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Monday, July 24, 2017

Notable Notation

From the Computer Vault Dept.: I learned music engraving in the pre-computer days when you needed compass and ruler and an excellent lettering hand. So I was happy to be invited to beta-test a computer-based engraving program, a massive, ambitious beast called Finale. I spent hours going through its tutorial and then throwing different challenges at the program, so I was well placed to write about the program after it was released in 1988. Below is my piece about Finale 1.1, which amusingly compares it to the long-defunct DTP program Ventura Publisher. My review of Finale 2.0 is here. The program has seen many an upgrade since, and there’s information about it here. And Coda Music is now MakeMusic, Inc., in Boulder, Colorado.


FINALE COULD BE TO MUSIC ENGRAVING what Ventura Publisher is to writing. It’s designed for a much more specialized audience, true, but music copyists have a more demanding task even than typesetters.

Screenshot from Version 2.0. It's the earliest
version I could find for a graphic.
And, while Ventura is the program of choice for many desktop publishers, it’s not the only worthy runner in the field. Finale is also one of many available programs, but it happens to pack enough power to satisfy – and delight – many users.

The job of putting notes on paper has rules that require a knowledge of rhythm and harmony along with the mechanics of page design. It’s so specialized and ultimately subjective that there’s an art to effective engraving.

Satisfying the mechanics is easy with Finale – once you’ve gotten the hang of a challenging program. Using its MIDI interface, you can go from keyboard to page pretty quickly and enjoy acceptable output.

For artistic satisfaction, there are tools enough to allow you to place required elements exactly where you want them, and that may be the most important of the program’s strengths. Good scoring (in the engraver’s sense) is attractive to the eye and easier for the musician to understand.

Finale runs under Windows and was initially released in Version 2.x compatibility. Version 1.1 was brought to market quickly in order to take advantage of the Windows 3.0 environment, and is promising to address the most annoying aspect of the program: speed of operation.

It’s a monster. The executable file alone is over a megabyte, and it tucks a host of auxiliary programs under its wing. It installs easily, unpacking compressed files onto your hard disk (which is essential). A Windows presence is assumed: you don’t get a run-time version here.

The program comes with its own specialty font, Petrucci, which contains all the notation-specific characters you need, although it’s also possible to print with Adobe’s Sonata font on a true PostScript machine.

You can enjoy a good relationship with Finale simply working from the keyboard. A single treble-staff measure is presented as a default, although there are templates available (and, as you get familiar with the program, user-designable) for whatever configuration of instruments you’re scoring. Key signature, meter, even oddball design touches are easily imposed and changed.

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. Notes can be placed on your staff with a slow, mouse-click procedure, but the Speedy Note Entry Tool lets you play the computer keyboard like an engraver’s machine, with specific assignments of duration and pitch imposed on the letters and numbers.

Anyone with a MIDI instrument has even niftier options. MIDI is the interface that translates musical notes into computer information, like a modem for music. For under $200 you can get a PC card that does the translating and plugs into your MIDI device.

That’s when Finale really cooks.

In the best circumstances, you can play anything from a single voice to a complicated, jazzy fugue and Finale will notate it for you. A process called quantization rounds notes to the value you specify, so you can swing out and still have an intelligible result.

Finale makes it a two-part process, first recording a raw version of your piece to disk, then allowing you to specify the time signature and make some other adjustments before committing it to a staff.

Fairly time-specific pieces (old classical and folk, especially) translate easily. Setting up for the syncopated, time- variable requirements of jazz is more challenging. Common practice suggests that jazz notation can be specific only to a point that stops well shy of performance practice – to notate all the subtleties of a highly rhythmic performance would look unintelligible on the page.

With that in mind, you’ll find Finale easily able to handle all but the weirdest notational demands simply by playing into the computer. And you can probably satisfy any weird requirements with the very flexible notational tools that allow you to shift note placements, change noteheads, add or change accidentals, stick in trills or grace notes and much, much more.

The program fights its natural sluggishness with a default display view that offers a single staff system. You click into page display mode to see how the page will look before printing. Because of the amount of calculation involved in redrawing the graphics-intensive screen, you’re going to have to wait whenever you change the area you’re viewing. A fast machine will be very helpful. (A math chip won’t help at this point.)

You can zoom in or out of a number of different view resolutions; the better your screen, the more you can edit before a redraw is needed. And the program tries to reserve those time- consuming redraws until they’re absolutely necessary.

Printing is fastest with a PostScript unit, although the HP variety of laser printer can hold its own. You’ll even get acceptable dot matrix pages if your machine supports graphics and you don’t mind the wait.

One of the compelling strengths of Finale is its ability to place text on the page. In music this generally falls into three categories: title and header information, performance markings and lyrics.

Where Finale leaps ahead of its competition is in layout flexibility. Defaults are assumed but all aspects can be modified. A powerful page layout facility allows you to assign a frame, chose a font and type size and place text wherever you’d like. It can repeat on all or any pages as you choose, and there’s room for whatever you need to fit.

Performance markings are collected in a ready-to-use menu that allows you to choose among the common terms like “allegro” and “pizzicato,” rendering them in traditional typefaces on one or more of the staves. You also can change the typeface or add terms of your own to the menus, information which is saved in Finale’s equivalent of a style sheet.

The lyric-placement tools are very impressive. You can type the words right onto a staff, but it’s more efficient to use the Mass Create facility. That throws you into a mini word processor, allowing you to type all of your text at once and even specify its typeface. You must separate syllables with hyphens to take advantage of the program’s auto placement facility, which will place a syllable of text on a chosen line below each individual note. It’s not a foolproof system, but it’s not meant to be. Used with well-thought-out correction tools, it’s still much faster than all that mouse-clicking you’d otherwise have to perform.

Documentation is split into three manuals and a “getting started” pamphlet. “Learning Finale” takes you through a series of lessons designed to cover most of the program’s features. It’s a good course. Expect to spend several hours with it.

Volume Two, “Finale Encyclopedia,” gives you 280 large pages of musical terms and concepts and how they can be realized through the program. The third volume, “Finale Reference,” is close to 400 pages that cross-reference everything the program does. Once you understand the concepts of these books, they complement one another nicely. You’ll want all of them on hand as you gain your expertise.

Nobody expects the realm of music to focus on any particular sound, and the range is vast and terrifying. Music notation has taken some novel turns in its need to accommodate what wants to get written, so it’s asking a lot of a computer program to offer satisfaction to all of the stylings.

Although it won’t take the place of a good knowledge of music theory, the program is shrewd enough to know how to transpose. It can adjust for differently-keyed instruments or it can bump your whole project up or down the chromatic scale.

From a lead sheet to an orchestral score, the program has proven itself well able to handle anything. It tries to be fairly automatic, but where it doesn’t succeed there is a wonderland of tools for the perfectionist. Electronic music publishing is unquestionably the wave of the future, and this program has positioned itself in the forefront of professional options. 

Product Summary:

Coda Music Software
1401 East 79th Street
Bloomington, MN 55425-1126

Computer Shopper, December 1990

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