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Technology

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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Technology

Looking at Longhorn

Journals.ars has an entry posted in the M-Dollar section with screenshots of Longhorn Build 5203. For those of you unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, Longhorn is the code name for the next iteration of Microsoft Windows that is set to replace WindowsXP. Currently, Longhorn (or whatever it will be called) is set for release in late 2006, but some sources claim that the date will probably slip to early 2007. Being the geek that I am, I couldn’t help but check the images out. Even though I’m a pretty die-hard Mac user, I still love ogling screenshots, especially desktops of any yet-to-be-released operating system (OS).

I can’t comment on things like functionality or performance of this build. I personally haven’t had the opportunity to play around with any Longhorn builds, so anything I say on those matters would be uninformed speculation. Therefore, these comments will be limited to the appearance of the Longhorn interface in this build. Please note that these comments may quickly become out of date seeing that this is unfinished software, and the interface may go through several revisions before the product’s release.

Nice Comments

On the whole, the interface seems pretty sleek and elegant. It retains familiar Windows metaphors while visually separating itself from prior releases. With this release, Microsoft has definitely addressed the garishness of WindowsXP and the criticisms leveled toward the “plex” interface of previous Longhorn builds.  Also, the icons are showing improvement. I especially like the Recycle Bin icon, but I wish the screenshots here included the full state of the Recycle Bin as well.

The “Computer” window in screenshot seven has nice progress bars visually representing how much of the disk space is currently being used. I have to admit that a similar function is lacking in the Mac OS X Finder. (Yes, I know that the Finder shows how much space is available at the bottom of the Finder window, but visual indicators are nice too.) Also the Spotlight…err, Search field in the Start Menu is a nice touch.

Concerns

Interface translucency is a very cool thing, and I am a sucker for glassy effects. However, translucency in the title bars may not be a good idea, especially in Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer where the location and search fields are also translucent. Some serious usability issues could come out of this (as Apple learned in the early OS X days when inactive title bars became translucent.) On the other hand, the blurring of the background through the translucent objects may alleviate this problem.

Another issue could be performance. Okay, now I’m speculating, but eye-candy like translucency and gaussian blurs eat processor cycles. Also, cool 3D effects have also been demoed – again more cycles. Hopefully the new Desktop Composition Engine (DCE, code named Avalon) will help take care of this, much as Quartz Extreme helps offload much of the eye-candy in Mac OS X onto the graphics processor. Additionally, Microsoft will probably let the user decide what eye-candy is active in the Appearance Manager.

Finally, Microsoft seems to be falling prey to the visual inconsistencies that have been cropping up in Mac OS X for the past few years. In Longhorn, there is a black gradient Taskbar which opens to a Start Menu that follows similar aesthetics. This contrasts with glassy windows in Windows Explorer as well as some applications like Paint and Internet Explorer. Furthermore, one of the screenshots shows navigation and information elements within two different file windows where the information has backgrounds of different colors. (Perhaps this isn’t so bad because the different colors may represent different directories, but it still seems like overkill.) Then, also in this category, is Windows Media Player, which seems to follow its own set of rules separate and apart from the rest of the OS (much like iTunes does in Mac OS X).

Miscellany

What is with Microsoft’s obsession with green elements? They are all over the place in XP, and here we see that the Star Menu’s active state is green. Oh well, at least it doesn’t clash with the rest of the interface like it does in XP’s Luna style.

Is it me, or does the search icon in the Start Menu, Windows Explorer, and Internet Explorer look exactly like the icon for Apple’s Spotlight and the search field in Safari? (Edit: I’ll take this one back. After looking over GUIdebook, this icon seems a natural evolution of the icon Microsoft has used for search since Windows 95. Also, it’s pointing the opposite direction from Spotlight’s and Safari’s icons.)

Conclusion

Microsoft is making progress with WIndows Longhorn, and it looks to improve on Windows’ strengths while addressing some of its past weaknesses. It has hit some serious bumps in its development, and it will be some time before Longhorn reaches the potential that it initially promised. Regardless, this looks like it is shaping up to be a decent upgrade for Windows users, and while it may not inspire any switchers off the Mac (not me at any rate), it will have some of us wishing Mac OS X had translucent windows instead of brushed metal.

For further reading on Windows Longhorn, visit the Longhorn section of the SuperSite for Windows.

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Technology

MacTel Security

Okay, this will be quick and dirty. I never thought to mention this in my previous article because this issue never crossed my mind.

Using Intel processors will not open Macintosh computers up to waves of viruses, malware, or spyware. The vast majority of malicious software you hear about in the news targets Windows. Stated even more clearly, these viruses and such attack the software, not the hardware. Therefore, as long as you do not install Windows on your shiny new MacTel (which would be silly), you should be no more prone to virus attacks and such than you are right now.

Feel better? Good. Now go take some deep breaths; play some Katamari Damacy, and don’t worry about Macintosh security. It’s still there.

