The latest incarnation of a well-established scoring package holds few surprises, but plenty of power for the asking price.
Within any software milieu, there will be the main players, the enthusiastic wannabes and the also-rans. If this is true of MIDI sequencing software, it becomes even more so when we move into the relatively rarified atmosphere of scoring/notation software.
Notation programs often seem superficially similar to standard MIDI sequencers, and many sequencers offer note input via score editors and various layout and printout options. But this aspect of MIDI sequencers isn't nearly fully enough developed for composers, arrangers, engravers and educators who simply don't need the audio processing and data manipulation typically offered by such programs. They'd rather see software development and processing power channelled to aiding their goal of getting the notes and allied graphic elements into a score in as fast and intuitive a way as possible, arranging the layout on the page, and outputting a readable or publishable result, whether direct to paper or to some form of exportable graphic file.
There have been a surprising number of scoring packages over the years, and what's even more surprising is that many of them have actually lasted for years. Leland C Smith's SCORE, for example, is still in development and started life in 1967. It's easy to think of Sibelius (version 3 of which was reviewed in July 2004's SOS) as a newcomer, and it's now nearly 10 years old! Perhaps Sibelius 's closest competition is the subject of this review, however: the latest version of software that was launched by Coda Music as a Macintosh-only package in the late '80s, Finale 2004.
Evolution Not Revolution
Now marketed by MakeMusic! (with exclamation mark), Finale was last reviewed in SOS in its 2003 livery back in January 2003. To be honest, not a lot seems to have changed, though without completely gutting the program and starting from scratch, not a lot has to. Finale will always benefit from the newest developments in computer technology, but not at the expense of maintaining a familiar and comprehensible notation environment. MakeMusic! simply add refinements and new tools rather than offering major changes with each new upgrade.
Let's have a quick look at Finale 2004, alluding to the new features when they arise. First of all, you need to decide what sort of document you'll be putting your notes into, and the software starts helping right away. Choose one of the 30-plus template scores, including jazz band, full orchestra, concert band, piano and voice plus various educational score types. Once you've spent some time with Finale, you may find that you'll be saving your own template scores, for recall later. The templates are ready to go in all ways, including the correct handling and playback of transposing instruments.
The next easiest setup option is the Setup Wizard, and as you might expect, Finale 2004 guides you through the process of naming your score, choosing its page size, choice of instruments from a huge collection, their order, initial tempo and time signature, pickup bar, font and so on. Of course, it's possible to start with a more or less blank page and add one staff at a time as you decide you need them. The choice is yours. You're fairly free to decide how many lines a staff is made up of, and can work entirely with highly configurable tablature (user-defineable tunings for each tab string, for example), if fretted instruments are your thing.
Next, you'll want to input some notes. There's flexibility here, too. Any or all of the note input methods can be used at any one time, so its possible to mix and match note input via MIDI keyboard, mouse or computer keyboard. The new-for-2004 Simple Entry tool speeds up note entry no end, using computer keyboard shortcuts to choose notes and note values, and customise your preferred parameters. Chord entry, transposition, and temporal moves are all logically undertaken. Articulations, key changes and time signatures can also be input using Simple Entry. The feel is very much of a 'word processor' for music, and if it's not quite as fast as that would imply, it's a move in the right direction.
Real-time performances can be recorded from MIDI keyboard (or any other controller, such as a MIDI guitar) using the Hyperscribe tool, the performance appearing almost automatically, and fairly accurately, on screen. Monophonic lines can also be transcribed from audio sung or played into a mic — this option has been improved for 2004, and it can be an eerie experience to see it actually working! With either of these choices, you'll need to tidy up afterwards; the tempo during recording is also fixed, so a certain amount of expression will be lost that is only slightly compensated for by inputting tempo data on a second pass.
Finale is also good at turning scanned music into a workable document: basic facilities, which have been improved for 2004, are built into the software. If you do work with other sequencers, sequences can be saved in MIDI File format and imported into Finale; the software is very helpful in how that file is interpreted before it hits the page.
One thing you won't have to notate is individual parts from a multi-part work: the software extracts them automatically. So, while inputting notes might not seem as fast as doing the job with pencil and paper, when you add copying time to create individual sheets for all the performers in even a small-scale work, Finale 2004 is a time-saver!
