In June this year, the Sibelius Software founders Ben and Jonathan Finn were awarded the OBE (Officer of the British Empire) by Her Majesty the Queen for services to software technology. The honours are the most prestigious recognition to date for the twin brothers. They founded Sibelius Software in 1993 with just £3,000, since when the two musicians have established the company as the world market leader in music notation software. The OBE awards coincide with the launch of the latest version of the software, Sibelius 5, which has been two years in development.
The Finn brothers no longer have day-to-day involvement with the company, as Sibelius Software Ltd was acquired by Digidesign, the audio division of Avid Technology Inc., in August 2006. However, Daniel Spreadbury, product manager for Sibelius Software, still works closely with the Finn Brothers, 'to make sure that we are following their vision', he says.
A choral director in his spare time, Spreadbury completed his BA in Music from University College, Oxford in 1998. He has been working for Sibelius Software in Cambridge since May 1999. For two years, he was also a lay clerk in the choir of Ely Cathedral, performing daily services with the cathedral choir, though increasing time pressures resulted in him leaving the cathedral foundation in October 2000.
'It's very nearly two years since Sibelius 4 came out,' says Spreadbury. 'What we always do between versions is to spend a lot of time going out and meeting our customers and our prospective customers - schools, composers, arrangers, film composers, publishers - all these sorts of folks, to ascertain their level of satisfaction with what we've already done, and also think about what they might want.
'It became very clear to us that one of the big challenges that people were facing now is that the way that music is being created digitally, on computers, has changed dramatically over the last few years. As computers have become far more powerful, people have got the ability to run big, very realistic, sample libraries that bring a tremendous degree of realism to artificial playback.
'But at the same time, many of our users are musicians rather than computer whiz-kids. We've always designed Sibelius to be for musicians, by musicians. Actually, some of these sample libraries can be very difficult to use. Rather than just putting in the notes and having your programme play it back, you'd actually have to do a tremendous amount of work - aside from writing the music - to get a realistic performance out of it.
'So we looked at this to see if we could produce a system of working with these virtual instruments that would be easy for musicians, and not just for computer whiz-kids. As part of that, not only have we made Sibelius able to load any Virtual Studio Technology (VST) or audio unit virtual instrument or effect, but we've also introduced this new system called Sound World, which is a special classification system for sounds.
'Basically, you listen to the sound produced by a device, and you categorize it by its similarity to other sounds. For example, a flute sound would be classified as something like: winds.flutes.flutes So we would have dots to separate the different elements. As you add more and more nodes to each of these sound's IDs they become more and more specific.
'So, for example, you might have a very specific flute technique, something like: wind.flutes.flute.vibrato.heavy for heavy vibrato, or possibly: wind.flutes.flute.fluttertongue for a flutter-tongue playback. The idea behind doing it this way is that we can actually replace the old system of MIDI patch names and channel numbers with a more meaningful semantic tree, which describes the sounds in a more detailed way. That also allows them to map that description of sounds between different devices. So, for example, you might have one device that does provide a very specific flute flutter-tongue sound. Then you might have another device that just has a normal flute sound. And of course, what you really want the programme to do for you is to say, well, I'm looking for a flutter-tongue sound but I can't find one, so instead I'll just fall back on a normal flute sound. And that's what Sibelius is able to do. The Soundworld makes that possible. They are saying that you can describe every sound that you want in your score, as specifically as possible, right down to the level of vibrato, and even how many instruments are supposed to be playing. If that sound is available in your device, then Sibelius will use it. But if it's not available, it will choose the best available sound.
'Even that is extremely subtle. For example, you might have a string sound, and you might want a muted pizzicato sound. On another device you might not have a muted pizzicato sound. Sibelius will know to choose the pizzicato sound instead of the muted sound, because it makes more of an impact on the timbre of the sound. So it has extremely sophisticated rules.
'The user doesn't need to know anything about it. You set up virtual studio - a playback configuration - where you can load up any instruments you've got, whether it's an external MIDI box (a Roland sound box), or your sound card, or even one of these virtual instruments. Then you set up a configuration that tells Sibelius, for example, that you might want to hear the string sounds off your Roland box, and the brass sounds off your sound card, and the percussion sounds off the sample library that you've got installed. And Sibelius will automatically do all of that for you. It will look at the staves in your score, automatically allocate them to the best instrument, will look at all the markings in your score (slurs, texts, dynamics), and will automatically work out the best way to play that particular sound. Now you've got a whole world of playback possibilities opened up to you. You press 'play', and out come the noises that you want.'
