Today Avid released Sibelius 2019.9, its latest update to Sibelius. It introduces a brand new way of importing MIDI data that can make working with such files much easier and faster. Other than some bug fixes and performance improvements, the import feature is the major new item in Sibelius 2019.9, so let’s get right to it.
The MIDI conundrum
MIDI files have long been the ugly ducklings — literally — when it comes to music notation software. MIDI output isn’t intended to look good; after all, isn’t that what notation software is for?
Although MIDI has always been a part of the major software programs, it’s always felt as if the software was begrudgingly just doing the bare minimum to load the music and get rid of it as quickly as possible. Sure, there are some quantization options and such, but beyond that it seems as though MIDI input was channeling Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — you never quite knew what you were going to get.
Besides, MIDI files are often conceived in a different galaxy of the composition universe. While notation-based composers (and notation software) tend to organize their creations around a player holding an instrument and all of the different sounds that player can create with their instrument, DAW-based compositions (and DAW software) are more often organized around the sounds themselves, regardless of the playing technique required to create the sound.
It’s a bit of a generalization, but it bears itself out in this brief example, where a composer might load a half-dozen different tracks to create the various sounds envisioned for a cue, with each track containing a separate sample.
If you ever orchestrate music for film you’ve doubtless seen something like this before. So what do you do? You dutifully open it in your software of choice…
…and put on a pot of coffee, because this is the first of many cues you need to crank out before tomorrow’s session.
Importing MIDI into Sibelius 2019.9
The new MIDI importing feature in Sibelius 2019.9 finally attempts to break free of this paradigm. It’s successful in many ways, and I’m almost more excited for its potential to be further improved upon in subsequent releases than I am for this first iteration of the feature. But even as it comes in 2019.9 you may well be substituting some herbal tea for that coffee, thanks to the time it saves and the order it could bring to your scores.
The importing feature is found in a new area of the Backstage, the myriad collection of items you find when selecting the purple File tab. As you’d expect, the area is labeled Import and you’ll see it immediately under Export.
Right now importing via this area is limited chiefly to MIDI files. It is still possible to import MusicXML files, and indeed to import MIDI files in the old way, but in Sibelius parlance this is known as “opening” a file — although confusingly you’ll find that under the Import tab on the Quick Start.
This is important because one of the main differences in the new import feature is that you use it on an existing Sibelius file that you have already set up with a complement of instruments already set, whereas “opening” a MIDI file simply creates a new Sibelius file corresponding to each track in the MIDI. The reason for this new approach will become clear shortly, but for now let’s dive into the new File > Import feature and see what it can do.
Many-to-one: Automatically consolidate tracks based on technique and articualtion
In the File > Import area, you can select Browse… to search for your MIDI file, or, in a nice touch, simply drag it onto the Instruments area.
Once that’s done, you can either assign instruments manually or click Auto Assign and have Sibelius attempt to do it for you based on the instruments in your existing template.
Sibelius generates a preview based on your settings. Here are the results I got when trying the violin example from earlier in this post:
This is where things get really interesting. Notice how Sibelius picked up on the labels in the MIDI file and attempted to map them to the Violin 1 staff using the articulation and technique names from each MIDI track. It got some of them, but not all (Sibelius has pre-defined naming conventions). So, I’ll manually select the rest (and I could even select more than one articulation if I wanted to):
Notice what’s happened in the preview, in real time as I’ve made these selections.
Sibelius has consolidated all six tracks into one Violin staff, and has added technique text or articulations as appropriate — just as you’d do if you were preparing this for a real player!
Ah, but you say, what about those unsightly notes at the beginning? Those familiar with the process know that these are keyswitches — out-of-range notes that are used to trigger a sample change.
Sibelius has a solution for that, as well. In the Notation section at the bottom, you’ll notice some of the familiar MIDI import options, but new in Sibelius there is an option to Filter keyswitches. Changing this value (here I’ve adjusted the Below value to F2) will make those notes disappear.
Once you’re satisfied with your results, click the big Import button and you’ll immediately see the result in your score:
There are a few picky things: a duplicate pizzicato mark (likely a small bug), a small positioning tweak to the “arco” in bar 3, and not accounting for a removal of the mute in bar 12 (likely a conflict between the pizzicato and con sord. techniques). But otherwise this passage is otherwise very usable and exponentially better than any result we’ve ever seen importing MIDI into notation software.
