A common question I get asked from composers to music students exploring the various options for music notation software is, “Which one is the best?” Well…. I would guess all of us have certain opinions in the music engraving world, but I think the better question may be, “Which one is best for me?” To explore this a bit more, let’s take a look at the current state of music notation software and how we got there.
The art of music engraving has undergone vast changes in the last 30 years. Like most of society, the digital revolution and the age of the personal computer completely upended how we work and what functions and capacities are available to the average person. What once took a team of people all day to do might only take one person a few minutes now.
Music engraving got into the digital age with programs like Finale and Sibelius, both of which started to appear in the late 1980s. Since then, there have been several other digital music notation options like Musescore, Lilypond and most recently (and successfully) Dorico, along with various apps for the iPad (like NoteFlight and StaffPad and others) have come on the scene. Finale and Sibelius have, and mostly still do, dominate the music engraving and educational markets while other options have largely remained as niche options of individual composers. However, these other options are now making great strides in their capabilities and ease of use, making them viable options not only for independent composers and arrangers, but even for major scoring sessions.
When I get asked the question of “Which notation software should I use?”, my first response is always a question of my own, “Well, what will you be using it for?”. This question is, to me, the REAL question to ask yourself if you are looking into the various notation software options. Knowing where you dream of your music going or what part of the music industry you want to get into may affect your choice.
For example, if you are an independent composer/arranger or even a music teacher, writing simple pieces for a few instruments or musical exercises for your students, then just about any option will work fine. I would suggest using any of the iPad apps as the learning curve for those is likely to be manageable and you won’t have too many options or menus to get lost in. Also, Finale, Sibelius and Dorico all have a free version of their notation software which may have all the various options and functions you could need. There’s no real need for a major investment in time and money if your notation needs are very “local”, meaning the music will be produced and distributed largely by you and just for you or a few others or simplistic, meaning you are not writing avant-garde new age music for specialized instruments.
Where things get a bit more complicated is when your aim is for a larger market OR a larger project. The free versions of these different softwares will be limited in the number of staves or other functions they have and if you have a larger work, they simply won’t be able to handle that. Also, if you plan on working with a publishing company or even just other arrangers or composers on a given project, it’s best to choose a software that will grow with you and be able to be used by others seamlessly as well. This is where the full versions of Finale, Sibelius and Dorico, I feel, are the most appropriate. There’s no point using a software that won’t have the capabilities you’ll need down the road.
So now you may ask, “Ok, I need a full featured music notation software. Which one should I choose?” For years, the “big 2” options were Finale and Sibelius. In professional and educational circles, one or the other has been used for decades. Using either one of these options will give you all the functionality and capacities you could ever need (and many that you’ll probably never use). I would also add Dorico to this list. Being, relatively, the newest kid on the block in the music notation world, Dorico has had some growing pains and, quite frankly, it really wasn’t ready for the big time when it first came out over five years ago. Now, I truly believe Dorico is not only a viable option, but one that offers some of the most forwarding thinking functionality and ease of use features. I still don’t see Dorico being used in my end of the music engraving world as much as Finale or Sibelius, but it is certainly gaining ground on both. Professionally, I have used Finale and Sibelius for over 16 years and am looking to add Dorico into the available options here are Engraver’s Mark Music in the coming months.
My final piece of advice is, choose an option that fits your needs now but can grow with you in the future. If I was starting from scratch today, I would try to learn with each of the free versions of Finale, Sibelius or Dorico and then see which one felt most natural and go with that. If you’re an independent composer or arranger, there are so many options out there now, and even better, there are so many good options that weren’t available before. Personally, I used Finale before I learned Sibelius and I still tend to gravitate that way at times. However, there are long stretches of projects where I am primarily using Sibelius, by my choice or because the client works in that program, and I come to find I enjoy using it as much if not more than Finale.
