The Finale Analysis
PC Music Notation Software
Coda's Finale is well established as a respected Mac scorewriting program. Peter Cudmore looks at the long-awaited version for the PC.
It's difficult to write about Finale. Why? Simply because it's hard to drag yourself away from the program for long enough. The Macintosh version is well-established as the premier music processing package in a field that includes several strong contenders. Now it is also available for IBM PC-compatibles running under Windows, where the field is less crowded. As those who are familiar with the Mac version will know, Coda Music Software's Finale isn't really a sequencer (although it possesses many of the features you would expect of a sequencer), but a professional music notation program with extensive playback capabilities.
Finale's approach to the task is to provide a set of 32 tools for creating notation, text, and MIDI-sensitive expressions, and also for entering data, and for playing back the score. These are mounted on a scrolling panel at the left of the screen, and they can be rearranged according to individual taste — there are tools that some users will never use that others may use regularly. The power and flexibility with which Finale achieves all this is mind-boggling. However, the initial stages of learning to use the tools effectively are rather like trying to find a street without a map, despite the three manuals that run to 800 pages between them. The instructions within are well laid-out and easy to follow, but not always logically distributed, so that one sometimes needs all three open on the desk at once. This again is a reflection of the complexity of the program, and it is difficult to see how it could be avoided. Fortunately, after a little regular use, the functions of the tools become clearer, and use of the software becomes rather more intuitive.
There are four separate tools for entering the raw material of music notation: note pitches and durations. These are Simple Note Entry, Speedy Note Entry, Hyperscribe and Transcription. All except Simple Note Entry require a MIDI keyboard. Whichever you choose, the first stage in entering music is to prepare the staves to receive the notation. This is a simple operation, accomplished with the New Staff tool and a click of the mouse. When preparing staves, they can be assigned to MIDI channels via Routes.
Simple Note Entry involves selecting a duration from the palette, and clicking the staff with the mouse at the pitch required. Speedy Note Entry is faster, accepting pitch information from a MIDI keyboard while assigning durations by number from the computer keyboard. The drawback of Speedy Note Entry is a tendency to place a rest where a pitch was intended, when it is skipping from one measure to the next if a key on the MIDI source is held down while it performs this operation.
The Hyperscribe option is a much quicker way of entering music. It transcribes a performance in real time, using as a timing reference either an internal click track or user 'taps' sent while playing. A footpedal can be used to trigger these, otherwise a pitch can be assigned on the keyboard and triggered by one hand while you play the music you want to transcribe with the other.
The Transcription tool is the most powerful and flexible of the four note entry tools. This creates, in effect, a piano-roll displaying MIDI note on/off data in the linear form which will be familiar to anyone who uses computer sequencers. You can edit events on the piano-roll, though adding notes is simpler than removing them: to remove notes it is necessary to delete all notes in the region. You can also use the transcription tool to insert a segment into a previous recording, using a timer which can handle periods as short as .001 of a second.
When the time comes to transcribe a performance, Finale offers a wide range of options to help you create the perfect score. These include quantising parameters which do anything from enforcing a strict, regular rhythm to allowing quite the opposite, with free tuplet and grace notes. Once you've set the necessary parameters, and time tags are assigned exactly where you want them — again an area with extensive flexibility — the performance can be transcribed either directly to a fresh staff, or it can be assigned measure by measure to any staff previously defined, both horizontally and vertically. Two-handed keyboard performances can be transcribed quickly and accurately through the use of user-defined split points.
Unfortunately, this tool is prone to occasional failure, because of a problem in managing simultaneous MIDI input and output (when you play along with a previously-recorded passage).
Apart from Hyperscribe, all these note entry tools have simple editing capabilities, and there are also options for more sophisticated work. Among the functions of the Measure Attributes tool, for example, it is possible to create beat positioning charts for each measure individually, and position beats at irregular intervals through the space available (rather than having the four beats in a 4/4 bar evenly spaced). There is an automated way of achieving the same effect, using programmable 'Metatools'. (Metatools are essentially macros — a sequence of key and mouse strokes recorded for convenient execution. They can be continuously reassigned, and save a great deal of time when used effectively.) There are engravers' conventions for allowing space between events which can be saved in library files and recalled in the next score you work on.
The hardest-working editing tool, though, is the Mass Mover tool. This is a Metatool that accomplishes, for example, the automated spacing, which has extensive copying, inserting and deleting functions, as well as transposition, rebeaming and so on.
