MakeMusic Finale 2011 (Mac/Win) Review

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Fig. 1: Finale 2011 offers users a comprehensive set of notation and playback tools.

Finale has long been the top dog of software notation programs, but it''s no longer the only serious contender for professional music copying. Other products, such as Avid Sibelius and even Apple Logic Pro (through its Notation section), are quite capable of creating fully professional charts and scores. This has led to a leapfrogging contest between Finale and, in particular, Sibelius for the inclusion of more subtle and esoteric capabilities while still improving the interface for the more commonly used features.

Has Finale gotten richer in features while becoming easier to use? To a large degree, yes. However, I will come back to that question later after discussing what''s new in Finale 2011 (see Fig. 1). Finale has been covered several times in EM (Finale 2008, 2007, 2004), so we will stick to the new features and major changes. I upgraded to Finale 2011 from Finale 2008, so some improvements I''ll cover here were first implemented last year in Finale 2010, including the way percussion and chords are handled.

The most significant improvement in Finale 2011 is Lyric entry and spacing. While functional in the past, entering lyrics could be cumbersome, and getting the layout to look right could be downright tedious. The handling of lyrics has been mostly revamped, and it now works really well. All of those annoying extra spaces at the beginning of notes with large syllables, melismas, or punctuations are gone. The new Lyrics Window allows you to work effortlessly back and forth with typing directly into the score, and it automatically updates in both locations. Hyphens and word extensions now automatically and perfectly lay out and wrap to the next staff system and maintain proper placement if the score or part changes in size.

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Fig. 2: The newly refined Lyric tool now maintains perfect-looking lyrics all the time with little to no effort. This example was created in about two minutes with no editing other than to adjust the chord position.

Lyrics in Finale 2011 always look correct, are engraver-ready, and you see them exactly as they''re going to print. For those of us who do a lot of lead sheets and scores with vocals, it is worth the upgrade for this aspect alone (see Fig. 2).

The need to optimize staff systems is now largely a thing of the past. Scores and parts are always optimized and appear as they will in print, so you don''t need to spend as much time in the Page Layout tool. The way staves are handled has been completely redesigned under the hood, and it''s now much easier to move and reorder staves without causing a mess.

When dragging a staff, you now get a numeric value for more precise placement—unfortunately, this number doesn''t also display when using the keyboard to nudge—and all staves under a staff can be made to move together when making adjustments. Managing brackets and groups is also much easier now. Hiding and showing staves has also been simplified with contextual menus, making it much simpler to manage a large score with large sections of rests in multiple instruments. Hidden staves are displayed onscreen as a soft, dotted line.

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Fig. 3: Adding capo chords to a guitar part is a single-click operation once you define the number of frets required.

One of the welcome features for me is the simplified entry of chord symbols. You can now enter a chord without having to first create and attach it to a note or rest (and possibly then hiding it) in the staff. Chords can be placed automatically on any beat, even within a blank measure; if there are notes already on the staff, the chord can easily be repositioned to another note by simply dragging it. A handle shows which note the chord is attached to. If a note is deleted below or the musical line changed, the chord remains unaffected and can be reassigned to a new note at will. Chords can be typed directly into the score or played by a MIDI keyboard simultaneously without having to change input methods in the menu.

Another useful feature is easily adding capo chords to a chart. This came in handy for me because I am working with a new pop-country artist. After your chords are in the chart, you just tell Finale which fret you want to capo and—voìla—instant capo chords (see Fig. 3).

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Fig. 4: The new Garritan Aria Player is elegant and simple to use. All of the included audio content can be loaded into Aria, and you can add your own audio plug-in effects on top. You still have the option of using your own plug-in players in combination with Aria, as well.

One of the most exciting aspects is its ability to provide somewhat authentic audio playback of a score. For several versions now, Finale has included a Garritan soundset, and there are several new instruments included for it in Finale 2011: Flute Section, Bass Trombone, Children''s Choir Aahs, Steel Drums, and a couple of new synth sounds. The Aria playback engine has replaced the former Kontakt player, and it is elegant and simple to use (see Fig. 4).

In addition to the Garritan sounds, Finale 2011 also includes soundsets from Tapspace Virtual Drumline, Row-Loff Marching Percussion, and Jose Cortijo''s Latin Percussion. You can also use any of your own soft synths or samples when playing back your score. The various Human Playback styles help the virtual instruments respond in a musical way to the sterility of notation symbols. Even though I am a bit old school and don''t necessarily need to hear my score played back with appropriately matched sounds, it is a very useful tool for education purposes. And, I admit, it is seductively fun to hear your score played back with the intended timbres (see Web Clips 1a, 1b, and 1c to view and hear one of my orchestral scores using the Garritan sounds for playback).

Finale 2011 has also made improvements to its handling of percussion. When entering drum parts, for example, scrolling the mouse over notes automatically displays the instrument name for each line or space. Using the keyboard to scroll up and down acts the same. In addition, Finale has added two new music fonts: Finale Percussion and Finale Mallets.

More than 800 worksheets, flash cards, and exercises designed for ear-training and improvisation are included and are just a click away, and any of them can be customized and printed. Whether you teach publicly or privately, this wealth of educational aids show MakeMusic''s noble dedication to education and music students.

Finale 2011 now ships with a 35-page Quick Start booklet that is useful for both experienced and novice users, and also includes the two-page cheat sheet. The fully detailed documentation is always a click away, and the Help feature is handy for finding a specific tool.

Despite all the useful additions, the program still has some annoying aspects. For one, I wish there was a way to choose all audio plug-ins to deactivate and then select the handful you want to load. I have more than 200 AU plug-ins, and I barely need any of them when working in Finale. I want them deactivated to speed up application start time and to avoid any potential conflicts, yet Finale requires you to deactivate each one individually, which is slow and tedious.

I love the new categories within the Expression Tool; however, when opening older files, every single expression must be recategorized by hand to take full advantage of them. Even though I have customized my Expression collection during the years, many are simply standard expressions that Finale should know how to recategorize automatically. As a result, I still don''t use what could be a handy feature because I haven''t found the time to move them all by hand.

I would also like the ability to easily hide and display a layer within a staff. Sometimes when working on a two-line part, such as French Horns, I''d like to temporarily hide one line.

My main beef with Finale at this point is its user interface. Even though the improvements noted above significantly enhance workflow, the UI still feels dated and somewhat convoluted. Tools are spread out all over the place and not always logically grouped. I have to hunt and peck for a specific tool more than I should. And each revision makes incremental changes to the interface that disturb old working habits, anyway; I make a plea to MakeMusic to concentrate on a significant restructuring of the entire interface.

MakeMusic could take a page out of Apple''s approach to its professional application bundle wherein the user interfaces were drastically improved for better workflow while retaining (and even expanding) the rich feature set. I work with a number of professional copyists who feel the same about the interface.

In my opinion, Finale still wins hands down when it comes to features. The interface is the sole reason many notation users I know have gravitated to competing products. My colleagues and I have to frequently crank out notation under heavy deadline pressure, and we would all welcome a more comprehensive interface overhaul in the future. Finale''s UI is the biggest challenge to working more quickly and effectively in the program. Although I love its capabilities, I am knocking off an additional evaluation point in the “Ease of Use” category as a challenge to MakeMusic to take my point seriously.

Composer/producer Rob Shrock is the longtime music director for Burt Bacharach and keyboardist/arranger for Dionne Warwick. Check out his ''70s classic rock band, AM/FM.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Finale 2011 product page.