Graphical MIDI Tools plug-in brings sequencer-like capabilities to Sibelius

Reviews

In the several decades since music notation software was first invented, users have yearned for a professional-level notation program that included the tools found in a graphically-oriented sequencer. These tools most notably included ways to set and automate MIDI control change data such as volume, expression, modulation, panning, pitch bend, and sustain. Further tools found in any sequencer include shortening or lengthening the duration of notes independent of their notated values as well as overriding the note velocities that may be tied to the notated expression.

In fact, these tools have existed for a long time in the market-leading programs Finale and Sibelius, and are found in other notation programs as well. The impediment to using these tools has been the lack of a user-friendly interface to manipulate the data. In Sibelius, certain such information must be entered as a series of hidden text while other data must be controlled in the Inspector in the form of numeric values.

Although Sibelius has been a part of Avid since 2006, the anticipated tighter synergy with Pro Tools has never materialized, and today the products still occupy very different spheres in the world of professional music. With Dorico, Steinberg has taken up the cause of sequencer-like features in notation software with gusto.

Still, the raw materials are present for such capabilities to exist within Sibelius, if only a suitable approach could be made. For now, that respoonsibility has fallen upon third-parties to provide alternative approaches.

Wallander Instrument’s NotePerformer offers one way, replacing Sibelius’s sounds with a complete library of its own as well as a sophisticated way of interpreting the score to offer realistic interpretations based solely on the notated music. It is a “set it and forget it” solution, getting excellent results for those not wishing to manipulate MIDI data on their own, but not allowing for tweakability for those so inclined.

Ozie Cargile’s UltraMix plug-in addresses a particular need of users to transfer mixer settings between scores along with several other features related to use of the mixer. It does what it does well, but doesn’t address the aforementioned tasks of manipulating MIDI data.

So when Santiago Barx — a film composer from Buenos Aires who studied orchestration and composition for film and TV at Berklee — announced his Graphical MIDI Tools plug-in, intended to manipulate MIDI information in the score in a graphical manner, to say that I was intrigued would be an understatement.

Graphical MIDI Tools (GMT), available from Notation Central for $35, is a Sibelius plug-in that cleverly and ingeniously takes full advantage of Sibelius’s extended features such as colored objects, custom text, hidden MIDI messages, and more. It uses those features to superimpose a temporary sequencer-like frame on any given selection, and then gives the user the ability to draw in automations to manipulate the data in a way never before seen in a Sibelius tool, to my knowledge. Moreover, there are additional windows to adjust velocity and note duration in piano roll-like fashion.

GMT is not a true playback window like that which is found in Dorico. It relies on a number of workarounds imposed by the ManuScript plug-in language in order for it to work, about which Santiago is completely forthcoming. It feels a little like using Microsoft Paint when you might rather be using Adobe Illustrator.

But it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless. If you have a need for editing MIDI data information in Sibelius, once you get accustomed to GMT’s idiosyncrasies, you will easily get satisfactory results.

Anyone wishing to use GMT should watch and study Santiago’s tutorial video about the plug-in:

Installation and setup

The first order of business is installing the plug-in. Because GMT is not available from the Sibelius web site, it cannot be installed from within Sibelius and thus it must be installed manually. Instructions are provided with the plug-in. Alternatively, if you don’t want to muck around in your computer’s various folders you can use Bob Zawalich’s Install New Plugin, which itself is a plug-in that can be installed from within Sibelius.

GMT itself is simply one plug-in file and there are no other additional files needed.

Once GMT is installed and Sibelius is re-started, a shortcut must be assigned to it through File > Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts. While theoretically you can assign to it any key combination, practically you will want to use a single keystroke, as will become evident. Santiago uses W in his video, but because that letter is the default shortcut for toggling between a score and part, I set it to use U instead (so chosen because it is “U”nused by default).

If you have a Stream Deck (especially one with Notation Express), you could add a button on any Stream Deck corresponding to the shortcut key (here’s a graphic you can use for the button). You could also assign a spare button on a mouse or other pointing device that would trigger the shortcut key.