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Technology

On Apple and Intel

Now that I’ve had a couple of days to digest the information, I thought I’d post a few thoughts about the PowerPC to x86 transition Steve Jobs announced at this year’s World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC).

Weekend Jitters

The weekend before WWDC, rumors were spreading around the Internet that Apple was in talks with Intel, and these talks were going to lead to an announcement that Apple would be abandoning the PowerPC architecture for the x86 architecture. Sure, these rumors had been around for years, but this time it was different. Publications with more clout and reputation at stake were reporting these rumors as solid fact.

The Macintosh community was abuzz with discussions. Forum topics would surpass a thousand posts in under an hour, and the debate kept returning to the same basic theme: Could this be for real?

I have to admit to being a nay-sayer. I thought Apple was going to use Intel’s ARM processor in future mobile devices. I even agreed with Daring Fireball’s article that speculated (far-fetched as it may sound) that Intel had wooed Apple with its own variant of the PowerPC architecture. Perhaps they could provide the speed in the PowerPC that IBM had so far failed to deliver. The thought that Apple would take an undertaking this large seemed unrealistic, especially after the rocky OS 9 to OS X shift.

The Announcement

Incidentally, I had been preparing some thoughts about how Apple had grown content with its current position in the market and how it seemed  to be a company that was finished, for the time being, with going out on limbs. I knew just how wrong that line of thinking was when the headline came up on MacCentral reading: “The Rumors Are True.”

What was most surprising wasn’t the shift itself, though. What was surprising was how Steve Jobs made it seem like this was not a big deal, and developers would be able to easily take this shift in stride. More so, he even had demonstrable evidence that this was the case. Rosetta will be able to run PowerPC compiled apps on the x86 processors (with some caveats we’ll explore later). Mathmatica was recompiled for x86 in about two hours, and the new version of XCode can dual-compile applications, so a developer can ship software that can run on both architectures on the same disc. “Impressive. Most impressive.”

The comprehensiveness by which this transition is being handled should not, in retrospect, have been so surprising. After all, Apple is a company that thinks and plans before it acts. Additionally, Apple had already weathered a substantial platform transition in recent history from which they could learn. As it turns out, Mac OS X has been running on x86 machines practically from Day 1. In fact, its BSD core makes it inherently portable. Some saw this day coming. Fortunately, Apple had planned well for it.

The Timing

One of the arguments against this dramatic change happening now was the fact that the OS 9 to OS X migration was really only just settling down, even though it has been five years since the introduction of OS X. Why would Apple force its users and developers through another tectonic shift in such a short amount of time? Furthermore, such a shift would require time, and PowerPC Macintosh sales will surely take a hit with the promise of an entirely new architecture.

Right now, Apple is a strong company, both in public perception and financially. Possibly, Apple’s executives see this as a good time to undertake this task for precisely that reason. PowerPC was putting Apple’s lineup (especially the expensive stuff) in a precarious position, and the performance gap between high end Macs and PCs had ceased to narrow. In time, it may have even begun to widen again.

As a side note: Remember the days of the G4 towers? Back when they were introduced, everybody still measured processor speeds by megahertz. As Intel moved past the 1 GHz barrier, Motorola was still providing Apple with G4 chips running at about 600 MHz. Until the introduction of the G5, Apple’s high end lineup was looking very weak. It looks like this time, Apple is trying to avoid history repeating itself.

Yes, Macintosh sales will drop off for a couple of quarters. Hopefully, iPod sales will help offset that. We may even see some price-cutting on PowerPC-based Macintoshes in order to get them out of the warehouses. Fortunately, Apple will be taking these lumps from a position of strength. Had they waited another couple of years, the outlook may have been more grim.

Fear and Paranoia

Of course, there are some who proclaim this as the Death of Apple. (In fact, I wonder how The Mac Observer’s Apple Death Knell Counter is doing right now.) The biggest fear is, of course, that people will widely adopt Window’s emulators for their Macs and the need for Macintosh software and game development will come to a screeching halt. This reasoning is a load of dingo’s kidneys. Emulators are a pain. They also rob you of the Macintosh user experience, and some can even leave you vulnerable to viruses and malware.

Take X11 for example. Every Macintosh user has X11 available to them to provide a graphical interface for UNIX based apps (which are all free, I might add). Now raise your hand if you know what X11 is. Keep it up if you have installed X11 onto your Mac. Okay, now keep your hand up if you regularly use X11. Alright, I see about three hands, and mine is not one of them. I messed with X11 some and decided it was too much of a pain. Thanks for the option, but I’ll stick with my native Mac OS X apps.

Mac OS X is a fully independent platform. Most users will not want to bother with emulators or virtual machines, and those hardcore geeks or gamers who do will be a vanishingly small percentage. Mac developers will still be needed, and the market is not going to vanish simply because of an architecture change.

