I posted this to MetaFilter, and Sibelius crashed
December 5, 2018 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Music Software & Bad Interface Design: Avid’s Sibelius [YouTube] - In this video, I take a detailed look at the design of Avid's Sibelius - a popular music notation application. Sibelius is the embodiment of what not to do as a user experience designer and this video covers a range of examples of inappropriate design patterns and bad user interface choices. Then I go insane.

A bit slow at the start, but it builds up a head of steam as it goes, and if you ever enjoyed the Interface Hall of Shame back in Old Days, you'll probably enjoy this.
posted by Wolfdog (45 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I wish more software reviews were this apt, this funny and this impassioned...
posted by Devonian at 8:16 AM on December 5

So well-edited and surprisingly funny for an UI postmortem...
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:35 AM on December 5

i am now on a mission to make SIBELIUS CRASHED a thing
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:46 AM on December 5

Finale 4EVA!
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:46 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]

"The black beams can stretch--they can stretch really high!"

"This is a solved problem! Can we just have one place for plug-ins, please?"

That was very cathartic to watch. I need to send this link to every composer I know (if it's not already bouncing around those circles).
posted by LooseFilter at 8:48 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]

I have never used Sibelius and never will, but this is incredible. The whole bit about how you add tempo is hilarious. Such a well-executed video.
posted by cincinnatus c at 8:57 AM on December 5

I just watched this last week, and although my only experience with Sibelius is with the starter version, Sibelius First, it's very accurate. The interface is awful. Unfortunately, the interface for several other music notation programs is equally bad, but in different ways. After Sibelius First, I switched to Notion, which was a huge improvement, but had some things that just didn't seem to operate correctly. Then I switched to Doric. Ahhhhhh, what a relief. More or less. It uses a method of note input completely different than every other notation software, but what a huge improvement overall in comparison to everything else.
posted by jonathanhughes at 8:58 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

I recall an interview with DEVO where Mark Mothersbaugh bemoaned the state of all professional music creation software: "Ableton is unable. Reason is unreasaonble. Logic is illogical." At least it's not just Sibelius
posted by SansPoint at 8:59 AM on December 5 [9 favorites]

+2 for Finale, which I've been using since the 1990s.
posted by slkinsey at 9:04 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]

You can get a look at the Sibelius 6 UI, pre-ribbon I think, in this Adam Neely video
posted by thelonius at 9:04 AM on December 5

I've used Sibelius for a long time (and for one of my favorite little things I've ever made), although I stopped upgrading at 6. As a minor counterweight to what's in the video, I will say that (1) music notation is a very hard thing to get right, and (2) if you like to keep your hands on the keyboard, you can still do most of what you'd want to do (like typing in that tempo marking) pretty efficiently with keyboard commands which worked the same way approximately forever. I imagine if you don't already have all that knowledge in your fingers' muscle memory going back to the 90s, the only sane thing to do when you see the modern interface is run screaming.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:15 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]

When Sibelius licensed the "ribbon" pattern from Microsoft ...

okay I've heard enough.
posted by sfenders at 9:25 AM on December 5 [8 favorites]

you can still do most of what you'd want to do (like typing in that tempo marking) pretty efficiently with keyboard commands

Yup, in Finale they have "quick entry" which combines a Midi keyboard and the number pad to make entering notes of the correct duration super simple, as long as you know which number does what. There really is no way to make something as endlessly complex as notation super-simple from a UI perspective, since it implies that there is a natural, manageable hierarchy of elements, which there is not.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:35 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]

I thought the thing that was going to make me laugh the hardest today was the new Monster Factory, but I was wrong.

Woof. *wipes away tears*
posted by minsies at 9:42 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

"Ableton is unable. Reason is unreasaonble. Logic is illogical."

Ableton is much, much more able these days. With the Push as user interface, it's finally realizing its potential, I think.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:43 AM on December 5 [3 favorites]

That video is a work of art. Thank you.

I can't see Avid ever fixing Sibelius. They won't commit the time and don't have the money to write it again from scratch, the current engine has to be some giant cross-platform C++ mess which is too complicated to debug and make stable, and fixing the UI as requested would just leave you with a more usable program that crashes in the same places and some new places too. From what he says in the video, the future belongs to Dorico, even it it does sound like a snack food.

