When a user talks about how slow a particular piece of software is, there are lots of things he could mean. Firstly, he could mean that it takes a long time to start up. Or he could mean that there is a lag between telling the software to do something, and it doing it. Or he could mean that the software feels slow because he feels like he can never find a particular function in the menus, or he’s always clicking and dragging things with the mouse.
In this post, I’m going to focus on the second of these kinds of “slowness,” and I’ll return to the others in future posts. Full details after the jump.
As each version of Sibelius gets more and more sophisticated, one of the challenges we face is keeping the program feeling as snappy as the previous version. It’s a very difficult challenge, and striking the balance between adding new functionality and re-engineering the software in order to improve its architecture so that it might run faster is one of the big parts of it.
Users often ask me whether we’ll produce a version of Sibelius with all the VST/Audio Units playback features taken out, or perhaps the Worksheet Creator, or video support, or whatever other feature doesn’t particularly interest them, the obvious subtext being that they believe the software would run more quickly if these features were removed. They may find that it takes a moment longer than they expected to select a note, or transpose a passage, or input a note at the end of a long score. The longer the score, the worse it gets, they say.
I always have to tell them that, unfortunately, these features don’t have any real impact on the speed of the program, at least not in this particular sense. (It’s true that e.g. loading the QuickTime codecs for video add a few seconds to the start-up time of the application, but we’ll come back to that kind of issue in a future post.)
What makes Sibelius feel slow is the increasing amount of computation it has to do in order to display the music on the screen. Sibelius is designed such that it works out just about everything — from page layout to beam groupings to note spacing — on the fly. The benefits of this are obvious: the program is always truly WYSIWYG, there’s never any need to “update the layout” yourself or indeed any other form of manual intervention, and you don’t get nasty surprises when you print out your score and find that something looks different on the page. But there are downsides to this approach as well: to display something at the end of the score, you need to know about everything that has come before it, and even if the time taken to calculate that grows in a linear fashion (rather than in, say, a quadratic fashion), the more calculations you have to do, the longer it’s going to take.
Generally speaking, it’s only those users who are producing large-scale works for orchestra and band who are going to experience any slow-down. More instruments and more bars equals more work for Sibelius. So the majority of users who work on scores for chamber ensembles, choirs or worship bands won’t run into any problems. But if you are working on large-scale works, there are some steps you can take to make Sibelius feel as snappy as possible for input and editing. Here goes, in roughly descending order of benefit:
Tip 1: Buy a faster computer
If you’re using Sibelius as a professional tool to produce large-scale compositions or arrangements, you should treat your computer as part of your toolset. If your computer is currently more than two or three years old, you’ll experience a much greater benefit from upgrading to a newer machine than from any of the other tips here.
If you’re a Mac user and still using a PowerPC-based Mac, you’ll be amazed at how fast even the lowest-priced models in the iMac, MacBook or Mac mini ranges will feel compared to your existing computer. And because Apple optimise their development tools for Intel-powered Macs, software feels faster still on these new machines: Sibelius is no exception.
If you’re a Windows user, you may be able to upgrade some components of your machine without having to go and buy a whole new computer. But any upgrade you consider should include the CPU, motherboard and memory (RAM, not hard disk), as these are the most important components.
Tip 2: Switch to General MIDI sounds
If you typically use e.g. Sibelius Sounds Essentials or another combination of virtual instruments while you’re editing your score, you may find that the program is slightly slower to respond when adding or editing notes, auditioning notes, and when starting playback. That’s because these virtual instruments tend to provide a much greater choice of sounds, and if Sibelius has to figure out which sounds to use e.g. when it encounters a slur, or a staccato articulation, or a bit of Technique text, this can all take time. Because Sibelius always tries to play not only the correct instrumental sound but also the correct playing technique when you select a note while editing the score, it has to keep track of the sounds required for playback even when you’re not playing back.
By contrast, when you play back using only General MIDI devices, Sibelius has a smaller palette of sounds (and very few different playing techniques for individual instruments) to play with, and thus keeping track of playback takes less time.
So while inputting and editing, you’re well-advised to use a General MIDI playback device, and only switch to more sophisticated virtual instruments for high-quality playback. To switch between playback devices easily, make use of playback configurations (sets of playback device settings): go to Play > Playback Devices and choose Default from the Configuration menu at the top of the dialog to use a single GM device.
One further step you can take is to switch off Play notes as you edit on the Note Input page of Preferences. This stops Sibelius playing any notes while you’re inputting or editing, so it doesn’t need to figure out what sound to use, making inputting and editing a bit faster. (Provided you’re using a GM device, however, there’s normally no need to take this further step.)
(Extra tip: on Mac it’s easy to add multiple GM-compatible devices to your playback configuration so that you’re not limited to only 16 channels: simply select DLSMusicDevice in the Available devices list on the left-hand side of the dialog and click Activate a couple of times: each extra instance of the DLSMusicDevice you add provides a further 16 channels.)
Tip 3: Hide the Properties window and Keypad
If you don’t need the Properties and Keypad windows on the screen, hide them. Every time you change the selection in the score, Sibelius updates the Properties window (even the panels that are currently closed up) and the Keypad, which can take time, particularly with long selections. For an illustration of this, try opening a really big score, show the Properties window, and do Ctrl+A on Windows or Command–A on Mac to select the whole score. Hit Esc to clear the selection, hide the Properties window, and select the whole score again: it should be noticeably slower with the Properties window visible.
Tip 4: Zoom in as close as you can
The less Sibelius has to draw on the screen, the faster it will respond. Particularly when working on scores using very large numbers of instruments, zoom in as close as you can (or use View > Focus on Staves as much as possible) to reduce the amount of music Sibelius has to draw.
Sibelius can also draw the score marginally faster in Panorama than in normal page view, so it’s worth switching on View > Panorama wherever possible, too.
Tip 5: Adjust your display smoothing settings
This tip only applies to Windows users, because Sibelius 5 on Mac always uses Mac OS X’s native drawing technology, Quartz. On Mac, basically speaking, the more modern your Mac, and the better its graphics hardware (anything above the basic Mac mini and MacBook hardware will be fine), the less of an issue this becomes.
On Windows, you may find that setting the Smoothing drop-down to Fastest on the Display page of Preferences makes a significant difference to the speed of drawing, obviously at the cost of a more jagged on-screen display. If your score contains lots of text (e.g. lyrics or footnotes) you may also find that switching off Precise text positioning in the same dialog is also beneficial, though note that you should check the appearance of text in your score at a zoom level of 125% or greater in order to ensure that what you see on the screen is what you will actually get when you print (this is down to the inaccuracies of the Windows GDI text measurement routines that are used when Precise text positioning is switched off).
That’s it for now. In my next speed tips post, I’ll address how to improve Sibelius’s start-up time. If you have any queries or comments on this post, leave ’em below or contact me privately via the Contact form.