I say, it was a good piece of business by Adobe.

There were three things that held me back. I was still specifying QuarkXPress for my design teams. First, InDesign was slow. That shouldn’t trouble you now, because computers move so fast now that everything is quick. Even so, productivity was key to what we were doing. Second, the additional features were fun features for designers, but as the budget holder and the guy who actually had to deliver projects within a brand, they weren’t useful features as far as I was concerned. Glowing text did not match our brand (which was actually the UK’s biggest brand—I’ll leave you to check my CV to see which it was). I wanted designers constructing creative solutions from the ground up, rather than applying an effect to overcome problems in the layout. Third, I had very serious doubts about how long InDesign would stay free.

In a sense, of course, it still is. If you subscribe to Creative Cloud (and I still do, and I use Illustrator and Photoshop every day), then the general bundle which is cheapest if you need the other main design applications includes InDesign at no extra cost. But the cost of keeping up to date with Adobe Creative Cloud is steep. £450 a year. You can do better in your first year if you take all of their offers, but the cost mounts. I don’t actually need any new features. There’s been nothing (except for El Capitan compatibility) which has interested me since CS6. But I still keep paying—really only for Photoshop and Illustrator, as I only use InDesign when forced to, and abandoned Lightroom years ago in favour of the superior Capture One and Media Pro combination, which Lightroom can’t touch.

So, £450 a year for features in Illustrator and Photoshop I don’t need, which is £225 each. If I was going to make InDesign my DTP package, that would be £150 a year per application. The same as Quark—except that I only have to upgrade Quark if I want the new features, and I never get a new version of the software imposed on me (as happened to me with CC 2015) which wipes out all my settings and stops my plugins working. Yes, that’s right—you can keep all of your old versions of QuarkXPress running.

Deep publishing

My third big, serious reason for pressing the advantages of QuarkXPress is the deep publishing features, especially Job Jackets. If you are managing a brand, job jackets let you get to your results consistently and quickly, and have them evaluated not just in terms of what will work through a pre-press RIP, but in terms of brand compliance. I can have a rule that pops up a warning that I’ve included an off-book colour or out-of-specification font. You can effectively include all the instructions for a temp or a new hire in the document tickets themselves.

If you are working with lots of brands, as I do, Job Jackets are absolutely golden. Whether the brand has a specification document or not (many are merely ideas in the mind of the brand owner), you can build everything in, and create and evaluate documents rapidly without even remembering (which can be very hard when you come back to a brand after a long time away). Creative Cloud, of course, can save styles and templates, and make swatches and graphics portable across the web, but it can’t do anything like Job Jackets.

QuarkXPress is the low end of what Quark Software Inc., does. Quark Software Inc., is about massive systems that serve enormous enterprises, where QuarkXPress itself is the front end for template editing. Effective brand management is and always will be built into QuarkXPress. Creative Cloud — and I’m not knocking it by saying this — isn’t really about that. It wants to be exciting to designers and hobbyists, offering the best value bundle of software (and it is, if you really want to use Premiere instead of Avid, and Adobe’s recording software instead of Logic or Pro Tools, and Lightroom instead of Capture One) suitable for professional applications. Photoshop is still king of the hill for images, and Illustrator for illustrations—though Affinity is catching up fast in terms of features—but, for the rest, the bundle is the second-best for most things it does. Even Dreamweaver, which is arguably the best pure HTML editor out there, is losing ground to more specialist applications. These days it’s all about Content Management Systems, and true coders use plain text anyway.

What all this means is that Quark Software Inc., is always going to be the leader in deep publishing, simply because no one else does what it does. The surface charms of InDesign are obvious—though many of them are equally available, sometimes with more function, in QuarkXPress—but, at the deeper level, Quark is the winner, for me at least.

Add to all that the new features, which InDesign shows no signs of matching, and, for me, QuarkXPress has re-emerged as the true winner in desktop publishing. And also in desk top publishing—a distinction which my book explains. Oh, go on and order it.

Why QuarkXPress 2016 will change my workflow for ever

QuarkXPress 2016 is due for imminent release. It has a lot of new features. One of them — based on my pre-test of the Final Release candidate — will change my workflow for ever.

It’s this: QuarkXPress now pastes graphics from other applications, and converts them into native Quark objects. It will do the same thing (if asked) with EPS files, PDFs and others.

Sound like something everything else already does? Well, not really.

Illustrator and InDesign already happily cross copy into each other. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that they are part of the same Adobe Creative Suite. The problem comes when you try pasting from Excel into either of them. People supplying files for design love Excel. They can quickly make graphs that look so good. The problem is, when you paste them into Illustrator, the text turns to garbage. It’s generally quicker to remake graph in Illustrator rather than to correct all the garbage. InDesign just pastes an unusable low-resolution image of the chart.