The Trade Offs

There are definite gains in switching to the x86 architecture. Mac users will probably see more rapid adoption of PC-first technology alongside Apple’s innovations. Macintosh ports will probably take less time in the long run. Speed will be a definite gain, and we will hopefully see more and better updates to Apple’s laptop line (which used to be the strongest aspect of their product matrix). It’s very likely that there are even more advantages I haven’t even thought of yet.

However, there are some trade-offs. The mystique and elegance of the PowerPC architecture will be a thing of the past to Macintosh users. Sure, Macs will finally have performance parity, but there will no longer be that hope of one day PowerPC Macs will speed past WinTel systems. From a subjective standpoint, the switch to x86 makes Macs a little less special now. (See this article for more.) I just hope those “Intel Inside” stickers don’t get plastered all over the hardware!

(Is this a good point to mention the whole frontside bus issue? Sure, we’ll be seeing 3.2 GHz Macs soon, but their FSB will drop to 800 MHz. In fact, I could not find a single Intel processor with a FSB that surpassed 1 GHz like the G5s do. I wonder how that will affect things. It’s weird to think that my 1.8 GHz G5 has a faster bus than a 3+ GHz Pentium 4.)

Additionally, software will be spotty for a while – even with Rosetta. Apps that require a G4/G5 processor do not seem to work. AltiVec instructions will be lost, and Classic apps will not work. Actually, the whole Classic thing doesn’t bother me in the least, but it might affect someone. Hopefully, companies will release patches for existing products (if that is possible). However, I bet that if I want an x86 native version of Sibelius for the Macintosh, I’m going to have to save my pennies for a new version. Just like the migration from OS 9 to OS X, there are going to have to be some major software purchases.

Conclusion

I was dismayed at first to read the news that Apple would be switching to the x86 architecture, but now I am cautiously optimistic. The road will be a bumpy one, but at the end of it, I will still be a Mac user. After all, it’s really the operating system and the software that makes a Mac what it is. Furthermore, I’m sure Apple will retain its great industrial design (and PowerMacs will hopefully get to shrink some now). Everything that makes an Apple an Apple will still be in place, and I guess that’s all that really matters.

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Personal Notes

2005 School DVD Postmortem

After 14 intensive hours of work, the DVD for the 5th grade completion ceremony is finished. As has been my practice for the las three years, no Microsoft products were harmed (read: used at all) for this product.

The Process

  • All photos of the children are organized in iPhoto and touched up or modified in Photoshop Elements 2.
  • The actual slideshow was put together in Keynote 2 and exported as a QuickTime movie.
  • Music was composed, orchestrated, and recorded in Sibelius 3 (with a little help from Audio Hijack).
  • Children’s voiceovers were recorded in Audio Hijack. Both these voices and the music get imported and organized in to iTunes.
  • All media gets dumped into iMovie.
  • The whole package was last exported to iDVD.

The Good

iPhoto is awesome. I organize everything image-related in iPhoto – digital photographs, desktop pictures, stock photos. I love that program. Keynote 2 is a great tool. I’ve discovered so many neat things about it during this last project.

Apple’s media browsers built into their iWork and iLife applications are also great. Since all of my audio was organized in iTunes, and all of the images were organized in iPhoto, all of my resources were no more than a click or two away – even if the application it was stored in was closed.

Getting away from Apple’s products, Sibelius is really growing on me now that I am learning more about it, but I have a long way to go. Now if only I could justify upgrading the instruments to Kontakt Player Gold. Also, Audio Hijack was great for recording the kids’ voices. Additionally, it saved a major part of the project close to the end, and I’ll talk about that further down in this post.

Finally, my friend Christine gets to be in the awesome category. She composed the beautiful music that went into this year’s project. I merely acted as orchestrator and arranger.

The So-So

iMovie and iDVD were flakey. I began experiencing some slowdowns and unexpected terminations in iMovie, and iDVD messed up burning the first DVD and produced a coaster. I opened up my Process Viewer in OS X, and my CPU usage never maxed out, nor was I in any danger of running out of memory while iMovie was running. I’m not sure where the instability was coming from.

Update: As far as iDVD goes, that coaster turned out to be my fault, so iDVD worked as well as expected.

The Bad

Things got rushed at the end, so there are still some details I am unhappy with. That’s my own fault. I did not pace myself as well this year as I have in previous years.

Keynote’s “drop” slide transition did not translate well into video, and I wish I had made some time to compose some additional music for the extra slideshow. Another weird Keynote flaw was the “fly” transition: when I used it on an object (technically it’s a text transition), it would leave artifacts if the object was coming from the left side of the screen.

Finally, Sibelius was not behaving at all when I exported the score as an audio track. It would always come out as an unreadable file. Fortunately, I was able to use Audio Hijack to record the music while it was playing, and that saved the day.

The End

Overall, the project went well. Now all that’s left is duplicating a bunch of copies as parents order them. (I really need to invest in one of those disc duplicators before I fry my computer’s optical drive!) The glitches seemed pretty random and isolated. Overall, my “Made on a Mac” DVD was a relatively pain-free experience.

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