Once notes have been entered and edited, it is time to lay out the score and add expression marks. It's as well to have the score layout finalised before adding slurs and other marks which might cross barlines, because in Scroll View each measure follows the previous one on screen, whereas in Page View, when a part reaches the right-hand edge of the page, the next measure follows beneath. If you have defined a slur that stretches between two measures which have divided in this way, you will be left with something resembling a fishing rod dangling over the edge of the page. As elsewhere, Finale's page layout definitions are flexible, giving near-complete control over the final look of the score. Using the Page Layout tool, the program can be instructed to omit any staffs which do not have any notes in them, which often saves a good deal of space.
When it comes to expression marks, an outstanding feature of Finale is its ability to interpret virtually all expression marks in terms of MIDI events, if you so wish. Besides creating simple mappings, such as defining velocities to suit dynamic markings, you can also create 'executable shapes'. These, as their name suggests, are graphic shapes which can influence MIDI parameters. A simple diagonal line, for example, can be assigned to a crescendo mark to control a steady increase in velocity over a period of time. There are three expression tools. The Score Expression tool assigns marks to every staff in the score, while the Staff Expression tool does the same for individual staves. Both can deal with text expressions (ff, allegro etc) and shape expressions. Shape expressions are most useful for slurs and crescendo marks, but can include the user executable shapes. The third tool, the Note Expression tool, is used for placing staccato marks, accents and so on, against individual notes. These can also be associated with MIDI playback parameters, but not with the same degree of flexibility as the marks generated by the other two tools.
With the Expression Metatools, it is possible to program a slur or hairpin to one of the Metatool keys. Once there, it can be assigned to the next place in the score where it is required, edited in situ, and then perhaps assigned to the same Metatool key again, so that the next mark you place with that key will be exactly the same as the one you have just edited.
There are three tools which will be of particular interest to songwriters: the Chord tool, the Lyric tool and the Repeat tool. The Chord tool places chord symbols, and has the ability to listen to MIDI input, to analyse the chord played, and create the appropriate symbol. When you play back the score, the chord symbols will be observed and played back correctly. Neat.
The Lyric tool offers powerful and speedy text entry. In conjunction with the Repeat tool, you can create multiple verses with chorus, coda and so on. All the repeats and jumps will be faithfully followed on playback.
The Playback tool can play back your score in four ways: immediate playback via MIDI, to a temporary disk file, a playback file, or to a Standard MIDI file on disk. Immediate playback is not quite instant, as the computer has to translate the score into MIDI events as it goes. A memory buffer ensures that this does not cause any timing problems. The playback files (temporary, or on disk) that the program can generate contain MIDI data for the entire score.
You can mask off staves and listen to each one individually, and you can also restrict playback to a range of measures. The tool is not as convenient in operation as it could be. Once execution has been stopped, it is necessary to exit the dialogue box and start again, despite the highlighted Start button. Also, it sometimes takes quite a while to actually obey your stop command, as Finale empties its playback buffer first. Having said that, the control over MIDI routes and patches, assignable by instrument name, and the MIDI response to score arpression marks, makes Finale's playback facility quite outstanding.
Whether Finale is right for you depends on your approach to composing. If you want to turn a score into sound, then it can't be beaten, but if you want to work the other way round and turn a performance into a score, then a sequencer capable of producing Standard MIDI files will be a big help as Finale's Transcription tool will convert these. Finale is capable of capturing performance itself, as we have seen, but in many cases a dedicated sequencer will prove easier to manage.
To achieve a tolerable speed of execution on a PC, Finale requires a fairly substantial investment in hardware. As a minimum, think in terms of an 80386 machine running at 20MHz with 2Mb of memory, and a fast hard disk with a capacity of at least 40Mb. A monochrome display is perfectly adequate. Some VGA display cards will actually slow the system down, but the more expensive high-resolution cards from ATI or Video 7, for example, or the new Hercules Graphics Station, will not give this problem. They are expensive, however. You'll need a MIDI interface of course: MPU401-compatible, IBM Music Feature card, or you can run the program on a Yamaha C1 computer. Finally, you don't need a Postscript-compatible laser printer — you can print out with adequate quality on an ordinary laser printer, or a dot matrix printer come to that — but Finale's Postscript output capability means that publishing-quality artwork can be produced on a range of high resolution printers, including Linotronics.
All the way through the process of score production, Finale has a wealth of tools that give you maximum control over the finished product. The program can be simple to use once a basic familiarity has been achieved, but getting the best out of it requires a lot of time and effort. The rewards, though, make the effort worthwhile.
£599 inc VAT.
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Review by Peter Cudmore
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