Monday, March 15, 2010

Scorewriters (Music Notation Program)

A friend asked me to recommend a scorewriter and I'd like to share some of my personal experiences.

I had used various scorewriters, from a very early version of Copyist (1988), Encore, Overture, and then settled on Finale for more than a decade, before switching to Sibelius 6.1 lately. Every switch was motivated by the new features provided, except for the last switch, motivated by Sibelius' promotional price, which I started to look for due to Finale's licensing restriction.

Long story short, I am very glad that I made the switch. Sibelius, with its younger age, has less historical burden that Finale bears -- Finale was the pioneer program that made scorewriting possible on personal computers, but some of its designs do not (or not soon enough) include newer technological advances such as newer UI design philosophy, better MIDI capability, more flexible audio routing and manipulation, etc.

Features that I really appreciate about Sibelius

1. Magnetic Layout

This feature automatically move things around to avoid collision. For example, if the dynamic symbols clash with the notes below the staff, Sibelius will automatically move the dynamic symbols to a reasonable place and still maintain a professional looking layout. In Finale, I used to have to spent huge amount of time just moving measure numbers around to avoid clashing with the accidentals for above-the-staff notes (C#6 being the notorious killer, and most keys involve alternation of C). Most of my writings are for 7- to 14- part group, and I had always needed to spend at least an hour or two just to move those measure numbers for the score and each part. Unfortunately I can't bill those hours (that'd be really nice). This feature alone made my life so much easier.

2. ReWire support

I always produce a demo sound file for the musicians to help save rehearsal time. However, an unavoidable danger is "what they hear in the demo file is what audience hears in the real performance". For this reason, I try my best, within reasonable time, to produce the best MIDI mockup I can.

The scorewriters are not designed for MIDI manipulation and a lot of the sound sampler controls are very difficult to do in the scorewriters. What I end up doing is export the score into a MIDI file and then import it into a sequencer. However, MIDI information does not include human-readable expression or articulation: a length of an eighth note can be a real eighth note or a quarter note with a staccato -- they call for different samples to trigger. Same for Marcato. Yet another common problem is string division or woodwinds solos. Anyway, I can't avoid having to go through the whole score to check every note's articulation, expression, and dynamic marks.

Printing out a hard copy the score for reference is one way, but then when I am deep into editing MIDI information, it's time-consuming to zoom all the way out and try to find my next note in the score.

Some sequencers provide a score function to generate a score from the MIDI file. Again, this does not include necessary human-readable information for useful editing.

The ReWire function in Sibelius answers some of my need. I can now import the MIDI file into the sequencer and use ReWire to sync the two programs, so when I am editing the MIDI information, I can quickly see where I am within the score. Another big time saver for me.

3. Better Keyboard Shortcuts

Nowadays I compose mostly in scorewriters directly (unfortunately there hasn't been an interface that I know of that can give me the freedom to easily include hand-drawn sketches or symbols that are not provided by scorewriters) so I heavily rely on the quickest way to get what I need. Going though menus always slows me down and affects my flow. Therefore, I have found that being fluent in keyboard shortcuts is crucial for me to be able to compose on the platform directly.

(Some argue that operating scorewriters block the flow of the creative process. I personally have found it not necessarily true. I think it's just a matter of experience and practice. A few decades ago people thought typing on keyboard, as opposed to write with pens, affects the flow of writing, but now people write primarily with keyboards. Even the less-intuitive Chinese typing has been most Chinese computer users' primary way to write. I would claim the same thing about the text editor vi, but that's off-topic.)

One of the most tedious jobs that I used to do in Finale was drawing dynamic hairpins, aligning them both vertically and horizontally, and then moving them around to avoid clashes. Sibelius provides easy shortcut and auto alignment for this task.

I also like the fact that, compared to using Finale, Sibelius doesn't require me to use the mouse to click on specific places to input an expression -- it gives me the shortcut and default alignment that works most of the time.

4. Version and Comments

As a long time user of CVS and SVN, I have experienced the power of version control in software development, but I didn't think it would be useful for me in composing because I always save versions manually and keep my notes as a text file in the same directory. However, I have found that being able to quickly write comments onto the real score and quickly save a snapshot give me a sense of security to work on the overall structure of the piece first (without fear of forgetting ideas for details), or experiment with different ideas.

