In 1997, I was a student at an Iowa college that offered no courses in graphic design or web design beyond basic HTML—which at the time was advanced enough. I was more of a musician than a designer then, and I loved composing with an Alesis QS8 synthesizer and an application called Encore. Finale was the industry standard at the time, but I also heard about an upstart application named Sibelius, named after the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and several major composers who used it (the most notable was Steve Reich). I never did see the application.
12 years later, I heard that Sibelius—now the industry standard—was owned by video powerhouse Avid and had just been updated to version 6. I use music in my multimedia work and so I was curious to see what Sibelius 6 can do for composers, and I came away with an unbelievable experience.
The best production values
Any application that plays a phrase from a Jean Sibelius piece when starting up is obviously designed for those who appreciate and produce good music. Many little touches and attention to detail make Sibelius a refined application:
- Music is laid out on parchment paper with a striking blue background. This is much improved from the plain white backgrounds I’m used to.
- Sibelius ships with an easy-to-use handbook and a huge reference guide, making this the first application I’ve reviewed with a printed manual since Adobe’s CS3 Production Premium. Online help manuals are nice but having it in writing on one’s desk is helpful.
- Sibelius does an outstanding job laying out notes and other marks in the cleanest and most logical way. This is not really a concern for designers who just want to get their music in a digital format but it’s necessary for composers who print their music. Users can’t view music in any format other than standard score layout but I wouldn’t expect Sibelius to offer a radical format such as a Flash-like timeline layout.
- Music can be inputted and performed without a device such as a synthesizer or other MIDI device. It takes a little setup but it’s really quite easy to put together multi-instrument compositions. The instruments are synthesized so they’re not perfect (though the new piano sound is extremely close), but proper dynamics and markings help make compositions sound authentic. The one ding I would give Sibelius is in its exporting feature: full audio can be exported but only in AIFF format. Converting AIFF to MP3 requires a third-party converter, which is readily available.
I find Sibelius’ interface a little harder to master because it doesn’t use the panel-based interfaces that Adobe has so successfully applied to its Creative Suite applications. Palettes such as the Navigator and Keypad are helpful but can’t be docked to the side of the window or hidden easily. I think this is because average Sibelius users are musicians and composers, and they are most likely using an instrument for input—few people would find it very productive to use just the keypad for adding notes and markings.
Sibelius is an exceptional tool for these users, partly due to the success of the new Magnetic Layout feature that lays notes out perfectly when taking input from an instrument. Back in 1997, I was moving notes around staves with my mouse and instrument input was usually not quite right. Magnetic Layout helps keep layouts clean and orderly, and a combination of Flexi-time™ input and the Renotate Performance plug-in do a good job of taking clean input from a performance on a synth or other MIDI instrument.
Since I’ve never used Sibelius before, I can’t really comment on the value in the Sibelius 6 upgrade. I can say that Sibelius 6 is light years ahead of anything I was using in 1997, but that doesn’t say much. Instead, let’s look at the new features in Sibelius 6:
- Magnetic Layout, which is described in the previous section. I am really impressed by the smart technology behind this new feature—this is what makes composing on a computer easy for musicians and other performers.
- Versions is a tool for storing and comparing drafts of a composition, similar to Adobe’s Version Cue but without the hassle that application demands. Versions are easily saved (there’s no keyboard shortcut for the Save Version command, but one can be created in Sibelius’ preferences). Versions can also be compared to one another and differences can be seen in the score on in a written list. The one thing I would want is an auto-save feature: Sibelius will offer to save a version when closing a score but doesn’t actually save versions automatically during use.
- Sibelius 6 offers Keyboard and Fretboard windows that display a virtual piano keyboard or guitar fretboard. I’m surprised these are new additions: Encore had a keyboard window even in 1997.
- New classroom control features help teachers control copies of Sibelius 6 being used by students in a lab setting. Scores can be sent to and from any or all students, and the teacher can suspend students’ applications when lecturing or demonstrating. This obviously does not help the designer or the composer, but it goes to show that Sibelius is for the music education market as well as the composition market.
- Sibelius 6 now uses the ReWire standard to record audio from Sibelius to an audio application or workstation—everything from Pro Tools and Logic to Apple’s Garageband. This might be the best new feature for designers, though it’s most appropriate for performers working with a digital audio workstation (DAW).
- Sibelius 6 ships with the Lite version of AudioScore, an application that lets singers input music via microphone. It’s always been easy to hook up a synth with MIDI or an electric guitar with a cable, but voice has been tough to capture. AudioScore does a good job with it, though the $249 AudioScore Ultimate is required if you want to create multiple tracks or display pitch.
- As with most other companies, Avid is looking for ways to leverage online communities with its software products. The end result for Sibelius is SibeliusMusic.com, a community where Sibelius users can post, share and sell scores. I’ve not used it yet but there’s some good material there already—almost 100,000 scores!—and it could end up being a great source for music for multimedia and video.
It is amazing how far music notation software has come since I used Encore and Finale in 1997. Encore is now owned by gvox and looks like it hasn’t been updated in some time; Finale is still regularly updated and is probably Sibelius’ strongest competitor. However, I can only speak about my experience with Sibelius 6, which is exceptional. There are a few things I would suggest improving, mostly with little things like the audio exporting functions, but it is a phenomenal product for composers and also for music educators. Sibelius 6 ships with quite a bit of educational materials such as worksheets and exercises, and there are a few well-done scores that new users can learn a lot from.
I’m excited to review Sibelius 6 because, in my industry, there are many designers who can create visuals with Photoshop or animations with After Effects but don’t necessarily have control over the sound required for great multimedia. Applications like Soundbooth and Garageband are good tools but Sibelius 6 is a different kind of application. Designers looking to produce music for their projects should try it out.