Music Access

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Sibelius 7 Review

Sibelius Software recently announced the release of the latest version of their flagship product. Dan Rugman takes a closer look at what visually impaired users can expect.

There are lot of changes in this new version; the entire user interface has been redesigned to give it a more unified look and feel. However, die hard users of previous versions should have no problem adapting to this new approach, in fact, some may be grateful for this cleaner environment.

One important thing to notice is the minimum requirements for this version: XP is not supported (the installer won’t even run on XP). Users who cannot upgrade need have no fear though, Sibelius 6 will still be supported by Sibelius Access.

But what’s the situation for visually impaired users?

The good news is that Sibelius have made a real effort to improve the accessibility of this latest release. It’s not perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the task of making an application this large, on top of a complete interface redesign, is no small undertaking.

The Ribbon

One of the biggest changes is the adoption of a ribbon menu similar to that in Office 2007. Sibelius’ attempt at this fluid interface is actually more predictable than the frequently erratic Office version, and it consolidates aspects of the Sibelius interface which were previously scattered across several dialogs into one place.

Most importantly, the ribbon is accessible to at least two screen readers, although some controls will take a little getting used to. One nice feature is the filter controls alongside the gallery views which set the gallery to only show particular types of item; very useful if you only need a hairpin line and don’t want to trawl through the hundred plus options available.

The controls in the ribbon also come with help messages, although these can be rather distracting once you’ve heard them for the first time. They’re also spoken before the state of the control, which means that you’ll always have time to think up another bar whilst you wait to hear if a checkbox is checked.

JAWS bites back

One of JAWS’ more annoying habits is to interfere with standard navigation keystrokes, and this is never more apparent than when trying to navigate the score. Pressing control with the up arrow key will definitely not have the expected result, and JAWS will try to treat the score as a table every time any navigation keys are used whilst holding down the control and alt keys.

This can be worked around by using JAWS’ pass key through feature – pressing the number three with the insert key – but a more practical solution is to just use NVDA instead.

What’s this?

The one really impressive feature is the simple messages spoken that describe items as you select them in the score. To be more technical, Sibelius feeds simple descriptions of items into the MSAA properties of the score window which most screen readers should pick up automatically. They certainly work with both JAWS and NVDA.

These messages are very simple – articulations and other less common modifications are not announced – which will no doubt be a problem for those who take a salt and pepper approach to nuance.

Just the facts mam

Those who are used to working at high speeds and prefer to have their information presented in tablet form will most likely find these messages too verbose. This is not surprising since developers working on accessibility solutions spend half their time being told to make it stop talking. The way in which complex rhythms are described is also rather interesting.

The Sibelius developers should not take this negativity to heart; no one ever said accessibility was easy. It may take a little time to find the balance between terseness and exactness, but this is certainly a good start.

Now for the bad news

Unfortunately, there are also some issues with this new release which will prove problematic for users who like to dig deep.

Some controls are proving to be remarkably shy where screen readers are concerned. Most noticeable are edit boxes, which are announced when you tab into them, but which remain stubbornly taciturn when editing the text; and tables of items, which don’t reveal the name of the selected item at all. There’s also a problem with JAWS not always speaking the messages in popup dialogs, although these dialogs are predictable enough for experienced users to not be put off by it.

No Voice-Over

Sibelius 7 will not work with Apple’s Voice-Over.

Some of these issues are down to Nokia’s QT, the cross-platform development tool which Sibelius Software is now using. The problem with QT edit boxes is known in other applications, as is its lack of Voice-Over support.

Final Analysis

The end result is a bit of a mixed bag from an accessibility point of view. Sibelius’ commitment to accessibility is to be applauded – some users will be delighted by the messages in the score – however, the change in technologies is causing problems which will trip up the screen readers. There’s also the limitation that will stop the XP die hards from upgrading. That having been said, non-JAWS users may finally have the chance to use Sibelius with more confidence.

So what about Sibelius Access?

There is still a need for access to Sibelius 6. Some of the inaccessible features in Sibelius 7 are not currently scriptable and can only be accessed through the previous version. There’s also the fact that many users are still running XP, while others will simply be unable to afford the cost of the upgrade such as students and those dependent on grants.

New users wanting access to the features in Sibelius 6 need have no fear that it will be unobtainable. Sibelius have made a downgrade path available so that those who purchase Sibelius 7 can download a copy of Sibelius 6 directly from their website.

Versions of Sibelius Access for Sibelius 6 and 7 have been in development for some time now, so Sibelius 6 users will not be left in the cold, and those who want to take the plunge will get better access to some of the less friendly parts of Sibelius 7. Announcements of forth-coming releases will follow shortly. There will also be a series of articles on how to get the most out of Sibelius 7.