It’s not just Excel. InDesign gives up when trying to import and convert even a relatively simple map, derived from GIS software. Illustrator will do it, but it retains so much extraneous stuff that the files are huge and cumbersome. The same is true trying to open general document PDFs in Illustrator. There are so many unnecessary bits and pieces that it takes up to twenty minutes to extract a simple chart.

Until now, QuarkXPress resolutely refused to convert anything except text. It was a Desk Top Publishing package, and you imported graphics print-ready, and used them like that.

From version 2016, that changes.

QuarkXPress will now take most kinds of graphics — including the nightmare Excel graphs — and convert them into a group of useable objects straight off. It’s pretty intelligent about text. Some applications still try to send stuff across as images, but QuarkXPress will convert even them if you save as PDF. Files derived from Illustrator or InDesign, which are much better behaved, work without incident either pasted or imported and converted. Files from Magic Maps — even ones which Illustrator gets sniffy about — convert as well. With PDF files, you can limit conversion to just the section of the page that you are interested in, resulting in clean stuff that you can use straight away.

But why?

But why, you may ask. Why not just use Excel graphics? Why convert anything? Surely vector graphics, like PDFs and EPS files, are fully scalable anyway. Why not just use them as they are?

The answer comes down to brand and document consistency. It is possible to persuade Excel to use brand compliant RGB colours, but it is tedious, especially if someone has sent you the file using whatever colour scheme came out of the box. Getting it to use Pantone colours is much more difficult. Then there’s fonts. Excel (and quite a few other applications) really don’t like having huge numbers of fonts, and quite often refuse to recognise some of them. You can (and should) use a font manager such as FontExplorer Pro to keep things under control, but given the hundreds of unrequired fonts that new bits of software insist on installing, it’s a bit of a chore. So, sometimes the brand-compliant font you want to use just doesn’t appear in Excel.

If working in Illustrator, you should certainly be able to get the colours and the fonts right, but what about the font size? On revision number six of a complex business document, you suddenly need to resize the graphic on page 14 to 43% of the original size. No problem for an EPS file, an AI or a PDF, except that the fonts are now the wrong size. If you’ve worked (as you should) hard to have a rigorously consistent design grid with harmonious type sizes, suddenly having things appear in 6.37 point or 9.22 is going to make everything messy. Often, with graphics created for a PowerPoint presentation and supplied as PDF, the size won’t even be that, it will be 2.33 point: absolutely illegible in print, and not even resolvable with a magnifying glass if printed on an office printer-copier, inkjet or laser.

It’s embarrassing to see how often illegible text appears even in printed books by major business publishing houses.

And then there’s proof-corrections. You’re working on a document and the proof-reader helpfully spots that there are misspellings in the graphics. Fine, you go back to the Illustrator originals. This is ok, if cumbersome, until you go to a graphic from an earlier version of Illustrator, and the dialog box appears saying ‘to preserve appearance, some of your text has been outlined’. At that point, you’re stuck with having to retype it anyway. In QuarkXPress 2016, you can manage all the corrections as you go.

Is this really such a big deal?

When I was first told that this would be an upcoming feature, I thought ‘fine, Quark is catching up’. It wasn’t until I started working with it that I discovered just how deep Quark has gone with it. My go-to workhorse for transmuting graphics of all origins has always been Illustrator. It’s not until I worked with Quark’s implementation that I realised what a smooth, seamless workflow would really do. Although Illustrator is pretty good at converting things, it can end up with dozens of layers of nested groups, and, in many cases, text converted into thousands of individual letters—and that’s not counting the Excel, Word and PowerPoint text which comes across as rubbish.

QuarkXPress 2016 just does it. True, it isn’t 100% with everything: there are so many odd applications out there with their own view of what should go onto the clipboard, and QuarkXPress can only convert what it is sent. Still, for almost all of those applications, you can export as PDF and QXP will have a really good go at converting them. I’m still playing around with it, as the Final Master preview has only been available for a few days. So far, Quark keeps up with Illustrator for all but the most complex map files, and the results — most especially from Microsoft applications — are dramatically cleaner and more useful.

This isn’t just graphics. QuarkXPress 2016 will import an entire PDF page and convert it into a layout that you can immediately use. Suddenly, every PDF you ever produced, including the ones from Corel Ventura, can be the basis of a new document. You can copy an entire page from InDesign and start working immediately with that. In all cases, all the brand colours will be brought into your colour palette.

