Upgrading Software: Is It Worth The Expense?

By James Frankel

 

            In the past few years it seems as though many music software companies have been on an upgrading tear, and like many others, I find myself asking, is it worth upgrading?  Some software companies like Make Music, makers of Finale, are upgrading their products on an annual basis, charging up to $150.00.  Others are waiting a few years, like Harmonic Vision, makers of Music Ace Maestro.  These upgrades can cost music educators thousands of dollars to upgrade a lab full of computers, and many might wonder whether the new features included in the upgrade are worth allocating money from their budgets.

            This article looks at several popular software titles and the upgrades that are available, and attempts to provide insight to help you decide whether the expense of upgrading is worth it.  But firstŠ

 

Oldies But Goodies

 

            Before we get to the new software titles, I think that it is important to note that many of the older ones that are still floating around on computers in classrooms are terrific.  I personally own software that is 15 years old and still is relevant.  My copy of Microsoftıs Musical Instruments is from 1992 and it remains my personal favorite piece of software.  As long as newer computers can still run old software, why retire them?  

            In my own middle school lab I still have versions of software running that are two or three upgrades behind.  They still work and the students can do what I need them to do.  If I had an unlimited software budget, I would upgrade every year, but I do not. 

            The only problem that I sometimes encounter because I donıt always upgrade is that when I use my own laptop to teach a concept and I am running a newer version of the software, there are inconsistencies between what the students see on the projection screen and what they see on their machines.

            The following is a listing of four of the more popular software titles available today that have recently upgraded their product.  Included with each review is a quick overview of the biggest changes to the software, as well as a link to their respective websites that contain free demo versions of the software that I highly recommend downloading before purchasing.

           

Sibelius 4.0

Hybrid (PC/Mac)

 

            Sibelius users waited patiently for the latest version of this extremely popular notation software program.  Unlike Finale, Sibelius upgrades have been less frequent and in some ways more substantial.  With Sibelius 4.0 there are a number of truly outstanding features that completely revolutionize notation software programs.  The upgrade for Sibelius from any previous version is $129.00 (educational price).

            New features of Sibelius 4.0 include:

 

1.     Integration of Video

 

            By far my favorite new feature of Sibelius 4.0 is the integration of video into the compositional process.  For the past few years I have had my students create soundtracks to copyright-free videos that I have found on the Prelinger Film Archives (www.archive.org).  The only problem that I have encountered is that students had to use two different software programs simultaneously to do so (Sibelius and QuickTime).  With the new version of Sibelius, video is now an integrated window that users can open.  This is extremely useful when creating film scores – there is even a time code that the score shows to ensure accurate syncing.  Users simply open the Video window and select ³add video² to open a video within the notation window.

 

2.     Dynamic Parts

 

            Anyone who has used notation software for some time will eventually find quirks within programs that can be troublesome.  One of these quirks that is common among all notation programs is that once you have extracted parts from a full score that you are working on, any further edits that you have on the score do not transfer to the extracted parts.  You must always re-extract the parts if you make any corrections on the original score.  With Dynamic Parts, all of those extracted parts become ³live² which means that any further editing that you do on the original score automatically transfer to the extracted parts.  While this may seem like a trivial upgrade, if you have been using notation software for a while, youıll agree that this is a great timesaving (not to mention confusion-free) feature.

 

3.     Worksheet Creator

 

            Finally Sibelius has hit the nail on the head with educators allowing them to easily access and create fantastic looking customized worksheets with an easy-to-use interface.  In the past, Sibelius users have relied on the pre-made worksheets included with Sibelius Notes to create worksheets for their students.  Sibelius 4.0 includes many of these same worksheets. With the new Worksheet Creator not only does the user have access to over 1700 pre-made types of worksheets, they can also customize each worksheet to fit the needs of their curriculum.  There are also some fantastic posters and reference materials included.  One interesting feature with the Worksheet Creator is that each time you create a worksheet; new examples are created so that you are constantly covering new material.

 

            There are many other new features of Sibelius 4.0.  If youıd like to download a free demo version of the software, visit:

 

www.sibelius.com/download

 

 

Finale 2006

Hybrid (PC/Mac)

 

            Over the past four years the ever-popular notation software package, Finale, has upgraded annually – sometimes twice within the same year.  While some might argue that this is unfair to Finale users (constantly needing to upgrade to stay current), the upgrades consistently make the software easier to use.  The latest version, Finale 2006 has about a dozen new features that many will find important enough to pay the $149.95 (educational/theological price) that allows you to upgrade from any previous version of Finale except finale 2005, or $99.95 to upgrade from Finale 2005. 

            New features of Finale 2006 include:

 

1.     Integrated Garritan Personal Orchestra and Kontakt Player sounds.

 

            These two integrated software synthesizers (soft-synths) will make any composition in Finale 2006 sound much more realistic.  While not the full versions of the soft-synths, there are more than enough sounds to get you started.  The full versions of both the Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO) and Kontakt Player can be purchased separately and used with any notation or sequencing program.  Itıs a very nice extra.