Again, all these different music notation programs have their advantages and disadvantages; things that drive us nuts and features that are lifesavers. The best option for you is the one that makes creating your music as seamlessly as possible. If you have any questions or thoughts on this, please contact Engraver’s Mark Music and let’s see how we can guide you and help get your music out to the world!
As you’ve read in previous blogs here at Engraver’s Mark Music, I’m a big fan of programs and useful tools that make our jobs as music engravers easier and more fulfilling. Yes, strange as that may sound, finding new tools and developing new skills to complete the basic tasks we all have as engravers is a very satisfying part of the job.
One of the tools I’ve mentioned before is Keyboard Maestro (exclusively for Mac, sorry PC folks). This is an unbelievably powerful program that can help automate so many tasks and functions in all sorts of programs. For those of us in the music notation world, it can be a useful alternative to either FinaleScript (for Finale) or anything to reassign hot keys in Mac OS for the specific program you are using (check out my blog post here about this very topic).
As with all new software or these kinds of “power-user” tools, the learning curve can be a bit steep and off-putting for new users or those who just don’t want to invest that much effort to “re-invent the wheel.” You can stay only in the specific workflows built into your favorite notation program and be fine. However, there are so many additional options and functions you can unlock with Keyboard Maestro (or other tools mentioned in this blog like JetStream for Finale, or our Tech, Tools and Tips posts).
To make Keyboard Maestro more approachable and applicable, the amazing FinaleSuperuser channel on YouTube has made a free course on how to integrate Keyboard Maestro and Finale. Check it out here. This course is AMAZING! It covers topics and techniques from basic concepts all the way to advanced features and will give you all the information, step by step, on how Keyboard Maestro can be used with Finale. Best of all, once you’ve gone through the course, I’m sure, like me, you’ll have new ideas of your own on how to use all the new skills you’ve learned to build your own workflows for Finale.
While this course is specific to Finale, I have used some of the concepts to make Keyboard Maestro scripts for various functions in Sibelius as well. It’s a little more difficult using some of these tools in Sibelius as it uses a totally different structure than Finale for the various functions in the program, but it can be done with some trial and error. Ok, lots of errors, but then eventual sweet, sweet success.
So, instead of binge watching the latest kitchen make over show or pet competition reality TV (you know who you are), give this series of videos a good look. I made it a point to only go through one chapter of videos at a time until I mastered the concepts therein before moving on and that made the whole process much easier and more enjoyable. As schools as starting back all over the country, why not make this your back-to-school assignment!
As always, please contact us at Engraver’s Mark Music if you have any questions or need help with your music engraving project. We offer private Finale instruction as well for $50 per hour.
So, in my previous post I mentioned the basic tech you needed for music engraving (click here if you have not read that blog). Now, I wanted to give you a bit more insight into the specific tech (mostly hardware, but some software) that we use here at Engraver’s Mark Music. These tools have changed and transformed over the years as the music notation programs we use and the demands of the industry have changed.
Without further ado, here we go:
1. Elgato StreamDeck – this is such a good tool, whether you are using it in conjunction with programs like JetStream (for Finale, see my blog post on that particular program here) or Notation Express (for Sibelius and Dorio) or just using it as a trigger for your own custom hotkeys or macros, it can really open up new options and workflows. There are so many possibilities depending on how you are using each program that it can be intimidating, but it is worth the effort to think through your workflows and how a tool like this could help eliminate steps or dozens of mouse clicks. Get one and have some fun with it!
2. Keyboard – not your midi keyboard, I mean your actual computer keyboard. This might seem like a very small detail, but if you’re going to be spending hours and hours a day using it, it should be a good one. I recommend getting a gaming keyboard that suits your style and feels comfortable. Yes, they are bit more expensive than just a standard external keyboard, but the build quality, sensitivity of the keys and the ability to customize functions and keys is worth it. I use a Microsoft Sidewinder X4 keyboard (not the newest version, but still functions fine for my purposes). I also prefer a wired keyboard (more on that in just a bit). The Sidewinder has a great feel, very rugged build and tons of other features. Again, if you are going to be using something all day, make sure it is high quality. This keyboard certainly is.
