Finally, Movement on the Notation Front

Back in July of 2012, many notation software users were shaken by the news that Sibelius’s parent company, Avid, was dissolving the program’s London-based office and its primary development team. My “Sharpen Your Quills” post demonstrated how the news resonated throughout the composer community; whether or not a composer used Sibelius or Finale (the two primary notation software options on the market today) or one of the several secondary software alternatives, it was apparent how deeply this structural change would impact the notation software industry. A year and a half later, there are finally signs of what effects that shakeup has had and what the future holds for those who see notation software as an irreplaceable tool.

Finale

Finale has weathered numerous complaints over the years regarding their policy of yearly updates (many of which seemed superficial at best), their reliance on an outdated programming infrastructure for Mac users, a reluctance or inability to match improvements brought forth by their competitors in a timely manner, and a business model that seemed geared toward the public school market while ignoring pleas from professional engravers asking for more functionality in working with complex musical notation. While Finale’s decision to forgo their yearly update model and allow their programmers more time to make extensive changes came a couple months before news broke of Avid’s adjustment to Sibelius, the timing was a lucky break nonetheless.

On November 4, Finale announced their newest version, Finale 2014. Once the announcement was made, the knee-jerk reaction for many users was to read the software’s overview by the widely respected Finale plug-in developer Jari Williamson (whose reviews are required reading for anyone interested in a new software update from Finale). The changes ranged from the technical (they were finally able to move from the depreciated Carbon programming interface to Cocoa, a boon for Mac users, but neglected to create a 64-bit version) to the practical (much-improved treatment of hairpins, cutting down on the need for time-intensive manual editing) to the good-god-why-did-this-take-so-long (the beginning of backwards capability—limited, but it’s a start). But what stuck out for me were the indications that their focus had grown to re-incorporate the needs of the professional contemporary composer/engraver.

Many of the changes addressed issues that the occasional user would probably never think about or require—merging rests across layers and cross-layer accidental changes being two of the biggest—and one of the most interesting changes, the acceptance and incorporation of “open” or non-traditional key signatures, point directly to contemporary compositional techniques that have become commonplace in the late 20th and early 21st century. The software still has much to address before it gets to where it should be—a user interface replete with interminable dialogue boxes, the lack of magnetic positioning that Sibelius has introduced, and the inability for intuitive copying of individual items with the selection tool are major sticking points—but the fact that Finale decided to focus on the issues it did rather than ancillary changes for general public usage demonstrates that Finale and their parent company, MakeMusic, may have become more serious about improving the power and depth of their software as well as its reach and breadth.

Sibelius

Since the major adjustments last year, there’s been little news on this front…the exception being a recent comment from Avid’s director of product management, Bobby Lombardi, who decided, in light of his competitor’s announcement, to let Sibelius Blog know that “Sibelius 7.5″ is coming soon. In addition to a review of Finale 2014 as seen through the lens of Sibelius users, Sibelius Blog also mentions the fate of those programmers from Sibelius who were let go when Avid closed their London office; most were hired by a newcomer to the notation software marketplace—Steinberg.

Steinberg

From Steinberg’s blog page:

Steinberg set up a new London-based research and development centre in November 2012, and hired as many of the former Sibelius development team as possible to start work on a brand new scoring application for Windows and Mac. There are currently twelve of us in the team, and all of us were formerly part of the Sibelius development team.

This is one of the more interesting developments on the music notation front in a very long time. By releasing most of their A-Team developers, Avid unintentionally caused the creation of a new competitor (in a rapidly growing marketplace). What has been most fascinating about this new endeavor is the transparency with which the Steinberg team has chosen to build their new application…so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet. That transparency can be seen most clearly in the Steinberg “Making Notes” blog run by Product Marketing Manager Daniel Spreadbury (again, formerly of Sibelius). Taking a page from Hollywood, where production vignettes are now commonplace many months before a film is released, Steinberg is taking the unique step of discussing their creation process as they go.

Here Spreadbury discusses the nuts and bolts of putting together aspects of a notation system that would seem very simple but are both conceptually and logistically extremely complex:

Another important prototype is a means to visualise music on staves. Several months ago, a very simple visualiser was written that shows rhythms, but not pitches, of notes belonging to a single voice on a single-line staff. Since then, we’ve done work on determining staff position and stem direction for notes and chords, and also have the capability to assign multiple voices to the same staff, but we’ve had no way to visualise the result on a staff. Now our test application can optionally show music for multiple voices on a five-line staff, and can display multiple staves together.

