Tag Archives: music

REVIEW: Sibelius 6 Is Close To Perfect

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.

sibelius-box

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.

Interface

sibelius-screen

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.

sibelius-magnetic

What’s new?

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.
  • sibelius-versions

  • 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.
  • sibelius-cccontrol

  • 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-rewire

  • 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-audioscore

  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

Sibelius 6
Avid Software
US$599
Rating: 10/10

REVIEW: Soundbooth CS4


Soundbooth CS4 box

There are two applications I think of when I think of Adobe Labs: Lightroom and Soundbooth. These were the two applications I played with the most back when they were mere beta versions; now Soundbooth and Lightroom both are version 2, though Soundbooth is known as Soundbooth CS4. Both applications are quality products even though they are only in their second major release, and I think it’s because of all the mileage put upon them by users during the beta testing periods.

Multitrack support is here


Soundbooth CS4 multitrack

Multiple tracks are in Soundbooth CS4—’nuff said. Click the image for a better view.

I use Soundbooth mostly for cleaning up audio and editing for Flash multimedia, but there’s more to it than that—especially with some of Soundbooth CS4’s newest features such as multiple track support. Soundbooth CS4 users can add multiple audio and video tracks, making the program a lot more flexible and useful.

Volume correction

I love this feature: Soundbooth CS4 can correct volume across multiple files so they are the same volume. It’s a comparable thing to Photoshop’s Match Color command. Depending upon microphone setup, sometimes you can get some excessive loudness or softness in a clip—or maybe you have clips for speech, background music and sound effects. With Match Volume, it’s an easy process to synchronize their volume.


Soundbooth CS4 match volume

Clips’ volumes can be matched in Soundbooth CS4.

You can either match volume to synchronize the peak volumes, average volumes or sync to one of the selected files. This is the setting I use the most if one of my clips has good volume. It works very well and doesn’t take long—maybe 15 seconds or so to match one clip to another.

Along with Volume Correction’s Match Volume option, you’ll find a tab for equalizing volume. This process is designed to equalize volume in a single clip.

Searching for speech

Soundbooth CS4 has new “Speech Search technology” that allows the application to process sound clips and transcribe speech as metadata text. This is a wonderful new feature if you handle a lot of speech clips and need to transcribe them! It takes some time to process and transcribe speech but not an excessive amount—it took me 2–3 minutes to transcribe a 6:40 clip at the medium setting and 2 minutes to transcribe a 0:20 clip at the high setting.


Soundbooth CS4 speech search

The Speech Search capabilities in Soundbooth CS4 are impressive but they require a clean clip—no noise or music—and even then it’s designed to pick up just enough metadata for the main points.

I tested Speech Search on three clips: a song with lyrics, a 40-year-old British radiocast with good quality and a present-day movie clip of two men talking in a quiet room. The Soundbooth team tells me Speech Search is designed to capture enough keywords to identify points on the timeline, and it isn’t optimized to capture keywords in lyrics or poor quality clips. This was my experience with the first two clips, though the second (the British radiocast) did capture some quality keywords. The third clip had the best results but it was not good enough to get a fairly complete transcription. The Soundbooth team said they are continuing to develop Speech Search, and currently the best way to optimize its effectiveness is to work with high-quality voice clips and/or clean the noise with Soundbooth’s tools.

Better looping


Soundbooth CS4 beats

The beat indicators are shown in orange.

Since I often design sounds for Flash, loops and looping are very important to my work. Soundbooth CS4 has improved its looping capabilities with automatic beat detection—beats show up in the Editor as orange lines, and it helps when finding good in and out points. There were two aspects of the beat indicator feature that bothered me, but there are workarounds:

  • “Show Beat Indicators” is off by default, because it takes some processor power to have it on all the time. If you enable beat indicators in the View menu, the setting will remain even if you end the current session and begin a new one.
  • In and out points normally do not snap to a beat indicator. This can be changed with View > Snapping > Snap to Beats.

Adobe Sound Documents and Adobe Dynamic Link

Adobe has positioned Soundbooth CS4 to be a more integral part of the CS4 Production Premium suite with two new technologies: the non-destructive Adobe Sound Document (ASND) file format and the Adobe Dynamic Link, which links assets like sound files with larger projects in other CS4 applications. Dynamic Link is particularly helpful because sound and other supporting files can be linked directly to Premiere Pro CS4 and After Effects CS4 project files, and a change in a sound file with Soundbooth CS4 will show up in the other projects linked to it. ASND works with Premiere, After Effects and also Flash CS4 Professional, making round-trip editing easier.


Soundbooth CS4 dynamic link

Right-click on the movie clip and you can either Render And Replace or, thanks to the new Dynamic Link, Edit Source File and work with the clip in its native application.

MP3 compression preview

One more small change has been made to Soundbooth CS4, but it’s quite a time-saver so I’ll elaborate: the MP3 output dialog box now has a compression preview button so you can hear the sound quality before actually exporting. I am always fiddling with various exports and trying them out to check quality, so being able to do this before actually processing the export is a big benefit. The Flash development team should consider doing something similar in the Flash Media Encoder CS4!

Conclusion

Now that Soundbooth is in the Creative Suite 4, it has become my go-to application for audio work. Other applications can do similar things and some do it better, but since Soundbooth CS4 is tied into the other CS4 apps including Flash CS4 Professional I have an easier time working with it. The failure of Speech Search to catch the speech is a glaring problem, and I hope it will be improved upon in the next version.

Soundbooth CS4
Adobe Systems
Rating: 8/10
US$199/$79 upgrade