October 28, 2006

Alien vs. Predator: (Aka: Finale vs Sibelius...)

Finale's layout and program logic can border on the extra-terrestrial, at least for me. Most of the musicians I know who have settled into Finale use have been set-up by other power users from across the great layman/expert divide. How do power users get this way? Not sure, but they would likely become engineers and understand Fortran if confronted with it, I'm sure. My friend and Finale expert, bassist Tom Hubbard is an example of this. He knows everything about everything. Just one of those type of guys. We did a barter agreement where I taught him some piano and harmony and he taught me Finale. I think he got something out of my instruction but I was left scratching my head despite his dutiful and patient teaching. Sibelius has been on Finale's tail for years and has made its reputation on being the "anti-Finale" (anti-climatic?). It is also considerably more expensive.

As a Finale user I had resigned myself to writing via computer keyboard, tolerating various intermittant or unresolvable issues: backwards compatibility, tuplets, page layout issues and irreconciliable midi issues. Chord change writing-through the shortcut keystroke system was really the last straw for me. There was some bug with superscript where D7b9 would write out as D7B9 and there was nothing I could do about it. Then I just needed to write out changes and the system of writing these "note attached" events (chords) against an invisible 2nd voice layer of notes just was not working out. It worked then it didn't work, then it would work, then it didn't. It was serious computer cursing time.

In a previous project I even tolerated the Finale metronome clicking on Db against a part I was recording in C with latency issues forcing me to blot out the playback from the computer as well as buffer freezeups. But when it started resetting my instrument parts I decided I had had enough and made the switch via competitive upgrade to Sibelius 4. I don't regret the decision in the slightest. The price for competitive upgrade was hard to beat, certainly. Sibelius boldly as a sales pitch talks about converting Finale users with it's intuitive design and ease of use. They unabashedly knock Finale's issues either directly or implied from various testimonials from Pat Metheny and other artists and in fact they design the program to read and import Finale files up to 2003 and Enigma transport files (ETF). (Finale doesn't return the favor). Any engraved notation files can be imported via scan and then translated through it's Neuratron notation recognition/scan program. Or midi files can be translated easily with all the track separation intact. I translated a troublesome Finale 2003 file that way. Basically, thru Sibelius, I was able to set up my midi input device without a hitch. I am able to do step time and flexitime recording (the Sibelius equivalent of Finale's hyperscribe). Flexi-time also allows you to record in rubato tempo. Tempo tapping via a key or device is not necessary. There are still some latency issues but device set-up is very clear, regardless. Chord writing is not this complicated dance of keystrokes demanded by Finale (based on comforming to the font/keystroke library commands) with interminable requests to add the chord to the library. Sure Finale users claim--"you need to load the library and save the template". But honestly if you can just type in what you want, why tolerate this ridiculous complication? The cursor keys let you navigate the notes and move them easily. Notes that are selected for editing are highlighted in blue. If you want to get out of edit mode, hit the escape key. Some basic functions are simply accessed by typing one letter with out alt or control. Other commands that begin with the same letter as single letter commands use the alt, shift or control keys. You can literally type in letter names for notes with the note value preselected. You can create chords on the keyboard by interval distance for example a C triad can be typed in by typing C then "3" and then "3".

There are a few faults, albeit minor in Sibelius. Nothing is perfect I guess. Tempo changes if not set up in the beginning can prove difficult to defeat. The tempo slider bar is set to certain maxiumum depending on the initial set up. You can revise the tempo as a written instruction but I have found it to be intermittantly successful workaround. Sometimes it adjusts the tempo range and other times the music simply resets to the tempo limit set for the composition and ignores the text tempo indication. Deleting music can prove problematic. The control click, delete function is the only way to get rid of measures. There is no nudge function. If you have a note you need to move over, subtracting a beat or partial beat proves virtually impossible to get a note to move over since Sibelius views rests as bordering on the almost sacrosanct. You can cut and paste a note to a different area as a workaround. You can delete a rest but they become "invisible" and they are immovable. If you delete again you get a beat warning but I'll be damned if I have ever seen a rest removed despite the warning. In Sibelius G7 the tempo slider is only visible during playback. It disappears from the playback window once the music stops. Also Sibelius Kontakt player has a latency of 83ms. This makes it impossible to use it for flexi-time. Setting the latency lower results in garbled output.

However, overall, since I can input notes in various ways, type out chord changes without issue, add staves, adjust layouts, change key sigs, use my midi device and have gotten up and running on the sofware in a fraction of the time it took me for Finale, I would have to agree with the testimonials. When you throw in the fact the Sibelius offers a properly bound complete instruction book and duplicate html reference book within the software it's hard to beat. At the time I bought it, Finale offered an instruction book via separate purchase. The electronic pdf version of the book was completely nonsensical, freeze prone and impossible to navigate in my view.

As in the movie, predator gets the edge.

Keep in mind that these are the observations of a somewhat novice user. I'm sure there are users that have studied these programs and know all the pitfalls and ins and outs of these programs and ways to get around the issues I am talking about. I'm speaking to the "lay" user who has some familiarity with the basics and can write music out in the programs, but have experienced frustrations that are typical of most users.


Luke said...

Sibelius has totally made notation fun again! I totally agree!

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