It’s still very crude: notes are not beamed together, the spacing is pretty terrible, and things like ties are drawn very simplistically. This is not by any means the basis for how music will eventually appear in our application. But it is an important diagnostic tool as we continue to add more and more musical building blocks…

Our ethos is that our application will be most useful if it does automatically what an experienced engraver or copyist would do anyway. If an engraver and copyist can trust the musical intelligence built in to our application to make the right decisions, it will become a truly fast and efficient tool, and hopefully the one they will come to prefer over and above the others at their disposal.

Where this new software will end up is unclear—they’re still at the rough, early stages—but from what is currently available, this new addition to the pantheon of notation software applications has the potential to create a third-party platform that combines the best characteristics of both Finale and Sibelius. What this means for composers, and subsequently the entire new music community, is as varied as the number of ways in which these applications are used. Some composers use them exclusively as engraving tools, while others eschew paper and pencil altogether and compose directly into the application. Ultimately, if software developers are able to improve the ease of use and the quality of the finished product, then we all come out ahead.

8 thoughts on “Finally, Movement on the Notation Front

  1. Matt Marks

    My concern is that there doesn’t seem to be a company that is placing a high priority on crafting a notation program that works well as an audio program, or even works well with audio programs. I’m a Sibelius user and I like many aspects of it, but in terms of playback it’s kind of a disaster. I was hoping with its acquisition by Avid they would work on developing it into a ProTools-friendly program, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I had some hope for Spreadbury and his team at Steinberg, but with his latest blog update he doesn’t really mention anything much beyond the visual aspects of the program, though he goes into how much less CPU-intensive they’re working to make the program. I’m a composer who uses listening and audio playback a lot to compose (and I ain’t ashamed to admit it!), doesn’t place a high priority on creating the most visually-breathtaking score possible, and works with ReWire quite a bit connecting Sibelius to audio programs (usually with much frustration). There’s not much hope for composers like me on the horizon.

    Quite frankly, if Logic made their notation aspect half as in-depth as Sibelius/Finale I would ditch specialized notation programs entirely.

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  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    This pace is nearly no pace. And it’s still trying to make standard notation function. It’s a far cry from the promise of notation software when Finale first arrived a quarter-century ago.

    My wishlist for notation software includes full vector graphical editing (right down to bending staves and having their contents follow), full audio editing capability linked to Sonar, Audition and Vegas (and whatever equivalent Mac folks use), integration where possible with Pd/AudioMulch/Max, pen (handwritten notation) input and editing, and integration/scripting of algorithmic and generative routines.

    Reply
    1. David MacDonald

      Dennis,

      Your suggestions for what notation software could be doing for us is fascinating. However, I think the best way to accomplish them is not to build all of those features into a Sibelius- or Finale-like software leviathan. I would rather see each of those different kinds of software be good at the things they’re good at, and have built-in APIs and other tools that allow them to interact with one another.

      Reply
      1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

        I would love to see them all work together. But it hasn’t happened. And the integration of other program suites is just as leviathan-y — you’re pretty much stuck with programs from one source (Adobe, for example). Open source programs are still sputtering along in the “we can do as much as commercial programs” … without the help features, coherent documentation, or functional hardware integration (for example,VLC media player, MuseScore, Inkscape, etc., don’t know what to do with input from the Wacom Intuos tablet that I depend on).

        So give me the leviathan. Finale and Sibelius gave us reasonable audio output. Finale has partial vector editing, has an open plugin architecture, and offers automatic metrics for non-Finale fonts. There’s an app that promises handwriting input with MusicXML output.

        In other words, I’d much rather have one professional application use its economic resources to provide supported, well-documented software than wait for somebody to agree on the shape of the table.

        Reply
  4. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Many thanks for posting this, Rob. Updates on this progress are valuable, so I greatly appreciate being able to read them here.
    Personally, I wish for more malleability in the automated functions Sibelius offers. Dennis above mentions full vector editing—this is something I’ve been yearning for for years. However, I recognize that this is not the direction that software developers likely intend to go. The market seems primarily geared toward educational use, putting a premium on automation and simplicity. What I hope is that at some point during their development, the engineers at Steinberg find time to include some of capabilities composers of complex scores are yearning for.
    In the mean time, pen and paper have never failed me, time consuming as they may be.

    Reply
  5. Sam

    Try exporting a file using transparency and see what happens. Try changing the color of text, a feature every text editor has but absent in Finale…its real pain to accomplish. Finale 2014 is not ready for professional use, they should have waited a little more. We are not asking much, just give us simple basic features that work.

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