What if I don’t want to overtax the first violins and instead split up the passage among Violin 1 and 2? That’s completely possible. In that case, I would adjust my mapping accordingly. The following seems like a reasonable distribution based on the passage:
And here are the results — again with nothing added or adjusted. Notice how, this time, Sibelius correctly adds the “senza sord.” to the Violin 2 this time, since there was no pizz./arco conflict to contend with.
It’s brilliant how this is all done at the import stage without having to fiddle with anything in the score. And there’s more…
One-to-many, with optional automatic explode
Often as an orchestrator I’ll get a MIDI track that’s just labeled “Strings” or “Low Brass”, leaving it up to me to, you know, orchestrate.
Let’s look at one such example, a brief string chorale. Before this new feature, the best I could hope for upon MIDI import would be something like this:
With Sibelius’ new importing feature, though, I can create a “one-to-many” mapping scheme, telling Sibelius to copy one MIDI track over to multiple instruments in my template…
…and, coupled with the new Explode music when arranging to multiple instruments option…
…get automatic results that are probably similar or identical to how I would have chosen to manually orchestrate the passage:
One thing you can’t do, though, is explode music from multiple MIDI tracks to more than one instrument. If you attempt to do this, Sibelius will warn you and disable the Explode option.
Use your own template
Even if you don’t make use of the more sophisticated MIDI assignment settings described above, you can still take advantage of the feature by bringing a MIDI file directly into your template, something that was previously a multi-step process (although made easier by using Tom Curran’s venerable Impose Sketch Onto Template plug-in).
Say you’ve got a Sibelius file set as a template with all of your custom fonts, styles, page layout and parts set up just the way you like, either as a regular Sibelius file or as Manuscript Paper, like this:
Once you open that template, you can import a MIDI file using File > Import and Auto Assign. Here, I’ve mostly got a one-to-one mapping, but have used one-to-many on the trumpets, since my template had those instruments already separated:
And see the results come directly into that template, ready to go:
Just be careful you don’t overwrite your existing template if you use an ordinary Sibelius file. Either make a copy beforehand or immediately Save As a new file after importing your data.
Re-importing MIDI into an existing score
You can run File > Import more than once on the same score and selectively choose which tracks/instruments you wish to import, leaving other information intact. Be aware that you might overwrite existing data, though, and Sibelius does not warn you that you are about to do so.
Round metronome marks
In addition to some of the options specific to the new File > Import feature, there’s a new Round metronome marks option which, if checked, will round the metronome marks of imported MIDI files to the nearest whole number. This new option also appears in the dialog when opening a MIDI file using File > Open. (You’ll still want Neil Sands’s plug-in handy if you need a few more choices.)
Matching instruments, techniques and articulations
According to Avid’s Sam Butler, Sibelius uses artificial intelligence pattern matching for the Auto Assign feature. “This feature scales to any number of tracks with several playing techniques and articulations, so you can throw huge MIDI files at it, and Sibelius will methodically go through each track to find the best match,” Sam said.
There’s more information about this on Sam’s official blog post on the Avid web site.
There’s also a hashtag feature where you can force Sibelius to match up tracks from your MIDI source file and the Sibelius destination file, if you find that the automatic feature isn’t returning a good result. Essentially you would have to tag the track in the DAW and in your Sibelius file (preceded by a tilde so it then hides the tag) in order for it all to match correctly. Although I appreciate the inclusion of the feature, good luck getting your composer to consistently tag his or her DAW output for you. If you are involved in creating the MIDI file from the source DAW, though, you might have better luck with this. At least there is a solution if you can make it work.
The primary focus of the new MIDI import feature is to interweave orchestral mockups into a score file template with matching instrument names. But if your transcription work caters to the pop band format, you’ll be pleased to know that MIDI drum tracks, bass lines, and keyboard-related tracks all import as expected. These are simple one to one tracks, so the feature should serve you well.
