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Control Room

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Sibelius scoring software

Article from The Mix, June 1995

Powerful Archimedes program

As a professional scorewriter for the Archimedes, Sibelius may seem to have limited appeal. But as Ian Waugh discovers, its literacy and speed could teach Mac and PC programs a thing or two...

A Sibelius score with the radar control in the bottom right hand corner.

You don't see much new music software for the Archimedes these days, so Sibelius comes as a double surprise. Not only is it written for the Arc, but it also happens to be one of the most powerful pieces of music software on any computer platform. It's a top-end, highly professional scorewriter.

Actually, the developers call it an expert system. Even if you can read music well, if you've ever tried your hand at notation, you'll have realised that there are lots of little rules which you weren't consciously aware of, which have to be applied exactly, if the music is to read correctly.

Music typesetting is full of these arcane rules. They were developed over the centuries, and go far beyond those of mere music notation. They cover things like how long note stems should be, how much space there should be between notes, exactly where music symbols should go, where accidentals and music symbols should be placed, how large text should be (that depends on what it's for) and so on. Sibelius is programmed with this arcane knowledge, and applies the rules to your score automatically.

Arc toil

So why compromise such a worthy program by writing it for the Archimedes, rather than Mac or PC? Well, it was written by twin brothers Jonathan and Ben Finn, over a six year period while they were at university. An Arc was there, and that's just what they happened to use. Any coincidence between their surname and Finnish composers living or dead is hotly contested by Jonathan and Ben, incidentally.

In Overview mode Sibelius uses the Arc's desktop and it can display the score at any resolution.

The Archimedes is actually a highly-underrated machine, but the lack of a significant user-base compared with the Mac and PC promises to limit the commercial ambitions of the program. What is remarkable about Sibelius is that it is written in machine code, unlike most other software, which tends to be written in C. Machine code makes for blindingly fast software, and you have to see Sibelius in action to believe just how fast it is.

The main screen does not run under RISC OS, but instead shows the layout of the score. There's a small radar window on the bottom right, containing a white rectangle which shows that part of the score which is visible in the main window.

You can move around the score by dragging the rectangle over the radar window. You can also move the score by holding down the mouse button on the main score, and dragging it as if you were sliding a piece of paper over the desktop. The amazing thing about all this is that the score moves instantly, just as if you were sliding a piece of paper around. Graphics don't come much faster than this.

The speed of the program is evident in all aspects of its operation. If you decide to insert a note at the beginning of a score, it will reformat it in a fraction of a second. It not only adjusts the notes, but intelligently performs functions such as splitting or joining crescendos, and phrasing marks across two staves, adjusting the bar numbers at the start of each stave, reformatting text and so on.

The window in the top left shows the exact scale factor in Overview mode.

Sibelius reformats the score on the fly. As soon as you enter a note, it automatically spaces it and adjusts the staves and pages. You can make large changes, too, such as adding a new instrument, or even selecting a different score size, and that will be reformatted instantly, too. And it does this however large the score is — not even a symphony slows it down!

Sibelius does have a RISC OS display, however. It shows an overview of the score, and appears like a normal Arc desktop window with scroll bars. You can zoom in and out, and the program uses shades of grey to make it legible at almost any resolution. Working with this is a little slower, particularly on older machines, as it's more under control of the Arc. Give the fonts lots of RAM, to help speed things up.

Short score

Let's see how you create a score. First, you select some instruments. These are simply staves, correctly formatted for the various instruments you want to use. There are over 100 available from menus, and you can create your own. They automatically appear in the correct order for an orchestral score, although you can change this, too.

Select a note duration using the function keys — an overlay is supplied — and then drag the note to the correct pitch, with the mouse. Short notes are automatically beamed, although you can split and adjust these manually if you wish. Accidentals and note heads in chords are automatically put in the right place. You can then add accidentals, articulation marks, text, lyrics and other music symbols.

You can choose select any page size and layout in the Score format window.

Notes or text are easily picked up and dragged to new positions. When you enter lyrics, notes are spaced automatically to accommodate them. Sibelius supports virtually very kind of music symbol you can think of, from renaissance breves to modern avant-garde notation. Entering notes in step-time from a MIDI keyboard is possible, too. This is an easy way of working. The developers are currently working on realtime MIDI input, which will be very useful to many people.

And all the time you're entering notes, the program is formatting the score for you. When you reach the end of a line (technically, a System), Sibelius creates another one, much as a wordprocessor wraps words onto a new line. It also 'wraps' pages, but you can also force a page end at any point, to help with page-turning.

"Graphics don't come much faster than this"

House music

Virtually every aspect of Sibelius can be customised, a point which is well illustrated by House Styles. These are used to customise scores for different types of music. They can include all aspects of layout and formatting, including fonts, note spacings, bar number style and frequency, rehearsal mark formats, instrument order, barline splitting point and so on.

