It has now been several months since the announcement and release of the new version of the Sibelius notation software, and I have now used the program for several projects, so I now feel suitably qualified to pass my judgement on the latest version of this superb notation software.
This is undoubtedly a major release, not so much through new features (there is nothing new in this software as revolutionary as Dynamic Parts and Magnetic Layout in my opinion) but through a new user interface and a very new feel to the program, indeed the product as a whole. I’ll come onto that in due course, but let’s begin at the beginning…
Before I begin, please let me bore you with the reasons why I purchased an entirely new licence, despite having used Sibelius’ software extensively for the last seven years. Previously, I used my family’s licence (which covered two computers) or the site licences available at my school and work place. Now, moving to university, it seemed more sensible (and legal) to buy a new licence for me alone.
Previously, Sibelius has been very easy to install, backed up by meticulous instructions unparalleled in any other software I have come across. Owing to the extensive sound library included with this version, installation is a lengthier and slightly more complex process. I also found that the instructions have been condensed, which didn’t cause any problems to me, but is worth noting.
The programme itself, along with PhotoScore Lite, AudioScore Lite, Scorch and a small part of the sound library is on one DVD, and installation for this is par for the course. There are then three further DVDs containing the remainder of the sound library. In fairness to the developers, installing the sound libraries is dead simple (just put in each DVD and press a few buttons on the install wizard), and the fact that the library is so large (over 38GB in size!) is testament to the quality and quantity of sounds available. The pay-off to this is that Sibelius now feels like an industry tool, instead of the friendly piece of software that it seemed three or four versions ago.
Now this is where I had some difficulties and the user experience wasn’t quite what it might have been. I had purchased a student licence of the program, which meant that (in common with many other software producers, such as Adobe) no serial number came in the box. Instead, I had to apply for one online, proving my student status. The paper instructions in the box said that an academic email address (.ac.uk) would suffice as proof.
However, after putting all my details through the online form (including my Oxford email address), I was told that I would have to provide a scan of an identity card. This would prove problematic, as I am only given that as I arrive at Oxford. I selected the option to save my details and come back later whilst I pondered what to do. The option to save my details actually seemed to submit them, but without any scanned identity, and I received an email from the company dealing with the registration informing me that I should email a scan to a particular address. Despite all this, two days later I received my serial number via email, through my .ac.uk account, which turned out to be valid proof of my student status after all. I suppose that all’s well that ends well, but at no point did the verification process tell me that my email account was being processed as identification.
This is another area that differs to when we first installed Sibelius 3 in 2004, when to register we phoned up the Sibelius office in London and spoke to a human being who sorted it all out. Obviously things are very different now (more of that later) and the software has grown beyond all recognition, but it is interesting to note.
User Interface: The Ribbon
The major change to the software is a brand new user interface, based on Microsoft’s Ribbon. In a previous blog post I referenced MS Office 2007 as an example of the ribbon, which I have had experience of using. The Sibelius ribbon is actually modelled on the MS Office 2010 ribbon, which is subtly different through virtue of a completely new file menu. This file menu fills the entire screen and there are very few pop-up windows. Instead, commands such as printing, editing score information and exporting are all achieved through full-screen dialogs.
This has been met with mixed opinion, especially as there have been some bugs in printing. Personally, I like the change: I think it is more user-friendly and more aesthetically pleasing than the old dialog boxes. However, it’s not quite there yet, as there are still some bugs (such as the Preferences window being too large for the screen on my MacBook Pro, so the OK and Cancel buttons are hidden from view, forcing the user to use (unexplained) keyboard shortcuts).
The remainder of the ribbon divide up the various tasks needed during a score, and the designers claim that largely you would work left to right along the ribbon categories as you progress through a project.
The Home category contains the most commonly used commands, such as clipboard functions, instrument changes, adding bars, filtering, plugins and a smattering of other functions.
From then on, it’s meant to be left to right, from Note Input, through to adding special barlines, symbols, beams and graphics (Notations), editing Text, various Playback functions, Layout and Appearance options, managing Parts, Reviewing the score (through Versions and comments) and finally, the various View options.
I’m not convinced by the left-to-right workflow idea, but everybody’s workflow is different, and conceptually (and generally) it’s not a bad idea and its been done fairly well. One downside of the ribbon (and I found this in Office too) is that sometimes things aren’t necessarily put in an especially logical place (see Page Break being in a completely different category to all the other Break commands in Word, for example). Back in Sibelius, why is Reset Note Spacing in Appearance, yet Optimize Staff Spacing in Layout? I am being hyper-critical here as everybody would have things in a subtly different place.
