Sibelius 4 review

£506
Price when reviewed

If one music-notation package can lay claim to being the industry standard, Sibelius is it. Humble beginnings on the Acorn platform didn’t deter many composers and arrangers from choosing it in favour of the more established competition, and since its port to Windows in 1998 (and Mac in 1999) it’s become standard issue in both professional and academic circles.

Sibelius 4 review

It’s not hard to see why. The attention to detail in every aspect of score design and formatting is beyond rebuke. The result is an application that not only gives users meticulous control over the notation process, but also makes that process amazingly efficient.

There are three key areas that facilitate this. One is superb automatic layout. Give Sibelius notes to display and it will do so clearly and attractively, whether they’re melodies with lyrics or complex polyrhythms and note clusters. Bars automatically expand and contract to suit the overall page layout, and the software will even align rests to the bottom of the page to help with page turns.

There are a few areas in which the automatic layout needs a little help, such as when notes or other markings on one stave clash with those in the stave above or below, or when dynamics markings clash with low notes. It’s a little disappointing these aren’t remedied automatically, but this also highlights another of Sibelius’ strengths: virtually unlimited customisation. If you don’t like the position of something, whether it’s a note, dynamic marking, stave or complete system, simply drag it to a new location. Customisation isn’t limited to moving single objects either. Sibelius’ rules for automatic layout are available for editing, right down to the defaults for positions of time signatures and the curvature of slurs. There’s support for alternative note heads, free rhythm bars, rehearsal marks, ossia staffs, guitar TAB, accordion fingering – basically, everything we could think of is there, plus plenty more besides.

The third key ingredient to Sibelius’ success is its elegant user interface. The ability to drag any object to a new location may lead you to think this is a mouse-driven interface. Certainly, the mouse is well used, but it’s the wealth of keyboard shortcuts that gives Sibelius its lightning-fast operation. Click a letter from A to G to add a note, S to add a slur, H for a hairpin crescendo. The number pad selects note lengths, accidentals, ties, accents and staccato symbols, and a virtual number pad appears as a window onscreen to function as a memory aid and for notebook users. Note input is also possible with the mouse, via a MIDI keyboard or by importing a MIDI file. Of these methods, the MIDI keyboard proved most efficient. Sibelius’ MIDI file import would benefit from some quantise and note overlap removal options – we found that imported data tended to produce complex, messy scores that were easier to redo manually than to tidy up.

Having already honed score design to near-perfection, version 4 concentrates largely on ancillary features. However, this doesn’t stop them being both well executed and hugely beneficial. The highlight is Dynamic Parts. Being able to extract parts from a full score is an inherent benefit of any notation software, but Sibelius 4 takes this concept a stage further. Rather than extract a part, edit it and save it as a different file, parts are now embedded in the main file, which means that any changes made to the score are immediately reflected in the parts. Similarly, changing note values and adding and deleting objects in a part does the same on the score. However, changing the position of objects in the part doesn’t affect the score. As such, it’s possible to optimise a score for the conductor and the parts for the performers – perhaps expanding complex bars in the parts but keeping them compact in the score. It’s also possible to hide objects in either the score or the parts, which is ideal for providing cues in parts.

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