On The Mark: The State of Digital Music Engraving

On The Mark: The State of Digital Music Engraving

Steven Powell
Photo design by Melissa Richard

In the beginning, when Ugh came up with a tune that the lovely Ugga found irresistible, his only method of preserving his musical masterpiece for future Uggies involved a sharp rock and a flat surface. As the results of this method proved to be difficult to transportóas well as susceptible to erosionóit comes as no surprise that composers migrated to other media when the possibility arose. That opportunity came several thousand years later with the creation first, of papyrus, and later, paper: portable surfaces one could write on with ink.

Paper and ink worked pretty well on a retail level, but churning out multiple copies of music was time-consuming work. The solution came in the mid-15th century when Gutenburg and Koster developed a method for printing books with moveable type (the Chinese, who invented paper, had been printing with blocks for a while). Soon after, in 1498, the Venetian printer Ottaviano dei Petrucci invented a method of printing music with moveable type. (His first publication, Harmonice musices odhecaton A, was a collection of, primarily, French Chansons without text.) The use of moveable type for music was never universally embraced; most pieces were produced either with “block printing” (cutting a fixed image into a wood block or, later “engraving” the image onto metal sheets, and then pressing the inked block or sheet onto a sheet of paper) or with hybrid methods in which music was partially pre-printed and pages were completed by hand. The use of lithography came into wide use in the mid-19th century.

In the 20th century, there were a number of attempts to find faster methods. Plate engraving, in which an engraver would use a combination of etching and punching precise indentations into a metal sheet, was time consuming work that called for a very high degree of skill. A number of different “music typewriters” were tried, but the results were clearly inferior to the music produced by plate engravers. Hybrid computer/music typewriter systems first came into use in 1953; information was input into a computer which positioned the elements to be produced by an attached music typewriter. But it was the CPS-300 Music keypunch system, with software designed by Dr. Dal Molin (who also designed the first music typewriter) that first made real inroads into publication in the early 1970s.

The next development came in the mid-1970s when Stanford professor Leland Smith designed a (Mainframe) computer-based system called Score. Some ten years later he ported Score to DOS and computer-based engraving became a mainstream method for even smaller publishers. Score was a true “notesetting” program; it was designed to follow the work habits of plate engravers and was not intended as a tool for composers. The program was command-line driven and did not use a graphical user interface (GUI). For example, to put the measure below (ex. 1) in a Score document,

ex. 1

The user would type “q-e-e-q-q” (the rhythm), then “c-b-a-g-d” (the notes), then anything else needed (articulations, slurs, lyrics) in additional passes. The process worked best if the user knew the number of systems on each page and the number of pages before starting the inputting process. Although the program predates the standard Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), other programmers eventually wrote some MIDI export routines for the Score documents. Expert users could work very quickly in Score, but the program required a substantial investment of time to learn.

In the early 1980s, music synthesizers were beginning to gather serious momentum as performing instruments. The big manufacturers (Roland, Yamaha, et al.) realized that musicians might purchase multiple synthesizers, since each produced unique sounds, and would need a way for those instruments to “talk to each other.” The solution to this problem was MIDI. Little did the manufacturers know that it would lead to a huge range of new products on those newfangled desktop computers, including a host of notation products.

With the underlying MIDI standard in place, the race was on to create the perfect notation program. Early entrants included Jim Miller’s Personal Composer (for IBM PC) and Mark of the Unicorn’s Professional Composer (for the Mac, and eventually rewritten as Mosaic). Both were leading edge products for their time, but it was Phil Farrand, working in the late 1980s with Coda Music Technology, who wrote a MIDI-based notation program that could produce publishing-quality output. The program was Finale and it signaled the end of plate engraving. Finale was deep and complicated, but musicians could play music into it, see the results as music notation, manipulate the notation in virtually any way needed, and listen to the output through synthesizers.

Throughout the 1990s quite a few different music notation products came to market, but Coda recognized the importance of making their product cross-platform early, and Finale became the “Microsoft Word” of the notation marketóthe clear leader in the notation software field. Notable competitors included Nightingale, which introduced “smart slurs” (slurs which understood which notes they were attached to, rather than just being graphics located at a grid point on the page) and Graphire Music Press, which featured the most elegant output of any notation software on the market. But it took the introduction of Sibelius to demonstrate that a challenger to Finale might actually succeed in procuring a substantial market share.

Sibelius, written by Jonathan and Ben Finn, started life in the early ’90s as a program designed to work with the Acorn computer (a powerful, RISC-based computer). The Finn brothers rewrote it in the late ’90s to work on PCs and Macs, and its intuitive and well-organized interface and powerful features have helped it gain a solid chunk of the notation market.

Both Finale and Sibelius receive regular upgrades and both have come out with new versions in the past six months (Finale 2003 and Sibelius v. 2.1.1). And it should come as no surprise that the programs are copying each others’ strong points for entering and editing music with each new upgrade, to the point that the choice between them is becoming more and more a matter of personal preference for one style or the other. Still, it would be fair to say that Finale remains the deeper, more powerful, and more flexible program, while Sibelius is simpler to learn and does more things correctly for the user right out of the box.

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