Avid Sibelius 6 (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Sibelius 6 offers a slew of significant new features, making the decision to upgrade an easy one. As in previous versions, it gives you a lot of flexibility in arranging its many supplementary windows.

Since its introduction in 1993, Sibelius has been an important player in the field of notation software, and it is widely acclaimed for its power, elegance, and ease of use. Sibelius 5 received a strongly favorable review from Nick Peck in the February 2008 issue of EM. He concluded, “If there is room for much improvement in Sibelius 5, I''m not sure where it would be.”

In version 6 (see Fig. 1), this excellent program has, indeed, added some new features that more than justify the upgrade price for current customers, and which make the program even more enticing to new users. (See the Online Bonus Material“Sibelius vs. Finale” for a comparative analysis of the two archrival notation programs.)

Like a Magnet
Previous versions of Sibelius arranged some objects on the score automatically to avoid collisions. This automatic formatting keeps the user from having to worry about routine adjustments. For example, if you added a slur or accidental, other objects would automatically shift around to avoid bumping into each other.

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FIG. 2A: Without Magnetic Layout, object collisions can get messy.

Magnetic Layout in Sibelius 6 greatly expands this excellent idea to include all objects on the staff. It does this by creating an order of precedence for different musical symbols. For instance, lyrics need to be close to the notes to be readable, and dynamic markings can be farther away. Tempo markings don''t need to be placed as closely as, say, chord symbols. So as you work, you will see that objects rearrange themselves automatically as needed, and you don''t have to trouble with minor adjustments of placement (see Fig. 2). Of course, if you have very strong opinions about object placement, you can turn Magnetic Layout off, customize it in great detail, or just manually move objects where you want them.

Magnetic Layout won''t resolve conflicts between adjacent systems, but those are easily addressed with the Optimize Staff Spacing command in the Layout menu. (I imagine it would be jarring and put quite a bit of stress on your computer if adjacent systems, and all the music they contained, were constantly shifting around on the page as items were added.)

It''s Alive
Another new feature in Sibelius 6 is called Live Tempo. It allows you to conduct your score by marking beats, therefore allowing subtle adjustments in tempo for added realism. You can use the computer keyboard, a MIDI keyboard, or a MIDI footpedal to send your beat-tapping messages to the computer. A calibration process takes into account any latency (audio delay) in your particular audio setup. What''s more, your performance gets recorded for subsequent playback, or to be stored as a sound file.

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Magnetic Layout, with the help of the Optimize Staff Spacing command, automatically sorts them out.

Sibelius already has excellent facilities for humanizing a performance, particularly the Espressivo and Rubato settings that, respectively, produce variations in dynamics and tempo in the score, and make playback seem a lot less rigid. (You can adjust them or eliminate them, if you wish.) In my opinion, the effectiveness of score playback is enhanced as much by these details of tempo and dynamics as it is from the sound samples themselves.

Keeping Tabs
Music-notation software users often want to keep track of the different versions of their project as they work. Is that sketch you''re writing now going to be useful tomorrow? Better save it just in case. In the past you could do this manually, of course, by simply creating new file names for your score, but Sibelius 6 introduces a more integrated way to manage different versions all within the same file.

As you work on a project, you can create a new version of it by selecting File > Save Version. Each version is given a default name that includes the date and time, or you can create any name you wish to help you keep track of them. You can also add Post-it-style comments in each version. All of the versions are encapsulated in the same file, so you don''t have additional files to worry about.

This new feature will be useful to composers and arrangers working alone, but it also could be quite valuable for those collaborating on, say, a song, a musical, or a film score. I can also imagine composition teachers employing it to keep track of student progress on assignments as well as many other varied uses. This is a feature that never really appeared on my wish list before, but now that Sibelius has introduced it, it suddenly seems essential!

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FIG. 3: The new Guitar Fretboard window is handy for entering notes or editing fingering diagrams. Here, the first B7 chord has been selected for editing.

A Familiar Chord
Chords designated as text, guitar-chord diagrams, or both together have all been consolidated into a single Chord Symbol feature in Sibelius 6. These symbols are entered either by typing text into the computer keyboard or by playing chords on a MIDI controller. If the staff represents a guitar, then guitar-fingering chord diagrams are automatically included. Otherwise, just the chord symbol is displayed. As is true with virtually every feature of Sibelius, you get a default setting for this that will work fine in most instances, but there are also countless ways to customize appearance to whatever extent you require.

The new Guitar Fretboard window is a great way for guitarists to enter notated music and/or chord diagrams, and it is also handy for editing the fingering of each chord diagram, if you want something other than standard fingering (see Fig. 3). I found it easy to type in chords—the text you need is usually obvious (i.e., C maj7 or Ebmin7b5).

ReWire Your Score
Another key addition to Sibelius 6 is ReWire support. Now you can run Sibelius in sync with your DAW, opening up a lot more possibilities for recording and mixing. Most notably, you can record audio tracks in your DAW to accompany your MIDI-based arrangement from Sibelius. For example, you could have a violinist double one or more of the string section parts that you arranged in Sibelius without first having to mix them and import them into the DAW.

The ReWire function also allows you to essentially add a notation module to recording programs that have no such features of their own. Even with DAWs that do have notation, Sibelius will offer a much deeper feature set in that area.

All That and More
Although there are a few minor changes in the workspace and menus, I''m guessing regular Sibelius users won''t notice much difference, or will find a particular change self-evident (such as adding Version elements to the toolbar to work with that new feature). Some keyboard shortcuts have been changed or added, which, again, many users of the program may not even notice.

There are also quite a few additions to the sound-playback library, providing an ever-increasing sonic palette for your compositions (see Web Clip 1). All these changes are well-documented, and when upgrading, it''s probably worth a look at Help > Documentation > What''s New in Sibelius 6.

What''s Not to Like?
Is there anything left for Sibelius to improve? The documentation, though good, could be even better. Why? Because the manual—though thorough, clear, and even good-humored—is a standalone PDF file, and as such, it is not ideally suited for searching or navigating.

There is no contextual help option where you can, for example, immediately proceed from a selected object to the relevant help documentation. Not having an integrated help system seems out of character for an application that otherwise has such a seamless workflow.

Up and Upgrade
Sibelius offers an elegant, flexible, and easy-to-use interface, default settings that usually give you exactly what you want, and a great deal of flexibility to customize if desired. Sibelius 5 users who might have wondered how this excellent program could get even better do, indeed, have good reason to upgrade.

Sibelius 6 recently won a 2010 EM Editors'' Choice award.

Peter Hamlin is a composer who teaches at Middlebury College. He is a member of the live electronic improv band Data Stream, whose latest CD is called Flow.

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Click on the "Product Summary" image to go to the Avid Sibelius 6 product page