About a year ago at this time I sat down to breakfast with several key MakeMusic employees to discuss the future of the company and its flagship product, Finale. CEO Gear Fisher, product vice president Fred Flowerday and notation product manager Mark Adler were in the process of moving the company’s headquarters from Minnesota to Boulder. With the release of the Finale 2014d maintenance update in December 2014, they were setting the stage for a product transition as well: one that moved away from being “beholden to a yearly ‘major’ release cycle,” as Gear said.
At that time Gear also said that “I’m focused on making Finale 2014 better, and if that means a 2014e or 2014f, that’s what we’ll do.”
Although it’s not called 2014e, today MakeMusic made good on his promise by releasing Finale 2014.5. Announced back in June of this year, it is a free maintenance upgrade to all registered Finale 2014 users, and aims to enhance performance and fix bugs along with adding a few modest features.
Most crucially for Mac users, 2014.5 is fully compatible with OS X 10.11 El Capitan.
Finale 2014 users can access 2014.5 by following the automated prompts upon launching Finale, or manually from within Finale itself. To do so:
- On Windows, navigate to Help > Check for Update…
- On Mac, navigate to Finale 2014 > Check for Update…
Finale 2014.5 is much more substantial than the typical maintenance update that Finale users may have become accustomed to over the last couple of decades. Most significantly, it is installed separately from Finale 2014, so unlike the “letter” updates, installing 2014.5 will not overwrite 2014d. Like new versions of years past, it maintains its own folder library structure and preference files, which means that you’ll have to copy over any templates, plug-ins, and other settings, and update any macro programs or controllers you might use with Finale.
Unlike past upgrades, however, the file format is unchanged, meaning that you can save a 2014.5 file and open it in 2014 (exporting natively to Finale 2012 and to MusicXML continues to be supported).
The 2014.5 application icon is different, and in keeping with the design trends of the time, is flattened compared to that of Finale 2014.
Icons aside, what users really want to know is what of substance is contained within the update and if upgrading is worth it. I’m afraid the answer at this time is, “it depends.”
Bug fixes and new features
If you already own Finale 2014d, it’s hard to argue with a free upgrade. If you’re using Mac OS X 10.11 El Capitan, some serious crashing behavior has been fixed, so upgrading is in order.
For other users, let’s start with the bug fixes, of which there are nearly 100 documented on the Mac side and nearly 50 on the PC side. Some are long-standing and some were new to 2014, but all were annoying and thus gratefully extinguished in 2014.5.
A few highlights which many users will appreciate:
- Using the filter to copy items other than notes and rests from one staff to another no longer shifts music to a different octave when Respect Instrument Ranges is selected in Preferences > Edit.
- Lyrics using fixed size fonts no longer cause lyric collisions when music spacing is applied.
- Links to movie files in Finale documents are now retained when saving the file.
- Copying all the music from one staff to another in a document with an empty pickup measure no longer produces offset results
- The Cautionary Accidentals plug-in now accurately adds parentheses to notes with accidentals when instructed.
- Using a slash character in a part name no longer creates damaged PDF files.
- An issue where switching between the Selection tool and a tool that doesn’t use measure selection would sometimes unintentionally copy music has been corrected.
- Showing or hiding an accidental no longer requires two keystrokes.
- Human Playback now correctly interprets fp (forte-piano) markings for performance, among other playback fixes.
- Many plug-ins have been updated, and several redundant or unsupported ones have been removed.
- FinaleScript received a lot of attention with many defects and performance issues addressed.
The new features are modest, but certainly welcome:
- SmartMusic accompaniments with high-quality audio playback and other compatibility interface improvements;
- Improved audio output support at any sample rate supported by the selected audio device;
- Reorder staves — not really a new feature, but the friendly and simple dialog that came and went with Finale 2011 has been restored in Tools > Staff, so that you don’t need to open the Score Manager just to change the staff order;
- Automatic double barlines before key changes — this is a setting in Document > Document Options > Barlines (and thus a plug-in to do this task has been removed);
- Correct beaming over page breaks when using the Patterson Beams plug-in;
- Updates to MusicXML and EPUB export.
