Finale was producing high quality scores before most of its competition was even around. It’s the MGM Studios of composition software, responsible for some amazing advances in its medium, but are its best years behind it now? As MGM has been eclipsed by other movie studios during recent years, is the same true for Finale? Perhaps that’s too big of a question for this post. Instead, let’s just take a look at MakeMusic’s more modest offerings — PrintMusic and SongWriter.
First, Some History
Coda Music Software released Finale 1.0 in 1988, and it has gained a large following among professionals over the years. Finale was among the first composition solutions to let composers fine-tune their scores and to feature high quality sound samples in playback, and it’s still considered the best solution for score writing by many professional composers. It’s the tool all other notation software gets compared to, and for good reason. Finale produces quality scores and affords composers great freedom in writing — whether they are like me and writing hymns in four-part harmony or are evoking modern masters like Corigliano in their compositions.
First Impressions and OS X Integration
Finale was Adobe-late to the transition to OS X. In fact, I think Adobe came out with OS X native versions of their applications nearly a full year before MakeMusic released a native version of Finale. When they did so, Finale took little advantage of OS X technologies, and the application still feels out-of-place. The software takes no advantage of OS X features like Spaces, Versions, or iCloud. It doesn’t even auto-save, which means I need to exercise those cmd-s muscles that have all but atrophied in recent years. It does, however, support QuickLook.
Even the application workspace feels like something from Mac OS 9. Instead of the interface and document being in a self-contained window, Finale is a document window surrounded by individually floating palettes. With the exception of an image editor or two, I can’t think of any Mac applications that still use this setup. It makes the application look old. On the other hand, if you’ve used Finale in the past, there is no learning curve involved in newer versions, and that’s definitely worthwhile to a number of musicians I know. They know how to use Finale, and they feel comfortable in knowing they won’t have to learns something new.
Getting started on a new score is a familiar experience. Launch the wizard, choose and customize an ensemble, select time and key signatures, then finish. Finale set the pattern for how to set up a score. They still follow it, and so do most others. It simply works. Unfortunately, after you get done setting up your score, the user experience goes downhill.
In order to maximize your document area, Finale’s toolbar icons are ridiculously small. They are nearly unusable on an HD monitor, and the same is true when opening a new document. The default zoom for notation is very small, making it easy to click on incorrect lines and spaces. Fortunately, enlarging the document window and increasing the zoom fixes this, but Finale never remembers this for new documents. (As an aside, it also kept throwing me off that you can only resize a window from the bottom corner — just like a Mac OS 9 application.)
One pleasant surprise is that you can accomplish a great deal through contextual menus. Adding repeats, switching time signatures, transposing notes or passages — these and more features are quickly accessible with a double-tap on the trackpad (or right-click if you use a mouse). You can even switch notation styles this way, but I found no easy way to apply shape notes to an already complete score. For that, I had to open the shape note template, set the score up to match what I was working on, and then copy-and paste. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it was a bit convoluted.
Features and Quality
Fortunately, once you get past the interface quirks, Finale is capable of great things. It’s a full-featured notation solution for all but the most advanced users. Like Sibelius First, I did not feel the limitations placed on Finale PrintMusic, but the constraints on SongWriter are definitely more noticeable. Here are some of the differences I found:
- PrintMusic can import scanned files. SongWriter cannot.
- PrintMusic supports up to 24 staves. SongWriter supports up to 8.
- PrintMusic has more available music fonts, including shape notes.
- PrintMusic supports non-traditional staves of 1-5 lines. SongWriter only supports 5-line staves.
- PrintMusic has better-quality playback than SongWriter and supports external sound libraries.
Like Sibelius, you can view your scores as one continuous scrolling page, but I found this view problematic in Finale. Notes and lyrics ran into each other, and I found it easier to simply stay in a more traditional view. That’s Finale in a nutshell actually — it’s a program that does what it does very well as long as you are okay working in the past. If you are the type of person who longs for the old Office 2000 toolbar, then you will appreciate Finale’s adherence to tradition.
I can’t criticize Finale’s output at all. I noticed better quality sound when playing my music back than I did using Sibelius 7 First, and printed scores look very good. You can tweak layout to your heart’s content, but you’re seldom going to need to. Finale is very good at placing notes, symbols, lines, and lyrics exactly where they should go. As much as I may want to criticize toolbars, I can find no fault with Finale’s engraving quality. It set the standard for proprietary music notation for a reason.
I have the misfortune of being a musician with a background in graphic design — specifically user interface design. This automatically makes me critical of how an application looks and functions. When composing, I want good results, but I also want to work in an environment that is well designed. Finale PrintMusic gives me the first but lacks the second, so I’m going to keep looking. The selection of notation software for the Mac keeps growing, and there are some interesting alternatives left to explore. That said, if you are set on choosing between the big two in music notation, Finale PrintMusic is a better overall value than Sibelius 7 First. It simply has more features for the same price.
Product pages to explore more features and download trial versions: