The story behind Sibelius 6: part 3

Opinion

If you’ve not seen either of the previous posts in this series, they’re here and here.

So let’s review our three chief goals for Sibelius 6:

  • Make the software more useful for educators and students, particularly those using Sibelius in a networked classroom environment.
  • Address some specific functional areas where competing products are perceived to have the edge on Sibelius.
  • Add some innovative new features that will appeal to users buying notation software for the first time, existing Sibelius users, and existing users of competing products alike.

In this post, I’m going to tell you about how we approached the second of these three goals.

There are some bits of software that come to define an entire category of applications. Oddly enough, first mover advantage tends not to play the most significant part in how this comes to be: neither Adobe Photoshop nor Microsoft Word, for example, were the first image processing and word processing packages available, though they have come to represent these areas of productivity in a generic way.

It’s our aim for Sibelius to become the program that defines the category of music notation software. In the UK, perhaps we have already achieved this, but in the US and a handful of other countries, Finale is still very much entrenched, and it is Finale that most often springs to mind when people think of music notation software, not Sibelius.

There are several reasons for this: firstly, Finale is a good program; secondly, Finale was available in the US for nearly 10 years before Sibelius hit the scene in 1998; and thirdly, there are still some things that Finale can do better than Sibelius.

We can’t do anything about the first two of these reasons, but we can tackle the third, and we set about filling in some gaps in functionality, putting our own spin on particular feature areas and hopefully improving upon them in the process.

Here are some examples.

Slurs

Sibelius’s slurs were designed from the outset to always produce slur-shaped slurs. That may seem a rather peculiar thing to say, but it bears some explanation: slurs are basically cubic Bézier curves, which means that they can be manipulated into quite extreme and asymmetrical shapes by adjusting the two control points by large and uneven amounts.

Therefore, we decided to simplify slurs such that it would be difficult to produce extreme, un-slur-like shapes, by only allowing the user to adjust the position of the center of the slur’s arc, which would in turn adjust the positions of the two (hidden) control points by even amounts.

But it turns out that sometimes you simply need the full control afforded by all of the cubic Bézier’s control points, so the first thing we set out to do in Sibelius 6 is provide access to all of those control points. Slurs now show six handles, all of which can be manipulated with either the mouse or the keyboard, and numerically using the Properties window. Furthermore, we made it possible to adjust the positions of each of these control points separately for slurs that cross a system or page break.

The next thing we set out to do was to make sure that slurs were always positioned as well as possible by default. In previous versions of Sibelius, the direction of a slur (i.e. whether it curves upwards over the notes or downwards below the notes) was determined only by the stem direction of the first note (if it was stem up, the slur would curve downwards; if it was stem down, it would curve upwards). Again, this was a simplification of the real rule, which is that slurs should curve upwards if any of the notes under the slur have downward-pointing stems; only if all of the notes under the slur have upward-pointing stems should the slur curve below the notes.

Having implemented this new slur direction rule (controlled by the option Position slurs on mixed stem notes above the notes on the Slurs page of House Style > Engraving Rules), we then wanted to improve the default shape of slurs. We introduced controls to balance the curvature of slurs (i.e. the vertical and horizontal positions of the two control points versus the length of the slur) against the overall height of the slur.

For good measure, we even made it possible to adjust the thickness of slurs, both globally (via Engraving Rules) and individually (via the Properties window). We also fixed a number of subtle problems that affected the thickness of rotated slurs (which did not previously taper at exactly the right point), their appearance on small staves, and so on.

The result is the most controllable, most elegant slurs of any notation program. Since the release of Sibelius 6 I have heard from a number of music engravers who are simply over the moon with the capabilities provided by our new slurs. No more can Finale users be able to say that only Finale can create slurs in any shape!

By the way, an aside regarding Finale’s Engraver Slurs, which can automatically avoid collisions with notes and accidentals under the arc: from Finale users I have spoken to over the years, and from doing a bit of reading, the most common advice you will find concerning Engraver Slurs is not to use them, because the shapes they typically end up at can be quite extreme and inelegant. Furthermore, until Finale 2009, it was also quite common for Engraver Slurs to appear as one shape on the screen, but another shape altogether when printed out, making them very difficult to work with.

So although we put a lot of effort into collision avoidance in Sibelius 6, slurs don’t currently avoid collisions with notes, accidentals and articulations under their arc. We didn’t want to introduce a new “time-saving” feature into the program that many users would be forced to switch off immediately.

Stemlets and feathered beams

Stemlets (or “half-stems”) and feathered (or “fanned”) beams have been on our wish list for many years, and we were glad to finally get the chance to work on these important features for modern notation in Sibelius 6, particularly as both were already handled by Finale and had been for some time.

Mind you, creating feathered beams in Finale is perhaps almost as laborious as the previous best workaround in Sibelius had been: in Finale, you input all the notes, then switch to the Special Tools tool, then grab the beam mover tool, and move the position of each beam one at a time; in Sibelius, you would hide the existing beam, and draw in the feathered beams using beam-like lines from the Create > Line dialog.

In Sibelius 6, however, feathered beams couldn’t be simpler: just input the notes, then switch to the beaming Keypad layout, and hit either the accel. beam button or the rit. beam button. Done!

Stemlets are much easier than feathered beams in Finale (they can be switched on with a single checkbox in the Document Options dialog), but Sibelius 6 goes several steps further, providing not only that single checkbox, but also simple controls on the Keypad for overriding the stemlet for any selected beamed rest, and options for minimum and maximum stemlet length, beam positioning when stemlets are present, and the ability to adjust the length of individual stemlets using the arrow keys.

