A little while back, Tim Ahrens asked me if I’d write a testimonial for his Font Remix Tools (“RMX Tools”), a set of plug-ins for FontLab Studio 5. I was more than happy to share my thoughts:
“The Font Remix Tools are an essential toolkit for anyone who wants to develop sophisticated typefaces with much greater efficiency. I can’t imagine willingly working without them. Type designers owe it to themselves and their sanity to check out RMX Tools.” — Thomas Phinney, Senior Fonts Product Manager at Extensis, designer of Hypatia Sans Pro for Adobe
(FontLab Studio is the primary type design application used by the overwhelming majority of professional type designers. FontForge and DTL FontTools (including FontMaster) are its fellow high-end alternatives, while TypeTool and Fontographer are the primary low to mid-range options.)
Tim has a interesting/useful demo version for free download, while the full version starts at €179 for one computer.
I think of the Remix Tools as having two sets of functions. First are several very useful things that work with just about any typeface:
- “harmonize” curves: this takes the “lumpiness” out of malformed curves. Very cool, even for moderately experienced type designers, though the experts may not need it.
- intelligent slant: slants glyphs while keeping vertical tangents straight. A useful step towards making italics, at least for sans serifs.
- tabular figures from proportional with only a couple of clicks
But the real power of RMX comes when you start with a font file that has a Multiple Master weight axis. Yeah, I know MM fonts are pretty nearly dead as a deliverable format for end users. Apple’s support for MMs is flaky enough that Extensis tech support has suggested Suitcase should warn people they won’t work reliably, and Windows has no reasonable native support (an ATM install can be hacked on Vista and probably Windows 7 to make them work well, or you can do manual registry entries for every single font).
Yet Multiple Master fonts are still very useful as a font development tool, even if what gets delivered is a bunch of separate fonts. Although Adobe hasn’t shipped a new MM font since the 90s, virtually all their internally developed type families use MM technology, and many other typeface designers use it as well. If you start with a font that has master outlines for two different weights, RMX can incredibly easily:
- create true condensed and extended versions (again, generally without distortion!)—or add a full “width” axis for infinite variation
- tune the width, height and weight of single letters interactively
- automatically generate small caps with the “right” weight and width (as determined by you, the designer, but with some very clever defaults)
- generate superiors, inferiors, numerators and denominators similarly
- make even better automatic tabular figures
Most of these functions still seem like magic when I see them working. Most of it works insanely well almost all the time. Of course it still needs to be checked by humans, and there can be problems on occasion, but dang….
What about Superpolator?
Aside from the Font Remix Tools, another insanely powerful option for working with font development using the power of MM space is Superpolator from Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland, a.k.a. LettError. It has always looked great, but back when I was doing a lot of type design, my main box for doing so was Windows based, and Superpolator is a Mac-only tool, so I never really gave it a fair try. It’s available from €250.
More on MM fonts:
Adobe has just released a new version of the Font Development Kit for OpenType (AFDKO). This is an important milestone for font developers.
Even if you don’t use it yourself, the AFDKO code is licensed at no cost to developers of other font tools such as FontLab and DTL FontMaster. It forms the basis of the OpenType generation and OpenType features support in those tools. So very often new functionality in the AFDKO is a preview of new functionality in these other tools, and hence indirectly of capabilities of both Adobe and other vendors’ fonts. It’s reasonable to suspect that features in the AFDKO will preview new features in future versions of FontLab Studio (maybe 6.0?) and DTL FontMaster (look at the DataMaster tool in particular).
So, with the new FDK, and one hopes in future versions of FontLab Studio and DTL FontMaster, users are able to build fonts which support complex scripts (Arabic, Indic, etc.), without using Microsoft’s VOLT as a separate process. All (yes all) OpenType GSUB and GPOS lookup types are supported. There’s support for Unicode Variation Sequences, especially useful for Japanese and ideographic languages. Plus one can give “friendly” names to stylistic sets, although this last will also need to be supported by applications, and I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that. Plus there are various bug fixes and lesser features.
What is the AFDKO, exactly?
The AFDKO is a set of command-line (yes, really) font development tools available for Mac, Windows and Unix. They cover compiling, proofing, testing and some editing of OpenType fonts. Compiling a font requires a basic TrueType, Type 1 or OpenType font as input; what the AFDKO does is add OpenType layout features to an existing font (as in, you still need a font editor).
