The Sibelius notation program has a strong reputation for combining an extensive feature set with an easy-to-use interface. My first experience with Sibelius was with version 3 ($599), and I'm happy to confirm that the program is as elegantly designed as it is powerful.
The manual is one of the best I've ever seen: it's well written, well organized, comprehensive, and thoroughly indexed. All of the basic tasks, from entering notes to repositioning symbols, are handled in a transparent fashion. The commands you'll need most often — flipping a stem up or down or changing an accidental to its enharmonic equivalent — use the fewest keystrokes, and in most cases that means one keystroke.
Version 3 is primarily a maintenance update writ large; it's not a floor-to-ceiling overhaul (none was needed), and it's not packed with innovations. However, the list of new features and fixes in the Upgrading to Sibelius 3 booklet fills 11 pages. Rather than wade through every single detail, I'll just hit a few high spots.
Sibelius's Arrange feature provides a way to intelligently copy music from one set of staves to another. That lets you do things like expand a piano score into an arrangement for string orchestra, or collapse a string orchestra arrangement into a piano score. In version 3, there are 18 new jazz Arrange styles based on the orchestration practices of well-known jazz composers and arrangers.
Beaming has been improved. It's now possible to beam over rests, and beam grouping and subgrouping is more flexible. Guitar-chord diagrams can now be transposed, and you can create your own libraries of favorite diagrams.
Font changes can now be applied to all objects of a given type in the score. When the guitar player in the band I work with complained that the chord symbols in a lead sheet were too small, I was able to increase their point size globally with one command.
When editing a score that includes multiple instruments, you can hide and show various staves independently, making it easier to work on one area (such as the woodwind section) at a time. In addition, the ability to import files in MakeMusic Finale format has been improved. Speaking of which, Sibelius Software offers a competitive cross-grade price of $199 for users of Finale, Passport Designs Encore, and MOTU Mosaic.
Sibelius 3 includes 30 new plug-ins, covering a wide range of chores such as Add Accidentals to All Notes, Add Schenkerian Scale Degrees, Realize Figured Bass, and Convert Folder of Scores to Web Pages. In addition, symbols can now be attached to the system rather than to an individual staff. This is useful for symbols that should be shown in all parts after part extraction. The ability to export TIFF graphic files, with resolutions up to 1,200 dpi, has also been added.
For some musicians, the big news with Sibelius 3 may be the inclusion of a sample-playback synth called Kontakt Silver. Although it is far less powerful than Native Instruments Kontakt, its parent program, Kontakt Silver is a big improvement sonically over the software synth that lives in your computer's operating system. Consequently, you can get a reasonable idea of what your score is going to sound like before you present it to the ensemble that will play it.
You can capture as many as eight tracks of audio playback from Kontakt Silver to your hard drive. Although the sound set is limited (20 sounds in all, with very few sound-editing features) and playback is rather wooden (compared to a dedicated sequencer), the feature is there if you need it.
At $599, Sibelius will appeal primarily to those who are serious about creating scores (although it is priced in line with its biggest competitor). In a few tweaky areas, Sibelius might not be as flexible as Finale, but in my experience it's much easier to use.
Make no mistake: Sibelius's feature set is fully professional. The program supports cross-staff beaming, compound time signatures, floating cue staves, Web publishing, the ability to import graphics, and more. The specialized needs of teachers and songwriters are well taken care of. After years of burying my head in the piano-roll display of a sequencer, I'm actually starting to look for excuses to do more printed scores — Sibelius is that good.