Other than the automatic double barline feature, there are no new engraving or music notation features in 2014.5.
Especially on the Mac side, one of the knocks against 2014 has been its laggardly performance. In the release notes, MakeMusic says that “major progress has been made on this ‘under-the-hood’ modernization effort of updating to the latest Mac interface begun in the initial release of Finale 2014, setting the stage for continued enhancements.” In addition, under the heading “Global performance improvements,” it says that “a significant effort has been put into improving slow performance throughout Finale.”
The acknowledgment and commitment to addressing the performance issues is welcome, and I was eager to prove the claims correct. But, at least in my limited testing, the results did not impress. Worse, in some cases, 2014.5 represented a regression in performance.
My test machine was my Mac Pro (late 2013) with 32 GB RAM, solid state 1 TB storage, 3.7 GHz Quad-Core running OS X 10.9.5.
My first test was on a 224-bar orchestral score (52 pages) with 33 staves. Here the results were mixed. Music spacing operations were faster, but copying, inserting and deleting bars suffered.
All results in seconds (bolder is best/fastest):
Next I moved on to a huge file: 454 pages of opera, 2357 bars with 24 instrumental staves and 16 vocal staves. The 2014.5 release notes say that “The efficiency of text rendering, particularly lyrics, has been improved.” Now, perhaps my test file was a bit unfair — I don’t think the average user works with scores this big. But surely some of us do, and I figured this was as good a score as any to see how 2014.5 dealt with lyrics.
Indeed, some lyrics operations in the Lyrics Window were appreciably faster, though not blazingly so. However, using Type Into Score, which had improved from 2012c to 2014d, was worse off in 2014.5 than in either of the other versions. The cut-off text in the table says “(time from pressing Escape to cleared beach ball)”:
The next score was an orchestral work, 223 bars in length, 63 pages with 30 staves, and, it should be noted, a whole lot of meter changes. 2014.5’s performance here was depressingly slow. I sent the file to MakeMusic, who said that “our Finale dev team took a look at your file and discovered a bug in rendering time signatures. While not noticeable in most files, the issue in your file is exacerbated by the size of the score and the large number of meter changes.” Hopefully this will be addressed.
Finally, I tested a file provided to me by MakeMusic: a 93-page concert band piece with 1129 bars and 21 staves. While the discrepancies here were less egregious than in other files, 2014.5 did not offer any significant performance improvement over 2014d or 2012c.
This leaves users in a curious predicament. Usually the choice to upgrade is clear: either you pay money, commit to a new file format and hope that improvements outweigh the drawbacks, or stick with an existing version out of caution or habit. Here, though, if you already have 2014d you can install 2014.5 at no cost and (except for those users running El Capitan) keep right on using 2014d, even trading off between them if needed. It’s good insurance for now but it’s terrible workflow. Have a large score with lots of lyrics? Open it in 2014.5. But what if it has lots of time signatures? Back to 2014d.
Of course, that’s not practical nor sustainable. It’s possible that the “under-the-hood” improvements are not yet fully manifesting themselves in the user experience, and indeed, MakeMusic representatives assured me that they are committed to continued work to improve Finale. The long list of bug fixes probably collectively represent years of problems that lurked in the codebase. Tracking them down was surely no small task, and the Finale team is to be commended for doing so. If your scores are rather average in terms of complexity and size, Finale 2014.5 will probably do as fine a job as ever of realizing your creations.
But Finale has always had a reputation of being the favorite choice of power users who need the software to tackle the largest, most sophisticated music notation challenges. These users also have to be able to work speedily and efficiently. The bug fixes and focus on stability are helpful, the attention given to modernizing plug-ins is refreshing, and, if you rely on FinaleScript, you’ll be pleased at the overdue attention it’s received in this update. But it’s still hard to fully recommend Finale 2014.5 to many users until its performance improvements are more plainly evident across the full range of the program’s features.