A few years ago, I engaged in some lively debate with a composer called Jeffery Cotton, who attempted to make the switch from Finale to Sibelius, but found that Sibelius at the time (which was when Sibelius 3 was the current version) didn’t offer the flexibility he required. The upshot of this debate was his wonderfully titled essay It Isn’t Pretty Being Easy, which I confess I still visit from time to time just to read it again. I’ve been looking forward to the day when I would be able to tick off all of the items on Jeffery’s list, and with the release of Sibelius 6, that day has arrived. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
My favourite quote in Jeffery’s essay is this:
Sibelius is that knock-out bombshell in a tight dress who can’t spell “hairpin” and still talks down to you — but who cares: she’s easy. It might one day become a quality notation program, providing the control and tools needed to create professional-quality scores. And when that day comes, Sibelius will have morphed into the same bloated frump in a housedress that Finale has become, with just as many menus, tools and palettes.
Fantastic! You have to hand it to the man: he can write a put-down. Of course, even when Jeffery wrote this essay, a good five years ago now, Sibelius was already being used by many of the world’s leading publishers, and a great deal of the most complex contemporary music that has been published so far in the 21st century has been published using Sibelius, so it’s by no means the case that Sibelius lacks the “control and tools needed to create professional-quality scores.” But you expect a certain amount of hyperbole in essays like this, and anyway, Jeffery did have several valid points.
Jeffery complained that Sibelius wouldn’t let you adjust the aperture of an individual hairpin. This one was actually taken care of in Sibelius 5, in which we introduced the capability to adjust the aperture of an individual hairpin using the Lines panel of Properties. In Sibelius 6, we’ve improved the alignment of hairpins, automatically moving their ends out of the way of dynamics at either end, thanks to Magnetic Layout.
Jeffery bewailed that slurs were too high and arched by default, though he also inaccurately claimed that slur shapes could only be corrected using the mouse (in fact there are lots of keyboard shortcuts, and also numeric parameters that can be altered in the Lines panel of Properties, and this was as true in Sibelius 3 as it is today).
In Sibelius 6, we’ve substantially improved slurs, in terms of their default appearance (with lots of options for default height, default shoulder, and so on), their default positioning (Sibelius now respects the engraving convention that slurs should go below the notes only if all the notes under the compass of the slur have stems pointing upwards, otherwise the slur should go above the notes), and also in making them considerably more malleable. Slurs are basically a cubic Bezier curve, with some fancy drawing to thicken ’em up in the right places (and Sibelius 6 now allows you to control the thickness of individual slurs), and Sibelius 6 now exposes all of the control points of the curve, meaning that you can now easily produce very graceful curves indeed.
It’s true that slurs can still collide with things like accidentals on notes under their compass, or even with notes themselves in extreme situations, but fixing these problems up is now much, much easier than in any previous version. I would go so far as to say that I believe Sibelius’s slurs are now the most elegant of any notation program’s.
One further point: the little graphic that Jeffery posts in his article about how slurs above and below adjacent staves can balloon into one another is now a moment’s work to fix, even if it were somehow to occur: just use Layout > Optimize Staff Spacing to automatically adjust the distance between staves to resolve the collision.
Sibelius “decides on its own,” says Jeffery, “when the leading or ending tip of a slur belongs outside an articulation and when it belongs inside.” True enough at the time he wrote it, but Sibelius 6 comprehensively takes care of this, providing lots of options for whether individual kinds of articulations should go inbetween the notehead and the end of a slur. Indeed, you can now flip individual articulations above and below notes quite happily, and adjust the vertical distance between articulations above or below a note with ease, something else that Jeffery complained about.
Jeffery also complains about the order in which articulations appear above or below a note. While this is still set in a fixed order by default, it’s now easy to adjust the vertical order in a specific case by dragging or nudging an articulation so it’s above or below another one, and if you really want to go to the trouble, you can change the order of articulations in your score by changing the order in which they appear on the Articulations row of the Symbol dialog (although this last point was true for Sibelius 3 as well).
By his own concession in an addendum to his original essay, Jeffery was never able to reproduce the “nightmarish” spacing shown in the picture on his site. And although the biggest improvements in note spacing did indeed come in Sibelius 3, we have continued to hone the Optical Spacing feature, and improvements in Sibelius 6 include taking the width of chord symbols into account, allowing extra space for note-attached arpeggio lines, and the various new jazz-specific symbols supported by the program.
There’s still room for improvement in Sibelius’s note spacing algorithm, but it’s by no means “nightmarish,” and it’s better than ever in Sibelius 6.
Jeffery didn’t appreciate some of the humour in the Sibelius User Guide (as was, back then). The tone of our documentation has occasionally rubbed the odd person up the wrong way. We’ve retired some of the older, crustier jokes since Sibelius 3 (and replaced them with slightly less old, slightly less crusty jokes, of course). But more importantly, the complete documentation set is now included directly in the program, accessed via the Help menu, in easily searchable, point-and-clickable loveliness.
But is it still easy?
Jeffery’s conclusion is that it’s impossible to have a sophisticated piece of notation software that produces high-quality output without descending into a mess of ever-deepening menus and dialog boxes.
I’m not about to try and say that increased sophistication does not also lead to increased complexity, because that is definitely not the case, but here’s an interesting statistic: Sibelius 3 had 143 top-level menu items, i.e. entries in each of the main menus (File, Edit, View, and so on); despite there being three major upgrades to the software since Sibelius 3, adding hundreds upon hundreds of new features, Sibelius 6 does not have any more top-level menus than Sibelius 3, and has a total of 197 top-level menu items. And it has only a handful of extra dialog boxes more than Sibelius 5. If you were to upgrade from Sibelius 3 right to Sibelius 6, you’d still be able to open up the program and get your work done without feeling completely lost.
This is because we work hard to try and integrate the new features we add into the existing design of the program, rather than endlessly bolting on extra menu items and dialogs all over the place. My belief is that Sibelius is every bit as sophisticated as Finale, and capable of producing just as fine an end product, but without making the software over-complicated and difficult to learn.
Anyway, I wonder whether Jeffery will feel like dipping his toes back in the Sibelius waters following the release of Sibelius 6? I very much hope that he will, because I think he’ll find that the developments we’ve made over the past four or five years, and in particular in this new version, are right up his street.