Interestingly, if you work on a Sibelius 8.0 file and save it, you can open it straight away in Sibelius 7.5 without needing to export it first from Sibelius 8 as a 7.5 file, as long as there are no annotations in the file. This seems to work even if you have added annotations and deleted them later. You can, of course, use File > Export > Previous Version to export a Sibelius 8 file to 7.5 and earlier, all the way back to Sibelius 2.
If you do try to open a Sibelius 8 file with annotations in Sibelius 7.5, you’ll get an error message:
The file compatibility may have been a happy accident for the time being, because Avid has said not to rely on re-opening a Sibelius 8 file in Sibelius 7.5 in this way. Although it may work today, it’s likely to change as Sibelius is updated in the future, making exporting necessary. This is unfortunate, since there will now be three versions in wide use that all basically look the same — 7, 7.5, and 8 (with 8 not even clearly identified as a new version) — so if you collaborate with others, you’re going to have to take special care to keep your file formats straight.
Should you upgrade?
The focus on features and improvements that take advantage of the Surface and similar Windows devices will be welcomed by those users, and coincides nicely with a general resurgence of interest in Microsoft products and Windows software. But rather than being designed from the ground up for these newer technologies, Sibelius 8 is retrofitting older software to use them in ways that have yet to prove useful for its workflow. Ultimately, you’ll still need a decently powered computer with a full keyboard to truly make the most of Sibelius, just as you did before. Whether this is merely a toe to test the waters of the Surface or part of a larger effort to continue to develop Sibelius for these machines remains to be seen.
The only actual new feature when it comes to how your scores will actually look is the annotations feature. The rest of the program appears to be basically untouched, save for the optimizations necessary for the Surface and other Windows high-DPI displays; the playback options are exactly the same as Sibelius 7.5 and the notation options are exactly the same as they were in Sibelius 7. In fact, other than the improved graphic support and the text overhaul that were introduced in 7, the music engraving features themselves basically haven’t budged since Sibelius 6. So if you are happy with 6 and were unconvinced by the workflow and interface improvements in 7 (even with a transition guide to help), you will not be persuaded by Sibelius 8.
There are a couple of subtle but important changes to system requirements in Sibelius 8 from Sibelius 7.5. Sibelius 8 is 64-bit only, which means that if you are accustomed to running it in 32-bit mode so that you can use any 32-bit audio plug-ins with it, you’ll need to replace them with 64-bit versions. Likewise, Sibelius 8 will only run on 64-bit versions of Windows 7 (SP1 or later) or Windows 8.1 or higher.
Also, on the Mac side, Sibelius 8 will only run on Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) or higher — no more support for 10.6 through 10.8. If your Mac still runs one of those earlier operating systems, you’ll need to stick with Sibelius 7.5.
At $199 for a crossgrade, Sibelius 8.0 is still a fine product when compared to its current competitors — but not when compared to the most recent Sibelius upgrade. Paying $89 for hardly anything at all, especially on the Mac side, makes the $50 upgrade to Sibelius 7.5 from Sibelius 7 seem like the deal of the century, although it is worth noting that the all licenses also now include support (unlimited online incidents and one phone call per month), previously a $29 value, plus any software upgrades that are released during the license term. I’d suggest that Avid at least make the medicine go down easier and offer the first year of the perpetual upgrade to 8 at a special price of $39 for any existing users of Sibelius 7.5.
Assuming that Avid doesn’t take that advice (but hey, you never know), you’ll have a full year — through June 30, 2016 — to see how development progresses before you’ll no longer be eligible for the $89 perpetual upgrade price. At that point you’ll have to choose between a new full-price perpetual license or renewable subscription.
Even then, though, no existing Sibelius user should really ever need to pay the full $689 price for a perpetual license, as long as Avid and its competitors continue to offer a crossgrade option. See, you could crossgrade to another program — Notion offers a crossgrade for as little as $69 — and then crossgrade back to Sibelius for $199 for a total of $268, save more than $400, and own more software, besides.
When 7.5.0 first appeared, it was rough around the edges. It took another four months, but when 7.5.1 came out it was a very solid “point” update, and it is the most stable version of Sibelius. Sibelius 8.0 builds on that stability, and that’s a bright spot. Perhaps 8.0.1 and future more solid updates will follow, in time. But right now, Avid is essentially asking customers to pay them now and trust them to develop the product in a way that makes annual license and support fees worthwhile. At least the perpetual upgrade offer for existing users doesn’t expire until the end of June 2016, so if you currently own Sibelius, you have a full year from now to see what transpires.
Sam Butler has said that Avid has “a strong plan for the next few years… We’re aiming for a steady release of features for Sibelius itself, including some much needed technical work under the hood as well as some attention to the notation and user experience side of the application.” Sam referred to the 7.5.1 release as a “‘get healthy’ release by hardening the code and fixing some really important stability issues that had been in the program for several years.”
That stability was welcome, and indeed necessary. No one wants to work in fear of their essential software crashing regularly, which often happened when using the first major release of a new Sibelius version. But Avid must make sure that code-hardening doesn’t become code-ossification. Whether future updates will similarly be built on top of existing code without adding new engraving features is a legitimate question right now, especially for users deciding to commit to one of the license plans.
The current state of Sibelius reminds me of what Leonard Bernstein said when asked about Aaron Copland’s music: “It’s the best we’ve got, you know.” Whether or not the compliment was intended to have a detractive element — as if better music might come along from someplace else — has always been up for debate.
One could say the same about Sibelius, when talking about desktop notation-based scoring programs. It is still a remarkable program that can do a staggering number of things, and does them mostly very well. Yes, there are other applications with which you can write music, produce published-quality engravings, churn out lots of commercial charts, work directly with video and timecode, use ReWire and third-party AU and VST samples, play and create realistic audio demos, and export files into a variety of other formats. Sibelius is the only one with which you can do them all, and in a 64-bit application to boot. That’s quite a feat.
Yet the increasingly gnawing feeling is that the vision, pace of innovation, and (crucially) the sheer available man-hours that made all of those things possible are gone from Sibelius’s development. I will be more than delighted for it to be proven otherwise as the new subscription and update scheme gets underway, especially if significant new features improve the scoring and notation experience. Or perhaps something better than Sibelius will eventually come along.
For now, it’s the best we’ve got, you know.