Sibelius is one of the industry standard tools for composing and transcribing music, while Pro Tools is one of the industry standard digital audio workstations for audio producers and engineers alike. In this tutorial, we’ll look at how to combine these two complex tools into a production workflow.
A Quick Overview of Sibelius and Pro Tools
Sibelius is music notation software, used primarily by composers to easily write music. It allows you to either hand-draw notes with your keyboard and mouse, or record in MIDI data from external devices such as a MIDI controller. It has significant functionality to make the life of a composer easier, and most composers will track out their songs or compositions with each instrument on a separate track. They will then send this off to a producer or an engineer to achieve a virtual piece that has realistic production values, before possibly live-recording it with true instrumentation.
Pro Tools has functionality built in to work directly with Sibelius files, and this can make it much easier than bouncing your Sibelius file out to MIDI each time and re-importing it. Because Pro Tools has expanded VST (through FXpansion) and RTAS support, along with superior audio production functionality, it is used primarily in HD form by recording studios around the world.
So, in this tutorial, we’ll take a look at composing music in Sibelius, and then how to take that composition into Pro Tools and achieve realistic orchestral values with East West Quantum Leap’s symphonic orchestra.
The first step is to open up Sibelius. If you’re using the default configuration, it will pop up a window like shown below. Here, we can open a recent file, or we can start a new project. Here, let’s choose ‘Start a New Score’.
Now, we’re presented with a dialog that wants to know what kind of manuscript paper to use. Basically, there a bunch of presets in Sibelius that already have various instruments included. For example, if we know that we’re working on an orchestral piece, we might choose “Orchestral, Classical”. Of course, we can always add, remove or edit instruments later, but a preset helps save some time. Let’s choose Orchestral, Classical.
Now, we can either click Next, or Finish. If we just want to start working, we can click finish, if we click next, we’ll get more options to configure our sheet music. First, we can choose House Style, which is basically like a visual style for the music, controlling fonts and sizes. Next, we have a more important choice of Tempo and Time Signature, followed by Key Signature with both major and minor keys, and lastly, a Score Information panel where we can put our name, and other information. Lastly, click Finish once you have your configuration set, for this, I’ve kept all the default settings.
Now, we’ve reached the main workstation. Depending on your configuration and Sibelius version, you should see a few things. First, is your playback controls. These are similar to any DAW, where you can start, stop, rewind, add a metronome, and more. Then, you should see a Keypad window, which allows you to select the active tool, whether it’s the move tool, or adding notes.
Next, there is a Navigator window, which allows you to move between pages of your score, which is very helpful for lengthy pieces of music. And finally, you have the toolbar at the top with all sorts of options, many of which are redundant between the panels.
Now, as sort of my own preference on how to learn things, we’re going to cover 3 key things. The first, is how to add notes by yourself with your keyboard and mouse. The second is how to record from an external MIDI device. Lastly, we’re going to open a MIDI file into Pro Tools and then bounce it out to Sibelius, so we can see what’s going on.
First, we can add a note as follows: Go to your keypad mini-window, and click on the quarter note symbol (if you don’t know which symbol that is, mouse over the various buttons and Sibelius will display helpful tooltips.
Now, choose a track to add the notes to. I’m going to add them to Violin I. Now, let’s compose out the famous Ode to Joy melody, which is as follows (for beginners at least): E, E, F, G, G, F, E, D, C, C, D, E, E, D, D. So, using our knowledge of the notes of the treble clef (FACE for the spaces from bottom to top, and EGBDF for the lines from bottom to top), let’s add the notes.
Now, the observant student will notice that I’ve made a mistake, and that is, the quarter rest should be between E and the final two Ds of the phrase. I did this on purpose, so now I have an excuse to show you the move tool. Often, when composing by hand, you’ll make mistakes like these, for example, a note will need to be moved in pitch or in time. You’ll also notice that Sibelius was nice enough as we clicked and added these notes, it did the math for us and converted the rests from whole to half to quarter for us.
So now, to move a note, it’s quite simple, but actually figuring it out in Sibelius can be tricky because the interface isn’t quite as intuitive as one would hope. You can’t actually click and drag notes to move them, instead, you have to cut or copy and paste them. Personally, this one of my least favorite features of Sibelius. What you end up having looks like the below. If you’re stuck with 3 quarter notes and a quarter rest, click the 2nd note and then click the eighth note icon in the keypad. This will convert the quarter note to an eighth note, and it will add an eighth rest. Then, you can copy paste the quarter note and eighth rest into the proper positions.
Okay, well that’s all great, but this is a painstaking and time consuming process, and most of us would probably prefer to play from a MIDI controller. Luckily, Sibelius is great at this, however I must warn you, if you are not a good piano player, this can create a bit of a mess in your score. So, save our current document as “Ode to Joy.sib”, flip on your MIDI controller, and restart Sibelius. On the Quick Start screen, load Ode to Joy back up.