According to Wikipedia, the original app on the Acorn Archimedes computer was a simple and lightning-fast tour de force written in assembler by two clever people. I fondly remember the Mac word processor WriteNow as a similar delight. Such things are great at the time, but they always die when the OS or the processor needs to change, as happened when Sibelius was ported to Windows and Mac and then the new cross-platform app bloated and rotted more and more every year.
posted by w0mbat at 10:04 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]

Lilypond 4eva

(If you like vertical learning curves but to be able to do absolutely anything and everything at the end, that is. It's a LaTeX-based musical notation compiler, which tells you everything you can possibly want to know.)

I'm the music librarian for a community symphony orchestra, and we do 95% of our own arrangements to play, which means that I get to do a lot of editing. Almost everyone uses Sibelius or Finale, with some brave souls holding off for MuseScore. I do arranging myself, too. I got pretty good at Sibelius. Does it have issues? Yes. Is Finale any better? I don't have first-hand experience so I can't say, but I'm pretty sure certain formatting things, especially as it relates to creating parts from an orchestral score, are a right pain in the... side, from the reactions and comments of arrangers when I ask for edited parts.

Can I make Sibelius do what I want it to do after some googling? 97% of the time so far, and I've wanted some pretty weird things.

Could they have made it easier? Absolutely.

But again, I started with Lilypond, and LaTeX for plain documents for that matter, and thus have learned the lesson that the trade-offs for power and customizability in typesetting are always, always the learning curve and interface quality. I'm not sure why Avid is going to be the company to solve that one; though it would be awesome if they could.

(PS: Sibelius does have keyboard shortcuts for entering music. You do need a numeric keyboard. For my small laptop I bought an external one. And I got really, really fast at it.)
posted by seyirci at 10:09 AM on December 5 [6 favorites]

Makes me happy I’m fine using ABC for notation. Of course if I could just keep an app working for more than a year or two on OSX I’d be happy.
posted by misterpatrick at 10:11 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]

The going crazy part is cliche. The rest is good.
posted by timdiggerm at 10:19 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

What would be the alternative to Sibelius for someone who wants an entry-level product?
posted by storybored at 10:43 AM on December 5

I was always partial to Lime.

(In addition to being a nice program, it is also designed to work closely with braille music generation software, which is excellent.)
posted by Melismata at 10:47 AM on December 5

Ableton is much, much more able these days. With the Push as user interface, it's finally realizing its potential, I think.

Ableton is pretty fantastic but it doesn't fill the role of Sibelius at all. Well, I guess there's probably a Max4Live plugin for scores but that doesn't sound too promising.

(Until version 9.2 it had really frustrating issues with plugin delay compensation but that's mostly fixed, now.)
posted by atoxyl at 10:58 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

Dorico looks pretty bomb!
posted by en forme de poire at 11:09 AM on December 5

Re: entry-level products, I used Finale Notepad for ages to make arrangements for my um, college a cappella group. NO YOU'RE A DORK. I remember it being pretty decent? Windows-only, though, I seem to remember.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:11 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]

I just used MuseScore to make a simple little thing and, while I got the job done, it felt awkward and unintuitive. I may have been given weird habits/expectations from using WinJammer back in the day?
posted by Jpfed at 11:17 AM on December 5

I downloaded something called Crescendo Music Notation Editor, because I have other software from the same company that I like using. Unfortunately, I haven't had an opportunity to play with it yet. Should I even bother or is there a better product out there? I don't need anything too complicated, just something simple enough so I can tinker with some piano arrangements.
posted by sardonyx at 11:42 AM on December 5

Are there reasonable alternatives to Sibelius for music educators? Part of what keeps me chained to Sibelius 6 is the customizable “worksheet creator” function, which I find really useful. I guess I could just print a master copy of the music theory materials I regularly use and keep them in a binder, but that seems time consuming and unwieldy.
posted by donatella at 11:51 AM on December 5

I haven't done lots of stuff with it, but I've been pretty happy with ScoreCloud, which is free for their basic version.
posted by ShooBoo at 12:04 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]

As far as entry level programs, I would suggest Notion (I this it's around $70), by Presonus, or Dorico Elements ($99), by Steinberg.

