The focus is on staves with the Sibelius 2020.9 update

Reviews

Avid has released Sibelius 2020.9. The main improvement in this update is a suite of enhancements to the Focus on Staves feature that enables some new layout and formatting workflows for scores and parts.

In addition, other areas of Sibelius have gained some additional improvements, particularly MIDI and MusicXML importing, the ManuScript plug-in language, and accessibility. A number of bugs have been fixed in Sibelius 2020.9, too.

Listen to the podcast episode

On the Scoring Notes podcast, my co-host David MacDonald and I talk about the Sibelius 2020.9 update in more detail, specifically regarding the Focus on Staves feature:

A focus on Focus on Staves

The history

The Focus on Staves feature (found in Layout > Staff Visibility) has been in Sibelius since Sibelius 3. If you’re not familiar with Focus on Staves, Daniel Spreadbury described it best in a blog post from 2009 (from his days as the proprietor of this blog’s previous incarnation as Sibelius Blog): “It’s a way of hiding staves with music on them. This has two main uses: to hide staves for the purposes of playback (e.g. to hide a solo or improvised passage), or to hide staves in between the staves that you’re working on. Imagine that you’re working on a big orchestral score and you want to look at, say, the flute staff and the violin staves at the same time: unless you zoom out a long way, those staves are always going to be too far apart for you to see the music in detail.” So Focus on Staves allows you to show only the selected staves.

To me, though, Focus on Staves has always suffered from an identity crisis. Is it a viewing option or a layout tool? One of its stated purposes is to facilitate a temporary view state. But unlike, say, switching Panorama on or off, which has no effect on the score layout, switching between a focused or unfocused score will most definitely upset your score layout.

It seems that the Sibelius team was aware of this conundrum. In Sibelius 3, 4 and 5, Focus on Staves was found in the Layout menu. In Sibelius 6 it was moved to the View menu, only to move back to the Layout tab with the introduction of Sibelius 7 and the Ribbon UI.

All of that may seem like ancient history, but it helps explain why Focus on Staves was never really useful for score formatting except in very limited instances. Until today, Focus on Staves would force any staves hidden by Hide Empty Staves to display, meaning, in essence, that you had to choose one method or another if you wanted to make any staves in your score disappear.

For most of us needing to do this regularly, this meant choosing Hide Empty Staves because it afforded more flexibility even if the workarounds were slightly cumbersome.

A common scenario for me is to show a combined staff in the score, but separate the material for parts. (Yes, Dorico users, we know all about condensing, and no, it’s not a Sibelius feature at this time.)

At a practical level, it meant creating parts-only instruments and hiding the material in the score only by selecting the staves and choosing Home > Edit > Show in Parts

…and, finally, using Hide Empty Staves — which respects the hidden state of notes and objects and considers those bars “empty” — to create a neat and tidy-looking score:

My talented colleague John Hinchey described this method in detail back in 2012, and, with the help of a plug-in from Bob Zawalich, the process was automated to a point where it was fast.

But there were pitfalls. The obvious one was that if you needed to make any changes to the material, you would need to remember to make it twice. Moreover, once you did that, you’d need to do the whole Show in Parts / Hide Empty Staves dance again, because anything that was unhidden would make those hidden staves pop back into the score.

A similar method was used for creating piano/vocal scores. In this example I have a piano reduction which is used for a piano/vocal score (a linked part) but not intended to appear in the full score…

…and Hide Empty Staves works nicely, as long as the material remained hidden.

That’s all back story to illustrate why the Sibelius 2020.9 update has the potential to be important.

The update

With the 2020.9 update, it’s now possible to freely use both Focus on Staves and Hide Empty Staves. This means that switching on Focus on Staves will not cause any staves hidden by Hide Empty Staves to be shown, as long as the new Show hidden empty staves when using Focus on Staves option is unchecked in Appearance > Engraving Rules > Staves:

This option is checked by default so that scores created in earlier Sibelius versions appear the same when opened in 2020.9.

To help distinguish between staves hidden via one method or the other, there is a new visual indicator. Staves hidden via Focus on Staves retain the familiar blue dashed line. Staves hidden via Hide Empty Staves are indicated via a new pink dotted line.

