As competition hots up in the world of notation software, does the latest version of MakeMusic’s long-established Finale have what it takes to stay in the race?
Creating printed scores and composing in musical notation are perhaps niche activities amongst the general music technology population, but to those who follow this path, notation software forms a central part of any computer setup. While there are numerous software products that might appeal to the interested amateur (including some creditable iOS apps), two giants have, until recently, dominated the professional field: MakeMusic’s Finale and Avid’s Sibelius.
These two products were last reviewed in SOS in the July 2014 and December 2014 issues respectively, since when Steinberg have also released the hotly anticipated Dorico. Previewed in depth by Mark Wherry in SOS February 2017, this has been in development for a number of years and the team involved includes many of the original Sibelius developers. Steinberg have obviously made a considerable investment in Dorico, so the professional notation software market would seem to have just got a whole lot more competitive.
At the same time, though, Steinberg’s more established rivals are not standing still. Sibelius itself has reached v8.5, PreSonus’s Notion is becoming an ever more attractive option at the mid-priced level, and Finale too continues to evolve. So, what does the latest version of Finale have to offer to existing and new users? Are there enough new features and refinements to keep the loyalty of the current user base, and does the latest release offer that something extra that might encourage new adoptees?
Given that SOS has reviewed all the major updates to Finale over recent years (the Finale 2012 review from SOS December 2012 is a good place to start), and that the core functionality of the software remains very much intact, I’ll focus here on the new features introduced in the latest release. The first (administrative) thing to note is the obvious change in numbering. Gone is the year-based naming scheme and, instead, we now have a more conventional version-based approach. That this release is called Finale 25 simply confirms the longevity of the Finale brand!
While there are some workflow refinements to be found throughout the new version, Finale 25 is going to feel like a familiar world to existing users. That might be seen as either a good or bad thing depending upon your perspective: those who know and love recent versions of Finale will feel right at home, but anyone hoping for a major overhaul will be disappointed. However, that doesn’t mean that v25 doesn’t have some significant enhancements to tempt you into updating.
The highlights amongst the changes are perhaps fourfold. Finale 24 is now a fully 64-bit application; it offers a significant increase in the range of included sounds from the Garritan library; it introduces ReWire support to link to your DAW/sequencer; and transposing playback has been improved. However, as well as ‘in with some new’, there is also some ‘out with some old’; a few (non-core?) familiar features have disappeared. I’ll explain a little more about these below.
Perhaps the most notable change in v25 is that Finale is now a 64-bit application — a welcome and perhaps overdue improvement, bearing in mind that Sibelius has already been 64-bit for around five years. As with other complex music software, the advantage of a 64-bit environment should be increased performance and, in particular, access to more than the 4GB of RAM that 32-bit architecture supports.
In practical terms, the obvious benefit will be the ability to drive more complex (and hopefully realistic) sample-based virtual instrument sounds. I had no problems, for example, loading the 64-bit AU version of Kontakt 5 into Finale and accessing some of the various Kontakt-based orchestral sounds I have on my own test system. For media/film composers using Finale to both score and provide an audio mock-up, this would obviously be very welcome. I didn’t have access to Finale 2014 to do any systematic speed comparisons in terms of project loading or rendering-type tasks but, on the whole, I’d also comment that Finale 25 felt pretty responsive in general use.
The down side of the move to 64-bit is that 32-bit support has been removed at a stroke. Unlike some software developers (Steinberg with Cubase 8, for example), MakeMusic have not made a 32-bit version of Finale 25 available alongside the new 64-bit version; there is no ‘transition period’ for users. That said, I can understand the developers’ decision: if you are still running a hardware/OS combination that is 32-bit only then it is probably getting a bit long in the tooth by now — and you can, of course, simply stay put with Finale 2014.5 until you are ready to upgrade both hardware and software.
As well as Finale, MakeMusic also develop the Garritan product line, and a subset of the Garritan Personal Orchestra sounds plus the ARIA playback engine have been embedded within Finale for some time. The GPO library has always punched somewhat above its weight sonically, given its price and relatively streamlined size, and I can imagine it being perfectly adequate for some types of Finale user; it might not deliver the same sort of realistic virtual performance that can be squeezed out of larger and more expensive libraries, but as a tool for checking how your compositions and arrangements are going to sound, it does a good job. And, in tandem with the move to a 64-bit architecture, there’s a significant increase in the number of Garritan sounds now included in Finale. The supplied ARIA Player is, of course, also updated.
Over 100 new sounds are now available as standard, of which the highlight is perhaps the rather good Concert D grand piano from GPO5. There are lots of other new goodies to explore, too: for example, there are a number of additions to the percussion section including orchestral toms and key-switched timpani. A number of organ sounds have also been added, including a second church organ. The string section gets a third solo violin (with key-switching) but also a set of second violin section sounds; you can, therefore, simulate the sound of first and second violins in a more satisfying fashion.
Perhaps the area with the biggest gains is the ‘World’ category, which sees around 30 new sounds added. These include balalaika, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern percussion, djembe, dulcimer, fiddle, Highland bagpipes, Irish flute, kalimba, Peruvian panpipes, Uileann bagpipes and ukulele, amongst others. There are also a large number of GM-style sounds, covering a range of non-orchestral sounds. No, individually, these GPO instruments are not going to compete with the best available in more expensive (and resource-heavy) sample libraries, but they are all very usable and, for film/media composers especially, the broader palette of sounds will be well received.