Surprisingly, only seven developers work on Sibelius. 'They do amazing things, they are really a wonderful team,' says Spreadbury. 'Other programmes of similar complexity have hundreds of developers. It's extraordinary how our team works and produces these features.'
Two other new features in Sibelius 5 are Ideas Hub and Panorama. Ideas Hub is a way to capture a musical idea, name it, tag it, and store it to use again. To give users a helping hand, 2,000 professionally composed snippets have been provided. Panorama is a way of viewing your score as a single infinitely-wide page (sometimes called a 'scroll view' or 'gallery view' on other programmes) so that one doesn't have to worry about page layout when inputting music. 'Using Panorama on a wide-screen monitor is a wonderful experience,' says Spreadbury. He tells me that his own wide-screen monitor is the sort that can be swivelled to view scores in portrait format. One can imagine that such a monitor will quickly become the must-have high-status accessory for all Sibelius-using musicians.
'We have included some sounds from several of Garritan's different products inside Sibelius 5,' says Spreadbury, alluding to the top award-winning sample library. 'But they are only a selection of sounds,' he says. 'Sibelius Sound Essentials, which is the sample library which comes with Sibelius 5, actually has about 150 different instrument sounds, and many hundreds of unpitched instrument sounds, drawn from a number of sources. Most of the instruments in the orchestra, from Garritan Personal Orchestra software (GPO), are represented. In Sibelius Sound Essentials, the Garritan sounds are a bit more limited. For example, the violins only provide arco and pizzicato, and not tremolando, and not mute.
'In terms of the realism, they will obviously sound more real if you have the full GPO product. We've tried to produce a library that will give good playback for all genres of music. That's why we've got saxophones and trumpets from the Garritan jazz and big band collection, which is very specific in that idiom. The trumpet has a Harmon mute sound, for instance. We are the first music notation programme to have specific wind and concert band sounds included.'
Spreadbury is frank about the fierce competition that exists between different types of music notation software in the USA. 'Finale was very deeply entrenched by the time we brought out Sibelius for Windows in 1998, and then Sibelius for Macintosh (Mac) in 1999,' he admits. 'But very quickly we took a large amount of market share from Finale. Around 50% of the market belongs to Sibelius in the US, which is really extraordinary. Of course, competition is good for everybody. It's especially good for customers. We, and Make Music, the American company that produces Finale (formerly Coda Music Technologies), want to compete not only for new customers, especially in the schools - a very big part of what we try to do - but also musicians in general, whether they are composers, arrangers or publishers.
'On the whole, Finale has been playing catch-up to Sibelius, in that Sibelius has always been the easier programme to use. Finale have made great strides in recent versions by copying what we've done, which is what a free market will allow. In Sibelius 5 we've tried to keep ease of use, and simplicity, very close to the heart of what we do.
'By way of comparison, Finale does come with some sounds from Garritan. Indeed, they are about to announce their new version. I believe that they'll have a very similar bundle of sounds included with Finale as included with Sibelius. But Sibelius offers you better control; it allows you to use any virtual instrument, whereas Finale is still limited to using only virtual instruments that are produced by Native Instruments. But there are many many others, including some fantastic ones by the Vienna Symphonic Library, East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, and Synful Orchestra. Now, none of those can be used with Finale, but you can use all of them with Sibelius. Not only that, but Sibelius is able to use its Soundworld technology to exploit them to their fullest, whereas Finale is really not able to do that. Superficially, the programmes look really similar, but I hope that people find that when they look at them deeper, they'll find that not only is Sibelius much easier to use, but also in many ways much more sophisticated than Finale in terms of our approach to things, and how we've tried to integrate the new features really deep into the heart of the programme. Whereas what people often find with Finale is that the core of the programme has remained unchanged for 20 years.
'With Sibelius 3 you had one big user guide. With Sibelius 5, when you buy your upgrade you receive a 72-page book that describes all of the features in detail. Sibelius 5 contains the full text of the reference book, which is now a whopping 632 pages. That's all included on screen. You can print that out if you want to. Sibelius is one of the few programmes that still comes with a printed manual at all. I spent quite a lot of the last few months writing it!'
Sibelius 5 demo
Vienna Symphonic Library
East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra