Advanced MIDI import arrives in Sibelius 2019.9

Reviews

Today Avid released Sibelius 2019.9, its latest update to Sibelius. It introduces a brand new way of importing MIDI data that can make working with such files much easier and faster. Other than some bug fixes and performance improvements, the import feature is the major new item in Sibelius 2019.9, so let’s get right to it.

The MIDI conundrum

MIDI files have long been the ugly ducklings — literally — when it comes to music notation software. MIDI output isn’t intended to look good; after all, isn’t that what notation software is for?

Although MIDI has always been a part of the major software programs, it’s always felt as if the software was begrudgingly just doing the bare minimum to load the music and get rid of it as quickly as possible. Sure, there are some quantization options and such, but beyond that it seems as though MIDI input was channeling Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — you never quite knew what you were going to get.

Besides, MIDI files are often conceived in a different galaxy of the composition universe. While notation-based composers (and notation software) tend to organize their creations around a player holding an instrument and all of the different sounds that player can create with their instrument, DAW-based compositions (and DAW software) are more often organized around the sounds themselves, regardless of the playing technique required to create the sound.

It’s a bit of a generalization, but it bears itself out in this brief example, where a composer might load a half-dozen different tracks to create the various sounds envisioned for a cue, with each track containing a separate sample.

If you ever orchestrate music for film you’ve doubtless seen something like this before. So what do you do? You dutifully open it in your software of choice…

…and put on a pot of coffee, because this is the first of many cues you need to crank out before tomorrow’s session.

Importing MIDI into Sibelius 2019.9

The new MIDI importing feature in Sibelius 2019.9 finally attempts to break free of this paradigm. It’s successful in many ways, and I’m almost more excited for its potential to be further improved upon in subsequent releases than I am for this first iteration of the feature. But even as it comes in 2019.9 you may well be substituting some herbal tea for that coffee, thanks to the time it saves and the order it could bring to your scores.

The importing feature is found in a new area of the Backstage, the myriad collection of items you find when selecting the purple File tab. As you’d expect, the area is labeled Import and you’ll see it immediately under Export.

The new Import feature in the File area…

Right now importing via this area is limited chiefly to MIDI files. It is still possible to import MusicXML files, and indeed to import MIDI files in the old way, but in Sibelius parlance this is known as “opening” a file — although confusingly you’ll find that under the Import tab on the Quick Start.

…not to be confused with the old Import (Open) feature from the Quick Start.

This is important because one of the main differences in the new import feature is that you use it on an existing Sibelius file that you have already set up with a complement of instruments already set, whereas “opening” a MIDI file simply creates a new Sibelius file corresponding to each track in the MIDI. The reason for this new approach will become clear shortly, but for now let’s dive into the new File > Import feature and see what it can do.

Many-to-one: Automatically consolidate tracks based on technique and articualtion

In the File > Import area, you can select Browse… to search for your MIDI file, or, in a nice touch, simply drag it onto the Instruments area.

Once that’s done, you can either assign instruments manually or click Auto Assign and have Sibelius attempt to do it for you based on the instruments in your existing template.

Sibelius generates a preview based on your settings. Here are the results I got when trying the violin example from earlier in this post:

This is where things get really interesting. Notice how Sibelius picked up on the labels in the MIDI file and attempted to map them to the Violin 1 staff using the articulation and technique names from each MIDI track. It got some of them, but not all (Sibelius has pre-defined naming conventions). So, I’ll manually select the rest (and I could even select more than one articulation if I wanted to):

Notice what’s happened in the preview, in real time as I’ve made these selections.

Sibelius has consolidated all six tracks into one Violin staff, and has added technique text or articulations as appropriate — just as you’d do if you were preparing this for a real player!

Ah, but you say, what about those unsightly notes at the beginning? Those familiar with the process know that these are keyswitches — out-of-range notes that are used to trigger a sample change.

Sibelius has a solution for that, as well. In the Notation section at the bottom, you’ll notice some of the familiar MIDI import options, but new in Sibelius there is an option to Filter keyswitches. Changing this value (here I’ve adjusted the Below value to F2) will make those notes disappear.