However, a genuine criticism are some of the icons. They just seem too cartoony, and don’t actually add anything to understanding the function. For example, the Add/Remove Instrument function on the screenshot above. Why a picture of a trumpet? It’s an instrument, yes, but that picture says nothing about adding or removing. It’s just big, takes up valuable screen space and looks ugly (in my opinion, anyway). There are several icons that fall into this category for me. Comparing back to the Office ribbon, all the icons in Word, for example, seem to have a genuine purpose (and thus look neater, too).
There are also a couple of minor niggles, such as the main Symbols dialog being three clicks away (and pretty hidden at that), and that dialog is the only way to set a symbol as being for the system or for the stave. I would also love there to be an expansion arrow under the basic playback commands in the Play category to open up the Transport panel (far more intuitive, I think, than having to go View -> Panels -> Transport which had me stumped for about half-an-hour, especially as that panel used to be called Playback in previous versions).
There is also an argument for screen real estate. The ribbon takes up more space than the previous file menu and toolbar approach. I have recently made the switch to Mac, and it is noticeable that in the Mac UI, the top menu bar has no purpose (there are just four menus, all of which are duplicates of commands in the ribbon, with the exception of Undo and Redo, for which I use the keyboard shortcuts anyway). I find that I have to run the program in full screen mode with the ribbon minimised to get a workable screen space (but I do only have a 13” screen). Hopefully in a future release, Sibelius 7 will support the Mac OS X Lion full screen function, so that it functions like other full-screen apps on the Mac platform.
Notwithstanding all of the above, I love the ribbon. I think that it is a great UI improvement, most of all because of the lack of hidden features. I’m sure there everybody has an I wish Sibelius could do that which in fact is already possible, but they just don’t know how to find it. (The most ridiculous one I heard, from a person who shall remain nameless, was that Sibelius couldn’t make text bold and italic!) However, it’s a bit rich of me to laugh at that, as I always wished that there was a function to re-input pitches of notes, whilst keeping the note values. One of the first things I spotted in the Sibelius 7 screenshots was a Re-input Pitches function (which pleased me greatly), and sure enough, when I checked back to Sibelius 6 it was there too (and all the way back to Sibelius 3!). I find that in the ribbon everything is out in the open, and thus you are less likely to miss useful features.
In addition to that, it takes generally fewer clicks to find a function, plus the Find in ribbon search box is genius. And all previous keyboard shortcuts still work the same, so what’s not to like?!
Other UI elements
It isn’t just about the Ribbon. Whilst that element of the UI is modelled on Microsoft’s Office suite, much of the remainder is modelled on Apple’s software. The new Quick Start window is reminiscent of what you get when opening up Pages or Word for Mac, and I find it a great improvement on the old. It speeds up the process of just about any function, and I am a big fan. Similarly, the Inspector window is similar to that used in iMovie and the rest of the iLife suite. Truth be told, I haven’t used it much, but I think that making the old Properties window contextual was a great move, and it does preserve screen space and efficiency. Plus, moving the text commands out into the Ribbon is also a big advantage.
Equally, I haven’t done much instrumental work yet in Sibelius 7, so I haven’t had too much experience of the new method of viewing parts and versions. I do miss the drop-down menus, as I found that a great way to work (as indeed the parts panel, which has now been integrated into the Ribbon). I often used to go through one part at a time to proof-read before printing, and it seems that now each part gets its own tab, which creates clutter and the need to close them all off at the end of a session. However, I’m sure I will get used to that and establish a new workflow. Similarly, navigating between versions has been altered to the tabbed interface, but this does have the benefit of being able to instantly switch between one version and another and compare. I can’t really say more than that, but again, this is a case of real evolution in the User Interface.
The final part of the new UI is the status bar, which combines the Zoom and Panorama functions with information about selected passages. This is excellently designed and a great improvement. Putting Panorama down there makes so much sense, and the information given on the status bar is great, especially the chord analysis feature! I give this part of the UI ten out of ten!
This is the other main feature of Sibelius 7 – an all new comprehensive sample library dubbed the Avid Orchestra. I am no sound buff, but they do sound very, very good to my ears. Unfortunately, their performance doesn’t seem to have been perfectly optimised yet, especially on the Mac platform. It might be that my laptop isn’t high-spec enough to run large scores (although it is a new MacBook Pro that I purchased this summer!), but it should be able to handle a string quartet and chorus (which it couldn’t). For this purpose, I also installed the Sibelius 6 sound library, which whilst not being as comprehensive or high-quality, at least allows a better performance for general work. Having said all that, for a small score (ie. SATB choir with keyboard accompaniment), I have found the Sibelius 7 sounds to perform absolutely fine. It should also be stressed that for exporting large scores, the computer exports it perfectly and not in real time, so that performance is exemplary no matter how large the score, it just takes longer.
