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.
Recently, I had an interesting experience that helped remind me of the central ethos (if you will) of Engraver’s Mark Music. In an email exchange perspective client, an arranger wrote:
“Currently I use Sibelius Ultra software to create the arrangements, both octavo and full score. This also allows me to extract and edit my own parts for the bands…
in view of my Sibelius use and the clients I work with, I’m wondering what Engraver’s Mark could actually do for me.”
To which, I responded:
“I totally get what you're saying about the use of Sibelius. It's such a powerful tool. It can certainly make things easier overall, though, like most things, there's quite a bit of learning involved. My company treats Sibelius, and Finale, like instruments that need to be practiced and techniques that need to be refined.
Most of my clients use either Sibelius or Finale to write and orchestrate from the very beginning. Where my team comes into their workflow can be in a number of different places, from template design for a specific project or instrumentation, to score cleanup, part creation and editing and custom printing for recording sessions, live performances or retail sales. We know what the needs and requirements are of professional organizations and publishers so we can tailor our services to help the composers and orchestrators we with work deliver their best, on time and with less stress.
Sometimes our clients need all of these services, sometimes just a few; it depends on the project. We integrate with any workflow and help the composers and orchestrators we work with to stay focused on their art and not all the other details.”
In any business or service, there’s a point at which you have to answer this question;
“Why/How do my potential customers need/want my company’s product/service?”.
The answer to this question is the central focus of any fully developed business plan, demonstrating that the needs of your prospective client can be met by the product or service you are offering. Whether it’s a plumber or a high-tech product, the question is still the same and the thought, planning and execution of the answer can often be the difference between a successful business or one that doesn’t grow beyond a certain point.
I took this question from the arranger not as an attack on the value of my skills or the business of Engraver’s Mark Music, but as an opportunity to fully explain our business model, highlighting our skills and assets while creating an image of a new reality for the client, one where their needs could be met and new possibilities would be available to them by partnering with us.
Yes, music notation software has come a long way. These tools are extremely powerful and allow even novice user to achieve good results. However, more advanced skills and processes are needed achieve faster and more consistent results. Just as being able to install a toilet or change an electrical outlet or other more basic tasks around the house doesn’t take away the value of a fully trained and experienced plumber or electrician, the same thing goes those who use Sibelius or Finale to handle every aspect of a project themselves and those who use Engraver’s Mark Music or other music preparation services in their workflow. Each has its place and function.
So, maybe for a small ensemble or personal project where your skills are equal to the task, you may not need Engraver’s Mark Music, and that’s ok.
Maybe all you need, rather, is a teacher; one who is an expert in the area you are studying and is able to offer both knowledge and experience to help guide you on the next steps in your learning process. Engraver’s Mark Music can help you there too. We offer Finale instruction to beginners and advanced users alike to help refine and take their skills to the next level. (Contact us to learn more about Finale lessons)
Maybe you are spending too much time on score clean up or part creation and formatting that it is taking time away from the content creation you need to be doing. Or driving all over town to print shops trying to get them to understand the specific needs of musicians and hoping they’ll be able to turn your project around on time and without messing it up. In either case, know that Engraver’s Mark Music has a solution for you; one where you gain that precious time back and partner with an experienced team that knows the challenges of the deadlines and creative tasks you have in front of you.
No, not every project or person will use our service. However, Engraver’s Mark Music can create a custom solution for every project or person. That’s the focus our everything we do; to help all those we work with to stay focused on their art, not all the other details and partner with them to bring their music to the world.
Here's a link to a great interview with Christopher Willis and how the music preparation process was a large part in his workflow on "The Personal History of David Copperfield"
There have been a few speed-enhancing and production-enhancing tools for music notation software (Finale, Sibelius, Dorico) out in the marketplace for a while now. Some of these are macro programs, allowing you to write scripts to perform repetitive tasks or other functions, i.e. FinaleScript or Keyboard Maestro. Others, like Elbsound’s Perfect Layout or the various Bob Zawalich plug-ins for Sibelius are really more like separate programs that function on an even deeper level than macro scripts. All of these tools can be amazing time-savers and really make your engraving much more professional.
One of the latest is the JetStream Finale Controller. This product, which can be used with the Elgato StreamDeck or with a mobile app, is a synthesis of the powerful JW Lua programming language and the physical interface of the StreamDeck controller. For those of us mere mortals who don’t code (myself include at this point) or haven’t even written a FinaleScript, (I can help you learn how to do that BTW) this is a great tool. It provides hundreds of features and shortcuts to almost every task you can think of in Finale, making everything from tool selection to even complex functions more accessible and streamlined.
I purchased a StreamDeck last year to help expand some of my FinaleScript triggering and to help automate several file naming tasks or other simple repetitive functions. Now with the newly released JetStream software, I have been using them both in my work even more in the last few months. There are so many functions and possibilities that it can almost be overwhelming and knowing where to start can be a bit a puzzle, but with some trial and error, the vast power of these tools can really start to shine.
One of my favorite aspects of the JetStream controller is that it comes with a default StreamDeck profile but also another preset profile for you to use to create your own custom workflows or button arrangements. This is extremely useful as now you can have the best of both worlds, where you can copy functions from the main profile, without altering it, and copy those into your new profile all with a couple mouse clicks. This brings the vast list of functions and tools down to a manageable level where the most common functions can be grouped together in new sequences that fit your desired workflow for any given project.
There are so many other customizations and possibilities with these tools. I could go on for days, but better still, check out the JetStream Controller website and YouTube page for more details, tutorials and tips. These are great resources to keep handy as you begin to explore these new tools.
All this being said, you may be wondering whether the JetStream Controller is only for professionals or Finale power-users. Actually, I would say the opposite. JetStream can be as useful and effective for a novice user as a seasoned pro. The ability generate custom tool sets will inspire pros to rethink how they perform various tasks, while the novice will find the physical interface helpful and easy to navigate and will reduce time spent looking through menus or dozens of extra mouse clicks.
So, in the end, has the JetStream changed the way I work…. somewhat. I have found it to be more useful for working on my Mac in Finale than on my PC, as I have several tasks reprogrammed using the TG Menu Shortcut (check out my blog post about that tool here) that perform some of the same functions with keyboard shortcuts that are faster for me to use than pressing a button and taking my hand off the keyboard. On a Mac, that TG Tool plug-in isn’t available, so I have shifted a lot of those functions over to the StreamDeck/JetStream ecosphere with great success and efficiency improvement.
Mainly, these tools have inspired me to continue to refine and rethink my workflows. There are lots functions that for me as a copyist (which is my main job) aren’t really useful. However, they would be used far more by an orchestrator or composer, who is entering notes and other information from the beginning. I am often cleaning up or reformatting scores and parts, so I start at a different place, which makes some of those tools less valuable to me. However, when I am engraving a hand-written score, or a score from a PDF or other file that is out of print, I definitely use the JetStream controller more often.
All in all the quantity and quality of these tools is too high to pass up. Oh, did I mention that the JetStream controller software is free; and the StreamDeck has various options, all of which are very reasonable, so there’s really almost no risk of you wasting time or money. My advice is to try them out and have some fun exploring new ways of working and I bet you’ll be amazed at what you can do. Again, definitely check out the YouTube channel for some how-to videos and longer explanations of all the various functions. Happy JetStream-setting!
Sammy Sanfilippo, CEO of Engraver's Mark Music