3. Mouse – as with the keyboard, this tool should also be another place where you invest in quality and really take your time finding the right one the fits your hand. It is no fun at all to have constant wrist pain because you chose a poor mouse that didn’t fit your hand. I have gone through probably half a dozen mice over the years, from basic ones to high end gaming mice. Again, I would recommend using a gaming mouse; they are better built, customizable and generally have a host of other features that make them much more useful than a standard 2 button mouse. I use a Redragon m901 Perdition gaming mouse and could not be happier. It has customizable weights, and 18 programable buttons. I use these to set up custom hotkey triggers for different often used functions in either Finale or Sibelius. That way, I do not even have to take my hand off the mouse to reach for a button on my StreamDeck; I have so many additional functions literally at my fingertips.
4. USB Switch – as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, we use PCs and Macs here at Engraver’s Mark Music. On one particular project, I had to use Finale and Sibelius, on both PC and Mac (that’s right, 4 different programs essentially) simultaneously as there were multiple composers and orchestrators who all had their own systems. Man did my brain go nuts trying to remember all the key combinations and shortcuts across all those different platforms. The nice thing with this switch is that I can use the same mouse, keyboard, midi keyboard and my StreamDeck with both my PC and Mac, switching between the two machines with a simple press of a button. I even reprogrammed a few keys on my Mac Mini to mimic the same keys as my PC, so I do not have to remember completely different sets of shortcuts. Another simple tool that allows me to adjust to any system my clients have with literally the press of a button.
5. Bulk Rename Utility (PC) and Renamer (Mac) – these two files renaming programs are super powerful. When you have a large project, there can literally be hundreds or thousands of files to manage. Having a consist file naming system is critical. These two programs allow you to do multiple file name changes to any number of files simultaneously, saving potential hours of time. This has been especially helpful for me with different publishing companies we work with and having to update older files.
As with all new tech, or “new to you” tech, there can be a learning curve and it may feel like a step backwards. Remember, sometimes the benefits of a new workflow or piece of equipment do not show up immediately. Take your time and see what truly works for you. The benefits might not only be in time saved doing a specific task but may show up later in a project where now you have new options and workflows available to you because of an adjustment you made early on. Good luck and enjoy some new tools in the New Year!
I get asked a lot about what tools or tech we use here in the shop at Engraver’s Mark Music or requests from new music engravers, orchestrators and alike about what tools they need in their office to get up to speed. Well, there are a lot of different resources, how-to’s, and opinions out there on what you need or what is worth your time and money. What works best for you may not work as well or be as valuable to others (see my review of the JetStream Finale controller for a fine example of what I mean).
What I can say is after 15+ years of music engraving, editing and printing, there are some important/essential tools that I feel anyone in this field should have. It’s actually not that much so don’t get too concerned! If you want a blog about the different music sample libraries to spend thousands of dollars on, this is not it.
Ok, so here’s my list of essential tools for everyone:
These tools are really all the basics that you need. There are dozens of other tools and tech you can get into like the Elgato StreamDeck, Keyboard Maestro, AutoHotKey, and others that can make you more efficient “power-user” for Finale, Sibelius or Dorico. Again, all these tools are great and provide amazing functionality, but they are not essential.
In addition to these tools, here are some of the digital resources I follow to help me learn more about the latest ideas and tools in the industry:
As part of your New Year’s Resolutions, check out all these different resources and tips and try some new ideas and tech! This is a great time to evaluate your workflows and make the changes that will save you time and frustration.
If you need any help or advice, get in touch with us here and we will be happy to assist and guide you. Also, if you are interested in one-on-one Finale instruction, we offer custom tailored lessons to your specific needs for $30 per half-hour, or $50 per hour. Just reach out to us and we will take care of everything!
Sammy Sanfilippo, CEO of Engraver's Mark Music