Once you’re satisfied with your results, click the big Import button and you’ll immediately see the result in your score:

There are a few picky things: a duplicate pizzicato mark (likely a small bug), a small positioning tweak to the “arco” in bar 3, and not accounting for a removal of the mute in bar 12 (likely a conflict between the pizzicato and con sord. techniques). But otherwise this passage is otherwise very usable and exponentially better than any result we’ve ever seen importing MIDI into notation software.

What if I don’t want to overtax the first violins and instead split up the passage among Violin 1 and 2? That’s completely possible. In that case, I would adjust my mapping accordingly. The following seems like a reasonable distribution based on the passage:

And here are the results — again with nothing added or adjusted. Notice how, this time, Sibelius correctly adds the “senza sord.” to the Violin 2 this time, since there was no pizz./arco conflict to contend with.

It’s brilliant how this is all done at the import stage without having to fiddle with anything in the score. And there’s more…

One-to-many, with optional automatic explode

Often as an orchestrator I’ll get a MIDI track that’s just labeled “Strings” or “Low Brass”, leaving it up to me to, you know, orchestrate.

Let’s look at one such example, a brief string chorale. Before this new feature, the best I could hope for upon MIDI import would be something like this:

With Sibelius’ new importing feature, though, I can create a “one-to-many” mapping scheme, telling Sibelius to copy one MIDI track over to multiple instruments in my template…

…and, coupled with the new Explode music when arranging to multiple instruments option…

…get automatic results that are probably similar or identical to how I would have chosen to manually orchestrate the passage:

Very nice!

One thing you can’t do, though, is explode music from multiple MIDI tracks to more than one instrument. If you attempt to do this, Sibelius will warn you and disable the Explode option.

Use your own template

Even if you don’t make use of the more sophisticated MIDI assignment settings described above, you can still take advantage of the feature by bringing a MIDI file directly into your template, something that was previously a multi-step process (although made easier by using Tom Curran’s venerable Impose Sketch Onto Template plug-in).

Say you’ve got a Sibelius file set as a template with all of your custom fonts, styles, page layout and parts set up just the way you like, either as a regular Sibelius file or as Manuscript Paper, like this:

Once you open that template, you can import a MIDI file using File > Import and Auto Assign. Here, I’ve mostly got a one-to-one mapping, but have used one-to-many on the trumpets, since my template had those instruments already separated:

And see the results come directly into that template, ready to go:

Just be careful you don’t overwrite your existing template if you use an ordinary Sibelius file. Either make a copy beforehand or immediately Save As a new file after importing your data.

What’s more

Re-importing MIDI into an existing score

You can run File > Import more than once on the same score and selectively choose which tracks/instruments you wish to import, leaving other information intact. Be aware that you might overwrite existing data, though, and Sibelius does not warn you that you are about to do so.

Round metronome marks

In addition to some of the options specific to the new File > Import feature, there’s a new Round metronome marks option which, if checked, will round the metronome marks of imported MIDI files to the nearest whole number. This new option also appears in the dialog when opening a MIDI file using File > Open. (You’ll still want Neil Sands’s plug-in handy if you need a few more choices.)

Matching instruments, techniques and articulations

According to Avid’s Sam Butler, Sibelius uses artificial intelligence pattern matching for the Auto Assign feature. “This feature scales to any number of tracks with several playing techniques and articulations, so you can throw huge MIDI files at it, and Sibelius will methodically go through each track to find the best match,” Sam said.

There’s more information about this on Sam’s official blog post on the Avid web site.

There’s also a hashtag feature where you can force Sibelius to match up tracks from your MIDI source file and the Sibelius destination file, if you find that the automatic feature isn’t returning a good result. Essentially you would have to tag the track in the DAW and in your Sibelius file (preceded by a tilde so it then hides the tag) in order for it all to match correctly. Although I appreciate the inclusion of the feature, good luck getting your composer to consistently tag his or her DAW output for you. If you are involved in creating the MIDI file from the source DAW, though, you might have better luck with this. At least there is a solution if you can make it work.

Other uses

The primary focus of the new MIDI import feature is to interweave orchestral mockups into a score file template with matching instrument names. But if your transcription work caters to the pop band format, you’ll be pleased to know that MIDI drum tracks, bass lines, and keyboard-related tracks all import as expected. These are simple one to one tracks, so the feature should serve you well.

