MakeMusic's Finale score-writing software has been helping composers and publishers for a quarter of a century. What does its 2012 incarnation bring?
By any standards, Finale is a long-lived application, with roots stretching back into the 1980s. Back then, and through the first half of the '90s, if you needed really flexible notation delivered through a graphical user interface it really was the only game in town. It happens to be the reason why I first bought a Mac, so I feel some special affinity with the old girl.
Finale received a broadside in the '90s, though, with the arrival of the competitor notation package Sibelius, at first only on the niche RISC-based Acorn Archimedes platform, but later on Mac OS and Windows too. Since then, the two applications have been vying for supremacy (to put a dramatic spin on it) and it's no coincidence that their asking prices are pretty much identical. Or, indeed, that both MakeMusic and Avid, the parent companies of Finale and Sibelius, offer crossgrade deals to try and poach their rival's users.
Notation means different things to different people. A professional copyist, preparing scores for commercial print, needs top-class engraving quality and notation flexibility. A composer, meanwhile, might look for a platform that assists experimentation, with good playback sounds. Music educators need something slightly different again, including page layout capabilities for producing worksheets.
Finale 2012 caters for all of these, and others, with an extensive and to some extent configurable feature set. As you'd expect, there's practically no limit to the complexity of score that can be produced — everything from a single-stave solo part to a symphony orchestra and choir, and even 'special' notation for the avant garde. Pop and jazz are catered for with chord symbols, guitar fretboard symbols, tab, drum kit and percussion notation. You can opt for a respectful, engraved look or a groovy, jazz-oriented pen-and-ink style, courtesy of the bundled Maestro and Copyist music fonts. Also in this latest version of Finale comes dedicated mallet and percussion fonts which will be welcomed by all those who hit stuff for a living. If you're notating music for absolute beginners you can even take advantage of the included Alphanotes font, which imposes letter names on noteheads.
A Setup Wizard helps you get going quickly with new scores, defining instruments from an impressively comprehensive list, setting initial key and time signature, and adding titles and composer/arranger information. There's also a dedicated Exercise Wizard (which instrumental teachers will love) to very quickly generate hundreds of different types of scales, interval patterns, arpeggios, more complex 'twisters', rhythms and jazz licks. Many ready-rolled education worksheets could keep class teachers going for months, and there's even an extensive bank of 'repertoire' — classical, jazz and traditional staples — as well as blank manuscript.
So how do you get notes into Finale? Probably the most useful ways are two subtly different 'step time' methods, Simple Entry and Speedy Entry. Notes can be 'clicked into' staves after first choosing their durations from a floating palette using mouse or trackpad. Alternatively, you can choose durations using numeric keypad shortcuts, and enter pitches using keystrokes or notes played on a MIDI controller; this is a much better and quicker way to work for extended data entry, though with no on-screen prompts, you'll need to commit at least the main keyboard shortcuts to memory straight away. A slight weakness with the mouse-based approach is that bars always 'fill up' from beat one no matter where you're clicking in them. So if you've selected a crotchet (quarter note), for example, and want to enter a note on beat four of an empty bar, you have to manually enter rests first, even if there's existing notation in other staves or layers/voices that clearly locates your click. I was also surprised to notice that there are no ready-made solutions for users (of laptops, for example) lacking a numeric keypad. The rhythmic value shortcuts can be re-programmed, but you're on your own with that. Overall, though, these are solid and flexible ways to work, and with experience you can absolutely fly along.
Finale also has a real-time entry system, somewhat cryptically called HyperScribe. It can transcribe MIDI performances into single staves or a grand stave while a click plays (or you tap a tempo reference), it's reasonably accurate, and it can be made more so with extended quantisation options. However, trying to record more than one voice at a time into a single stave doesn't seem possible, and for that reason you can forget complex piano parts. Finale isn't alone in messing these up — so too does every mainstream notation application, and the only program I know of that can do it properly is DoReMir's ScoreCleaner, which I reviewed back in July 2012. A Transcription Mode option lets you record freely, without a click, and then insert tempo cues afterwards. It's a nice feature in principle, but is not delivered in a notably intuitive way, and documentation for it is especially dense.
It's also possible to transcribe monophonic audio, thanks to a feature called MicNotator, which works (not massively obviously, it has to be said) in conjunction with HyperScribe. MakeMusic recommend the use of a small clip-on mic they sell directly, and only actually promote the feature in association with wind and brass instruments. I didn't have one of the special mics, but did enjoy some success with a typical studio capacitor mic. Pitch tracking seemed good, rhythm accuracy sometimes not so good, and you have to be careful to avoid monitoring spill from click tracks or playback staves.
As well as all these user-driven note input options, Finale will accept 'bulk' input of scanned scores, MIDI files and MusicXML. For the first of these, Smartscore Lite by Musitek is essentially embedded in Finale, and will read multiple staves on multiple pages, with up to two voices per stave. An optional $199 upgrade to Smartscore X Pro adds text, lyrics, dynamics, articulations and chord symbols, and remains closely integrated with Finale. Apparently some care is required in choosing the best scanners to use with these applications, especially with OS X — but I only read that after I'd already had good results from my £40 supermarket-special Canon wireless all-in-one. Perhaps I got lucky, and it'll definitely be worth a check with MakeMusic if you were planning to make a lot of use of this feature.
It may seem obvious to say it, but Finale 2012 won't just notate your scores, it'll play them back to you too. There's a core library of over 400 sample-based sounds from Garritan (a brand also owned by MakeMusic). There's a full orchestral complement, jazz brass, sax, piano, choirs, drum sets, guitar, organ, handbells, marching percussion, electric guitars, and world instruments. They're supplemented with drum sounds from Tapspace, percussion from Row-Loff, and a general MIDI patch set. You're never required to call up the VST/AU-based Garritan Aria sample playback interface, but it's there should you want to tweak its included reverb, for instance. Installation size for the sound library is a mere 2.5GB — quite a contrast with Sibelius 7's 36GB — but the results are very respectable, and sometimes really impressive! Nice touches abound too, like the provision of several alternative virtual soloists for some orchestral instruments. For more specialist needs the soundset can be expanded with full versions of Tapspace's Virtual Drumline and various other Garritan libraries, including Classic Pipe Organs, Jazz and Big Band 3, Concert & Marching Band 2 and so on.
You're not stuck with the bundled library either. Up to seven additional AU/VST instruments can be configured and the whole lot used simultaneously. Each gets a slot for its own VST/AU effect, and there are three master effects plug-in slots. Hardware diehards can get Finale to drive their external MIDI devices, but not, apparently, concurrently with any virtual instruments. I found the hosting of virtual instruments (on the Mac version of Finale that I tested) mostly reliable with the exception of some Arturia synths, which had unresponsive UIs and patch choosers, and (rather ironically) the Garritan Aria player, which at times refused to display its UI. Oops. Instrument playback levels are adjusted, incidentally, through a one-fader-per-stave mixer window. Helping to enhance the quality and believability of playback is a Human Playback feature, which observes score tempo, dynamics, articulation and ornamentation. It will also key into some sound libraries' alternative articulations or variations, triggering different bowing styles, pizzicato, tremolo, harmonics, mutes, flutter tongueing and drum rolls. Some presets are provided to suit different musical styles, or you can tweak the parameters directly. And whilst it's still not quite like having the Berlin Phil go to town on your material, Human Playback does make a valuable contribution despite a little bit of odd behaviour, in particular with some guitars and plucked instruments not observing dynamics. It could have been a setting I'd missed somewhere, but none of the presets seemed to help.
Finale actually goes further than other notation applications in providing for really detailed playback sculpting, which could be useful if you're wanting to do some way-out performance effects, or just produce a more believable orchestral demo. The MIDI tool allows localised manipulation of note velocity, timing and duration, and the addition of continuous data, pitch bend and patch changes. The catch is that it's all done through very dry-looking, unintuitive, number-driven dialogue boxes. What's more, modified or added playback data just sort of 'disappears' into the score, and it's difficult to get an overview of your programming efforts.
Should you want to send someone a demo, or just keep an audio copy of your work for posterity, you can export your score as an AIFF or WAV file. The bounce takes place at faster than real time. But let's not forget this is a notation program after all! Scores and parts can be printed (with all sorts of useful pagination options), saved to PDF, and exported in Standard MIDI File, MusicXML and EPUB formats. There's also an option to post scores to the online Finale Showcase score exchange service. Others can then access your work online, and open it with the free Finale NotePad Windows/Mac application. A new feature, Playback Portability, embeds additional patch info, and helps to ensure that scores sound OK even when the libraries you used to create the score aren't available on the playback system.
You can have all the fancy features in the world, but notation is ultimately a labour-intensive and potentially very boring, repetitive business. A scorewriting application, therefore, stands or falls according to the nature and quality of its working environment, and the efficiency of its input and editing procedures. And the more tedious stuff it takes care of for you, the better.
Finale 2012's look and feel is surprisingly unchanged from when I last used Finale 3.1 about 18 years ago! You get your score window(s), plus a bunch of floating palettes and windows (like the Playback Controls and Mixer). Only the PC version allows palettes to be 'docked' into the main window, but on both Mac and PC platforms you get 11 well-stuffed menus, plus another one which comes and goes as tools are selected. As a working environment, it feels busy but purposeful.
Most note-entry and editing work takes place in a publishing-oriented Page view (with print margins overlaid if you wish) or a timeline-like Scroll view where staves run continuously from left to right. That can make the most of smaller laptop screens. Studio View is a slightly odd notation/sequencer mash-up, with continuous staves again, but also some sci-fi-looking mixer and patch selection controls on the left. This view also reveals a tap-tempo track, which can capture user-generated tempo variations separately from any score tempo indications.
The Main Tool palette carries up to 28 round 25x25-pixel buttons, with each tool represented by a little symbol. Some, like the Tuplet tool (whose symbol is a little beamed triplet) are very clear. Others, like the Lyric tool, represented by a feather and a microscopic inkwell (I think...), seem obscure. Uncertainty can at least be cleared up by hovering your mouse over a button for a few seconds to receive a tool tip. Some tools open additional palettes, and in all cases a little horizontal strip at the top (Mac) or bottom (PC) of the score window gives useful prompts on a tool's basic use.
As Mike Senior discovered in his review of Finale 2010 (in the February 2010 issue of SOS: /sos/feb10/articles/finale2010.htm) "It feels like there's a tool for everything.” And, like him, I found myself questioning this approach to software design: sometimes it seems sensible and clear, and at other times clunky and complicated. It's true that the multi-purpose Selection tool does streamline editing work. If you use it to double-click a clef, for example, it simultaneously selects the Clef tool and opens the Change Clef dialogue box for you. But, sadly, it will also let you down. You might imagine that deleting a tie (to pick a salient example) would be a case of clicking to select it and then hitting Delete. Not so: the Selection tool proves completely impotent here. Right-clicking, which accesses a context menu, is of no help either. It turns out you have to select the Simple Entry tool, double-click the tie tool (which is distinct from single clicking), then click the first note which has the tie you want to remove. Very specific stuff, and far from obvious or guessable.
I'm amazed, too, that by default, none of Finale's tools can be selected with keyboard shortcuts, apart from the Selection tool, which you get by double-tapping the Escape key. Being so reliant on the mouse to switch tools makes some extended editing sessions a fiddly affair. It turns out it is possible to set up some shortcuts, but only for a subset of the available tools, and possibly only for the Mac version, using an obscure bit of Finale's macro or 'metatool' feature. And I only discovered this after reading a discussion in an online forum — I couldn't find it documented anywhere in Finale's user guide.
Metatools, it turns out, are perhaps Finale's number one 'power user' workflow feature. Let's say you're adding lots of dynamic markings into a score with the Expression tool. The normal method, to double-click a note or stave, then choose a dynamic marking from a dialogue box that appears, is good if you're only doing one or two. But for hundreds it's got 'repetitive strain injury' written all over it. The Metatool alternative, which in this case is set up by default, is to select the Expression tool, then hold down a specific key shortcut (like 4 for 'f' of 5 for 'mf') while single-clicking in the score. This way the markings go in in one click, and are intelligently placed too, to avoid collisions with stave lines or notes. Metatool assignments are reprogrammable, so you can adapt shortcuts to your own needs as you go along.
Power users and beginners alike should get a lot out of Finale's plug-in menu. This organises into submenus dozens of automated procedures, many having the potential to significantly ease complex tasks, including adapting rhythmic beaming appearance, adding cue notes, and even generating piano reductions from orchestral scores.
Specific improvements in Finale 2012b/c and its immediate predecessors include better text handling, and in particular the possibility of editing text directly in the score rather than via dialogue boxes. I like the way that the out-of-range notes feature, which greys out noteheads as a warning they'd be impossible to play, can now be set to Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced, to take account of different skills levels of musicians you're writing for. There's also further improvement of the already flexible lyric entry, Unicode character support, and a numerics font for harmonic analysis markups and figured bass lines.
The Score Manager is one of the least sexy but most important additions to Finale 2012. It's a floating window where you configure staves, instruments, names, stave type and ordering in the score, playback sounds, notation options, starting clef and so on. It can also edit score title, composer and copyright info, amongst other things. Presumably all this was previously done with multiple tools, so to have everything collected up together in this way is very welcome. I found using it to be notably more intuitive than some other Finale dialogue boxes, so it's a real step in the right direction for the application.
Also new is PDF export and better graphics handling — the quirky behaviour that Mike Senior experienced in Finale 2010 seems to have been fixed. It means Finale 2012 is now even more capable of producing print-ready scores for publication, complete with headers, footers, page numbers and all that jazz. EPS, TIFF, JPEG, PNG, BMP, GIF and PICT files can be imported and resized; graphic content floats above staves and transparency is respected. You also get to decide whether to embed graphics in your score document or link to them from elsewhere, which is a feature that busy publishers will appreciate.
Finale has been around a long time, and over the years, it has accumulated a huge array of very powerful features. As a result, it is perhaps the most highly specified notation package around, but the flipside is that its interface can feel 'old school'. All those tools, menus, palettes and floating windows are at odds with more modern software design paradigms, where the single-window rules supreme, tools are simplified and streamlined, and dialogue boxes are a rarity. Using Finale you often feel the need to submit to its way of doing things, learn its methods and terminology, and commit rather a lot of specific procedures to memory. I can imagine this being an issue especially for those non-technical musicians and educators who baulk at complexity and jargon in software, and I don't think that obscure terms like 'HyperScribe', 'Smart Shape' and 'Metatool' help. Despite a good 20 years' experience with all kinds of scorewriting software and DAWs, I was still hitting the user manual, and online video tutorials, well after I might have expected to have left those behind.
Ultimately, Finale's a super-capable, mature application, but perhaps not for everyone. If you're already a devotee, you're going to find some great additions and improvements, and no nasty shocks, in this version. If you're currently using another package, by contrast, it would only be the need for a specific feature — such as Finale's MIDI playback manipulation chops, for example — that would tempt you to jump ship. Those about to invest in high-end notation software for the first time, though, owe it to themselves to check out Finale — and that's easy, with a 30-day unrestricted trial download from www.finalemusic.com. It's an outstandingly powerful and flexible program which can turn its hand to classical, pop and jazz notation with equal assurance, and can generate respectable demo audio tracks in the process. It's the choice of some big music publishers and film composers, and has a loyal following. Even if you did discover a notation task Finale couldn't do, it's unlikely anything else on the market could do it either!
As mentioned in the main text, the principal alternative is Avid's Sibelius 7.
Finale 2012 has some audio and video handling capabilities, some of which I must confess I wasn't really expecting! A single WAV, AIFF or MP3 can be loaded into a score as a 'clip', with various offset and repeat options, whereupon it will play alongside notation-based MIDI data. You can actually record an audio track too, such as a vocal line for demo purposes. Don't expect anything in the way of editing, punch-ins, and especially not varispeed or 'flex-time' playback — Pro Tools this ain't — but it's still a useful feature to have.
Video files in QuickTime or Windows Media formats can be loaded into a floating Movie window, and this should be a real boon for music-for-picture composers. I found it slightly perverse, though, that SMPTE offset options are hidden away in a separate dialogue box. The setting to display SMPTE values next to bar numbers is also tucked away, but at least it's there.
For the best part of a decade now, Finale versions have been named after the year in which they were released, and there's been one major release a year. However, MakeMusic have stated that there won't be a Finale 2013. To make up for that, the version on test here — 2012c — is a larger-than-usual maintenance update, free to all Finale 2012 owners. Buy this version and you should be on the cutting edge for a while longer than usual.