The MIDI import feature was designed with accessibility in mind. The Instrument assignment table is keyboard accessible. Tab enters and exit the table, the Arrow keys move the focus forward and backwards through the list, Space bar opens the list of available instruments, and again assigns instruments, and Return to close the list. This is good not just for visually-impaired users but for anyone relying on the keyboard for speed and efficiency.
Although you can access File > Import using key tips, an option to program a direct shortcut via Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts is missing from Sibelius 2019.9. This appears to be an oversight and should be added in a future update.
For a first iteration of a new feature, the new MIDI import workflow is remarkably impressive. It will be very helpful for certain users, and may suit some needs perfectly. As with many new features, though, there’s potential for so much more. Here are the areas where I’d like to see this area improved.
Add instruments during import
This has to be top of the list. If your MIDI file contains 12 instrument tracks, but your score file only has 10, there’s no function for the new import dialog to create the missing instrument staves. You’ll either have to abort the process, open your template, modify it, save it, and start again, or continue with the import process, add instruments later, and then run the import tool again, being careful to not overwrite your existing import.
Bringing the Add/Edit Instruments function into the importing feature, the way we are accustomed to seeing it during the setup of a new score, would be an obvious way to address this shortcoming.
Automatically add staves corresponding to source
Sibelius 2019.9’s design of bringing the source data directly onto your destination staves will work very well in many cases. Some people, though, will want to have more control and keep the destination staves in their template “clean” even after importing the source data, or they may wish to make use of Sibelius’ 2019.9’s powerful new features but also retain a copy of the raw MIDI in the score.
An option to simply add extra staves to the template that correspond to the source, and bring the music into those staves would effectively allow the user to work with scratch staves and keep the option of having the source data and the orchestration in one file. Effectively this would be a combination of importing a MIDI file using File > Import and File > Open.
Improved MIDI interpretation
The old saying “garbage-in, garbage-out” applies. If your MIDI file is a heap of unquantized notes flailing off-the-grid, Sibelius 2019.9 doesn’t fare any better at making sense of it than earlier versions did. Admittedly, divining intentions from such a file is tricky, but it would be great to see some additional options to interpret the data such as those recently introduced in Dorico, like the Fill gaps option.
Once you’ve taken the time to set up your keyswitch filters, voicing, quantizing and other options, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to save those MIDI import settings for later, or even to cycle through different presets to see which one gets the best results on any particular file? That would take this already great feature and push it into the realm of hyper-efficiency.
MusicXML and Sibelius file import
The next logical step is to extend the MIDI import workflow to MusicXML and Sibelius files.
One could well imagine receiving a piano reduction in Sibelius and using this importing feature to quickly bring it into a template to orchestrate (this was the original inspiration for the Impose Sketch Onto Template plug-in). Similarly, bringing in MusicXML files in this manner, such as from scanned material or from other notation software, is a no-brainer.
Other information and final thoughts
The Sibelius 2019.9 update is free for all Sibelius users with active subscriptions and upgrade plans. The updated installers are available through users’ Avid accounts and through Avid Link.
There are some bug fixes and other improvements in Sibelius 2019.9. Avid says that the program is more stable, and that Spotlight and Quick Look are working again on macOS.
Speaking of macOS, Sam Butler says that “We expect this Sibelius 2019.9 release to run well on macOS Catalina [10.15] when the new operating system is released in due course. Earlier versions of Sibelius will not be supported.” We take this to mean that, if you upgrade to Catalina, Avid will only support Sibelius 2019.9 on that OS. Older Sibelius versions may well still run on Catalina, but won’t be officially supported by Avid on that OS. (We’ll publish a separate blog post on Scoring Notes about Catalina and notation software compatibility closer to the October release planned by Apple. For a full Sibelius compatibility chart, see Avid’s web site.)
Hopefully this is the beginning, and not the culmination, of building a new way of working in Sibelius. There’s much to be pleased with in this release, not the least of which is that the Sibelius team is addressing the multifarious ways in which users get music into Sibelius and need to manipulate it further. If you’re a movie composer or orchestrator, we’ll leave it up to you to determine if this feature qualifies as a “blockbuster”. Whatever the verdict, we’re looking forward to the sequel!
Bernie Cossentino contributed to this post.