If you've used any notation software before (except Dorico), Notion will have a similar workflow. It's very capable, and its interface is much more logical than Sibelius of Finale. If you've never used any notation software, I'd suggest spending the $30 extra dollars for Dorico Elements, as its different way of doing things shouldn't be an issue. It has the cleanest and most logical interface of all the notation software I've used.
posted by jonathanhughes at 12:15 PM on December 5

I think it's worth pointing out that desktop audio workstations (DAWs) like Ableton, Reason, Studio One, etc., are worlds different from notation/composition software like Sibelius, Dorico, and Notion.

DAWs have some winners and losers from a UI/UX standpoint, but their far larger userbases, and far more competitive marketplace generally keeps them from being too horrible. (Generally.)

Notation software has, until very recently, been generally where DAWs were 15 or so years ago when there was Pro Tools .... and a bunch of also-rans nobody in major studios cared about much except for specific uses (Ableton for live performance, Reason for electronic music). But now Pro Tools' market share is shrinking year after year as the others have caught up (and, IMO, many have surpassed it).

Notation software isn't really at that stage yet (and I wonder if the userbase will be able put that kind of pressure on companies to improve, and hopefully videos like this will help spur that), and so everything is various shades of painful UI.
posted by tclark at 12:27 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]

the free MuseScore version alarmed me because the shortcut it placed on the desktop always had the day's date in the "Date Modified" column, even when I had not touched it. Was it phoning home? I just deleted it.
posted by thelonius at 12:51 PM on December 5

The reason ProTools was dominant for so long was because it had established itself as the industry standard, which meant sharing sessions was painless, and in a collaborative environment, being able to share sessions is way more valuable than the number of plugins or how cool the interface is.

The same thing goes for notation software. So Sibelius and Finale dominate, and especially given how insular and calcified the score-reading music scene is (orchestras, film scores, etc.) it is going to be a long slog for Dorico to have that kind of wingspan, no matter how awesome it is.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:10 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]

the free MuseScore version alarmed me because the shortcut it placed on the desktop always had the day's date in the "Date Modified" column, even when I had not touched it. Was it phoning home? I just deleted it.

FWIW, I just checked the MuseScore shortcut on my desktop, and the modified date is the same as the created date, which was many months ago. I use MuseScore as a sort of sketchpad for musical ideas. Once you get the hang of it (and that takes some time), it's really fast and lightweight.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:19 PM on December 5

Lest we forget, Sibelius was sold to Avid and in a classic software development takeover tactic, fired pretty much all of the developers. This happened after Sibelius 4, IIRC, and because I hate (and have been a victim of) that tactic, I wrote the product off as dead to me.
Apparently, most of the original developers were hired to start a company called Dorico to compete with Sibelius. I have not tried Dorico.

LilyPond is permanently on my shit-list. I needed it for a project and the installation process wounded my Mac so severely that I had to restore from ground zero.
posted by plinth at 1:24 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]

There is a Facebook page called “A meme page to check every time Sibelius crashes”. Enjoy!
posted by misterpatrick at 1:55 PM on December 5

I don't use Sibellus and thought this was going to be a bunch of minor quibbling, but damn, that is really horrible.
posted by bongo_x at 3:59 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]

Pro Tools is actually great, and though it's had ups and downs seems to be on the right course.
Weird that their other programs have such a hard time.
posted by bongo_x at 4:01 PM on December 5

Yeah, every Pro Tools release since 12.6 has been excellent. HD/Ultimate is still fiendishly overpriced.

I've been meaning to post this video here! It came up in my feed a couple weeks ago leading to real deep dive into the guy's (underappreciated) channel. Go look, and throw some likes his way.
posted by Evstar at 4:25 PM on December 5

musescore is free, with a bit of a learning curve, but does everything I need so there's that
posted by gorbichov at 6:00 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]

o ho ho ho ha ha hoo ha ho ho, oh, yeah, oh geez
posted by mwhybark at 6:25 PM on December 5

When I just want to get notes out of my head, I log in to Noteflight and start emptying. It's very straightforward and robust and has always been able to accommodate whatever crazy musical idea I have at the moment.
posted by vverse23 at 9:13 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]

I'll give a shout-out to NoteFlight, a web-based music notation editor that works in any browser. The free version is nearly fully-featured for up to 10 scores; the subscription version is $8/month ($50/year) and adds the ability to notate from a MIDI keyboard.