Inputting expression markings, articulations, performance notes and text is also straightforward. It's even possible to design your own graphic elements and define how they'll play back. Editing and moving on-screen data is much enhanced with the new version, and managing complex music is handled well. Staff spacing and other page-specific manipulation is easily and tidily handled. On-screen music can be as complex as you like, with multiple layers per staff that can be treated as individual voices, right down to being assignable to different MIDI channels and dynamics. And yes, Finale 2004 can function as a sequencer, complete with on-board sound source for audio proof.
The Smartmusic software synth and General MIDI Soundfont are new for Finale 2004. Of course, the software can already transmit its performance via MIDI, either to an internal or external sound source, but this new development means that audio output will sound identical when moving files to other Finale 2004 workstations. Sibelius 3 's built-in sample player — based on Native Instruments' Kontakt — may have the edge here, but you need a more powerful computer to run it, and more money must be spent to upgrade to the best implementation. Finale 2004 is less ambitious, but the proof offered by the GM Soundfont is perfectly adequate for most situations — and if you like the performance a lot, the software can now bounce the performance to disk as an audio file. The sound quality is adequate, being little more than an expanded General MIDI-style sound set, but is absolutely fine for quick checking.
On the MIDI and performance side of things, Finale makes a move towards traditional sequencing with drum groove capabilities, Band In A Box-derived auto-harmonising, and other data manipulation. MIDI data can be turned into score elements, and vice versa.
- PC: Windows 98, 2000, NT, Me or XP; import and export of EPS files supported under 98, NT 4.0 and Me only.
- Mac: Mac OS 10.1.5 or higher (Mac OS 10.2 or higher for some features) or Mac OS 9.0.4-9.2.2.
Both require 800 x 600 monitor resolution, at least 128MB RAM and 200MB hard disk space. To input notes via MIDI you'll need a MIDI interface and MIDI keyboard or similar; to hear a performance, you'll need to add headphones or monitors and possibly audio hardware; and to utilise the audio input, add a microphone. Scanning in requires a scanner, and equally obviously, a printer is required to generate hard copy of finished work.
There are a couple of things to be aware of when using Finale 2004. First of all, there are a lot of palettes — collections of tools for notes, clefs, expessions, articulations and so on — and they can all live on your desktop, scattered around the page you're working on. You won't need them open all the time, so get used to focussing on what you actually use. Secondly, the menu options, at the top of the page, can change depending on which tool is selected. This is particularly relevant with the Mass Edit tool. Experienced MIDI sequencer users may wonder why they can't just highlight, cut and paste notes to move around the page. The answer is that Mass Edit, the tool dedicated to just these functions, has to be selected first.
Remember also the drop-down Plug-ins menu. This hides a lot of Finale 's power, as well as offering some unexpected creative tools. There are plug-ins for adding 'smart page turns' (which works out how to format an entire part so that a performer won't be lumbered with inconvenient page turns), another automatically adds cue notes to sections with long rests, and yet another offers search and replace options. If you work with words, Finale can now add hyphens and word extensions automatically. You have the final say, though, and can override a result that doesn't lie the way you want it to. Other plug-ins create new music from chords or melodic material in ways that ordinary sequencers don't. And if you find yourself doing a particular operation, or operations, repeatedly, you might like to investigate 2004 's built-in scripting. With this, a series of changes to a document — or in batches to a series of documents — can be quickly automated.
The finished result can be printed out immediately, or saved as a TIFF or EPS file for exporting to any proper DTP package. And on the subject of DTP, it is perfectly possible to combine blocks of text on a Finale 2004 page with music, as one might for exercises in the classroom, or when creating handouts. The program is flexible enough to help you create a very tidy job — and the music can always be played back while on-screen! However you do it, you can be assured of professional-looking results that musicians will be pleased to play from.
Finale may be one of two or three high-profile and well-known scorewriting packages, but there will definitely be more out there than you think. Have a surf over to http://ace.acadiau.ca/score/others.htm if you need any confirmation. This is as comprehensive a list as I've seen, with links to commercial, shareware and freeware packages for all sorts of platforms, ancient and modern.
Now On X
Just a few more features to point out amongst the list of remaining 2004 tweaks. First, it's worth noting that the new Finale is now Mac OS X compatible, though it will still happily run under Mac OS 9.02 and higher. Windows users are, of course, supported, with 98, 2000, NT, ME and XP capable of running the latest version. If you need to run the software on two computers, this can be done: each package has two authorisations.
Playback performance has been enhanced: the Human Playback option interprets on-page expressions, articulations and other markings in response to a preset style — jazz, baroque or reggae, for example — that can be further refined using a good collection of playback controls. This can be convincing, and helps you visualise (audiolise?) what a real performance might sound like. If the presets don't impress you, try to do better by tweaking the playback settings yourself.
