Today Avid released Sibelius 8.0, or what is being called the “next generation” or “new Sibelius”. Various license plans are available for purchase, and a 30-day trial is available. A full review follows.
When it comes to software updates, what’s in a version number? There are updates to desktop browsers and mobile apps, which most people don’t concern themselves with (Quick: which version of Facebook is your smartphone running?).
Operating system versions are equally curious. Technically speaking, desktop Macs are still running version 10 (OS X), meaning that students will be writing their college application essays on the OS that was born at the same time they were. On the PC side, maybe Microsoft saw an opportunity to catch up to Apple in version numbering, or maybe they were just in a hurry when they breezed past 9 on their way to Windows 10.
In the world of music notation applications, each numerical update has historically represented significant new features and a new file format. The recently released MuseScore 2 came five years after version 1, and its myriad new features are true to what one would expect after such a long period and a doubling of the version number. Finale released yearly updates for over a decade corresponding to the next year following the release, until abandoning that plan with Finale 2014. Like new car models that follow a similar schedule, each update offered up a few new important features but, owing to the short development cycle, progress was more incremental.
Sibelius users have generally come to expect major new features and engraving improvements once every two years. Devoted users still have their favorite versions, recalling the highlights and quirks of each one like the personality traits of close friends. After all, some of us spend more time with Sibelius than with anything, or anyone else!
Each major release brought with it a bevy of changes. Sibelius 6 introduced a whirlwind of upgrades in 2009 including Magnetic Layout, Versions, playback upgrades, ReWire support, not to mention vastly improved engraving features with slurs, articulations and chord symbols seeing marked improvement. The 2011 release of Sibelius 7, love it or hate it, was equally significant, not only with its change to the Ribbon interface but with a complete 64-bit rewrite and impressive advances in type and typography features, a brand new heavy-duty sound library, and a number of other things.
So when Avid announced Sibelius 7.5 early last year, it was a break from the reliable release cycle stretching back to 1999. Not only was the release more than 6 months later than usual, it was a more incremental evolution of the software. Since the well-known corporate and personnel changes within Avid in 2012 left many wondering if there was any future at all for Sibelius, even a modest release such at 7.5 was a welcome sign, and understandable given the circumstances. The version number seemed to be an acknowledgment that users should not expect an upgrade worthy of being called “Sibelius 8”. Appropriately priced at $50 US, once the 7.5.1 maintenance update came out in July last year, it has proved to be a solid upgrade.
One had to wonder, though, if the “.5” release was a temporarily hiccup owing to unique circumstances, or a harbinger of things to come. Would Sibelius 8 return to the pattern of impressive new features and notation improvements? Or would future updates take a more of incremental approach? And if the latter, how will Avid charge for such updates?
Avid answered those questions in April of this year, with the announcement of “the new Sibelius” along with new licensing options that included both perpetual and renewable licenses. We’ve already covered that announcement, and in May, senior product manager Sam Butler posted FAQs to further address questions and concerns about the new plans.
While those FAQs and license plans are important to understanding Avid’s new strategy, they have been widely discussed already and we won’t spend more space dissecting them here. Briefly, though (all prices USD):
- If you already own Sibelius (any version), the annual fee for a perpetual license is $89 which includes one year of updates
- If you’re new to Sibelius, you can pay $689 for a perpetual license which includes one year of updates, and $89 per year thereafter to keep it current with updates
- Whether you’re new to Sibelius or not, you have an alternative option of paying $20 per month for a renewable license ($240 per year)
- Educational discounts, as well as crossgrade discounts from competitive products are available
- With a perpetual license, the software will continue to work even if you stop paying for updates for as long as your operating system will support it — you just won’t be eligible for any further updates
- With a renewable license, the software will stop working at the end of your renewable license term
- All previous versions of Sibelius will continue to work just as they do now; current licenses are unaffected by whether or not you update
Even though the “new Sibelius“, released today, bears the version number 8.0 under the hood, it’s clear why Avid is keen to avoid using it: Sibelius 8 is the thinnest release ever for a Sibelius product that turns the left-most column on the odometer.
The new features in Sibelius 8.0 are:
- Support for Microsoft devices that use pen-and-touch
- Pinch-to-zoom and other touch gestures for touch screens and tablets
- Support for DPI scaling on Windows
Sibelius 8 will be most appealing to users whose primarily computer is a pen-and-touch tablet PC like the Surface Pro. The annotation feature, found at Review > Annotations > Annotate, can be switched on and off. When enabled, you can draw on the score using your mouse or pen, although drawing using the mouse is all but impractical.