That’s just the start. Focus on Staves now gains a friendly drop-down interface through the Ribbon where you can quickly decide which staves you wish to focus on.

It’s no longer necessary to select staves in the score to focus on staves. You can use the drop-down instead and watch the score update in real time:

Further, there is a new option for Panorama to display both focused and unfocused staves, if this option is checked in Appearance > Engraving Rules > Staves. This means that you can quickly switch between a view of your score in Panorama — where layout is not relevant — to see all the staves in your score, and the formatted view of your score, without needing to toggle Focus on Staves on and off each time.

One more exciting improvement: Parts can have their own focus set independent of the score. This actually makes lots of permutations possible if you get creative (and meticulous) about how you manage your score and parts. For instance, you might have a piano-vocal score as a part where the rehearsal piano only appears in the part. You might further have some key instrumental lines you want to include for playback purposes in that part that appear in the score but not in the part.

Is your head hurting yet? In this example I’ve brought in the Violin 1 staff, which appears in the score, into the piano/vocal part, but for playback purposes only, to help the singers with the lead line when I make the audio demo. The Violin 1 part won’t actually appear in the part. Meanwhile, in my full score, the “+Reh.” piano reduction part does not appear.

Why use Focus on Staves instead of Hide Empty Staves?

With all of these new improvements, you might be even more confused as to when to use Focus on Staves instead of Hide Empty Staves when laying out your score.

To me, Focus on Staves is the clear choice now for the scenarios I described above, when you wish for certain staves to only appear in a part (or for playback) but never to appear in the full score. The workaround of Show in Parts / Hide Empty Staves for this purpose is no longer needed.

Hide Empty Staves is for system-by-system layout, to create a more optimized layout that changes based on the instruments playing at any given moment in time.

Be aware

As exciting as these improvements are, there are a few details that are worth mentioning that prevent me from doing an unabashed happy dance (not that you’d want to see that anyway).

There’s now a somewhat orphaned scenario where Focus on Staves is useful as purely a view option, where you’re arranging music and literally want to focus on a subset of staves. This behavior hasn’t changed from before, of course — you can still carry on using Focus on Staves this way — and it will still disrupt your layout as it always has, which is generally undesirable. So you will have to be mindful of this if you use Focus on Staves in this way.

More critically, even though staves may be unfocused, they’re still lurking beneath the surface. In other words, selections aren’t always what they appear to be.

Let’s say I want to take what appears to be a two-staff trombone selection and copy it to the two bassoon staves:

Because there are two unfocused staves between the Trombone 1/2 staff and the Bass Trombone staff, this is actually a four-staff selection, which is only made apparent once I copy the material:

The blue dashed line is my only warning here, and if I’m working quickly, it might be too late to notice — especially if I copy the music into another selection containing unfocused material and I don’t immediately realize what’s happened.

On a positive note, though, if you apply Hide Empty Staves now, it will only apply to those staves in focus, whereas before, it would have applied to all staves without any visual indication that anything had happened (because Hide Empty Staves was disabled when Focus on Staves was active).

Finally, let’s say I make a selection in the score and switch off Focus on Staves for whatever reason. Then I switch it back on with the selection still made. Womp womp, I’ve just lost my carefully chosen focused complement of staves, because in addition to the new drop-down, the old behavior of selecting staves to tell Sibelius which staves to focus on is still present in 2020.9.

Focus Set and Focus Families

Regarding that very last point about losing your focus, so to speak: there are two amazing suites of plug-ins to help with this. Bob Zawalich‘s Focus Set and Focus Families were written over a decade ago, but unlike some software, these have gotten better with age (and a few updates along the way).  Indeed, his plug-ins are practically a necessity to get the most effective use out of the new improvements to Focus on Staves.

The aforementioned blog post from 2012 describes how to use these plug-ins in detail. In brief:

Focus Families is a set of plug-ins that allows you to focus quickly on all the staves in your score that are in a particular instrument family.

Focus Set is more special-purpose than Focus Families. Rather than automatically show just the staves in a particular family or families, Focus Set allows you to create up to 10 sets of staves that you can switch between quickly. You can set up these focus sets for individual scores, making it simple to manage staves in each of your projects.

