Computerworld

Music-Notation Software

SAN FRANCISCO (01/25/2000) - Creating professional-looking musical scores on a computer has always been a daunting task. Traditionally, music-notation programs have been either too complicated, or simple but too limited in the variety of scores they can produce.

Two professional notation programs, Coda Music Technology Inc.'s Finale 2000 and Sibelius Software Ltd.'s Sibelius, attempt to find a middle ground between these extremes by offering comprehensive feature sets and uncomplicated interfaces. They succeed to varying degrees. Finale 2000 is easier to use than past iterations and remains the most complete notation program available for the Mac. The slightly less comprehensive Sibelius is still quite capable and the easiest to use in its class.

Curtain Call

Finale has a well-earned reputation as the most feature-packed-and most confounding-music application made for the Mac. The program has always had seemingly endless tool palettes and layer upon layer of dialog boxes. The fact that Finale originally shipped with enough documentation to put a metropolitan phone book to shame didn't lessen the impression that the program was impossibly complicated.

While still complex, the latest release, Finale 2000, is easier to use than previous versions. When you launch the program, a setup wizard asks you to choose instruments for your score. It creates the score's clefs and instrument transpositions based on your choices, and groups related instruments-strings, for example. Coda has also reduced the number of tools that appear in Finale's Tool palette and has made the program much smarter about spacing notes.

However, Finale 2000's improvements comprise more than interface changes. The program includes 42 plug-ins that extend Finale's capabilities in welcome ways.

The Piano Reduction plug-in, for example, lets you reduce any number of selected staves into a piano grand staff. Of course, the results are not up to the standards of professional transcription, but for quick and dirty piano transcription, it's not bad. Split Point, another useful plug-in, lets you determine, in any selected region, where to divide notes between the two staves of a piano staff.

Macintosh Premiere

Sibelius has received rave reviews for its ease of use on the PC and on RISC-based Acorn platforms. For the most part, the eagerly anticipated Mac version doesn't disappoint. Unlike Finale, Sibelius lets new users produce professional-looking scores with relative ease. This is largely attributable to Sibelius's note-entry method. Like Finale, Sibelius lets you enter notes via a MIDI keyboard, but the program works best when you enter notes via the Mac's standard keyboard.

Sibelius's interface is built around a series of five number pad input palettes. The most common characters and commands are assigned to these palettes; this makes working with notes very easy. For instance, to enter a quarter note, you press F8 on the Mac's keyboard, press the 4 key on the number pad to select the quarter-note value, and click the note into place. Finale's much more limited number padÐentry scheme, on the other hand, forces you to use the program's Tool palette or its many menu commands for anything other than simple note-entry tasks.

Sibelius also gives you outstanding playback options. Not only can it play back with articulations and dynamics, but it can actually swing, playing jazz charts with light, normal, or heavy amounts of this style. Finale offers no such option for expressive playback.

Finale 2000 and Sibelius differ in speed and in the degree to which they let you modify the basic elements of your scores. In terms of speed, Sibelius easily outpaces Finale's relatively slow scrolling navigation. With Sibelius, you don't scroll through the score at all; rather, you click within the Navigator window (a miniature overview of the score) to go directly to a section of the score.

Sibelius automates a number of tasks that you have to perform manually in Finale-but this automation sometimes limits your control of the score. For instance, when you enter music into the program via a MIDI keyboard, Sibelius takes its best guess as to where to place the split point in the resulting piano score. By contrast, Finale lets you set the split point manually. This is especially useful for piano pieces in which one hand routinely plays keys that the other usually occupies. For such situations, Finale takes the prize.

Although Sibelius can create beautiful and complex scores, you will inevitably encounter its limitations. For example, if you want to analyze a chord and create an accompanying chord symbol, the program simply can't comply. While Finale may be slower, its depth and versatility give you greater control over the final appearance of your score.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Which program you should purchase depends on the types of scores you wish to produce and how much time you want to spend producing them. If you require total control over your scores and plan to notate very complex pieces, Finale 2000 remains the better choice. But if your needs are more modest and you want to create great-looking scores quickly and easily, get Sibelius.

Finale 2000

RATING: 4.0 mice

PROS: Comprehensive; helpful plug-ins.

CONS: Complex interface.

COMPANY: Coda Music Technology (800/843-2066, http://www.codamusic.com).

LIST PRICE: $545.

Sibelius

RATING: 4.0 mice

PROS: Fast, easy to use; varied playback options.

CONS: Split points not always accurate; no automatic chord-symbol creation.

COMPANY: Sibelius Software (888/474-2354, http://www.sibelius.com).

LIST PRICE: $599.