Why I use QuarkXPress

I’ve owned Adobe InDesign right from the very first edition, and have it on my system as part of my Adobe CC subscription. And yet I always use QuarkXPress, unless a client absolutely requires me to work with InDesign. When I was running graphics departments, I always specified QuarkXPress as the Desk Top Publishing platform. During the same period, many design houses moved over to InDesign, largely ‘because it was free’ — Adobe’s price structuring meant that you paid the same price to own a whole suite of stuff as to just own Photoshop and Illustrator. More on that in a minute.

It mainly used to be about speed. QuarkXPress runs faster than pretty much every edition of InDesign (I’m on a Mac, and can’t speak for Windows PCs). That isn’t so much an issue these days. Computers are now so fast, and have so much memory, that things don’t grind to a halt like they used to do. Certainly, though, Quark has always been more productive for me.

InDesign does offer a lot of features, such as DataMerge, which are available in Quark only as additional extensions. The flip side of this is that Quark offers some nifty features of its own, such as Super Step and Repeat, ShapeMaker and advanced grids which InDesign doesn’t. The ‘obvious’ reason for using InDesign, aside from cost, which I’ll come back to, was that it was supposed to work like Photoshop and Illustrator, so there would be less to learn. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t. Some features superficially resemble Illustrator, but, deep down, you can see it’s a different beast.

Quark’s big advantage, which becomes more important the more that you try to create consistent brands and rapid, error-proof workflows, is consistency. InDesign does allow you to use style sheets, of course, and Quark does allow you to format every single bit of text from the measurements panel. However, consistency is baked into Quark, whereas it always seems a bit like the icing in InDesign. The biggest example of this is Quark’s Job Jacket functionality. Casual users will find this strange, even alien, but if you are supervising not just a print job but an entire rebrand, Job Jackets enable you to create consistency across a complete portfolio, and then to make changes across every document, just by changing the job jacket. You can also use it to impose rules about minimum font sizes, what fonts are permitted, what colours, and so on — all the things which are so hard to evaluate prior to print, but so crucial to consistent branding. InDesign can pre-flight as well, but it pre-flights according to technical rules for reproduction. Quark’s pre-flighting does that, and more.


The big draw for InDesign was cost. You really can’t say fairer than ‘free’. Or can you? When ID was introduced, it was a genuinely zero cost add-on to Creative Suite, which was itself cheaper than buying the upgrade for both Illustrator and Photoshop, neither of which had realistic competitors. It’s still as cheap to get the whole CC bundle as to own Illustrator, Photoshop and Acrobat Pro separately, but the costs have started to spiral. An annual subscription, excluding VAT, comes in the region of £456 for Adobe Creative Cloud. You no longer have the option of buying the software outright and keeping it. Adobe would argue that you get access to lots more things with it, and you do, but many of them are things already covered by other software, or things you would never actually use. True, you get all the upgrades and updates but, since CS3, there have been no upgrades to Photoshop or Illustrator that are actually useful to me, except compatibility with the latest operating system. Every update breaks plugins that I rely on.

QuarkXPress has a more traditional model. You buy the software, it’s yours to keep. The initial entry price is steep, but the upgrade price is low. You can upgrade from any version of Quark to 2016 for the same price, except if you’re upgrading from 2015 it’s half the upgrade price. Ring them up and haggle, and you might get it for even less. If you want to skip an upgrade, that’s up to you.

By my reckoning, keeping up with Quark on an annual basis costs about £150 a year — if you choose to upgrade every time. Version 9 still runs on the latest version of OS X. Quark doesn’t officially support older versions on newer operating systems, but it does release patches, and has done, so that versions 9, 10 and 2015 run on El Capitan. That means that, without actually promising it, Quark will have four versions of its software, spanning five years, running on the latest Macs. If the features of QuarkXPress 2016 are compelling enough for you, you can go straight from version 9 to 2016 for about £300 — effectively a cost of £60 a year.

If you work for a not-for-profit (not just registered charities), or are in education, the full version comes at more or less the upgrade price.

Other stuff in QuarkXPress 2016

The new version doesn’t just come with conversion into native objects. It now fully supports Open Type stylistic sets and multi-colour Open Type transformations, has multi-coloured gradients which can also be applied through item styles, improves its footnoting, introduces better cross-referencing, fits boxes to text, brings back the Eye Dropper—previously an Xtension— introduces dynamic guides, improves content variables, and, perhaps biggest of all, entirely revamps its digital publishing so that you can directly export HTML5 web apps or web pages, as well as better Kindle documents and ePubs. Importantly, all the previous Xtensins are compatible with the new version without having to wait for upgrades.  These are all great features. The one that changes my workflow totally, though, is the ability to bring the graphics into the document and manage them consistently from there. Things will never be the same again.

Disclaimer—this is based on the pre-release version of QuarkXPress. I have paid for my upgrade to 2016 and will not be receiving a free copy.

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