Market-leading rivals Sibelius 3.1, from Sibelius, and Finale 2004, from MakeMusic, remain the most full-featured, one-size-fits-all packages available for producing printed musical scores. Choosing between the two isn’t simply a matter of determining what kind of notation you’re creating, because either can produce nearly anything you can imagine, from the common to the obscure. Both feature guitar tablatures, avant-garde contemporary notations, percussion-specific symbols and staffs, and even notation you may not have heard of, such as the shape-note notation used in Early American church music and featured in the recent movie Cold Mountain. These programs are so evenly matched, most people will rely on personal tastes to choose one.
What They Share
While Finale and Sibelius have been used by Academy Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning composers, the programs can be just as well suited to hobbyist musicians and elementary-school teachers and students. Either program will let you share a hard copy of your latest tune with other people, so they can add vocals, guitar licks, and drum grooves. You enter lyrics, standard chord symbols, guitar frames and tablature, and a drum part, which the programs will format into a professional-looking layout. You can also create an audio file of the playback (a feature new to both Sibelius and Finale), and share your score on the Internet with any Mac or PC user. Sibelius even has a Web site (www.sibeliusmusic .com) on which you can sell your score and get a cut of the profits (about 50 percent of the purchase price, with no overhead). Finale offers a similar service, Showcase (www.finale showcase.com), for Web publishing, though you can’t use it to sell your scores for profit, and the necessary viewer software doesn’t yet support OS X. Much of this either isn’t possible with the notation facilities built into programs such as Apple’s Logic and MOTU’s Digital Performer, or isn’t as easy.
Musicians dream of a world in which entering musical scores into a notation program is as intuitive as typing into a Word document. Both Sibelius and Finale have extensive keyboard shortcuts that let you touch-type music without using a mouse. In each, shortcuts for note entry are easy to learn — with letter keys for pitches and arrow keys for editing. (Some additions unveiled with Finale 2004 have vastly improved Finale in this regard.) Once you’ve learned the shortcuts, note entry is very fast, even without a MIDI keyboard. Sibelius is the more intuitive of these programs when it comes to note entry; it has an on-screen numeric keypad that shows keyboard mappings of five sets of common items. Some of Finale’s shortcuts, like those for tuplets and articulations, are harder to remember and can require the use of dialog boxes, adding a step. You can edit any keyboard-shortcut assignment in either program if you don’t like it, though. Overall, Sibelius is the easier program to learn and use, though Finale has loyal adherents because of its more-advanced customization of workflow and entry.
QWERTY-keyboard entry is essential if you’re making music at 35,000 feet, in coach, but at other times you may prefer to use a MIDI keyboard, such as the $99 M-Audio Keystation 49e USB keyboard, available from the Apple Store (http://store.apple.com). Either program will let you enter music to a metronome or one beat at a time. Finale lets you first play in pitches and then tap in beats with a pedal; Sibelius has a flexible metronome that follows your playing, keeping time with you as you speed up or slow down, as long as you do so smoothly. Both features are an aid to players who don’t like the rigidity of a metronome.
New in Sibelius 3.1 is the ability to store live MIDI data from your performance. Finale already had a similar feature, but Sibelius’s implementation is more elegant: one button on the toolbar lets you toggle between your original performance and the software’s automatic playback from the score. Finale gets a nod for its sequencer-like level of control over MIDI data. Its powerful MIDI Tool has more-extensive controls for shaping a recorded performance than Sibelius does. And it includes several tools for graphically modifying controller data, as well as functions for adjusting rhythmic feel and durational values. Also, if you play a brass or wind instrument, Finale’s MicNotator will transcribe what you play, freeing you from keyboards if you’re not a pianist; as with MIDI transcription, the results aren’t perfect, but with some adjustment, MicNotator can be a big time-saver.
One major selling point of computer notation is that it lets you hear roughly what your music will sound like when played by instrumentalists. Both programs have an uncanny ability to turn your score into audio playback, correctly interpreting crescendos and decrescendos, tempo markings, articulations, and more, in any rhythmic groove. But neither can improvise accompaniment to chord symbols automatically. Of the two, Sibelius has the broader list of text and items it can interpret and more playback control, though playback in each comes close to what you’d expect. Both have added new software instruments, too, finally replacing the tinny sound of QuickTime Musical Instruments.
Sibelius 3.1 has added Kontakt, a customized, full-featured software synth from the wizards at Native Instruments, though you’ll need to spend $149 to get all 64 pitched sounds and 110 percussion sounds in Kontakt Player Gold; the included free version has 19 pitched sounds and 100 percussion sounds. The huge, high-quality sounds in Kontakt also have a cost in drive space, load time, and performance (turning off reverb can help). Finale’s included SmartMusic SoundFont isn’t as fancy as Kontakt, but it loads faster and includes all the sounds you’ll need. If you have the extra cash and a fast machine, you’ll likely prefer Kontakt Player Gold’s sounds, but thanks to OS X, you can use cheap or free sounds downloaded from the Internet in DLS or SF2 format in either program, even with a slower G3 or G4 processor.
Before the widespread use of computers to produce scores, engravers used a complex series of rules to space out notation so it was neat and easy to read; Sibelius and Finale each employ an algorithm that does this as you work. The latest versions of each have brought improvements to that algorithm and to automatic placement of objects, so you’ll do a lot less correcting and tweaking than in previous versions. Sibelius’s new spacing algorithm improves the look of complex spacing situations and fixes previous versions’ sometimes-buggy beaming implementation. Finale 2004 has improved cross-staff beaming and expression placement, better-looking slurs, and improved automatic hyphenation and word extensions in lyrics. Both will now automatically add page breaks to avoid difficult page turns, and Finale even creates automatic cue notes for parts to help players make entrances in ensemble music. Either will produce an attractive, elegant score with little intervention on your part. When you do want to intervene, Finale generally provides more tools for obsessive, fine control over every last detail. Those tools result in sprawling toolbars and menu options, however, making Finale more difficult to learn than the more accessible, streamlined Sibelius, which has some powerful layout and editing tools of its own.
OS X Compatibility and Performance
Finale was late to market with OS X compatibility, well behind Sibelius and lagging behind Finale 2004 for Windows, but the long-awaited release supports all of OS X’s current features, including Core MIDI, Core Audio, and font smoothing. At press time, Finale 2004 for Mac lacked EPS export and PostScript listings, but MakeMusic has promised a maintenance release. For many users, the big disappointment with Finale is speed. Even on my 1GHz PowerBook G4 with 512MB of RAM, screen redraws had a noticeable lag, and pro users who create large scores, which can grow to hundreds of pages, have found several seconds’ delay for simple operations. Sibelius is speedy on all scores, even large ones, and has no noticeable screen-redraw lags.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Most existing users of Finale or Sibelius will find that the latest releases provide more than enough reasons to upgrade. If you’re buying for the first time or switching, you’re unlikely to go wrong with either program; each has a user base of professional composers and copyists with a devotion to their choice bordering on the religious. Sibelius remains by far the more accessible program to newcomers, and it still boasts an extensive list of elegantly implemented features. Finale is powerful and maintains the edge when it comes to number of features and direct control over layout. But the program suffers from a lack of speed, even on the fastest Macs, and learning to use it is difficult, despite the included video tutorials.
If these aspects of Finale have frustrated you, Sibelius has enough of an advantage to justify switching, but people already comfortable and reasonably satisfied with Finale are unlikely to find the switch worth the time investment.