If this is your first time using your MIDI controller with Sibelius, you will probably have to configure it. So, to do this, go to your Preferences, choose Input Devices, and Find New Input Devices. Then, hit some keys on your keyboard, and see if the Test button lights up. Mine does, so I’m good to go. Next, choose the track you want to record on. I’ll choose Violin II, so I will then click on the first bar of the track. Now, when you hit notes, it will instantly start adding them. However, they will still be all the notes that are set in the Keypad. To do live recording, we need to click the Flexi Time Input record button. This will give us one bar of metronome as a pre-count, and then we can start playing. When you’re done, hit stop and check out what Sibelius put for you.
Notice the differences, with a sixteenth rest and a dotted eighth note start the piece, a tie between bar 1 and 2, and another sixteenth note, sixteenth rest and eighth note in bar 4. This is because, despite my basic piano playing abilities, I wasn’t on time for the whole piece. Thus, if your piano skills are shaky, or, you tend to put a bit of groove and improvisation into your playing, you may find yourself with some errors that may or may not to be fixed. As before, there isn’t a problem, you can just change the notes using the keypad.
You can compose the rest of your tune this way in Sibelius, and listen to the playback using basic (or Sibelius Essentials) sounds, and once you’re ready, go to File->Export, MIDI in Sibelius. I’ll cover more about why you had to do this later. Then, move onto the next step where we’ll open it in Pro Tools.
Next, boot up Pro Tools. Closing Sibelius first will really help performance, as Pro Tools tends to eat up a significant amount of RAM. Okay, now we have Pro Tools open, let’s create a Blank Session with the default parameters.
Just create a session with the name of whatever track you’re working on. Now you should have your edit and mix windows open, so it’s time to import a MIDI file, so, grab a MIDI file of your choosing (I’m using a Sibelius-transcribed version of “Rebuilt Jedi Enclave” from Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II).
Click and drag into Pro Tools, and import tempo and key signature with it.
Now, if you go to Window->Score Editor, you’ll see something strangely familiar. That’s because Pro Tools’ score editor is powered by Sibelius technology, with some alterations made. So, we can change or compose directly in Pro Tools, and bounce it to Sibelius format and open it back up in Sibelius. Currently, Pro Tools can’t open Sibelius files directly, but it can import MIDI files so there’s only one extra step. In future versions of Pro Tools, it will likely have the ability to open Sibeilus files directly. However, most recording studios have Sibelius installed, and I suggest you pick up even a basic version of it as it will come in handy if you’re doing any work with composers.
So now, we can easily work on composing in Pro Tools on the fly, or we can work in Sibelius and add in advanced musical elements such as slurs, dynamics, and other articulations. If we compose in Pro Tools, we can send to Sibelius easily by choosing File->Send to Sibelius, or File->Export Sibelius.
But, at the beginning of this tutorial, I mentioned that it is more likely that a composer will give you a Sibelius file or a MIDI file and want you to create a virtual instrument version. So, if you have a MIDI file, you can click and drag directly, but if you have a Sibelius file, simply export your file using File->Export, MIDI in Sibelius (you can also do this if you are composing your own work). Now, we have our file open in Pro Tools.
Ignoring the names of the regions (the whole piece was extracted from the Piano track), we can now use EWQL to assign instruments to our tracks. So, let’s start with the brass. If you have a reference of what the piece should sound like, it’s nice to give that a listen. Then, navigate to your mix window, create a New Audio Track, and then insert EWQL (or any other VST) onto the audio track. Next, assign some instruments, for example, I have 4 Trombones Long Portato for my first Brass Track, Double Basses (actually a string for my first duplicate of the brass track), French Horns for my second duplicate, and then a Harp, and Violas.
Then, on each MIDI track, I assign the IO to the specific channel of EWQL that corresponds to that instrument. Next, all I have to do is hit play, and enjoy the virtual studio orchestra with great production values (even notice that this is without any mixing, mastering or effects added).
Now, let’s listen to the MIDI version that we had, and also an audio version from Sibelius (using Sibelius Sound Essentials).
You should notice that the MIDI gives little impression of realism, because it is standard operating system instruments in playback, whereas Sibelius gives a bit of a natural feel but still leaves much to be desired. Lastly, the Pro Tools with VST playback can be tweaked so as to convince listeners that they are hearing a true classical orchestra (or other live instruments), and fool all but trained ears.
In this tutorial, we looked at how Sibelius and Pro Tools can be used by composers and audio producers, and how audio producers and engineers should be familiar with the key concepts of Sibelius to use it in a production workflow. Sibelius is a powerful tool for composing, and even though Pro Tools has Sibelius technology built into the Score Editor, it lacks some of the more powerful functions that Sibelius itself offers. However, with Pro Tools’ superior audio technology and VST/RTAS support, it is wise to combine the best elements of both programs into your workflow.
My personal recommendation for people interested in this type of production, to grab some of your favorite musical works, and transcribe the music (or download files online, for those who don’t want to bother with transcription), and then try to achieve a realistic production sound in your favorite DAW, as it is great practice for understanding instrumentation, arranging, and the finer points of music.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, and if you have any questions or tutorial suggestions that you’d like to see, from Pro Tools, Ableton Live or Sibelius, let me know in the comments.