I’m particularly fond of the “CompareFamily” tool, which is unusual in that it not only does tests on individual fonts, but looks at how information and key values are coodinated across a family. This is very useful for checking things such as style linking, or making sure your trademark statement is identical in all members of the family.
Because this stuff is command-line driven, it may not be for the average user. Besides which, many folks may prefer to use functionality which is integrated with their font editing environment. But for those who need reliability and a controlled, repeatable build process, the FDK is a nice option to have.
So, my old friend Frank Blokland over at the Dutch Type Library recently asked me to take a look at a new tool they were developing. DTL has a whole suite of tools collectively known as DTL FontMaster. OTMaster (OT being short for OpenType), along with its free “Light” version, is a new addition to this suite, and has just shipped.
Basically, OTMaster is a tool for cracking open and looking inside OpenType fonts (or plain old Windows TrueType fonts). It shows a fairly literal/direct representation of what’s in the various tables and subtables. It has a bit of unobtrusive interface and allows direct editing of various fields. This is an excellent tool for font geeks/developers, but not really appropriate for the average end user of fonts.
Currently, if I want a simple and accurate representation of the contents of a TrueType or OpenType font, and possibly to edit the info, I have been using the wondrous open source TTX tool, which is based on the FontTools library. This dumps the font info to an XML text file, which can be viewed/edited in any text editor or anything that can handle XML. It can also recompile the text file back into a font. (In fairness, Adobe’s FDK for OpenType also has table dumping/recompiling tools, just not quite as slick as TTX. Even Adobe folks often use TTX.)
Why would I use either OTMaster or TTX instead of, say, FontLab Studio 5? FLS is a great program which I use a lot, but it interprets the OpenType font into its own internal format. It can’t open a font, make a tiny change and re-save it as a font without potentially changing other things. To give a really concrete example, FLS displays font embedding settings in terms of its interpretation of the settings, rather than the actual bits. So if I’m looking at a font with a bogus/illegal embedding setting, I can’t tell, because FontLab won’t show me that, it’ll just default to showing the end result as some legit setting instead. So tools like TTX or OTMaster are really handy for that, because they show the unvarnished truth of what’s in the font, without interpretation.
The downside to tools like TTX and OTMaster is that they make little effort to tell you the meaning of the various cryptic values for various fields (or the exact meaning of the field itself), even when said values are legal/legit. So you need to also have a copy of the OpenType or TrueType specification handy, and optionally a more descriptive, hand-holding tool like FontLab Studio (though one must beware the possibility of it adding or reinterpreting data, as mentioned).
Here’s the public announcement DTL made for OTMaster, on the ATypI mailing list (a great resource, and a major benefit of ATypI membership):
The Dutch Type Library and URW++ Design & Development proudly present DTL OTMaster (OTM), a highly sophisticated application for reviewing, editing and saving tables of fonts with a snft file structure, as there are CFF and TTF flavored OpenType fonts, TrueType fonts and TrueType Collection fonts.
Font editors, like for instance the DTL FontMaster suite, FontLab Studio and FontForge, rely on their own internal data formats for type design and font production. From these data, binary fonts for the end-user are compiled as the last step in the font production process. OTM is a tool for inspecting and adjusting such binary fonts, irrespective of the font editor used for their creation.
OTM makes the editing of tables possible from a graphical user interface. It comes with built-in tools like the Glyph Editor for proofing and editing contours or even drawing glyphs from scratch. A ‘kern’ Table Viewer is available for proofing and refining the kerning, and a ‘GSUB’/'GPOS’ Viewer to visually test (and in case of GPOS also adjust) these OpenType Layout tables.
DTL OTMaster was programmed in Hamburg, Germany at URW++ Design & Development, renowned for pioneering in the field of font technology development for more than thirty years. The FM Team (Dr. Juergen Willrodt, Axel Stoltenberg, Hartmut Schwarz, Peter Rosenfeld and Frank E. Blokland) was joined by Karsten Luecke as advisor and also author of the extensive and detailed OTM manual and Nikola Djurek for the design of the function icons.
OTM is available for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux. Free Light versions are available for:
The downloads also contain the OTM manual in PDF format.