There's a satisfying symmetry to Avid's expanding product portfolio. Through acquisitions of Digidesign, M-Audio and Pinnacle Systems, it has become the dominant force for video and audio production in both professional and amateur spheres.
In 2006, it acquired Sibelius Systems, publisher of the best software available for producing professional music scores. There isn't currently much of a market for amateur notation software, but Sibelius First might just change that.
Sibelius First is conceptually simple: take Sibelius 6, remove various advanced and ancillary features, and slash the price from $690 to $138. There are no additional hand-holding features for casual users other than some basic templates to get them started - it's simply Sibelius 6 on a diet.
This is as it should be. Musical score production isn't the sort of activity that casual users flirt with. Sibelius First will appeal to university students, jazz bandleaders, choral arrangers and other musicians who have the same high expectations as professionals, but just not the same budget.
Sibelius First assumes a certain degree of musical literacy. It's more than the musical equivalent of a word processor, with a lot of intelligence built into the software. It excels at handling page layouts, for instance, giving lots of space for complicated passages.
A welcome new feature in Sibelius is Magnetic Layout, where vertically aligned markings repel each other to avoid collisions. This ensures reliable automatic formatting of scores and, for the rare occasions when the layout could be better, simply dragging objects with the mouse provides a quick fix.
Note, input via the computer keyboard and mouse is efficient thanks to smart use of keyboard shortcuts. You can also record using a MIDI keyboard, and the software can import MIDI files, read scanned-in scores, and even pitch-track a monophonic recording.
It's easy to generate parts for each performer to read from, which can be formatted independently of the score, but they remain linked so that content-based changes to one are reflected in the other. You can also hide notes in one or the other, which is useful for providing cues to help performers find their place.
There are some features lacking from the full version, however, that will put off potential users. Many of these are perfectly reasonable, such as the lack of teaching materials or video support for use in film and TV production. Others, such as the lack of free telephone support, are less agreeable.
The most significant limitation is that projects can contain no more than 16 staves. That essentially means 16 instruments, although keyboard instruments and marimba use two staves each. This rules out orchestral arrangements, but it's more than adequate for chamber ensembles, choirs, jazz bands and most pop music.
A software synthesizer is built in for playback of scores, but the quality of the sounds isn't up to the standard in the full version either. Still, this feature is best used as a reference while composing or arranging rather than for public consumption.
Students with experience of Sibelius 6 are likely to miss Panorama view, which does away with discrete pages to present notation as a continuous scrolling page. And two surprising omissions are of double-dotted notes and breves. These particular note lengths are seldom used, but they certainly aren't advanced-level techniques.
Users can make do by tying other note lengths together, but it's a fudge we'd rather not have to make. As such, Sibelius First copes fine with conventional scores, but it isn't suitable for composers who use extended instrumental techniques.
Despite the omissions, there's little to criticise about this package. That it's based on such a sophisticated application certainly helps, but just as impressive is how it meets the needs of potential buyers.
While it won't cut the mustard for professionals, by and large it caters amply for composers and arrangers producing conventional scores for small and medium-sized ensembles.
It isn't as flexible as the full version, but the interface and the quality of the results are just as elegant - and at this price it may even encourage some creativity that would otherwise have gone untapped.