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Sibelius Music Notation Software
Sibelius remains an excellent option for those who need a professional solution for writing music "the old fashioned way". It's still very easy to use and the quality of the instruments has been greatly expanded over the years.
One of the great joys of creating music is sharing it, whether it be in the form of a finished recording or the blueprint musicians will use to help realize a recording or live performance. Sibelius is an engraving software sold by Avid, the same people who bring us Pro Tools. It aims to offer composers the most comprehensive toolkit for developing musical scores.
In keeping with the Avid business model, it is subscription-based and quite pricey, but there are three subscription tiers and the option of paying on a monthly or annual basis. Further, if you need the most seamless notation workflow as well as the broadest palette of musical articulations and input parameters on offer, Sibelius could prove worth every penny.
As an engraving software, also known as music notation software or a “scorewriter”, Sibelius offers users the ability to create musical scores with the help of an easy-to-use interface and a magnetic layout meant to streamline workflow.
Upon opening Sibelius for the first time, users can choose from a library of score templates or design a score from scratch before setting key and time signatures as well as the textual information that goes at the top of the page. It is possible to load scores from MIDI files and paid subscribers can export to MIDI as well as to MP3, WAV, and AIFF at 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz using the sampled and synthesized instruments included in the Sibelius sample library.
While this can be a handy feature as the line between sampled instrumentation and live recorded performance grows increasingly blurred, Sibelius has always been first and foremost a music writing software geared towards creating a visual score.
Paying subscribers can export their scores to PDF, and Sibelius Ultimate subscribers can choose from a variety of other graphic formats as well. There are some wide disparities in functionality between the three subscription tiers, so we will dive deeper into this later on.
Though the aspect of Sibelius that most sets it apart from the competition is the comprehensiveness of its tools and features, a close second is how easy it is to use.
In the nearly 30 years since its initial release, Sibelius has been refined to the point where anybody with some background in written notation and a working understanding of computers will be able to use it with ease. The learning curve for this software is practically a flat line.
Whether you are approaching this sort of music notation software from a different form of music writing software (a DAW, for example) or just getting your start in music notation software from square one, the process of building your score is intuitive from the start.
Further, there are countless opportunities to speed up your workflow through the use of keyboard shortcuts for users who are adept with a computer keyboard and note input with the help of a MIDI keyboard for those who are more comfortable with a different set of keys under their fingers.
Even after note input, the tools related to arrangement and transformation help make the Sibelius workflow fast and easy to use as well. The Arrange feature is essentially a copy and paste function that will take a passage and transcribe it for a new instrumental arrangement. Users can create reductions from multiple lines of music and just as easily do the reverse with the “explode” function.
Transformation controls allow you to reorder pitches and modify note values for a selection, which can be an incredible time-saver compared to manual re-entry.
The ability to save and export different versions of a score, whether it be the score only, one or more individual instrument parts, or some combination thereof, can likewise save an incredible amount of tedious copying and pasting.
Though it was many years ago, I can recall very clearly making the switch from Finale to Sibelius. The reason this transition is burned into my memory, I think, is because the change in workflow and key commands was difficult enough to slow me down for some time.
Composers who have grown accustomed to the workflow of a different music notation software will likely feel frustrated at first because of the speed bump of learning a new workflow. But the long-term benefit of making the switch will outweigh the temporary headache of having to learn a new workflow.
With the three tiers of Sibelius on offer, each one builds on the features of the tier before it, so we will start off with the very basic Sibelius First and proceed through Sibelius and Sibelius Ultimate.
This version of Sibelius is truly a bare-bones taste of what Sibelius has to offer. Though the features are limited, the workflow is largely the same, even down to the keyboard shortcuts. While it likely makes more sense to get a feel for Sibelius using the 30-day free trial, Sibelius First offers a similar, less-time restricted application for users trying to determine whether or not Sibelius is for them.
Users of Sibelius First can import MIDI files but not export them. They can use the Sibelius music notation features in a limited way, with a maximum number of four instruments per score and no customization in text and symbols. However, users will find this software is compatible with Avid Scorch, which is a sheet music application that allows users to access and manipulate saved scores using tablets.
The playback in Sibelius First is a simple MIDI sound, but users do have access to Sibelius Cloud Sharing, which is a pretty cool feature that allows them to upload scores to the cloud and access them anywhere or embed them as graphical files or audio files in webpages. When users make changes to a score they can push those changes to the cloud version as well. Sibelius First users are limited to ten scores, and these scores are limited to the features on offer with Sibelius First, but it is a pretty cool feature nonetheless.
Sibelius First users do not have access to arranging tools, but they can annotate and comment on scores. For lyrics, they are restricted to two lines of text, and they can only use two voices per staff.
With this version of Sibelius, users unlock a lot of the features that make Sibelius such a powerful program, but not in their full capacity.
For example, Sibelius users double the number of scores they can upload to Sibelius Cloud Sharing; quadruple the number of instrument parts they can include in a score; and they have the option of downloading 10 GB of the 36 GB sound library available to Sibelius Ultimate users. This gives users access to much more realistic sounds, which is useful in exporting to WAV, AIFF, and MP3.
Paid Sibelius users gain access to jazz articulations, 512th notes and longs (double breves), as well as five lines of lyrics. They also gain access to four voices per staff and increased customizability in terms of layout.