When it comes to manuals, Finale 2004 is well-equipped. In the box, you're supplied with an installation and tutorials guide, running to over 200 pages. You may need no more, since even newcomers will get their head round the basic, and some not-so-basic, concepts, if they go slowly. A 'Quick Reference Card', 10 pages long in the Windows version, neatly summarises Finale 2004 's tools and palettes, keyboard shortcuts and the Maestro font character set. Topping it all off is a very handy visual index that offers an even tighter summary of what's going on screen via a heavily annotated example score.
Users with experience of music software, composers with some computer exposure, or anyone who hates reading manuals, may well find this chart helps get them going in the shortest time. As if this wasn't enough, there's the exhaustive complete user manual, provided as a collection of excellently cross-referenced PDF files. In general, I'm not keen on PDF manuals, but this is a doddle to navigate and very well written — and at least a lot more than the basics are covered by the supplied printed material. To top it all off, there are the quick-start videos, accessible from within the program, so if the idea of software really does not compute, these videos are the next best thing to having a Finale 2004 expert sitting next to you.
Auto-accompaniment features have been available for a couple of versions of Finale, and as the main text notes, Band In A Box technology joins a wealth of various automatic arrangement and playback tools. But Finale 2004 also features a neat twist on this theme, in the form of a link to Smartmusic.
Though essentially an auto-accompaniment system, Smartmusic's special focus is that it's an educational tool, providing learning musicians with interactive accompaniments to test pieces, scales and exercises. They don't need a patient pianist or tame orchestra at home: their computer, and the Smartmusic system, fill the gap. The system is sold on subscription, via the www.smartmusic.com web site. Understandably, the vast majority of subs so far have gone to schools in North America. A sub gives you access to the software and a library of 20,000 accompaniments and accompaniments to a further 50,000 scales and exercises.
Finale 2004 users can save files in Smartmusic format, and anyone with an SM sub can use that file as an accompaniment. So teachers with Finale 2004 can provide classes full of students with standardised or individual accompaniments to suit whatever curriculum or regime is in place. And Finale comes with hundreds of exercises as instantly accessible templates for teachers to check out, tweak, and hand out amongst pupils.
I started off this review thinking that there are currently two scoring packages vying for your attention. Of course, there are others, but I think it's fair to say that Finale 2004 and Sibelius v3 are the main choices. These days, there's very little that one can do that the other can't, whether on the film scoring stage, in the sheet music production department or in music classes. In fact, it's quite straightforward to move files from one to the other. The differences mainly lie in how each package helps the composer produce a result. Latterly, there may have been some arguments about the speed of these operations, Sibelius migrating from a very efficient platform with some very efficient coding to the Mac and PC. But in real terms, Finale 2004 can easily hold its own on modern, and not quite so modern, computers.
What surprised me was having a quick look at pricing. The fact is, Finale 2004 is the latest revision of an established, respected package suitable for professional environments as much as all levels of education, and it costs a little under £300. Its main competitor, Sibelius 3, lists at double that, and even the 2003 version of Finale was £479 when it was reviewed last year! Perhaps the state of the American dollar is working in our favour here. As an aside, Finale, back in its earliest incarnation retailed for a smidgeon under 1000 late 1980s pounds. And we think music software is expensive today! But I digress: composers, arrangers and educators at all levels continue to use, and continue to discover, this efficient and accessible software. You'll be in illustrious company if you make it your notation environment of choice.
The First One's Free...
Want to sample the Coda/MakeMusic! approach to notation, for free? Check out Finale Notepad: it's available as a free download from www.finalemusic.com/notepad. It doesn't rival Finale 2004 as such, but does provide basic notation facilities on eight staves, in a form that's completely compatible with Finale 2004. In fact, in spite of the eight-stave limit, Notepad can still load complex Finale files, and edit notes. It could be a good choice for school situations, professional facilities, or for distributing your music to people who don't own the full package — they can also play back and print out your work, as well as tweak it.
- Speed Entry really is fast.
- Built-in Soundfonts for good audio proof.
- Exceptional value.
- Mac OS X compatible.
- Would be nice if tempo was tracked during real-time recording.
- A matching 'human playback' that matched the above would also be welcome.
Finale 2004 may not be packed with total innovations, but it is a restatement of what the package is capable of. It's always tricky to choose between two market leaders, but if all else fails, check out the price tag!
£299 including VAT.
Et Cetera Distribution +44 (0)870 873 8731.