Nuanced, More Expressive Playback Features in Sibelius 7.5

By in Music Creation, Notation

This is one in a series of Sibelius articles to help you learn how the Sibelius music notation family provides composers of all levels with the session management tools needed to handle large projects and collaborate with other artists, engineers, and facilities.


I’ve had a connection to Sibelius ever since my dad started working for the company in its Burleigh Street office in Cambridge, UK. My first job was to stuff envelopes for a mailshot — I hardly recall, but obviously I didn’t do such a bad job, since I’ve gradually worked my way through the ranks of registrations, (now ScoreExchange), and then technical support (as well as the move to Hills Road, Finsbury Park, the acquisition by Avid, and subsequent move toPinewood Studios). Somewhere in between (or perhaps the other way around), I’ve also woven in a degree in music from Leeds University, and I’m now in the final months of a Masters in Jazz Percussion from Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Now as Product Designer for the Sibelius family of products, I’m excited to be part of the team developing the next generation of music composition and scoring tools.

I’d like to introduce you to the new playback features that are shipping with Sibelius 7.5. We’ve updated the algorithm responsible for interpreting musical phrasing — known as Espressivo  to version 2.0. Sibelius now intelligently analyses the notes of your phrase in order to decide how it should be expressed. The result is that playback is now smoother and more lifelike.

We’ve switched it on by default in Sibelius 7.5 in new scores, so all you have to do to hear it in action is start a new score, complete your masterpiece (or just part of it), and hit the spacebar to start playing. More options for controlling Espressivo 2.0 are found in the Play tab > Performance dialog (below); you can also switch on Espressivo 2.0 from this dialog when you’re working on your old scores (recommended).

The Playback Performance dialog allows you to customize Sibelius' playback behaviour.

Sibelius now subtly emphasises onbeat notes in the way that a human being would, even allowing you to define different levels of emphasis between pitched and unpitched instruments. Mordents are now interpreted during playback, and ruffs, drags and flams are now interpreted more musically on unpitched staves (for the drummers amongst you).

Here’s a quick snare drum example I put together so you can hear what I mean:

And a rendering of one of our demo scores, Liebesträume, which you can hear from within Sibelius by opening Piano Solo.sib from your Sibelius example scores folder:

In both examples, playback is more rounded and realistic — the snare drum grace notes lead naturally into the note, and the inner melody shines through in the Liszt, without sounding too mechanical.

New Rhythmic Feels

With Sibelius 7.5, we decided to make Sibelius’ interpretation of rhythmic feel much more customisable. Sibelius now lets you decide how your music should be interpreted, including the divisions of the beat, dynamic emphasis, and even whether the note should be placed early (giving a pushy, surging feel) or late (giving a laid back, lazy feel).

You can customise these from the Play tab > Dictionary > System Text or Staff text (rhythmic feel can now be controlled on a per-instrument basis using staff text, see below). We’ve provided a few default rhythmic feels, too, as a starting point, but you can also define your own dictionary entries, with your own custom playback effects. The net result is that you can create your score, using musical directives that suit you, and Sibelius obediently recreates your score as you imagined it. Sibelius 7.5 playback realism and dynamism gets you closer more quickly than ever before, ready to demo to your client, director, or otherwise adoring fans.

Sibelius' playback dictionary, allowing you to customise how Sibelius interprets just about anything on your score

Fine Rhythmic Subdivision Control

Sibelius 7.5 also allows you to define how notes that are shorter than the adjusted subdivision (a quaver in the example above) should be treated. In previous editions of Sibelius using swing feel, for example, semiquavers would always be divided proportionally to the swung quaver, giving rise to a slightly odd effect.

Sibelius 7.5 now gives you three options:

  • Unchanged — exactly what it says on the tin. The rhythmic feel will have no affect on note values that are shorter than the adjusted subdivision.
  • Double-time — affects only notes that are exactly half the length of the adjusted subdivision, which is perfect for double-time swing. In the example above, that means that semiquavers are played as double time swing — great for jazz!
  • Proportional — what old versions of Sibelius used to do, apparently giving rise to the insult in certain jazz circles, “you swing like Sibelius” (although, I confess I’ve never heard or used that myself!). Joking aside, the proportional setting is still useful for some waltz styles, but most jazz players will prefer either unchanged or double-time.

If you’re pressed for time (no pun intended), Sibelius 7.5 also includes new built-in presets, available from the Play tab >Performance > Rhythmic feel menu, so you can start experimenting with the new options right away.


Different Rhythmic Feels for Each Instrument

Sibelius 7.5 now allows you to apply a rhythmic feel per instrument — you’re no longer confined to a global setting. For example, in a big band arrangement, you might want the rhythm section bang on the beat, whilst having the horns labour behind. Sibelius 7.5 lets you do that (and the new swing styles make it feel even closer to the real thing, too).


Updates to Sibelius 7 Sounds

We’ve also been able to squeeze in some updates to the Sibelius 7 Sounds library (the 36GB sounds library that is bundled with every copy of Sibelius 7.5):

  • Organ stops now more easily accessible with new key switches for the Skinner Organ
  • New smart knobs that add a three band EQ to Clarinet, Solo Violin, Viola, ‘Cello and Bass
  • Balanced the falls, doits, plops, scoops and growls for the jazz horn samples
  • Panning improvements on several other instruments
  • New sound sets to allow the simultaneous use of Sibelius 7 Sounds with Sibelius 6 Sounds Essentials, or Sibelius Sounds Choral

The Garritan Personal Orchestra 4 sound set has also been improved in Sibelius 7.5.


How Does This Help You?

Ultimately, whilst these new features are good fun to play with, we hope they’re also useful to our users in realising and communicating their music more quickly, and more accurately than ever before.

With Sibelius 7.5, you spend less time distracted by playback, and more time creating. Our aim is to make it easier for composers, arrangers and typesetters alike to “get the job done” as quickly and efficiently as possible — hopefully these new playback enhancements go some way toward that.

Of course, the job isn’t finished; there’s plenty more that we can add in the future. We welcome user feedback and feature suggestions on the Sibelius Feedback Community, the Sibelius Help Center, or even Avid Sibelius on Twitter and Avid Sibelius Facebook Page.  Sam Butler, senior product manager, and I keep a regular eye on our Sibelius communities, so it’s a good place to have your voice heard.

I hope you’ve found this post useful — thanks for reading. Make sure you check out the other posts from this series, and the brilliant Get Started Fast with Avid Sibelius 7.5 tutorial videos too.

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Sibelius product designer, drummer, percussionist, and musician. I'm looking forward to building on the excellent foundation of Sibelius.