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Finale: Not dead, just resting

Posted: 14 Feb 2019, 14:13
by benwiggy
One of the first music notation software packages was SCORE, developed for mainframes in the 1970s, before being released for DOS in 1986. To this day, a small band of devoted users still swear by this venerable software as ‘the best’, and they maintain ancient hardware to run it, or use virtual machines to emulate the necessary environment. The software is no longer for sale and is not maintained. This devotion could be seen as admirable, or quaint, possibly obstinate and perhaps even irrational.

In September 2018, Finale turned 30 years old. This is an impressive lifespan for any software: the other survivors of a similar age are all heavyweight professional products, like Photoshop and Quark XPress, with large commercial userbases. Finale’s life-cycle can be roughly split into 3 decades. During its first decade, computers were limited in their capabilities, but there remained a pioneer spirit of what could be achieved; and an acceptance of the limitations when they hampered progress. Finale was the cutting-edge, professional notation app.

Finale’s second decade (1999 - 2009) saw the product develop and mature with a range of new and useful features; but it also brought competition in the form of Sibelius, which describes itself as ‘the world’s largest selling music notation program’. While sales figures are not known, around 12,000 people joined the petition to “Save Sibelius” in 2012, and that's likely to represent a small fraction of the userbase. It’s reasonable to say that almost all professional music publishing has been undertaken using either Finale and Sibelius in this time. Sibelius remains in the market as the alternative (or even first choice).

Finale spent at least two-thirds of its third decade focusing its energies on ‘under-the-hood’ changes that were imperative to make the app compatible with modern computer environments: Unicode, 64-bit, and a better file format. While these tasks were essential, though time-consuming, their results were largely invisible to the user. At the same time, a number of features were removed, where they were seldom used (some plug-ins), a drain on resources (video support), or controversial (SmartScore Lite).

2018 brought the first significant improvement to notation for many years, in the shape of articulation ‘stacking’ and collision avoidance with slurs. Apart from an enhancement to the handling of rests and accidentals in Layers (2014?), you’d have to go back to Finale 2011 (released in 2010) to find any major revision to the software’s notation handling (Lyrics, Staff hiding and positioning).

It’s not all been bad: the same decade has also seen some highly inventive plug-ins from third-party developers, like Jari Williamsson, that have done away with many of the tedious and repetitive processes to which Finale users had become accustomed.

But this was really a decade of treading water, rather than progress. In the same time period, open-source software such as Lilypond and MuseScore has also been developed, and this has eaten away at the market for casual use and been taken up by those for whom cost is an issue, including academic institutions. In 2016, MuseScore reported 7,000 downloads per day. In 2017, MuseScore 2.0.3 was used to produce an edition of Bach transcriptions by Leonhardt, published by Baerenreiter. MuseScore 3, released last year, highlights collision avoidance as its main feature.

The last three years have also seen the release and development of Dorico, the “next-generation” notation app written by the sacked Sibelius development team. The pace at which new features have been added, and the attention to detail of the features, has been impressive. Other commercial apps capable of notation, like Notion and StaffPad, have also appeared on desktops and tablets, each with their own targeted market segment.
Finale is no longer the only game in town: it is no longer even one of two equals, the choice of which might be an entirely subjective preference.

Finale can still do some things that these rival products cannot do: Finale appeals to the obsessive: it allows the user to fuss over every single item. This is surely why it has succeeded for so long. However, the user should not really need to fuss over every item. “Have the option to”: yes. But “need to”? No. The point of computers is to do the tedious and repetitive work for us.
  • There is no vertical spacing to speak of.
  • Apart from the recent feature for slurs and artics, there is no collision avoidance between any other items: notes on adjacent staves; lyrics and notes; expressions and dynamics; rehearsal marks and bar numbers; floating rests and other notes.
  • The spacing of multiple voices in a staff is poor.
  • Manual adjustments are often ‘fragile’.
  • There are still some painful limitations to Linked Parts and Cues.
  • Its age weighs heavily upon it, with an ancient and Byzantine interface.
  • It still has a size limit of 32,767 active frames, no doubt from some fundamental statement deep in the bowels of its original data structures.
  • There are bugs that date back to the previous century.
  • Plug-ins such as Patterson Beams (and Beam Over Barlines) should be core functionality, and not require manual execution by the user.
Each of us will have our own list of pet annoyances, with ‘workarounds’ deeply engrained into our daily practices. But if Finale can only address one of these major failings in each yearly update, then that's several years before Finale will be where the others already are. The early months of previous years have seen an ‘A’ update to the annual release, bringing more bug fixes and a few additional features, but there seems to be no sign of this in 2019.