Invoking the tools

To use GMT, you make a selection and press the shortcut key. Upon doing so, a graphical overlay appears on the selected bars.

The overlay is so meticulously constructed that you could be easily fooled into thinking that the overlay was a legitimate new view option. In fact, though, it is dozens of ordinary Sibelius objects such as lines, text, and symbols, that are intricately placed together to give the appearance of a composite window. You won’t want to move these items around, but if you accidentally do it won’t cause harm — closing and re-opening the window will reset everything (more on how to do that later).

This next part is essential to understanding how GMT works. As Santiago explains in his video, the Sibelius ManuScript language does not register mouse clicks, but it does register selections. So in order to execute anything in GMT, you must first select the item, and then press the plug-in’s shortcut key. Clicking on its own won’t change anything. Yes, it’s an extra step, but it’s the only way for this approach to work. After a couple of minutes of getting used to it, it becomes second nature, if not exactly as speedy as ordinary clicking is.

You can even open multiple frames at once, simply by including those bars in your selection, either before any GMT frame is open or at any time while one is open:

Using GMT control changes

The default control change “tabs” in GMT are the mod wheel (MOD), expression (EXP), volume (VOL), and pan (PAN). You can have up to six tabs open, which appear in the upper left corner of the GMT frame.

To show additional tabs, you click on the preferences tab (CFG) and press the shortcut key.

The sustain and pitch bend control changes are pre-populated in the fifth and sixth slots, respectively, but you can set these or any of the other tabs to any control change you like, as well as changing their colors and abbreviations, and click Save Preferences. This makes GMT very powerful and customizable, and permits the user to configure it to work with any sound library. To improve this further, I would suggest an additional option to save multiple sets of preferences to work with different sound libraries and configurations.

Once you’ve set your preferences, you can return to the score.

Creating automations follows a regular process. To automate the modulation wheel, for instance, you first click on the MOD tab and press the shortcut key (for the remainder of this article, I will assume that the shortcut key is U.) The frame will turn the color of the active tab.

In GMT, the hand martellato symbol is repurposed as a pencil tip akin to one you might find in a DAW. Once you activate the desired the control change tab, select the pencil and move it to the desired location in the frame. The vertical location corresponds to the CC value; a higher position will be greater, while a lower position will be less — from 127 to 0. The horizontal location, of course, corresponds to the location in the bar. Once you have positioned the pencil, press U.

GMT will start plotting automation points that will look very familiar to anyone that has used a sequencer.

Behind the scenes — in teensy 1-point hidden text, with larger text corresponding to actual plot points — GMT writes a multitude of MIDI messages that correspond to the graphical direction of the automation line. It’s this text, which contains the controller number and value, that actually tells Sibelius how to interpret the music. (You can read up on how this works more in the Reference, if you wish.)

Changing note velocities and duration

In the lower left of the frame are the velocity (v) and piano roll (pr) tabs. To activate these, use the same method as everything else in GMT – click on the tab and then press U.

When you activate the velocity tab, you will likely see dashed vertical lines. This signifies that Sibelius is using the default velocity based on the expression text.

To manually set the velocity for a note, move the pencil to the desired beat position and the vertical level signifying the velocity level, and press U.

A pink bar appears corresponding to the velocity level. What is actually happening here is that Sibelius is setting the Live velocity value of the note, which is found in the Inspector > Playback. (Live Playback must be enabled in Play > Live Playback.)

To make a velocity setting apply to only one note in a chord, you first select the note, and then set the pencil position, and then press U. The pink bar will appear, but this time without the border, signifying that the value only applies to the note and not the whole chord.

The piano roll works much as you’d expect. Invoking it calls up a piano roll overlay with red bars that represent the duration of the notes. Moving the endpoints of the bar left or right, or indeed the entire bar, and pressing U, will change the start position and duration of the corresponding note. Again, this is reflected in the note’s Inspector values, this time with Live start position and Live duration changed.