This version of Sibelius also comes with the Auto Optimize feature, which automatically adjusts the spacing of staves and other layout items in order to prevent collisions. They can also import house styles, but they are restricted from exporting them. Users will also gain access to Avid customer service in case anything goes horribly wrong (we doubt it).
The key selling point for Sibelius Ultimate is the lack of limitations placed on a user’s workflow. Though many users would likely operate within the confines of one of the less sophisticated products without ever noticing the limitations, users who plan to push the envelope in their use of the software might consider paying for Sibelius Ultimate.
Sibelius Ultimate users can make use of as many lines of text for their lyrics as they wish, and they can also pull lyrics from a text file. They have unlimited uploads to Cloud Sharing up to 1 GB. They can make use of unlimited instruments and unlimited staves in a score, and have access to all of the customizable symbols and texts that can be placed on or around a staff.
Users who plan to export music as audio files gain access to a 36 GB built-in sound library, and those planning to pass parts out to musicians can export scores as individual parts.
Sibelius Ultimate offers users the option to compose for a massive range of instruments, even instruments from outside of the standard western classical, jazz, and folk varieties. Composers incorporating instruments from all over the world will likely be able to find those instruments included in the Sibelius instrument library.
When it comes to reasons to think twice about getting into Sibelius, it is worth noting that Sibelius is an Avid product. This means that while you’ll definitely get something that works well, Avid does have a mixed reputation when it comes to their pricing and customer service.
Fortunately, Sibelius does not require iLok for activation the same way Pro Tools does, but it does require activation with the use of an internet connection.
Another drawback that ought to be pointed out is that there is a barrier to entry to using Sibelius that will be inherent in any notation software, which is that users need some degree of familiarity with sheet music and written notation in order to get any use out of the product.
These skills can be picked up over time, little by little, and the magnetic layout and basic rules built into the system will even help an inquisitive person to learn this form of musical communication faster.
For example, Sibelius will not let you put five quarter notes in the same voice into a single measure in common time. But a complete neophyte may find the software a little daunting, as they would likey find any notation software daunting having had no prior experience with sheet music.
We’ll spend more time discussing the price structure for Sibelius below, in the Value section, but it will suffice for now to suggest that the cost of this product is a major drawback. To unlock the features that make Sibelius a powerful piece of software, one has to buy a subscription, and the cost of the subscription is considerable and likely prohibitive for a lot of would-be users.
As previously mentioned, Sibelius is available in three different versions: Sibelius First, Sibelius, and Sibelius Ultimate. There are student and teacher discounts available as well.
Sibelius First is free, but is a severely limited version of Sibelius. The next tier up costs $99 billed annually or $12.99 monthly. A perpetual license can be bought for $149.
Sibelius Ultimate is essentially the full version and is available as a 30-day trial before a user has to subscribe at a rate of $199 billed annually (education pricing: $99), $27.99 billed monthly (edu: $9.99), or $599 for a perpetual license (edu: $299). There are additional features that can be bundled with the perpetual license for an additional fee, including PhotoScore, NotateMe Ultimate (bundled together for an additional $150), and AudioScore Ultimate (also an additional $150).
Though the perpetual license will free users from monthly or yearly bills, and will thus prove the most cost-effective option for non-educational pricing users after three years, it is important to point out that the perpetual license only entitles you to a free upgrade to subsequent versions only within a year of purchase.
What this means is that those who purchase perpetual licenses are basically gambling that there will not be a newer, more attractive version of Sibelius released within the next few years, or else the yearly license might prove more cost-effective.
If price is no object and there is a chance that you may have a particular use for one or more of the features that only Sibelius offers, then it is likely the best notation software money can buy. Unfortunately, very few of us find ourselves making choices in which money is not an object!
For users who can get everything they want and need in free software, Sibelius is a major expenditure that could be avoided or rerouted to any number of other expensive software packages, plugins, instruments, or microphones that might make a greater impact on your musical practice.
Add-Ons and Educational Discounts
There are several add-ons that can be bought as part of Sibelius or Sibelius Ultimate, including NotePerformer (a smart playback feature for $129), AudioScore (a tool that notates the music conveyed in audio files for $249), and AvidPlay (a music distribution service for $24.99).
At the educational rate, Sibelius Ultimate becomes cheaper than many textbooks on music theory, yet the alternative to Sibelius that can be found in MuseScore is a powerful piece of software that does about 90% of what Sibelius can do without the add-ons.
It is for this reason that I would urge would-be users to think carefully about the features they need in engraving software, the features they want and would likely use, and the features for which they have no use.
Were it not for the price, it would be easy to tell every reader to pick up a copy of Sibelius Ultimate and get to work making music. That said, if you have a use for engraving software and a particular set of needs to boot, Sibelius might very well be the only engraving software that will fit the bill. Cost becomes a moot point, as Sibelius is really your only option if you need a streamlined workflow, easy-to-use interface, and features like PhotoScore and AudioScore. For what it does, Sibelius remains the best software money can buy, even if it costs a lot of money to buy it.
That said, if a less powerful software will suffice for your needs and wants, then I would recommend exploring Sibelius’s competitors, particularly MuseScore.