By Hugh John
Spend time in the company of Daniel Spreadbury, senior product manager at Sibelius Software and it won’t be long before you’ll be thinking of Sibelius 6 as a sensate, extremely intelligent score-writing being, preternaturally wise beyond its years; all 17 of them. “Sibelius knows. . . .Sibelius realises. . . . this is something that Sibelius understands.”
And who’s to say he’s not right? The eponymous score writing program, now in its sixth incarnation, has consistently set new benchmarks in terms of usability, speed, intelligence, elegance and – especially in the last three iterations – relevance to education.
Sibelius 6, released in May 2009, is a significant upgrade. Daniel declares himself to be very excited about this version. “This is a very big step forward for us. We’ve talked to as many customers as we can get round to see. Last year, every one of our employees went out on a school visit and most of them were lucky enough to see Sibelius used in the classroom.”
Comments and suggestions from teachers and beta testers were fed into what Daniel whimsically calls “the Sibelius hive mind” and have been directly responsible for some of the new features in this version. Other improvements were initiated by the in-house team. "We’re hoping,” says Daniel, “That users will say, ‘Wow, I never knew I needed it, but...’”!
Magnetic Layout promises to be the most useful new tool in Sibelius 6. Daniel describes it as, “an automatic collision avoidance feature”, which makes it sound like something you’d find in a well-engineered German car. In fact, it’s an overarching system that scrutinises all the objects you might put into a score – lyrics, chords, dynamics and the like – and arranges them according to the conventions of published music. Crucially, it maintains a clarity and proportion on the page which makes it easy for musicians to read.
‘Freeze’ will stop the little shirkers in their tracks
“Until now”, says Daniel, “what we haven’t been able to do is remove the user’s need to go through the score and tidy up. This is something that can take up a huge amount of time. With Magnetic Layout we’ve tried to make all those things that have been done by hand, automatic. Initial feedback suggests that Magnetic Layout can save users as much as half the time they would otherwise spend.”
Magnetic Layout works in real time and should prove to be invaluable to every user of Sibelius at whatever level they intend to use the software, whether it is symphonic scores or classroom worksheets.
Teachers will be particularly interested in Classroom Control, one of the most powerful features of the new network version of Sibelius. This enables a teacher to go into Sibelius and observe what each student is doing from a window on a single computer. And here’s the ultimate sanction and a sure-fire way to grab attention. Pressing ‘Select All’ followed by ‘Freeze’ will stop the little shirkers in their tracks. Teachers can even send specific messages to each student reminding them, for example, to ‘save your work’, ‘five minutes left to complete your task’ or, perhaps more realistically, ‘stop watching YouTube’!
Versions is a workflow feature that evolved directly from school visits by the Sibelius team. Think of it as a distant cousin to the ‘History’ or ‘Undo’ function found in many graphics programs. Essentially, it allows students and teachers to see and record the changes in specific projects over a period of time. Among the subset of tools available in Versions is a colour-coding system that highlights the differences in various versions and the ability to represent all these changes in a single Word file. As many composers know to their dismay, ‘latest’ is not always best. Versions make it easy for users to access and reintegrate previous versions of their work simply by selecting what they want from a list on the toolbar.
One of the things that teachers have a problem with, Daniel points out, is knowing that what is presented is the students’ own work. “We wanted to make it easy to capture this process inside the software so that the teacher and the students would have an audit trail at the end of a project.”
Comments allow users to attach virtual sticky notes to their scores. These notes could be reminders or they could, in a learning environment, form part of a collaboration or dialogue between student and teacher. “These three features taken together – Classroom Control, Versions and Comments – show how effective Sibelius can be in a music classroom. The feedback we’ve had on them from teachers has been really good.”
'Daniel the manual' – the evangelist at the creative helm
The Sibelius developers have taken full advantage of being part of team Avid, whose professional audio division, Digidesign, acquired Sibelius in 2006, by availing themselves of Digidesign’s sophisticated AIR technology that now drives both the playback and sampling functions. Additionally there’s a new Sibelius Sounds Essentials library with more than 150 pitched sounds and more than 900 unpitched sounds drawn from high-quality providers such as Garritan and Tapspace.
There’s good news too for music technology buffs. The adoption of Rewire – basically, a technology that transfers audio information between two software applications – means that Sibelius can now be used in conjunction with other music software such as Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer and GarageBand. Daniel points to some intriguing possibilities. “Imagine at AS Music Technology where you’re doing a project where you’ve got to produce a recording. Maybe the student will start on Pro Tools and do their midi work there and then import a Sibelius file.”
Sibelius 6 is proof that a small, highly regarded software company can maintain its focus and creative drive under the aegis of a large corporation. In fact, contrary to the expectation of some naysayers, the company has viewed the absorption into Avid as an opportunity to augment its own excellent software with powerful and innovative audio tools from stable mates Digidesign, Pro Tools and M Audio.
And with Daniel Spreadbury, the all round Sibelius evangelist, at the creative helm of what he describes as “an incredibly hard-working, experienced and musical development team”, the company’s software development couldn’t be in better hands. He’s not affectionately referred to – allegedly – as ‘Daniel the manual’ at their Old Toy Factory HQ in North London for nothing!
Daniel Spreadbury will be demonstrating Sibelius 6 on Wednesday and Thursday mornings at BETT. Visitors will also have the opportunity to see new versions of Sibelius Student, Aurelia and Musition.
January 13-16, Olympia, London
Sibelius Education - Stand B49