There are even handy up and down arrows to navigate to higher and lower notes. Again, click on the arrow and then press U.

One caveat here: the vertical position of the bar is helpful for visually distinguishing the pitch of the notes relative to the other surrounding notes, but moving the bar will not change the pitch of the notes. For that you must move the note up or down in the conventional “notation” way.

Clearing data, soloing the track, closing the frame

You might be wondering, once you apply MIDI data using GMT, what happens if you change your mind? Thankfully, Santiago has thought of that. The small X in the bottom right corner is used to clear data for the active frame. It only applies to the active control change tab, meaning that that if you have both mod wheel and expression data, you can clear the mod wheel data only while leaving the expression data intact. This is helpful, but I would also appreciate a “clear all” feature.

Unlike for control change data, I could not find a way to clear velocity or piano roll changes using GMT.

You can solo playback the track to hear your adjustments by clicking the green playback arrow in the lower left corner, and pressing U.

Finally, to close the frame, click the large X in the upper right corner of the frame. (The X is wisely positioned a little higher than the tabs in case the tabs obscure it due to the width of the bar.) If you have multiple GMT frames open, you can Cmd/Ctrl-click on more than one X to close frames simultaneously. Of course, because the GMT frame is constructed of existing Sibelius objects, be sure to close any active frames before printing your score.

Conclusions

As mentioned before, Graphical MIDI Tools is not a true sequencer solution for Sibelius nor is it a replacement for one. But it is a unique tool and brings a whole new level of usability to Sibelius. Kudos and admiration are rightly in order.

Using GMT with a house style other than Sibelius’s defaults may produce items that are out of place. For example, when I ran GMT using my Norfolk house style, the text items in the frame were misaligned. This didn’t affect their functionality, but it made working with the tool less visually appealing.

Your results may vary depending on the sound library and playback configuration you are using, and you may need to make adjustments in the plug-in’s preferences to account for this.

GMT has recently been updated to version 1.2, which includes some improvements to indicate the value you’re drawing, as well as the velocity “sticks”. The “clear” functionality is now present for the velocity and mini piano roll modules, and the close button now works for all the opened bars, so there is no need to close each one individually.

Creating GMT must have taken an enormous about of time to conceive and develop. I asked Santiago about it and why he decided to create this tool. He replied:

While creating music for films I usually write the complete score in Sibelius (i.e., not starting directly with the sequencer). Once I have the actual written score, I export it into a MIDI file, and open it in the sequencer. This process involves remapping each track (usually around thirty!) to an instrument. In this “mixing” stage, everything that can’t be done in the notation program is added to the sequence.

It is very hard to go back to the notation program once you are in the sequencer stage. I needed a way of producing “audible drafts” that directors could hear, without moving into the sequencer. So, if something had to be changed, it could be done within the notation program (Sibelius).

That is how the Graphical MIDI Tools was born. It allows to test the cue (or piece) and present a quite decent draft of it, without getting out of Sibelius. It also allows the user to listen to some dynamics (crescendos, diminuendos) or portamentos (“pitch bends”), which until now had to be “imagined” as how would they sound in the sequencer.

In addition to creating these effects directly in Sibelius, one benefit of GMT is that, if the file is then exported to MIDI for use in a proper sequencer, the control change data is included, giving you a head start in further refining your mix.

Santiago isn’t finished with his efforts. He said:

In the future, I am planning to add some additional modules, such as a Graphical Tempo Editor, for creating custom ritardandos, accelerandos and fermatas. This is very useful when scoring to picture and more precision is required for matching key moments (the so-called “hit points”).

If those improvements are anything like what we have already seen, we will be eagerly awaiting them.

Graphical MIDI Tools requires Sibelius 7.5 or higher, or Sibelius Ultimate in the new naming scheme — not the mid-level Sibelius — and works on both PC and Mac. The price is $35 and it is available from Notation Central, our marketplace for music notation rechnology.

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Comments

  1. Derek Williams

    That’s a really comprehensive review on such brief acquaintance, thank you Philip! I bought it yesterday and marvelled at its ingenuity and usefulness.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Derek, as always!

  2. Alexander Plötz

    Wow, and I thought my ManuScript hacks were pushing the envelope. This is the most audacious UI approach for a Sibelius plug-in that I have ever seen.

    1. Philip Rothman

      That is high praise, indeed!

    2. Neil Sands

      Yes, quite.

  3. Peter Roos

    Wow, this is really clever. Can’t wait to try it out.

  4. Mikhail Rimsky-Korsakov

    Goodness, my Sibelius friends. We have been crying for this kind of functionality for years! If this man could do this with “Sibelius ManuScript language”, whatever stopped the Sibelius Big Boys to do this…even better as I understand this man had to tweak many of Sibelius’ existing functions to do this. WELL DONE, Santiago Barx! You should work for Avid. THIS is the kind of functionality we want…not balloon coloured notes! Another thing…I used to program myself and understand OOP very well. The problem why Computers struggle with processing power is because “Sibelius Sound World” make use of OOP! IE…”Family.stave.flute.vibrato…….etc”. This decoding of Soundworld takes a lot of processing power. Sibelius should make use of DAW’s methods of utilising VSTs. I will always recommend “NotePerformer”!

    Anyway Santiago Barx, this is perhaps the BEST plug-in I ever saw for Sibelius among those brilliant ones coded by Bob Zawalich. Now Sibelius just got more useful :-)

  5. Bill

    I created the folder C:\Users\Bill\AppData\Roaming\Avid\Sibelius 2018\Plugins and put the plugin file there, but am not seeing it in Sibelius. Any windows users have this working?

    1. Philip Rothman

      I’m not on a PC, but I think the proper path is without the “2018”. It should just be:

      C:\Users\Bill\AppData\Roaming\Avid\Sibelius\Plugins

      Also make sure you restart Sibelius.

      1. Bill

        Yeah, I just figured that out :) Thanks Philip!

  6. Neil Sands

    Blimey, Santiago has some nerve! Hats off.

  7. Terence Jones

    This looks terrific, I’ll have to check it out!

  8. Santiago Barx

    Thanks for the comments fellow composers. I appreciate them, and glad this plugin is getting good reception. And thanks Philip for this complete article about the GMT. I will be informing when new features come.

    Thanks once again. Best regards,

    SB

    1. Pedrito López

      Santiago, ¡eres un crack! Felicitaciones

  9. Douglas Gibson

    Wow. Will this work with Noteperformer as the soundset ?

    I read the mention of Noteperformer, but does NP lock out this plug in.

    Looks cool

    1. Pedrito López

      Douglas, as I am interested in this plugin, I just emailed Santiago regarding the compatibility of GMT and Noteperformer. Although he has not tried it by himself, he thinks that “it should work”.

  10. Pierce Hacquard

    Man, that’s incredible.

    But is there an equivalent plug-in for Finale?

  11. Bill

    Hi Philip,

    Has the plugin changed since you posted this a couple of years ago?

    1. Philip Rothman

      Yes. It was just updated to version 1.2 last week, which includes some improvements to indicate the value you’re drawing, as well as the velocity “sticks”. The “clear” functionality is now present for the velocity and mini piano roll modules, and the close button now works for all the opened bars, so there is no need to close each one individually. (also in the “Conclusion” section of the review)

      1. Bill

        Sorry, I just skimmed the review :) Now I’m not seeing how to get the update.

        1. Philip Rothman

          Of course, I snuck it in there at the end!

          If you originally ordered it from Santiago’s web site, you should contact him directly. Anyone who purchased it through Notation Central would have already received an automatic product update email.

  12. Michael Hankinson

    Just purchased and after only one hour and I love it. “The best thing since sliced bread”. Been waiting for this for a long time. Thanks for the detailed review it really helped. For an old guy of 74 it’s nice to find a piece of software that is easy to install and even easier to use.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Michael! Glad to hear it!

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