Talking of film or media composers, one feature removed from this version of Finale is support for video playback. This might only really concern a minority of users, as the feature was perhaps never quite Finale’s finest moment. However, this ‘in-house’ video support is replaced — in a roundabout sort of a way — by an alternative technology that will be warmly welcomed: Finale 25 adds ReWire support.
ReWire is obviously a very well established protocol, and perhaps the most surprising thing here is that it is only being added now. However, it does mean that those users who also run a DAW/sequencer alongside Finale can now sync them together in a reliable fashion. And, as most top-end DAW/sequencers offer video playback support, this should mean that music-to-picture folks can hear their Finale-based scores locked to their DAW’s video window.
On my OS X-based test system, I had no problems getting Finale to slave to Cubase 9 using ReWire. It simply worked without any faffing about and Finale was more than happy to sync to playback within Cubase (with a video window operating) and to follow tempo changes contained within the Cubase tempo track. With all your non-orchestral sounds handled within the DAW, and Finale providing playback for those elements that require formal scoring for live players, this looks like a decent working solution based on a robust synchronisation technology. The obvious catch is that you need to have access to a suitable DAW/sequencer with a video playback option but, for me at least, the design choices MakeMusic have made here seem like very sensible ones.
I’ve already mentioned a couple of features that have become unavailable in Finale 25 — 32-bit support and video playback — and there are a few others, such as the Band In A Box plug-ins, that have quietly been removed. However, perhaps the one that deserves particular mention is the option for scanning printed scores for import into Finale. This has now disappeared from the launch dialogue when you start Finale 25. MakeMusic have indicated this is because of the potential it creates for copyright infringement by users.
Respecting copyrights is, of course, a cause that most musicians would have some sympathy with. At the same time, though, there were all sorts of legitimate reasons, including some very obvious educational contexts, where a user might wish to scan printed scores that they have purchased in order to experiment with, and learn from, the notated music. Of course, there are ways to work around this. Other software, including one or two iOS apps, does allow printed scores to be scanned and then converted into MIDI XML files. And, as the MIDI XML import/export options within Finale have been refined in this release, you can get to the same end point, albeit by a somewhat less elegant route, while leaving MakeMusic’s collective conscience clear.
Creating detailed musical scores for use by, for example, a large orchestra, is a pretty daunting task and, like Sibelius, Finale allows you to take that process from the blank page, through the composition and engraving stages and right up to the final printing process. Not every Finale user would be involved with all of these different steps but, given that this is version 25, it perhaps doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Finale provides a comprehensive toolset for every stage, should you need it.
So, if you are a current Finale user, should you upgrade? Well, if you have access to a fully 64-bit system on which to run the new version, then I suspect the improved technical performance offered by version 25 will bring some clear benefits, especially if you rely heavily on virtual instruments. However, in terms of the actual features available for creating and crafting your score, this is perhaps an incremental update rather than a massive step-jump. Against that, of course, should be set the fact that Finale already had a massively comprehensive feature set. Just how much more can you add to an application that already does everything?
Perhaps the more obvious question for any professional working in computer-based scoring is just what impact Steinberg’s new Dorico — only released at the end of October — is likely to have. Here, you have the core of the original Sibelius team given the opportunity to start from scratch and perhaps reimagine what a modern software scoring environment should look like. Initial responses have been positive (see the February 2017 preview) although it is clear that Dorico’s launch feature set still needs some fleshing out.
Computer-based scoring is, if anything, a market where user loyalty is even stronger than it is with DAW/sequencer software. The grass on the other side has to be super-green (and the crossgrade price very competitive) to make learning a new application preferable to sticking and updating. Existing Finale users will, I suspect, be sticking with the familiar, at least until there is a much clearer idea of just what Dorico might have to offer.
Finale 25 is, on the surface, an apparently modest incremental development of an already comprehensive program. However, I don’t think we should underestimate the amount of ‘under the hood’ work involved in rewriting a complex piece of software as a fully 64-bit application. Finale 25 should, therefore, bring performance benefits both now, and over the course of the next few update cycles. It is a change that will keep giving. Casual users might feel that at $149, the upgrade from Finale 2014 is not essential, but to users whose daily work depends upon Finale, I suspect this will seem like a pretty modest outlay to keep their software investment up to date.
In terms of the established competition, like Finale, Avid’s Sibelius 8 is aimed very much at the professional marketplace. It offers an equally comprehensive feature set and similar pricing, starting at around £550$600. There are also monthly subscriptions and crossgrade offers available. The unknown quantity is Steinberg’s Dorico. Initial impressions are very positive and Steinberg are obviously pitching Dorico at the same professional audience, with pricing of £452$560 for the full package and crossgrade offers from £225$280. PreSonus’s Notion 6 (£149$149) is a more affordable alternative that combines ease of use with a well thought-out core feature set. Discounted educational pricing is available on most scoring packages.
Certain orchestral instruments are known as transposing instruments (for example, the Bb clarinet). These are generally members of a family of instruments that are often played with the same fingering patterns, but where differences in size mean that the same fingering generates notes of a different pitch on different variants. In notation for such instruments, it is a convention that the notes are displayed as if for a non-transposed instrument. So, for example, when the player of a Bb clarinet sees a C note in a score, they would play the fingering that would generate a C note on a C (non-transposing) clarinet, but this would actually result in a Bb note being sounded by their Bb instrument.
Although Finale had always handled the playback of such transposing instruments correctly, in previous versions the user would hear the notated pitch rather than the transposed pitch when entering notes. This had become a bit of a long-standing grumble, and has been fixed in Finale 25.