Playing With Sibelius 4

Lately, I have been playing around with the demo for Sibelius 4. For those of you who don’t know what this is, Sibelius is a music application that can be used to notate, print, and play music. (It can actually do quite a bit more, but this is not an in-depth review.) Very simply put, a program like Sibelius is to music notation as MS Word is to word processing.

I have been a Sibelius user for quite some time now. I used to swear by Finale, but it took Coda Music Technologies (now MakeMusic Inc.) so long aggravatingly long to release a Mac OS X native version of Finale that I jumped ship after playing around with a demo of Sibelius 2 under OS X. Now I am using Sibelius 3 for my daily music notation needs, so the announcement of version 4 quite naturally caught my eye.

From the onset, Sibelius 4 behaves more like a Mac OS X application than its predecessors. Instead of being an app in a folder with a bunch of other files it requires to operate, Sibelius 4 is a “package.” Also, Sibelius 4 uses Mac OS X standard directories for filing specialized information.

Once the application launches, there are many small refinements and touches that instantly distinguish this version. The main toolbar is smaller and less gaudy. More useful commands are in that toolbar, and floating windows support transparency effects (like the Formatting Palette in Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac OS X.)

Good Experiences

Dragging symbols and articulations around feels generally snappier. The Worksheet Creator is great and will save me a lot of time in the future. The Preferences dialogue box is much better than the one(s) in Sibelius 3. I like having the option to activate and deactivate floating windows from the toolbar, and the Mixer seems more responsive and less buggy than in Sibelius 3. Furthermore, the new ability to copy & paste into a word processor works as documented for the demo. It pasted fine into Word and into Pages, but it looked horrible. I can’t complain, though, because it’s a documented limitation of the demo.

Next up is Dynamic Parts. One word: Wow. Now here come several more words. In the past, once a score is completed, you would have to “extract” the individual parts. This is time consuming, and changes you make in the score later are not reflected in any parts you’ve already extracted. Dynamic Parts changes this. As a score is being written, you can choose any part from a menu n the toolbar, and it instantly appears on screen. Any changes you make within that part are simultaneously reflected in the score and vice versa. This could potentially be a huge time saver.

Another neat aspect of Dynamic Parts is the fact that you can pull up all the parts in one dialogue, set the number of copies needed of each part, and have them all print out in a tidy little package. While this feature can’t be completely tested in the demo, it is functional enough to give you a good idea of how it will work.

Finally comes the much hyped video capabilities in Sibelius 4. Basically, you can have a movie open that you might be writing music for, and you can see exactly how the music lines up with the video. This would have been so great to have when I was working on our fifth grade “Virtual Scrapbook” DVD. I’m just beginning to figure this feature out, but I am seriously liking what I am seeing.

Iffy Experiences

Overall, the demo of Sibelius 4 is very good, and I am going to have to get pretty nit-picky here. (I love it when software is so good that I have to look for the flaws.)

First, there are a couple of visual bugs in the toolbar. The menus for Dynamic Parts and Page Zoom don’t blend well with the toolbar, and the arrows to drop the menus down seem to be a few pixels off. Just as minor, launching the application seems to be slower than in Sibelius 3, but I’ll write both of these off as quirks of pre-release software.

I’m not sure what I think of the playback controls being in their own floating window rather than in the main toolbar. It seems like unnecessary clutter. Also, in Sibelius 3, playback would begin from the last note you clicked on. Now you have to drag a slider to the point you want playback to begin at. This can be a real nuisance when working with long scores because the slider likes to reset at the beginning quite often.

As far as the keypad goes, it remains pretty much unchanged, but I would like to see it gain some flexibility. First, it would be nice if a tuplet section was added, so triplets, sextuplets, and the like could be controlled from the keypad. Also, a nice feature would be if the sections could be viewed simultaneously as expandable and collapsable sections. Again, I am thinking of something like the Formatting Palette in the Mac version of Office.

Expanding from that topic, many commonly used features, such as dynamic markings, tempos, clefs, and the like are buried in menus. While not suggesting that Sibelius gain the same visual clutter as Finale 2004, it would be interesting to see if they could include some kind of customizable toolbar in future versions of Sibelius where someone could keep commands they frequently use.

Finally, Finale has upped the ante on high quality audio samples by including 100+ sounds form Garritan Personal Orchestra in Finale 2006. Sibelius offers 100+ sounds with Kontakt Player Silver, but the real difference comes with the pitched instruments (instruments that can play a melody). Sibelius comes with 19 high quality pitched instruments. On the other hand, Finale 2006 will come with about 50 Garritan pitched instruments. To me, that seems like a point of competition which needs addressing.

The Unknown

There are some things about Sibelius  that are still unknown. I’ve had some pretty weird bugs pop up when exporting to audio in Sibelius 3 from time to time, and I hope those are resolved in Sibelius 4, but that feature is unavailable in the demo. Also, as I understand it, Sibelius 4 will pre-load any sound libraries selected to eliminate the lag that exists when inputting notes or playing back a score for the first time. While this is sure to have benefits, I wonder this will affect Sibelius memory footprint. These questions won’t be resolved until i can get my hands of a shipping copy, though.

Conclusion

Sibelius 4 is shaping up to be a very strong release. It retains the clean interface of Sibelius but almost to a fault. Again, the fact that many common items are buried in menus and dialogue boxes can be daunting to a user until they become well-versed in all of the keyboard commands. However, the benefits of Sibelius easily outweigh such small quarrels.

The only real point of contention I have with Sibelius is Kontakt Player Silver. In its current state, the high quality GPO sounds included with Finale 2006 soundly trump what is included with Sibelius, and I’m growing more of the opinion that Kontakt Player Gold should not be a separate $150 purchase, especially when comparing the lists of instruments included in Kontakt Player Gold and those included with Finale 2006.

As I said, though, Sibelius 4 has some strong features, but Sibelius needs to continue to innovate and provide value. Much of Sibelius’ current Macintosh user base is probably a result of Finale ceasing to be a value for several years. Now that they have that base, they need to work to keep it.

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