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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Software of Note

From the Tech Vault Dept.: I was a beta tester for the very first version of Finale, one of the top two music-engraving programs. It’s now in its umpteenth iteration (Finale 2012), and remains difficult to learn but an incredible convenience when it’s finally in your fingers. Here’s my ancient assessment of the program’s second version.


MUSIC ENGRAVING IS like conventional page-layout and typesetting: a lot of effort goes into producing an effortless-looking result. Computers offer handy programs for both types of publishing, but the market for music-engraving software is limited by the specialized requirements of the job. You have to know music, for one thing: both the standard rules of reading a score and the specialized rules for writing and – most particularly – setting up a publishable page.

Version 3 for the Mac, which
looked pretty similar to the
IBM PC's version 2.
Composers and music publishers need sophisticated tools for clearly-notated, good-looking output. With the computer's ability to understand information sent to it by a specially-configured musical instrument, computer notation becomes a time-saving, powerful device.

Finale for the PC is a year-old product that has been around longer still in Macintosh form. The recently-released PC version 2.0 smooths speed and notational problems of the first release (bug fixes and fewer redraws are among the changes) while offering a few enhanced features. It’s a high-end product that answers all professional needs.

But it’s a bear of a program to learn. Out-of-the-box ease of use isn’t a requirement for this kind of application, and the ten or twelve hours you’ll spend mastering its basics are an acceptable part of the price you pay for computer convenience. When you consider how long it took you to learn music in the first place, the time spent exploring Finale will seem like a pleasant interlude.

Besides, the tutorial that accompanies the program is a clearly- organized progression that quickly introduces all the important aspects. (Pianist Lee Musiker, whose created the improvisation that accompanies the program, said that Finale’s designers fussed obsessively over his brief solo to make sure it would best suit the program’s students.)

The familiar Windows top-of-the-screen menu is augmented by two rows of tools along the left, most of which give you more menus. Start the program and you’re presented with a single treble-clef measure in 4/4 time; take advantage of the supplied templates to choose a layout for piano and voice, grand staff, piano and chorus or one of four predefined others. Naturally, you can design and save your own.

Notation is accomplished in any of five ways: the crudest is to choose a note value (this is all done with a mouse) and then choose its staff position. A Speedy Note Entry tool lets you use the computer keyboard to select pitch and value; with a musical keyboard connected through a MIDI interface, you use a combination of the two keyboards.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the technology that translates musical notes into computer information. It’s like a modem for music. For under $200 you can get a PC card that does the translating and plugs into your MIDI device – usually a piano-like keyboard, but there are MIDI-compatible guitars and even saxophones.

This is when Finale really cooks. Its Hyperscribe Tool allows you to “play in” your music a staff at a time, while with the Transcription Tool properly configured you can simply sit back and play and let the program notate it for you once you’re finished.

In the best circumstances, you can play anything from a single voice to a complicated, jazzy fugue and Finale will get it all down. A process called quantization rounds notes to the value you specify, so you can swing out (or make rhythmic mistakes) and still have an intelligible result.

The Transcription Tool makes it a two-part process. First you record a raw version of your piece to disk, in a window that provides a visual key to your material that looks like a miniature piano roll. Then you make the adjustments (time signature, beat placement, quantization values) that will best suit the final commitment of notes to staff.

Time-specific pieces translate easily. The syncopated requirements of rock and jazz are more challenging. Expect to do a lot of fine-tuning to any piece of music that swings. Fortunately, you can re-notate Transcription Tool input again and again until you’re satisfied. Just remember to keep saving material to disk.

Once those notes are on the staff systems, you can extract parts, transpose lines, change lyrics or re-harmonize the piece – without the old-fashioned need to copy things over.

For artistic satisfaction, there are tools enough to allow you to place required elements exactly where you want them. Good scoring (in the engraver’s sense, not the orchestrator’s) is attractive to the eye and easier for the musician to understand.

Although the practice of engraving evolved very regular rules over the years, contemporary music notation can get weird and outrageous (an excerpt from a Finale-engraved John Cage composition accompanied a recent issue of Coda’s quarterly newsletter). Not only can Finale accommodate just about any oddball notational requirement, it also will make a brave attempt to play back what you’ve written.

MIDI playback defaults are extremely thorough: dynamic markings, tempo changes, even rallantandos are already configured. The defaults can be changed and you can make up your own. 