 

2.     Studio View 

 

            Studio View is part of the Educator upgrades, and is perhaps one of the most salient new features in Finale 2006.  Studio View adds the functionality of a powerful multi-track sequencer to any notation file.   It allows you to view each instrument like an individual track in a traditional sequencer, but instead of the piano-roll representation, students see their tracks notated.  Students can also set volume, pan, effects, and patch for each instrument as well.  This new interface creates a composition environment for students that is quite different from the traditional notation software interface, and one that they will enjoy.

 

3.     Tempo Tap

 

            Finale 2006 makes an effort to humanize the playback of its files by including the integrated soft-synths, the Studio View feature, and Tempo Tap.  Tempo Tap allows the composer to tap in the tempo (or tempi) of any piece through the use of either the space bar or on a MIDI keyboard.  This feature allows the composer to create truly human tempo changes.

 

            There are many more new features included with Finale 2006.  If youıd like to download the free demo version of the software, visit:

 

www.finalemusic.com/finale/demo.aspx

 

 

Music Ace Maestro

Hybrid (PC/Mac)

 

            Music Ace Maestro is the latest upgrade from the makers of Music Ace I & II. These software titles have long been the mainstay among CAI software programs that target students in the elementary grades.   Music Ace Maestro combines all of the 48 lessons, games, and the Doodle Pad from Music Ace I & II into one software package. It also includes an extremely useful administration application called Music Ace Maestro Manager that allows teachers to select the material presented to the students and track their progress. Each copy can track up to 240 students, and the network version can track up to 3,600 students using the Manager, including student work from previous versions of Music Ace that are previously installed on the computer.  In addition to the Manager feature there is also an updated Educatorıs Guide, and Mac users will appreciate that Music Ace Maestro is now OSX compatible.             If you already own Music Ace I & II the administrative function is really the only significant new feature.  While it is very useful in keeping track of all of your students, it may not warrant the upgrade.  If you do not yet own Music Ace I & II, I strongly recommend purchasing this software title for your elementary classroom today.

            The pricing of Music Ace Maestro varies.  Suggested retail price of a single copy stands at $127.95, with discounts of up to 60% available to previous Music Ace owners.  Check with your local software provider for more pricing options.

            If youıd like to download the free demo version of the software, visit:

 

http://www.harmonicvision.com/forms/demoform.htm

 

GarageBand 2.0

Macintosh Only

 

            One thing that separates GarageBand from the other products mentioned in this review is that typically it is free with the purchase of any new Apple computer.  For owners of older Macs (myself included) you will need to upgrade to the new version of GarageBand (or iLife ı05) buy purchasing the full iLife ı05 package that retails for $59.00 (educational price).

            The new features of GarageBand 2.0 are well worth the upgrade.  They include:

 

1.     Multi-Track Recording

 

            One of the most useful new features of GarageBand 2.0 is the ability to record up to eight audio tracks simultaneously using additional USB I/O devices (including M-Audioıs iControl or M-Box).    This allows GarageBand 2.0 to become a fully functional eight track digital audio recording studio. 

 

2.     Notation Feature

 

            With GarageBand 2.0, users can now see a notated version of each track that is perfect for using with students.  As GarageBand is a sequencer, it is nice to have the option of seeing each track as written music.  This includes all of the pre-packaged loops that come with the software.  This makes it much easier to edit the parts for those students who are confused by the traditional piano-roll notation that is used by most sequencers.

 

3.     Improved MIDI File Compatibility

 

            With the first version of GarageBand, importing MIDI files from outside sources was sometimes problematic. Garage Band 2.0 has completely resolved this bug.  This allows teachers to have students download MIDI files from sources such as www.classicalarchives.com and have the students add loops and additional tracks to make arrangements of classical tunes. 

 

4.     Enhance Tuning/Timing

 

            Now you can enhance the pitch and timing of tracks that are recorded live using this very useful function.  Within the edit mode, users can select a track (perhaps containing vocals) and click ³Enhance Tuning² to correct minor pitch problems.  There is a slider that allows users to select how much correction theyıd like – the more they use the more obvious it becomes.

            There are some other features included that make this product even stronger than the original version.  Included in iLife ı05 are upgrades to the other software programs within iLife (including iMovie, iTunes, iCal, iDVD) so it is well worth the $59.00 price tag to upgrade.

 

 

A Rule of Thumb For Upgrading

 

            In general, I always try to run the latest version of the software titles that I use on a daily basis.  While some might think that upgrades are purely marketing ploys by software companies to squeeze money out of their customers, almost every upgrade that I have made in the past few years has been well worth the expense.  There is not a software title on the market today that is perfect.  Youıll always find things that could be better. When software companies listen to their customers and fix the problems that they find, the product continually improves which is good for all involved.  The four software upgrades that are mentioned in this article are certainly worth the expense involved. 

            I strongly recommend that you obtain a free demo version of the upgrade and check out the new features for yourself before you purchase a copy.  Ask yourself if the improvements are worth it. 

            As always, if you have any questions, please visit my website: www.jamesfrankel.com or email me at jtfrankel@hotmail.com.