Sibelius 7 First

I’ve long been a fan of Sibelius, so I was excited to give their newest offering a try — even if this is a feature-restricted version of the notation package I’ve known for years. What I found upon launching Sibelius 7 First is an application that feels both alien and familiar, elegant and clumsy, and that doesn’t entirely feel at home on Mac OS X while still managing to be one of the more efficiently productive notation solutions out there.

First, Some History

Sibelius has a long history on the Mac, and I have to admit a bit of Sibelius bias simply because it was the first music notation application I purchased after upgrading to OS X when it was still a new system. At the time, it looked like Encore was going to be discontinued, and MakeMusic (neé Coda Music) took until 2004 to release an OS X native version of Finale. Sibelius beat Finale to an OS X native version by three years, and I happily bought a student-discounted edition of Sibelius 2. Since then, I’ve also owned Sibelius versions 3 & 4.

sibelius2

Sibelius 2 on Mac OS X 10.1.

In 2012, Avid acquired Sibelius and subsequently laid off the entire development team (some of whom are now working for Steinberg on a new composing solution). Since then, Avid has brought in some new developers to work on Sibelius, but the product has largely stagnated since 2011, with a small update released February of this year. It’s hard to tell where Sibelius is going to go from here, and there’s even a Sibelius user group dedicated to convincing Avid to sell or open source Sibelius.

First Impressions and OS X Functionality

My first impression upon launching Sibelius 7 First gave me pause. Sibelius has historically done better than most at fitting their composition software into the look-and-feel of Mac OS X, but a dialogue box with text that doesn’t align in the buttons properly is not a good sign. It’s the type of thing that wouldn’t phase me in a release of OpenOffice but not in a piece of proprietary software costing $120.

dialogue box with misaligned button text

Things got better after the initial prompt, but it still looks and acts very much like a Windows application that has been ported to the Mac. Fullscreen mode does not open in its own space. No support for OS X version control or auto-save seems evident, and iCloud support is absent. Admittedly, even Adobe apps follow their own rules on the Mac (as well as on Windows), but I believe that any flagship application should do as much as possible to seamlessly fit into the system in which they are operating. Despite these complaints, Sibelius still does a better job than most at fitting in on the Mac, and it’s still one of the best-looking pieces of notation software out there.

Overall Usability

Like most pieces of notation software, Sibelius lets you use a wizard called Quick Start to begin creating a new document. It lets you start a new score with presets based on genres or lets you quickly assemble a new score from scratch. I’m usually not a fan of wizards, but Sibelius’ Quick Start is a much more intuitive way to get a composition started than adding and removing instruments, changing keys, and adjusting time signatures on a generic document. It does what it does well and then gets out of the way — exactly as a wizard should.

Sibelius Quick Start

The rest of Sibelius’ interface has always been very simple and unobtrusive. Of course, the trade off was that you had to memorize several keyboard shortcuts if you wanted to work quickly. The shortcuts are still there, but Sibelius has followed Microsoft’s lead in putting all of its functionality front-and-center and has adopted a ribbon toolbar like you might see in Office 2013.

Sibelius 7 First's ribbon on the Home tab

Sibelius 7 First's ribbon on the Note Input tab

Sibelius 7 First's ribbon showing the Notations tab

Clicking elements in the ribbon my bring up small menus or larger lists of options. You can hide the ribbon fairly easily and reclaim that vertical space for score writing. The ribbon will then expand and collapse automatically as you interact with the tabs. That brings back much of the simplicity I’ve come to love with Sibelius, and I’m very happy to see the keypad tool still available. (When I switched from using a PowerMac to a MacBook, I immediately bought a USB number pad solely for use with Sibelius!) Thanks to its number pad input, I feel like Sibelius lets me notate faster than any other piece of composing software.

Features & Quality

Sibelius 7 First offers a rich feature set for the price of admission. With the exception of one feature — that being Aiken shape notes — I’ve never felt the constraints placed on Sibelius 7 First when compared to its big brother. Playback is perfectly fine, though the full Sibelius 7 does feature much higher quality playback on a wider variety of instruments. All common lines, clefs, accidentals, and symbols are present. Sibelius does a nice job placing things automatically, and you can also adjust note and line spacing by dragging elements around.

Sibelius 7 First comes with a variety of plug-ins for batch processing files, adding fingerings and chords, adding simple harmonies, and a variety of other functions. You cannot, however, install your own plug-ins. That’s limited to the professional edition. The same goes for custom sound samples. Where Sibelius 7 supports VST and Audio Units sound libraries, Sibelius 7 First does not. Unless you are using your score to create high quality recordings of your works (which is a nice option to have), you probably won’t miss this.

One feature I greatly appreciate in Sibelius that you find in only a few other score writing programs is the ability to view your score in one continuous page. This makes it far easier to keep track of where you are in your work, and it allows you to really see how the parts of your score fit together. You can quickly switch back and forth between traditional and panorama views, and I find myself spending most of my time in the latter — even if I’m only writing SATB with piano accompaniment.

Print quality is on par with most of the other software I’ve been looking at. Here’s a sample from scoreexchange.com:

sib-sample

click to embiggen

Coda

Sibelius 7 First is a good piece of software. While I’m not as fond of it as I used to be, I still find I work the most efficiently when using it. Layout and playback are good, and it’s very easy to make pleasant-looking scores with little to no hassle. Of the paid pieces of software I’ve been looking at, Sibelius 7 First is one of my favorites. I still wonder, though, how dedicated Avid is to keeping it in active development, which leads me to worry more about its future on the Mac. At one point, I would have said that Sibelius was the only real choice for composing on OS X, but that’s no longer true. Still, Sibelius is a very good application as it stands, and you will probably be happy with it if you decide to purchase it.

Sibelius 7 First product page – Go here to learn more about Sibelius 7 First’s features, download a 30-day demo, or purchase the application.

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