An interview with Sibelius expert Robin Walker

Robin Walker

A benefit of being a Sibelius user, or any user of music software, is the opportunity to be part of a community of fellow users worldwide. I’ve met many terrific people because of my work in Sibelius and other software — some in person, some remotely via phone and internet, but all of them enriching and interesting.

One place where I hang out whenever possible is the official Sibelius chat forum, where a robust mix of occasional visitors and regulars go to seek and offer solutions about many Sibelius issues. One of those regulars, Robin Walker, is universally appreciated among his fellow users for his deep and broad knowledge of Sibelius. His replies are always clear and accurate, and he knows how to ask good follow-up questions to try to solve problems. I’m not alone when saying that I’ve learned quite a bit from him.

I thought it would be interesting to learn more about Robin and how he came to use Sibelius, among other things.

Sibelius Blog: Can you tell us a little about your background? Where you live, what you like to do, etc.?

Robin Walker: I grew up in Enfield, north London. After finishing school, I was accepted by Queens’ College in the University of Cambridge to read Physics. This was a life-changing event, as my family circumstances were fairly modest, and no one in my family had ever been to university before (my two younger brothers followed on to the same college in their own time). But mid-way through my undergraduate career I caught the computing bug. After graduating in Physics, I stayed on to take a Ph.D. in Computer Science. After graduating Ph.D. and obtaining an assistant university lectureship (Associate Professor in US terminology), I was elected a Fellow by Queens’ College, and given lots of undergraduate teaching to do. Eventually, the college made me Junior Bursar, responsible for the upkeep, maintenance, improvement of college buildings, and Director of Studies in Computer Science, responsible for the academic mentoring of undergraduate Computer Scientists.

SB: Tell us about the non-musical work you do. Does it influence your music, and if so, how?

RW: The college has taken me over: almost my whole life revolves around it. Greater even than my interest in Sibelius is my interest in the architectural history of the buildings of the college, the earliest of which date from 1448.

Old Court, Queens' College, Cambridge
Old Court, Queens’ College, Cambridge
(Photo credit: Cantab12 [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
SB: What is your musical background? What instrument(s) do you play, do you sing, or compose?

RW: I’m essentially musically illiterate. The school taught Latin, but not Music. Music was not a curriculum subject. The single music teacher was interested only in hammering into us by rote the tunes of all the hymns sung in school assemblies: once that had been achieved there was nothing more. But my mother was bringing home records (vinyl) of classical music borrowed from the local Record Library, which I transcribed (illegally) onto my (valve) tape recorder, and listened to repeatedly. Thus I came to recognize the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and so on (but not Brahms, I always fail to spot Brahms). One piece that still stands out in my memory from that period was “En Saga” by Sibelius, which I thought was absolutely thrilling.

But the lack of early music training has left a big hole from which I have never recovered. As a computer geek, I have no difficulties with formal notation, musical or otherwise: the difficulty for me lies in converting notation (which I completely understand) into practical sounds, or vice versa. So I get a computer to do this hard stuff, and memorize the results.

SB: When did you start using Sibelius, and what version?

RW: In 2006, the President of the college remarried. His new wife had a history of setting up choirs wherever she went, and she pretty quickly decided that the Fellowship needed sorting out, and formed a Fellows’ Choir from scratch. It seems that I did not duck fast enough. At rehearsals, I was appalled at the standard of the sheet music from which we were expected to sing (and which real musicians seemed to tolerate): faded multiple-generation photocopies stuck together with sellotape, and so on. It was bad enough not being able to sight-read, but these scores couldn’t even be read, period. I determined that “Something Needed To Be Done.” I inquired around various musical students, and it appeared that there were these things called Finale and Sibelius which might do the job: Sibelius was mentioned more often than Finale. But then I discovered that a new version of Sibelius was imminent, so I held off buying it until Sibelius 5 was released in June 2007, which I bought straight away.

I then took on the job of preparing properly legible scores for the choir, set in Sibelius, so I have effectively become librarian for the choir. Being librarian means being able to foretell the future, and intuit that maybe up to 20 ringers will turn up without notice for a recital tonight having not attended a single rehearsal, and expect to find the scores waiting there ready for them.

But there was more. Many other members of the choir, like me, could not sight-read. Rehearsal tracks were a priority need, so that the pieces could be learned by rote. Although the web (CPDL, etc.) is full of PDFs of choral music which can be used as scores to read in hard copy, the prerequisite for making rehearsal tracks is a machine-readable score. CPDL has some such machine-readable scores, but in many diverse formats, some obsolete (like .ETF), and many not importable into Sibelius. So, by force of circumstance, I became familiar with translating the file formats of other score-writers into something Sibelius could read.

