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Sibelius 3 Notation Software

Sibelius 3, the latest music notation software from the British Finn twins, Ben and Jonathan, reminds me of a British sports car I once owned: fast, powerful, with head-turning class. But quirky-the left taillight kept burning out and the speedometer occasionally stuck. Sibelius 3 is true to that fine British tradition. As with my old Austin Healy, I love it, warts and all.

A single license of Sibelius 3 will let you load the program on two computers so that you can create on the road with your laptop, then listen and print on your better-equipped home PC. I tested it on my Compaq Presario 8000 workstation and a Toshiba Satellite laptop, both with Pentium 4s running at 2.5 GHz with 512 MB of RAM, so I had no trouble handling Sibelius 3’s many bells and whistles. For slower machines, you can turn off some of the frills, such as the 63 choices of paper colors and textures, to avoid bogging down.

Speaking of paper, the 600-page user guide is big enough to make you want to shelve it and just muddle through. But don’t. The guide is well organized, crystal clear and witty-and at least the “Quick Tour” is must reading. You can do most of Sibelius’ operations intuitively by point and click, but there are lots of nonmouse shortcuts worth learning from the manual right away.

Take the basic function of putting the notes onto the staff. Mouse input works better than ever because a “shadow” note, including ledger lines, follows your pointer and shows exactly where the note is going before you click. That’s important because Sibelius 3 is a bit stuffy about correcting notes after you click. In my MIDI sequencer, Cakewalk, which prints scores only as a sideline, you can easily mouse-drag a misplaced note to correct its pitch or timing. With Sibelius, you have to shift gears to the edit mode before shifting pitch, and there’s no way to change timing, say, from downbeat to upbeat, short of deleting the note and trying again.

To spare you an attack of mouse-claw, Sibelius has other ways to enter notes. First, you can use the computer keyboard, selecting note durations and accidentals with the right-hand number pad, and pitches with the left-hand letter keys A through G. Any accomplished pianist could get really good at this in no time. (For laptops that don’t have number pads, Sibelius substitutes letter keys to input durations and accidentals-bone-headedly, the same left-hand keys used for pitches. That’s OK if you’ve mastered the left-hand-only piano repertoire, but most laptop users would be better off with their right hand sharing the load.) You can also combine a MIDI keyboard with your computer keyboard, using MIDI for the pitches (which solves the one-handed, laptop problem). And you can switch between mouse, MIDI and computer keys without changing the setup at all.

The technologically coolest input method is Flexi-time, which reads pitches and rhythms from your MIDI device in real-time. It’s a step forward from quantization routines that go back and correct those little lags in your playing (or at least in mine) that show up on the page as unwanted 32nd and 64th rests. Flexi-time lags when you lag, slowing (or speeding) the recording metronome to keep abreast with your playing. It takes some getting used to, but I was able to produce fairly clean copy using both a Yamaha Clavinova and a WX5 wind controller. Even so, I ended up with a few, tiny, unwanted rests and could have used simple mouse-drag editing capability or a quantization routine for cleanup, neither of which Sibelius has.

Although its great strength is producing printed music for performance, Sibelius 3 will let you hear your handiwork, add human subtleties and record an audio file for a CD, all without hiring other musicians. The standard Sibelius package includes 20 good-sounding instruments that can be used up to eight at a time. If you have a muscular computer (Pentium 4 or G4 with extra RAM), a good soundcard and $149 more, you can get 64 instruments and use 32 of them at a time. (You can also use soundfonts, but not as easily as with a sequencer like Cakewalk-Sibelius makes you memorize bank and program numbers and type them in little windows.)

The playback feature has some quirks: click the “play” button and it changes to a “pause” button, as it should. But click it again and it remains a “pause” button, even though it now functions as a “play” button. Not a huge problem, but reminiscent of that sticking speedometer on my old Healy. And occasionally, for reasons I haven’t discovered, the entire toolbar goes out like a taillight-even though the “view” menu says it’s still on. So very British.

I’ll tell you though, if printed music is where you’re headed, Sibelius 3 is a great way to get there. It will explode a piano score and intelligently arrange it for any one of dozens of preset vocal and instrumental ensembles (or design your own), or it will collapse a full orchestral score into piano music. You can easily add-and it will understand-every kind of dynamic or tempo marking you have ever seen or heard of, and then some. The little navigator window makes finding your way around a breeze, even in huge scores. And when you get everything the way you want it, Sibelius 3 will create bitmap files for the Web or produce crisp, professional looking printed music-separate parts for each musician or a complete score for the conductor.

I miss my Austin Healy 3000. I’m glad I have Sibelius 3.

Originally Published