Finale has two lifelines: legacy and inertia. Publishers and users will have up to 30 years of Finale files that they may need to use, either continually or occasionally. While XML transfer allows data movement to other software, it inevitably requires clean-up, re-working and re-proofing. Many users have grown accustomed to Finale with all its problems, and find the prospect of learning new paradigms and workflows unpalatable, no matter what the benefits might be. It also has the SmartMusic educational app, which may lure teachers and students towards Finale.

In ten years' time, I would love to write about Finale's fourth decade of "renaissance". However, while Finale has not yet reached the same status of ‘abandonware’ as SCORE, I suspect that it will continue in much the same way: with a steadfast group of loyal users, who are able to achieve the same results as they have always done, with the same methods and the same amount of effort. As with SCORE, this devotion could be seen as admirable, or quaint, possibly obstinate and perhaps even irrational.

Re: Finale: Not dead, just resting

Posted: 14 Feb 2019, 17:15
by Florian
Nicely put, Ben, really.
I wonder whether Philip Rothman would be interested in publishing this on Scoringnotes. Then again, it’s perhaps a little too provocative (or rather, honest?).

Re: Finale: Not dead, just resting

Posted: 14 Feb 2019, 22:56
by John Ruggero
I just hope Finale hangs around long enough to apply the necessary pressure to Dorico to add the things that prevent me from using it. What Dorico does, it does superbly; what it can't do is often impossible to implement with a workaround. And inflexibility is an issue with Dorico, not just a MakeMusic slogan, starting with those panels stuck to the sides of the score.

Re: Finale: Not dead, just resting

Posted: 15 Feb 2019, 09:23
by benwiggy
John Ruggero wrote:
14 Feb 2019, 22:56
starting with those panels stuck to the sides of the score.
Command (or CTRL) 0 to show/hide the panels.
A pattern in Dorico's updates is emerging of basic or limited capability to start with, followed by increased flexibility at a later date. I'd be surprised if commercial pressure from Finale was a significant driver of Dorico's dev roadmap.

The OP was never intended to be a paean to Dorico. Using it has certainly been an epiphany of what I could or should expect from notation software. But Finale's problems are what they are regardless.
Commercial publishers will pay the going rate to use whatever tool gives them the best results quickly -- and there are plenty of other tools. Home users and students will need a reason to buy a commercial product, when the open-source version is sufficient. Finale is being assailed at both ends of its market, and it needs to have something to offer. "Reasons to use Finale" exist, of course: but those reasons are decreasing or being mitigated.

I've spent the last seven years as a beta-tester, giving MM lists of feature requests, UI improvements, and bugs to be fixed. As have many others. No one can say they don't know what needs doing. But making large changes to the UI would actually turn their core customers against them! Who can forget the outrage over the introduction of Expression Categories, which are hugely useful.

Re: Finale: Not dead, just resting

Posted: 15 Feb 2019, 23:53
by John Ruggero
benwiggy wrote:
15 Feb 2019, 09:23
Command (or CTRL) 0 to show/hide the panels.
But I NEED those panels, and I need to arrange them on two monitors so that I can work more productively in Dorico.

In my opinion, Finale, despite its imperfections, still sets the bar for GUI music engraving. While the Dorico team is clearly motivated by achieving excellence and preeminence in the field, I think that the fact that Finale exists applies pressure, in the sense that they know that there will not be universal acceptance of Dorico until it can do everything Finale can do and more, and do it more easily. Given the demonstrated dedication of the Dorico team, I have no doubt that this will happen. For my own sake, I hope that it will happen this year, rather than next or the year after.