After rejecting “Choir Ooos” as a basis for rehearsal tracks, I now use the Virtual Singer component of Harmony Assistant to make rehearsal tracks. The quality is obviously synthetic and poor, but the inclusion of consonants and different vowel sounds make a welcome improvement over “Ooos”, and the outcome is much more learnable.

SB: For what kind of projects, mostly, do you use Sibelius?

RW: Setting choral works mainly, and then producing rehearsal tracks on CD or MP3. Oh, and answering queries on the forum.

The largest job I had was the “Missa: Et ecce terrae motus” by Antoine Brumel, 571 bars in 12 parts, where I had to take the excellent work of a preceding copyist and reformat it into a performance-ready version in a matter of days. They wanted two systems, of 12 parts each, per A4 page, otherwise the choir would be page-turning too frequently. That’s 24 staves per A4 page. Quite a few close-spacing techniques had to be employed. Oh, did I mention the editorial accidentals above the staves? I got it down to 68 pages.

SB: You’re rightfully regarded as an expert on the chat forum, and have helped a great many users over time. When and why did you started using the chat forum?

RW: My first post on the Sibelius forum was on July 19, 2007, to report a bug in Sibelius 5. Clearly, it didn’t take long!

I sometimes wonder if there is a curse laid upon me. The curse is that I find bugs in other people’s programs. It’s been happening for decades, and I can’t seem to escape from it.

Robin Walker is an active and helpful presence on the Sibelius chat forum
Robin Walker is an active and helpful presence on the Sibelius chat forum

SB: What are some Sibelius techniques that are particularly useful to you? Any tips, plug-ins or program features you’d like to share?

RW: MusicXML import and export are very important to me. After that, Reset to Design, Reset Spacing, Make into System, Make into Page, and Optimize Staff Spacing.

SB: What are some things you wished Sibelius could do better, or features you’d like to see incorporated in the program?

RW: Of course there are things that Sibelius can do better, or differently: you only have to browse the Ideascale Sibelius site to see the many ideas from end-users. In some respects, Sibelius is let down by weaknesses in underlying frameworks, or library packages, that it uses, some of which are open-source. That’s just some hard graft that needs to be done: fixing other people’s code (if they allow you to).

Well-known notational weaknesses in Sibelius include the handling of tuplets and cross-staff notes, and there are inflexibilities in matters such as mixed staff sizes, and scaling of any object independently. The mere fact that they haven’t been fixed after many version updates indicates that there must be some real difficulties there, perhaps striking at the very heart of the software. Indeed, there haven’t been any improvements to basic notation engraving for many versions, if you discount magnetic layout, which isn’t really a notational change.

Another challenge for Sibelius is that its ease-of-use relies heavily on the numeric keypad of the computer keyboard: an object which is by now almost extinct. Nothing more clearly labels Sibelius as a child of the 1990s than its dependence on the numeric keypad.

The world is moving into tablets and touch-sensitive screens, and that is a huge challenge for a score-writing application to adapt to. The finger is a crude and blunt instrument compared with a mouse-pointer: music is fine and detailed.

At a technical level, both the VST APIs and the MIDI protocols have been updated with new versions and it might be necessary to incorporate some of those changes to remain interoperable with third-party products.

Although Sibelius adapted to Unicode quite early on by comparison with its competitors, it is still reliant on a galaxy of legacy 8-bit non-Unicode fonts for its own symbols and text. Will Sibelius be able to adapt to SMuFL-based Unicode fonts? And still be able to use the old fonts that Finale uses?

SB: Sibelius 7 was enthusiastically adopted by some users, but there are still a number of users using Sibelius 6 (or earlier). As a long-time Sibelius user yourself, any learning curve or tips to help users adapt to 7 or 7.5? Did you upgrade in the middle of a project and were there any growing pains?

RW: I found the transition to Sibelius 7 completely unremarkable and trivial. It was clear that the functionality of the underlying application was still the same, only the skin had changed. It seemed to me that the make-over was a pretty astute move to keep hold of the important schools market and other newcomers to score-writing. In some respects, the new skin was a real improvement: try explaining to a newbie how to “Change Instrument” in Sibelius 6, for instance: neither obvious, nor intuitive!