Finale installs easily, assuming and requiring that you’ve got Windows on your hard disk. Postscript and PCL fonts are provided, but clone Postscript users should note that, starting with version 2.0, Finale is giving you only Type I fonts. Supported MIDI interfaces are the Roland MPU-401 (and compatible boxes), the Yamaha C1 computer and the IBM Music Feature card. The MIDI devices are not usable in the Windows 386 Enhanced mode.

Two specialty fonts are provided: Petrucci, which contains all the notation-specific characters you need, and Seville, a collection of guitar fingerboard charts. Finale also works with any installed Windows fonts for the non-musical items in your manuscript. Composer Wendy Carlos, a Finale beta-tester, has designed two more music notation fonts – Grace Notes and Crescendo, both of them Type I Postscript, available through Casady & Greene, Inc. (408-624-8716).

Finale uses files termed “libraries” in a manner reminiscent of the style sheets in a desktop publishing program. Each library is a single file that contains a selection of notational devices that you’ve created (accent markings, tempo indications and so on). The default library, loaded automatically when you first start the program, contains the most-often-used elements, but you’re encouraged to create and save your own.

A selection of library files comes with the program, showing as well some of its more arcane abilities. One library demonstrates pitch bend (just as if you’d rolled the pitch bend wheel on your MIDI keyboard); another loads a quarter-tone configuration if you’re eager to leave the world of diatonic music behind.

One of the new-to-version 2.0 library files works with Finale’s Note Expressions tool in a much-needed improvement that allows for automatic positioning of expression elements (staccato markings, fermata) over note heads. Keeping in mind the unpredictable variety of real-world requirements, the programmers are soliciting user suggestions for further “smart note” enhancements.

Despite the computer’s easygoing relationship with word processing, adding lyrics to a score has been an ongoing problem with notational programs. You can type in your words note by note with Finale, but you’ll never do so again once you try the “mass create” feature of the Lyrics Tool. It allows the words to be entered in their own window which is saved as part of your file. New to version 2.0 are cut, copy and paste features in that window.

Words then can be automatically placed under the correct staff, where Finale will attempt to align by syllables. Assuming you’ve entered slurs and rests correctly (and know how to hyphenate), you’ll be mesmerized by the process and delighted with the result.

A good piece of music should leave the listener wanting more; Finale, on the other hand, has lots more to offer and helps you to find it with 877 well-written pages of documentation and a technical support staff that takes a while to get to the phone but, once there, is very resourceful.

MIDI, like anything to do with a computer, has mathematics at its heart. Finale’s new MIDI Tool offers a fascinating look at the guts of MIDI, allowing access to the numbers that make all those MIDI effects happen with nifty graphical representations of rhythm and pitch.

A number of problems were dispatched on the path from Finale 1.1 to 2.0. Speedy Note Entry now has a buffer to eliminate the early version’s catch-up lag. Music recalculation is cleaner and more efficient. Enharmonic shifts will work on an entire measure, not just note by note. The still-in-the-works version 3.0 will go much further by offering a new look to the program. Groups of existing tools are getting consolidated into fewer icons and multiple document windows will be available.

The program never will be very user-friendly, but it’s bound to make friends with many computer-oriented musicians. For the casual composer, it’s a large investment; for anyone who is seriously writing or publishing and wants to take advantage of electronic technology, it will prove indispensable.

Finale 2.0 for the IBM PC

A full-featured, MIDI-compatible music sequencing and engraving package that runs – slowly – under Windows but offers top-quality page output and a wealth of notational control tools.

Coda Music Software 1401 East 79th Street Bloomington, MN 55425-1126. 800-843-2066; 612-854-1288. Suggested List Price: $795.

Hardware and software requirements: IBM AT or compatible (80286 or faster processor and 1.2 Mb 5.25" or 720K 3.5" floppy drive. 1 Mb RAM (2 Mb recommended), EGA or better display, mouse. DOS 3.0 or higher, hard disk with at least 3 Mb free space, Microsoft Windows 3.0. A MIDI interface is optional but desirable.

Computer Shopper, August, 1991


Unknown said...

Hello! Great article. I still have my academic version of Finale 2.0 with the 2.2 upgrade. I still go back and tinker with it from time to time. I am interested in version 1.1.1. Did it run on DOS or Windows? Do you still have access to the disks? I would love to try it out.

B. A. Nilsson said...

It ran on Windows. I'm afraid I lost track of those disks -- probably a set of 3.5" floppies -- long ago.

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