It would be even better if options along the lines of those in Bob’s plug-ins were more tightly integrated with Sibelius and available with one click in the Ribbon instead of having to know about the plug-ins, install them, run them, navigate through the dialogs, etc. Until, then, you can find Focus Families and Focus Set in File > Plug-ins > Install Plug-ins > Focus On Staves (yes, these plug-ins are so special that they have their own category).

Other updates in Sibelius 2020.9

ManuScript

ManuScript is the programming language that allows the hundreds of magnificent plug-ins to be created for Sibelius, extending its functions in crucial ways. I would not want to be without Sibelius’s plug-ins — so much so that we keep regular tabs on them over at NYC Music Services, where you can easily search for your favorites (click on Sibelius Plug-ins and Feed).

Sibelius 2020.9 allows floating-point values to be accepted as “Pitch” so that plugins can add and manipulate quarter-tone values. Pitch is still specified and returned as a semitone, but 0.5 semitone is a quarter-tone. Accidentals are treated similarly.

The small but active number of plug-in creators will want to read Sam Butler’s blog post on the Avid web site which goes into further detail about this and other ManuScript updates, which include an option to have plug-ins to support legacy code. For the rest of us, we get to enjoy the tools that will likely result from these ManuScript improvements.

Accessibility

Screen readers will now announce text as you type in Sibelius 2020.9 if you so choose, announcing each letter, then the entire word. It will also speak the letter after the caret line as you move through the word.

Navigating among instrument names is now made easier using Ctrl/Command+Shift++ and Ctrl/Command+Shift+-  to navigate among instrument names. One extra benefit is that it’s easier to select an instrument name without any text in it via this method. We’ve often made the point that many accessibility improvements in Sibelius benefit all users, and this is one such item that falls squarely into that camp.

A few other accessibility improvements are in 2020.9. — for more details, see Sam Butler’s official blog post.

Import

The MIDI import and MusicXML import features that began to be introduced a year ago continue to be refined. Especially in the area of tuplets, there is an improvement in Sibelius 2020.9 where incoming tuplets are no longer lost when merging into a single voice. Sibelius has long had a love/hate relationship with tuplets (often more the latter than the former) so it’s nice to see some love here.

Various other improvements are made in the importing area, particularly the speed in handling staff mappings done in quick succession.

Fixes

Lastly, there are smaller fixes in Sibelius 2020.9 that, if they affect you, you’ll want to read about in the official blog post on Avid’s site.

Final thoughts and availability

We spent perhaps an outsized amount of time looking at Focus on Staves in this review because the potential is so evident for even larger improvements, if the development course is set correctly and the workflow impediments can be ironed out. Indeed, it is not too hard to imagine something similar to the Dorico concept of Layouts coming into, uh, “focus” here, where you have a bank of all the instruments available in your project and then you just choose which ones you wish to apply to which layout, and you can add or remove them with ease. (Flows and condensing are other matters for another day.)

Dorico Setup mode on the left, Sibelius Focus on Staves on the right. They’re not the same, but they’re not entirely different, either

Even with the reservations mentioned already, this is a very solid update in the context of the incremental Sibelius updates we generally see and I expect many users will immediately take advantage of what it has to offer.

The Sibelius 2020.9 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. Be aware that this version, as with the other updates released in 2020, is only supported on macOS 10.12 and higher and on Windows 10. About the upcoming macOS Big Sur, Avid’s Sam Butler has said, “We’ve started our validation on Big Sur running on both Intel and Arm processors. Initial tests have been very positive, so we’ll keep you updated as time goes on. If you’re testing on Big Sur too, please be aware that Sibelius is not officially supported at this time and we’ll be announcing compatibility as soon as it’s ready.”

For the latest information about compatibility for Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, and MuseScore, as well as links to the latest news and reviews about product releases, please see the Scoring Notes Product Guide.

Comments

  1. Bill

    I always thought Focus on Staves was the poor cousin of Finale’s Staff Sets, but I wasn’t aware of Bob’s plugins, which certainly help bridge the gap.

    Still, it seems much easier to just create Parts of the instrument groups desired, which are then readily available through the tabs at the top of the window.

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