When I heard the chorus of horror from the some of the user community about the new skin, I was reminded of the debates in the 1980s, when the advocates of the DOS command line were telling us that their commands could be much more expressive and powerful than these newfangled graphical user interfaces and menus. And maybe they were right: but does anyone care any more? It’s all ancient history now. Just as cascading menus will become ancient history as touch-sensitive screens and “modern” user interfaces take over. Even the Ribbon may fade in time: such is the nature of technological evolution.

The real achievement of version 7 was the implementation of a 64-bit version, and that will be the lasting legacy.

For those still on Sibelius 6, there is no great need to upgrade if they are content with where they are, and do not need any features specific to version 7 onwards. The tipping point is likely to be any future machine upgrade: although Sibelius 6 is likely to remain compatible with Windows for some time, I can’t say the same about Mac OS. Already, Sibelius 5 will not run properly on recent versions of Mac OS, and I fear the clock might be ticking on Sibelius 6. If you can afford a new Apple Mac, you should also be able to afford an upgrade to Sibelius 7.x.

SB: What are your computer specs?

RW: Hopelessly antiquated at present. Both my desktop and laptop are at end-of-life, both still 32-bit Windows, 4GB RAM. Replacements will be 64-bit Windows, as powerful as I can afford, and carry around. The only reason I might like to have a Mac is to better answer forum queries on Macs.

SB: What other technology do you use?

RW: A smartphone. A Kindle. But no MP3 devices.

SB: What other music software do you use? Do you ever use it in conjunction with Sibelius?

RW: PhotoScore, and PDFtoMusic Pro, to produce material for import to Sibelius. Harmony Assistant/Virtual Singer to make rehearsal tracks from Sibelius scores.

Occasionally, Finale, Encore, Capella, Noteworthy, to read other score-file formats.

SB: What other computer software (non-music) do you use?

RW: You mean there is such?

SB: What is some of your favorite music to listen to and/or study?

RW: Silence!


  1. Derek Williams

    Many thanks for this insight into Robin’s distinguished academic background and his relationship with Sibelius. Always nice to put a face to a name!

  2. Bob Zawalich

    Robin is one of the people whose chat page responses I will always read, and it is indeed wonderful to learn something about him. Thanks for all you have done for the Sibelius community, Robin!

    For Robin: I would think you might find the Sibelius (shipping) Rehearsal Recordings plugin useful if it were not for the fact that the sounds will not be what you like. I don’t know if it would be worth it to try using the plugin to split a score into scores for all the parts, and then run the results into Harmony Assistant. It might be something to consider.

  3. Mike Philcox

    I am also one of the many Sibelius users who enjoy and benefit from your responses on the Sibelius forum. Thank you, Robin.

    I am curious about your reference to preparing rehearsal recordings for choir using Virtual Singer with Harmony Assistant. Am I correct in understanding there is unfortunately no way to use this ability with Sibelius?

  4. Robin Walker

    Mike, the point is that Virtual Singer sings the actual lyrics, both vowels and consonants, whereas the best that Sibelius can do is make an Oooh noise, regardless of vowel, and with no consonants at all. Virtual Singer makes a reasonable stab at pronouncing each language according to that language’s own rules: if it gets it wrong, you can tweak it with phonetic instructions.

    I dearly wish Sibelius could sing lyrics itself, and I have such a feature suggestion on the Sibelius Ideascale site.

  5. Mike Philcox

    I agree this would be a fabulous addition to Sibelius and one that would be used by a huge number of users, I think. Thanks for the clarification.

  6. Tony Wakefield

    I think I would find I-pad touch screens awkward. I don`t possess one, I certainly don`t want one, as there seems to be far less fore-arm movement required in mouse inputting, which at least saves my joints from waring out :)
    (I can imagine everyone`s forefinger and hand looking like ET`s in 1000 years time!!)

    Just discovered a potential howler of mine – is Sibelius 6 not 64-bit compatible? I`ve been using 6, but no problem(?) as I have 7 and a 64-bit operating system, so I suppose I should install 7? What say you please?

    I`d like to ask if Virtual Singer (Harmony Assistant) can be inserted into a Sibelius score, and mix VST instru. sounds and the sounds of HA. Or is it only possible to work entirely in HA with perhaps HA`s own piano or organ accompanimants?

    Lastly, than you Robin. I can`t quite remember if you`ve jumped in at any time to save my bacon, but so good to hear of your background and your other areas of expertise.

  7. Peter Roos

    Great interview, thanks for all your help Robin.

  8. Jane Frasier

    Great interview and very interesting that your background and education did not include much music.

    I follow the FACEBOOK groups that you participate in and am astounded by your knowledge of Sibelius and music notation.

    Thanks so much. Bravo

    Jane Frasier

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