Chord symbols

Sibelius’s chord symbols always had one big advantage over Finale’s: they could be input at any position in the bar without first having to create a note there. Finale users groused for years about having to create notes in a hidden layer simply in order to be able to attach chord symbols there. (Finale 2010 finally takes care of this detail, much to the delight of Finale users everywhere.)

But Finale’s chord symbols have historically had other advantages over Sibelius’s: most importantly, they can be input from the MIDI keybaord; they can optionally show “fretboards” (or guitar chord diagrams, in Sibelius’s terminology); and there is a sophisticated “suffix editor” in which you can edit your own chord types and change the appearance of how their suffixes should appear.

So we set out to design a new chord symbols feature that would address each of these issues. Our main aim was to make inputting chord symbols in Sibelius as fast as possible, so we looked at the current input method and identified three main problems: firstly, navigation between chord symbols was clumsy (you couldn’t, for example, quickly skip to the start of the next bar to input a chord symbol there; nor could you skip back to a previous chord symbol); secondly, typing complex chord symbols was difficult (requiring you either to memorise lots of keyboard shortcuts or spend a lot of time fishing bits of chord symbol out of the right-click word menu); and thirdly, you couldn’t use the MIDI keyboard to input chord symbols (what could be more natural than simply playing the desired chord on the keyboard?).

The first of these problems we addressed by adding a new set of keyboard shortcuts for moving between chord symbols, including Backspace to go to the previous one, Tab to go to the start of the next bar, and Shift-Tab to go to the start of the previous bar. The second we solved by eliminating the right-click menu altogether: to input a complex chord symbol by typing now, all you have to do is type in the plain text equivalent (e.g. “Dhalfdim” or “Cm7b5” or “Gaug” or “Cmaj7b9#11” or whatever) and Sibelius automatically parses the plain text input to create the appropriate chord symbol. And the third we solved by building in a sophisticated parser for chord symbols played from the MIDI keyboard, including figuring out when chords were being played over an altered bass note.

Of course, there are practically as many conventions for chord symbols as there are musicians in the world, so we wanted to make sure that our new system was as flexible as possible. We have provided switches between several of the most common conventions in the new Chord Symbols page of House Style > Engraving Rules, which allow you to change the appearance of all of the chord symbols in your score in a single operation, but also added a whole new dialog, House Style > Edit Chord Symbols, for editing the appearance of individual chord types. Not only can you choose between various different representations of the chord type, but you can also specify your preferred guitar chord diagram for any tuning of any fretted instrument, provide a preferred voicing to correspond to that chord type when input from a MIDI keyboard, and even provide a different text input shortcut (why type “Cmaj7b9#11” when you could type “Cbob” instead?).

And we added a little bit of extra intelligence so that Sibelius will show chord diagrams as appropriate: it will hide them for tab staves, or non-guitar instruments, but show them for guitar staves; and you can quickly cycle through alternative voicings with a keyboard shortcut.

Overall, the result is an incredibly deep suite of functionality that transforms chord symbols in Sibelius: no longer a chore to enter, you can now create the chord symbols for a lead sheet or arrangement in a matter of seconds. It’s a great example of how we like to take an existing feature and completely overhaul it, to make it faster, easier, more comprehensive, and more flexible.

Live Tempo

Both Finale, which has Tap Tempo, and Notion, which has NTEMPO, have features that allow you to control the speed of playback by tapping keys on your computer or MIDI keyboard. These kinds of features are useful both for adding a more human dimension to the playback of your score, and also for use in live performance situations (e.g. to augment or replace a live ensemble with the computer’s performance, or in tuition for aspiring conductors, where the computer’s playback can take the place of a pair of pianists or even a whole orchestra).

In those other programs, you have to create an extra staff on which to add notes that serve as the beats that the software expects you to play. This is useful, as it means that you can map out your performance in advance, deciding where you want to subdivide the beat (e.g. for an accel. or rit.), where you want to stop beating altogether, and so on, but it does somewhat remove spontaneity from the experience.

We set out to create a feature that would allow spontaneous changes of interpretation, in the same way that an experienced ensemble of real musicians can respond in real time to a conductor’s changing intention. Live Tempo is the result. You don’t need to map out your performance in advance: you can simply calibrate your keyboard, and away you go.

Live Tempo works on the principle of a “flywheel”, which reaches a particular speed and then keeps going at that speed. Knowing that any extreme changes in tempo will be marked in the score by an explicit tempo text or metronome mark instruction, Live Tempo is able to intelligently interpret your input, working out within moments if you suddenly decide to double or halve your tapping speed, or stop tapping altogether.

Overall, Live Tempo allows you to perform much more naturally than similar features in other programs. For the sake of completeness, we hope to be able to add further functionality to Live Tempo in a future version such that you will be able to mix free performance and mapped-out performance (where you specify exactly where you will tap) toegther, to provide the best of both worlds.

AudioScore Lite

Finale has for many years included a microphone input feature called MicNotator, which allows you to input notes by playing your woodwind or brass instrument into a microphone.

We went to our partners at Neuratron, the makers of the excellent music scanning and optical recognition software, PhotoScore Ultimate, and asked them if they would produce a special “lite” version of their audio recognition and transcription software, AudioScore Ultimate.

AudioScore Lite allows you to input notes from any acoustic instrument, or your voice, providing you with an easy-to-use interface for viewing and editing your performance, with flexible tools for correcting any pitch and rhythm mistakes, before sending it directly to Sibelius, where it opens as a new score, just as if you had input it yourself.

Coming soon…

In the next post in this series, I’ll tell you about how some of the unique new features in Sibelius 6 came to be.

Comments

  1. Michael Faunce-Brown

    How can I get rid of the metronome in Neuratron AudioScore Ultimate 6?
    I can’t see any icon.

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