capsule review

FontLab Studio 5.0

With unique killer features like native TrueType support and single-window Multiple Master editing, FontLab’s Studio 5.0.2 is the most capable font-editing tool available today, easily outpacing both the current Fontographer (   ) (which FontLab now owns) and the old FontStudio (formerly published by Letraset).

It has been, over time, a great favorite of font manufacturers, font designers, and graphic designers who need to customize fonts for clients—people who need more advanced features than Fontographer offers, such as OpenType format support.

New features for FontLab Studio 5 (called FontLab in previous releases), include new editing tools for metrics and kerning, in-context glyph design, improved Unicode and Multiple Master support, new printing/proofing features, and dozens of other interface enhancements and functionality refinements, including the ability to preserve your workspace settings across font editing sessions.

Multiple Master

One of Studio’s glories is improved Multiple Master support, which simplifies the production of large multi-weight families. Whereas in Fontographer, each weight is contained in a separate file with up to three separate windows, in Studio 5, a multiple-weight family can be a single file that you can view in a single window. The new release also improves automatic generation of accented characters, a useful feature for those who work with Eastern European languages.

Because of its efficient anti-aliasing capabilities, you can use Studio’s novel multi-line Metrics window to show comparatively small lines of text on screen. The anti-aliasing lets you view much smaller characters on screen than you ever could before, without visible pixel artifacts. Essentially, it makes your 150 dpi screen look more like a 300 dpi or even 600 dpi screen. No font editor could ever do anything like this before. A related new feature is called in-context editing. The basic idea is that when you are editing a glyph, shape-related glyphs appear in the background, making it easier to keep related shapes in sync. This is an intriguing and original feature, but I would have been happier if Studio had offered deeper support for traditional foundry-style metrics fitting instead.

Python support

Studio 5 also offers improved integration with the Python programming language that is built-in to Mac OS X, enabling infinite custom programming and scripting capabilities. Studio 5 even has a built-in Python editing window.

Studio 5 also includes the Python-based RoboFab toolkit, which lets you limitlessly manipulate fonts in Studio, and will even let you store font data in a non-proprietary and extensible format. (Though RoboFab lets you extend, automate, and customize Studio 5 to the limits of your imagination, you will need to be a fairly adept programmer to get much out of it.)

While Fontographer users will appreciate that Studio now properly displays tangent points, they might be disappointed by the weak print and proof features, cumbersome handling of scanned images, and Studio’s mediocre zoom factor of 1,600 percent (I would like to see 6,400 percent).

However, for print proofing, Studio has good integration with Adobe InDesign CS2 (   ), and the two together make a very satisfactory, though expensive, proofing solution.

Studio 5 is the only commercially available font editor that edits TrueType directly (all others convert a font to PostScript when you edit it, then reconvert it to TrueType when you generate it—resulting in substantial quality losses). Without Studio 5, there is no way to create high-quality TrueType fonts unless you have access to proprietary font editing software. Most of the font foundries that built font-editing software in the past have now abandoned that practice for Studio 5.

Studio’s extensive OpenType format support lets you build fonts using all the rich capabilities of this new, complex format: huge character sets, infinite ligatures, additional languages, and sophisticated contextual variant support.

Not easy to learn

To mine Studio 5’s riches, you will have to study the manual and probably also participate in forums where users share problems and tips. Excellent free support is available through e-mail. I appreciate FontLab’s legendary responsiveness: a reported bug will sometimes be fixed within a day.

Unlike Fontographer, which is a comparatively simple program, Studio will occasionally give you an unpleasant surprise. For example, I performed a simple append operation in a Multiple Master font that resulted in the insertion of extra points, thus ruining the outline. The documentation provided with Studio is good, but it does not cover this issue, which I had to resolve through tech support.

One thing is clear: save frequently, and save multiple versions. More than once, I performed hours of work, only to have to go back to a previous version of the file because a problem I caused was not immediately apparent. While there is extensive undo function in FontLab, it contains some perversely crude elements. And some actions, such as the Append operation, are not undoable. If an append goes wrong you may not realize that something bad has happened until hours later.

Despite that, I keep coming back to Studio because it lets me do things I could only dream of with earlier generations of font editors. I did not like the interface of Studio 5’s predecessors: FontLab 3 and 4. But Studio 5’s usability is now good enough for me to be comfortable doing most of my font work with it.

Macworld’s buying advice

FontLab Studio 5.0.2 is the most capable font editor you can buy today, but it is hard to learn. If you can live without Studio’s advanced features—OpenType and native TrueType support, better metrics editing, superior Multiple Master support, and programmability—then you will probably be happier with Fontographer. Serious font folks use them both, but Studio is too substantial an investment of time and money for casual users.

[ Bill Troop is a font designer and writer. ]

Studio 5’s glyph window shows its unique ability to edit numerous masters in a single pane while simultaneously previewing any combination of them.
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