Accessibility

The MIDI import feature was designed with accessibility in mind. The Instrument assignment table is keyboard accessible. Tab enters and exit the table, the Arrow keys move the focus forward and backwards through the list, Space bar opens the list of available instruments, and again assigns instruments, and Return to close the list. This is good not just for visually-impaired users but for anyone relying on the keyboard for speed and efficiency.

Although you can access File > Import using key tips, an option to program a direct shortcut via Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts is missing from Sibelius 2019.9. This appears to be an oversight and should be added in a future update.

What’s missing

For a first iteration of a new feature, the new MIDI import workflow is remarkably impressive. It will be very helpful for certain users, and may suit some needs perfectly. As with many new features, though, there’s potential for so much more. Here are the areas where I’d like to see this area improved.

Add instruments during import

This has to be top of the list. If your MIDI file contains 12 instrument tracks, but your score file only has 10, there’s no function for the new import dialog to create the missing instrument staves. You’ll either have to abort the process, open your template, modify it, save it, and start again, or continue with the import process, add instruments later, and then run the import tool again, being careful to not overwrite your existing import.

Bringing the Add/Edit Instruments function into the importing feature, the way we are accustomed to seeing it during the setup of a new score, would be an obvious way to address this shortcoming.

Automatically add staves corresponding to source

Sibelius 2019.9’s design of bringing the source data directly onto your destination staves will work very well in many cases. Some people, though, will want to have more control and keep the destination staves in their template “clean” even after importing the source data, or they may wish to make use of Sibelius’ 2019.9’s powerful new features but also retain a copy of the raw MIDI in the score.

An option to simply add extra staves to the template that correspond to the source, and bring the music into those staves would effectively allow the user to work with scratch staves and keep the option of having the source data and the orchestration in one file. Effectively this would be a combination of importing a MIDI file using File > Import and File > Open.

Improved MIDI interpretation

The old saying “garbage-in, garbage-out” applies. If your MIDI file is a heap of unquantized notes flailing off-the-grid, Sibelius 2019.9 doesn’t fare any better at making sense of it than earlier versions did. Admittedly, divining intentions from such a file is tricky, but it would be great to see some additional options to interpret the data such as those recently introduced in Dorico, like the Fill gaps option.

Save settings

Once you’ve taken the time to set up your keyswitch filters, voicing, quantizing and other options, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to save those MIDI import settings for later, or even to cycle through different presets to see which one gets the best results on any particular file? That would take this already great feature and push it into the realm of hyper-efficiency.

MusicXML and Sibelius file import

The next logical step is to extend the MIDI import workflow to MusicXML and Sibelius files.

One could well imagine receiving a piano reduction in Sibelius and using this importing feature to quickly bring it into a template to orchestrate (this was the original inspiration for the Impose Sketch Onto Template plug-in). Similarly, bringing in MusicXML files in this manner, such as from scanned material or from other notation software, is a no-brainer.

Other information and final thoughts

The Sibelius 2019.9 update is free for all Sibelius users with active subscriptions and upgrade plans. The updated installers are available through users’ Avid accounts and through Avid Link.

There are some bug fixes and other improvements in Sibelius 2019.9. Avid says that the program is more stable, and that Spotlight and Quick Look are working again on macOS.

Speaking of macOS, Sam Butler says that “We expect this Sibelius 2019.9 release to run well on macOS Catalina [10.15] when the new operating system is released in due course. Earlier versions of Sibelius will not be supported.” We take this to mean that, if you upgrade to Catalina, Avid will only support Sibelius 2019.9 on that OS. Older Sibelius versions may well still run on Catalina, but won’t be officially supported by Avid on that OS. (We’ll publish a separate blog post on Scoring Notes about Catalina and notation software compatibility closer to the October release planned by Apple. For a full Sibelius compatibility chart, see Avid’s web site.)

Hopefully this is the beginning, and not the culmination, of building a new way of working in Sibelius. There’s much to be pleased with in this release, not the least of which is that the Sibelius team is addressing the multifarious ways in which users get music into Sibelius and need to manipulate it further. If you’re a movie composer or orchestrator, we’ll leave it up to you to determine if this feature qualifies as a “blockbuster”. Whatever the verdict, we’re looking forward to the sequel!