I haven't got a chance to really try to incorporate Sibelius Idea function into my workflow so I can't comment on that.

Improvement I Would Like to See in Sibelius

1. Magnetic Layout still doesn't avoid clashing between Page-specific Text elements and notes. For example, in order to have the most efficient rehearsal, I have found that each page should include music title, page number, instrument name, a date, and a version number so there is no chance for any page to get mixed-up. I can change the staff margin to avoid this, but then the space is not really optimized.

2. ReWire support is still partial.

So far Sibelius only output the final mixed down audio channel into ReWire. The lack of individual instrument audio channel and the lack of MIDI channel ReWire output make the routing very inflexible. For example, I cannot mix and match the samples from different engines that are available on my sequencer; I cannot setup different automation for each instrument (since all I get is a mixed down audio stream).

I personally think Sibelius should focus on the scorewriting function, instead of providing very limited function of sequencing, and let ReWire give users the best of both worlds.

3. Some of the keypad shortcuts are strange from a new user's point of view.

3a. The layout of the accidentals are keypad-789; a logical order should be flat, natural, and sharp (a piano keyboard order), instead of the strange order of natural, sharp, and flat. This one has never been intuitive to me. And I would hope there is more intuitive way to do double-flat and double-sharp.

3b. There are too many pages for the keypad to flip through. For example, many modern articulation symbols are in later pages and if a measure contains tenuto, staccatissimo, grace notes, and double-flats, then it's a serious pain to flip through the keypad layouts (plus we don't have a back flip). F7 to F12 is a good thought, but their location is very inconvenient when my left hand is on the MIDI keyboard, and my right hand on the keypad. I would like to see Sibelius utilizes the SHIFT, CTRL, ALT/CMD to minimize the flipping. For example, instead of F7-F12, perhaps we can use SHIFT-Keypad-4-9 to choose pages; or better yet, the combination of SHIFT, CTRL, ALT/CMD, SHIFT-CTRL, SHIFT-ALT/CMD, CTRL-ALT/CMD with the keypad, to allow even more direct access to the functions.

3c. It's very strange that double Delete will hide a rest. The reference manual says there is no good reason to do so, and hiding a rest can already be achieved with a more intuitive way, this design seems to be error inducing.

4. I can't find a good way to add notes to existing harmonies, with the MIDI keyboard. For example, if I already have G3,F4,B4,D5, and would like to add A5 and E6 to this chord with the MIDI keyboard, I can't. The chord too open for both hands. If we can press, say, SHIFT, while we press the MIDI keys to add notes, it would be very convenient.

5. MusicXML export is not provided by Sibelius and Dolet costs $200.

This is probably Sibelius' business strategy to create business for other third-party developers. Or perhaps it's just a necessary software development cost control.

However, honestly, this was a big shocking disappointment for me. Using any software that does not support an open format export gives the impression that the company tries to keep its users by locking down their choices. Avid, Sibelius' parent company, has a lot of propriety product (for example, ProTools only work with their own hardware), and whether Sibelius become something that is closed, is definitely a concern for me.

What about Finale?

I don't have convenient access to music labs with Finale access any more, so I will probably have to buy Finale at least one more time to convert all my old scores to MusicXML. For this, I praise Finale for providing MusicXML export function -- this gives their users the freedom to choose what work for them.

Finale has improved a lot over the years -- thanks to the pressure from Sibelius. Although I am very impressed by Sibelius now, I do hope to see Finale catch up and continue this healthy competition.

What about other software?

Other software I had used before Finale and Sibelius were either not powerful enough (most earlier software I used before year 2000) or too complex to use intuitively (LilyPond, MusicXTeX) -- it is important for me to focus on the music composition rather than the layout details.

I have had good experience with Notion Conducting and I'd be interested in checking out Notion. It seems Notion has better ReWire support, and their conductable technology may be very useful for my next major project in which I may need to mix virtual and real instruments in a live setting, with conductable tempo changes.

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