In my earlier blog post looking at the new features of Sibelius 7, I was most excited by the new organ sounds. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work as I envisaged it (I had images in my head of an organ console interface, “drawing” stops as a method of altering playback and also notating registrations – that would be very good for a future version!). Instead, text commands alter the playback registration, via the playback dictionary, but I have found performance to be sporadic, and there is no manual yet for the sound libraries. Hopefully this will be fixed in due course (I know that the manual is coming imminently), as the functionality is there (and the sounds sampled), it’s just getting it to work 100%. However, even in its present state, the organ sounds are an improvement on Sibelius 6, as it is a far less harsh sound, and all the octave-related irritations have also vanished.
Other new features
I won’t go into much detail on other features, as I have already written far too much, but I will summarise my thoughts in this section of the review.
I haven’t had much use for the new Text features (but I’m sure I will), ditto the graphic import and export, but they are very useful additions to the Sibelius armoury. I am a huge fan of the Plantin font, and it has already made my scores look even more professional!
I have used Export as PDF several times, and that works very well without having to use a separate print driver (or the OS command in Mac), with the options for whether to export the score or parts (and in how many files) very useful (and intuitive) indeed.
I have never had a use for importing or exporting MusicXML files (in the UK the majority of musicians use Sibelius, and very few use Finale or a rival program), but I can see that this feature is very useful for those who do often collaborate with those who use rival notation programs.
There are several changes to Note Input, especially helpful, I feel, to those switching from Finale. It is now possible to input a note and then select a duration, rather than the default behaviour, which is the other way round. It’s not a feature that I plan to use, but, again, I’m sure it’s useful to many users. One change in behaviour which I am not a fan of is that pressing the back arrow key whilst inputting notes no longer has the same effect as pressing the escape key (the caret disappears, and the last note inputted is selected). Instead, the back arrow key now takes you out of note input mode, but selects the penultimate note entered. I can see why it has been done, but it has been very difficult to change my ingrained habit of pressing the back arrow key to change a note’s duration if I made an error whilst selecting from the keypad.
I haven’t used the sticky lines or sticky tuplets yet, but they will be very useful (especially the latter). There are still many limitations with the way that tuplets are handled in the software, and it would be good to see these improved in a future version.
One gets the impression that this is a transitionary version of Sibelius. It has moved away from the traditional menus-and-toolbars approach to User Interface to the modern day world of ribbons, contextual inspectors and graphics-based quick-start windows. It isn’t all flawless yet, but I am a huge fan of what it is trying to achieve, and I hope that a 7.1 release will iron out many of the kinks (along with adding support for Mac OS X Lion features – please?!). I noted in my previous blog post that there aren’t that many new features this time. Sure, the interface is lovely, and I would agree that it saves time and improves workflow, but it isn’t as groundbreaking or just downright impressive as Magnetic Layout and Dynamic Parts (I know I keep banging on about them, but they have been the two stand-out Sibelius features in the seven years I have been using the software in my opinion). Equally, the samples are great, but do not contribute to the engraving side of the program, and the other features, although very useful and well implemented, haven’t got the same wow factor as some of the headline features over the years.
But now Sibelius has got this major change under its belt, it can continue to press forward to version 8 and beyond with more significant new features, now that its User Interface is fully in the modern style.
I will finish this review, however, with one final point. I mentioned that this was a very different version of Sibelius. Much of that is to do with the new-look User Interface. But, in addition to that, this is the first version that feels to me like it has been produced by the software behemoth Avid, rather than the cosy family company based in the Old Toy Factory. The program is now installed in an Avid folder, rather than the previous Sibelius Software. The colour-scheme is imposing purple, the typography the corporate Avid sans-serif. The logo has changed from the homely, friendly chord, to a circled treble clef on a purple background in order to fit in with the rest of the Avid family of products. This software release is the final stage of the Avid-isation of Sibelius, which started when the company was acquired five years ago. In that time the customer support has shifted to Avid’s system of paying for technical help (although the Sibelius Help Centre messageboards do remain open, and Daniel Spreadbury does a fantastic job of replying to emails, tweets and blog comments – he deserves the highest praise imaginable), the products are now purchased through Avid’s online store and the registration is carried out through a subsidiary company (and losing the human touch, hence the problems that I experienced).
In many ways it is inevitable. The software has grown to be massive. It has got more and more feature-packed with more and more users. It makes sense for the Customer Support, Purchase and Registration services to be integrated with other Avid products. But Avid is now the company, Sibelius is just the product. It’s the same team behind it, the same cheery manual, the same brilliant software, but somehow it feels colder and less friendly. It used to feel that Sibelius was produced for a select club of musicians by a caring team, who would go above and beyond the call of duty in customer service and in design. Some of that still remains, of course it does, but this is the first version that I think of as being produced by Avid and not by Sibelius. And that is a change worth noting I think.
That being said, the software is still great, I would recommend an upgrade to anyone and I still love using the program. The team behind Sibelius 7 deserve much praise, and I look forward to using the software for many years to come!