Bernie Cossentino contributed to this post.

Comments

  1. Charles Gaskell

    Can you specify different key-switch ranges for different instruments (e.g. double bass, violin)?

    1. Philip Rothman

      Charles: It does not appear so, and that would be very nice to apply keyswitches by instrument. But generally keyswitches are at the extreme ends of the register, so you can at least filter out the extreme notes.

  2. Quetzal Marchiori

    Quick Look, finally back I hope!

  3. David Tobin

    When I export from Logic I tend to use XmL to allow for accurate reading of piano hand switching notes.

    Is this working properly via midi import in the new version?

    1. Philip Rothman

      No, as mentioned, the new import feature does not yet support MusicXML. You can, of course, still open MusicXML files in the usual way.

  4. David

    Excellent update, enormous potential. I tested it quite a bit, it is quirky but still very impressive.

    One of several hopeful fixes: if one leaves the input page, everything is wiped out and you have to start from scratch. Let’s say I import a midi file into a pop/rock template then find out the file has 2 saxes. I could just go to the template and add sax staves… but it wipes everything out.

    I did one string “explode” where everything had double notes. There’s probably a plugin for that. I did another that had notes in second violin below the open “G”. And there’s some bugginess when clicking on the arrows that I am sure will get worked out.

    Congrats to the Sibelius team, this is going to be useful now and very useful in the future.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi David. Agreed that the import window needs to be “stickier” and the ability to add/remove instruments directly from it is needed.

      I’ve confirmed the arrow key thing is a bug. It’s linked to the print tab (probably copied/pasted code) and they will sort this out in an update. Here is the workaround for now: Within the backstage, go to the Print tab, and then change your setting from “print the current page” to “print all pages.” Then return to the import tab and the score preview will allow you to navigate all pages of the score.

    2. rAnonGuy

      Does avid have a list of the track names Sibelius expects to map articulations correctly?

  5. Sean

    I did some thorough testing and have some additional wishes/complaints:

    The Auto Assign button is pretty hit or miss. I had some midi tracks that were clearly labeled Violin I or Violin II but they were left unassigned. This leaves me to assign the remaining tracks manually, but any time I click and make a change it takes a few seconds to calculate the score preview, so I don’t feel like it is saving me any time. Especially if it is a 3-4 minute cue with full orchestra.

    If I am trying to explode a midi track to multiple staves, I can’t just check all the boxes for the staves I want in a row because it calculates the score preview and closes the drop down menu each time I click. So I have to keep re-opening the dropdown menu to select the next instrument.

    As David mentioned, the explode feature defaults to copying notes to all the staves. So if I am exploding a string multi track to the string staves, and there are a few measures with a single long A4 note, I don’t want the A4 doubled in Vln2, Via, Vc. and Cb. My default Explode settings do NOT put notes in all parts so I’m not sure why it is defaulting to this behavior on midi import.

    The ability to add technique text is great, but the only options are pizz., con sord. and col legno. It would be much more useful with more options and the ability to add your own text. For example, I might like to add “trill” to remind myself to add a trill line above the note. It could also be useful to add text like “flautando” or “non vib.”, etc.

    There is no option to turn off the import of markers, so they will either import as system text or hit points. This is annoying because it adds an extra step of deleting the hit points if I don’t want them., and the midi files I receive to orchestrate generally have lots of markers.

    Opening midi files with tuplets has always created issues in Sibelius (I really wish they would focus on this), but the import feature seems to be amplifying those problems. I imported a midi file which had a measure with quarter note triplets and the notes were replaced with rests after importing (still showing the triplet bracket). I opened the same exact midi file (rather than importing) and the notes were there.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Sean. I agree with all of your comments, especially the re-opening of the dropdown, which gets tiresome quickly. I think the Sibelius team is aware of the bug regarding the automatic recognizing of Violin staves.

      Regarding markers: Did you try unchecking “Markers as hitpoints” in the “Include” section?

      1. Sean

        I did try unchecking “Markers as hitpoints” and the markers instead imported as tempo text for some reason.

        I tried unchecking “Metronome marks” as well and the markers still import as tempo text.

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