House Styles let you create music with the same stylistic appearance. This is useful for music publishers, or for anyone wanting to assemble several pieces of music, even produced by different people.

But even though you can customise Sibelius quite heavily, most options have sensible defaults, and you can get started quite quickly without having to create lots of settings first.

There are over 100 pre-programmed instruments or stave formats which can easily selected from menus.

Although Sibelius is not a sequencer as such, it does have a remarkable range of playback facilities. It uses tape transport-type controls for playback, and the score scrolls while playing.

It defaults to General MIDI, although — as most of us have now come to expect — you can alter this. It will read the instruments assigned to the staves, and automatically assign them to suitable GM voices. If you aren't hooked up to MIDI, it will play the score as best it can, using the Arc's internal sound system.

The program also reads instructions such as mf, cres, metronome markings, bowing marks (downbowing makes the sound a little louder), ties and hairpins, and interprets them on playback. It will also check for music instructions in English, French and Italian.

Sibelius is equally able to handle complex avant garde music scores.

It also contains an Expressivo algorithm, which makes subtle changes to the music during playback. It does such things as slightly accentuating the first note in a bar, or group of beamed notes. It can be very subtle, but it does remove some of the mechanical-ness you often find in sequenced music.

Prints charming

And so to the printing. Sibelius has lots of option in the print department. You can extract individual parts — as you would expect with any scoring program. However, Sibelius will also automatically transpose parts, and bring several bar rests together, as is the common practice in individual part scoring. Nice one.

It can export a score as a Draw or Impression file for Arc users, and as an EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) file, should you want to use it on a Mac or PC. This enables you to use scores in any type of document material just as easily as you would import a graphic.

With all these features, you may be wondering if the program is easy to use. Well, you can generally just use those parts that you need. You don't have to dig deep into the more sophisticated and customisable features if you don't want to.

You can pick up symbols from the symbol menus — this is just one of them.

The whole process is admirably aided by an excellent manual. It's in plain English, fairly jargon-free, has an index and is well illustrated. Adopting a tutorial approach, it takes you from entering your first score through to some of the more intricate aspects of scorewriting, such as layout and design.

But easy though the program is to use, you will have to read the manual. In case you do have a problem, you'll be amazed to know that the company offers a 24-hour technical support hotline, which lasts for three months from the date of purchase.

Six of the best

Some of the lines and symbols which you can place in a Sibelius score.

You may have come to the conclusion, as I have, that Sibelius is a pretty desirable piece of kit. It also has a pretty hefty price tag, more in keeping with high-end professional applications on the Mac and PC than a scorewriter. But Sibelius is a very professional piece of software, and until Quark and Photoshop come down to £100, Sibelius has every right to be up there with the rest of them.

But the company is aware that the program will be out of reach of many nonprofessional users, and so is offering it at a cheaper rate to educational and amateur users.

If that's still too heavy for your pocket, check out Sibelius 6. Most high-end programs have a cut-down sibling, and this is 7's. Sibelius 6 may lack a few features, but it's still an amazingly powerful program. It only looks limited if you're already familiar with Sibelius 7.

In all likelihood, the limitations will only be of importance to the professional. The vast majority of non-professional users, I'm sure, will find it more than equal to most scorewriting jobs.

For example, 6 lacks some of the more esoteric note heads and music symbols. It also tends to have fixed options where in 7 they can be customised. It can only handle scores up to 512 bars long, with 32 staves per page, and a maximum of 16 instruments. And it can only print to A4 paper. Think you could live with that?

Finally, Sibelius is constantly being updated, and new features are added at the request of users — who are credited with the suggestions in a read me file. Many minor updates are free, although in keeping with most software developers, more major ones can cost up to £100.

Sibelius is already being used by several major music publishers and composers. In fact, some bought an Archimedes system in order to run it. If you don't have an Arc, you may have to do the same. Because it's written in machine code, it's not easy to port it to the Mac or PC, and the company has no immediate plans to do so. Sorry, but there you are.

But if you do have an Arc, this is one program you must see. Demo disks are available on request. You'll be impressed.

What you need

Sibelius will run quite happily on any Archimedes computer. It will even run from a floppy disk! But if you have a RISC PC, it will fly along incredibly fast. It supports most monitor displays, but again, a large hi-res monitor will enable you to see more of the score.

You'll also need a printer. For high qualify results a PostScript printer is recommended, but it's not essential, and you can still print using a humble bubble let.

The system of copy protection has recently been changed from a key disk to a hard disk install, which only allows the program to run on one machine.

The essentials

Prices inc VAT: Sibelius 7 - £934, £499 (+ VAT) to educational users. Sibelius 6 - £187
More from: Sibelius Software, (Contact Details).

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Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Jun 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

Control Room

Review by Ian Waugh

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