I've been a long-time Sibelius user, but NoteFlight grabbed me for two reasons: it's easier to use for simple scores, and since it's on the web, you can share scores with friends and collaborators (even people without subscriptions), and everyone can view, edit, and play the same scores without worrying about version compatibility! (which is a problem with Sibelius in practice since everybody has a different old version from when they went to college.)

Sibelius certainly has the advantage over NoteFlight if you want to write for an entire orchestra, or if you want precise control over the layout of every element. But NoteFlight is fully-featured for my needs (4- to 8-part choral arrangements with accompaniment and percussion), and so much easier to use that I've forgotten all the years of tricks I learned for dealing with Sibelius.
posted by purple_frogs at 9:18 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]

@vverse23, looks like we had the same thought at the same time.

I should add: NoteFlight saves and reads MusicXML so you can cross-port scores to and from Sibelius. The formatting isn't exact, of course, but as long as you aren't picky about the layout details, it's perfectly adequate. I've never had a problem with the conversion except in scores that have more than 1 lyric line.
posted by purple_frogs at 9:28 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]

Wolfdog, you have my full sympathies. I made a CD's worth of music 20 years ago ... using Opcode's wonderful Studio Vision ... constantly suffering hardware and OS limitations. It took me a year, and only about 30% of that was music-making. Nothing else can grind away so much musical inspiration and experimentation.

The MIDI parts had been the easiest parts; MIDI (a free and unpatented standard) generally worked without problems, and there were a half-dozen shareware/freeware editors to pick between ... including a couple of gems.

Long story shorter: A few years later, after the teeth-grinding was over, Opcode had gone out of business, Vision AND the MIDI sharewares stopped working on Macs, and Apple had eliminated serial ports (and the value of half my hardware).

So, logically, eternal optimist, I got a new iMac. Since full Logic Pro cost $1000 a pop at the time, I bought Logic Express for $400. Guess what ... I didn't read the fine print closely enough; there was NO MIDI EDITOR in the 'Express' version. (What 'Apple Genius' decided that only PROs used MIDI?)

Thanks to the video-maker for the deserved lacerations. Beware, many of these companies -don't care-. Insist on trying before buying!
posted by Twang at 9:51 PM on December 5

(which is a problem with Sibelius in practice since everybody has a different old version from when they went to college.)

I'm not sure why, exactly, but I still have my original Finale 3 box and the three giant manuals, even though I don't think I've owned a working computer that could even run it in over a decade, and I haven't touched it in two.

Is Finale any better? I don't have first-hand experience so I can't say, but I'm pretty sure certain formatting things, especially as it relates to creating parts from an orchestral score, are a right pain in the... side, from the reactions and comments of arrangers when I ask for edited parts.

There are particular hassles of Finale I still remember even though I haven't seriously touched it in over twenty years (eep). Extracting parts was fraught with peril, and the stupid "smart figures" thing always failed to place ties properly when they crossed bar lines. Creating and editing scores always took at least three passes. One to enter the voices, one to fix weird transposition errors (whenever it picked a sharp or a flat for a given accidental it always seemed to be wrong), and one to go in and drag all the start and endpoints of all the ties and phrase marks, fix stem directions, and so on. That joke in software about how the first 20% of the work takes 80% of the time, and then the remaining 80% also takes 80% of the time? It could also be about editing scores in Finale.

I arranged the music for my sister's wedding and I could see the hired professionals (string quartet plus trumpet) tense up when I handed them what they assumed to be the average sort of work they could expect from a recent college student. After playing through the first arrangement I could see them visibly relax when they realized I'd actually done a bunch of cleanup after generating the parts. I was still nervous about the pizzicato section in one piece (both concern for whether I got the notation right and fear it might not be playable as written), but they were very encouraging.
posted by fedward at 8:09 AM on December 6 [2 favorites]

« Older Slow Earthquake   |   The Tulalip Tribes bet big on beavers Newer »

You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.