Drawing with the pen generally works well. Even if you lift the pen, any marks you make within a second of each other are grouped together into the same annotation, making it relatively easy to select an annotation and delete it or move it around, without having to, say, individually select each letter of a word you wrote. Note, though, that if you’re super-fast and annotate in many different places in the score without waiting a second between each one, those annotations will be undesirably grouped together.
Annotations can be colored by selecting the annotation and choosing Home > Edit > Color > Choose Color. As of now, you can’t adjust the width of the pen stroke.
Annotations are staff-attached, not system-attached, and, once an annotation is selected, the attachment line will indicate the staff and bar to which it is attached. Like other Sibelius objects, they can be copied and pasted using the clipboard or by holding down Alt on PC or Option on Mac and clicking the destination. Annotations appear in the parts as well as in the score.
Annotations are cousins to comments and highlights in the Review category, and like those objects, they won’t print unless you have checked View options when you print your score. Unlike comments, however, annotations don’t appear in the filter, and there is no plug-in as of yet to delete them the way one can with highlights. So deleting many of them at once could be cumbersome unless a solution is invented.
Comments and highlights are valuable tools in certain workflow contexts. One can imagine annotations becoming useful in classroom or collaborative situations, or even when one is composing and wants to mark up a score in a handwritten fashion. Keep in mind, though, that annotations are “dumb” in that Sibelius won’t automatically turn your scribbles into text or music notation the way StaffPad or NotateMe will.
Other pen-and-touch enhancements, pinch-to-zoom, etc.
Rounding out the balance of the new features is support for pen-and-touch PCs. It works as you’d expect: you can select bars, objects, menu items, notes and just about anything else with the pen, and you can input notes by tapping on the screen with the pen the same way you can with a mouse pointer. Using your pen’s eraser, you can delete just about anything you ordinarily would by selecting and pressing the Backspace or Del key.
You can move around in the score by simply touching any blank area in the score and moving your finger around the score. It’s not a terribly efficient way of navigating compared to, say, swiping or touching to turn a page on an e-reader; it’s more like clicking in the score and using the hand-grabber to move around. If you’re in Annotate mode, you’ll need to use two fingers to move around the score in this way.
Pinch-to-zoom on both the screen and the trackpad mostly works. However, instead of zooming where your fingers are, like just about every other tablet browser and application does, Sibelius always focuses the zoom in the center of the screen regardless of where you pinch on your touchscreen, which is disorienting. There seems to be a bug right now where pinch-to-zoom in the parts works only on the trackpad but not directly on the touchscreen.
Sibelius 8 takes advantage of DPI scaling on hi-res Windows displays, although the proportions are off in most of the floating windows, palettes, and other GUI elements. Fortunately, the Keypad has been appropriately resized and updated with a new look. The Transport has also been modestly refreshed.
Installation of Sibelius itself is familiar enough.
There is an option to copy supporting files from 7.5, and it does a good job of transferring over all of your House Styles, Playback Configurations, custom shortcuts and menu items, as well as most of your preference setting, so that Sibelius 8 looks familiar when you run it for the first time. In my testing, custom shortcuts transferred over, but the Current feature set in File > Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts was reset to the default Standard menus and shortcuts. So if you have any custom shortcuts and want to use them, you’ll need to toggle this setting to select your custom set.
As mentioned, while this is technically version 8 of Sibelius, it’s only referred to as “Sibelius” in your list of applications. All your previous versions will remain undisturbed and will continue to work for as long as you like — despite rumors to the contrary, they are unaffected by any new license you purchase. However, since Sibelius 7, 7.5 and 8 all look alike, take care to make sure you’re working in the version of the software you intend.
Sibelius 8 is the first version to use the new licensing scheme and to make use of the Avid Application Manager, which is a separate application that is installed on your computer along with the Sibelius installation. Because I was working with a pre-release version of Sibelius, the process may slightly change once made publicly available, but I found it it rather straightforward. You purchase your upgrade or new license through the Avid store, or, if you buy from a reseller, you’ll get a card with a redemption code.
Once your product is purchased or redeemed, you install Sibelius and the Application Manager. Activation should be as simple as clicking Activate when Sibelius prompts you to so, which will in turn bring you into the login screen for your Avid Master Account through the Application Manager. Once logged in, wait for the activation to happen.
Sibelius will see the activation and will start automatically from there. It wasn’t more or less difficult than the previous system of copying and pasting system IDs and activation keys initially, although theoretically it should be easier in the long term: As you upgrade and install Sibelius on different computers, there shouldn’t be a need to deactivate and reactivate it; you’ll simply log in to your Avid account.
Finally, once you get up and running, you’ll notice that the startup music is from the first movement of Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6. Will we be working backwards through the symphonies now? Only time will tell. As before, you can disable this music from playing, or (unofficially) change it, should you wish.
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.