Improving Tremolo Playback in Sibelius 6 & 7 & Alternate Playback Methods

Q: I would like to use three line tremolos for all unmeasured tremolos, and have them always play back correctly. Properly notated (on printed page) three line tremolos for timpani, drum rolls, and mallet percussion play back (somewhat) correctly at faster tempos, but sound like an M1919 Browning machine gun at slower tempos.

The four line tremolo (called “16 tremolos”) typically sounds best for strings, but I want to use the three line tremolo for unmeasured tremolo, which is visually correct. Is there a workaround to achieve (reasonably) proper playback of both, without co-opting an incorrect looking symbol on the printed page? I don’t want to have to use the alternate 16 tremolos (4-line), or 32 tremolos (5-line) for correct playback.

A: Yes. By default, Sibelius plays back three stroke tremolos as “8 tremolos”, which means that it is simply subdividing the note it is attached to 8 times. At faster tempos, this can sound ok, but this quantized “fast measured” effect sounds patently incorrect at slower tempos. I think the percussive 30 caliber M1919 Browning analogy is a good one.

This is a case where the software has introduced a possible bad habit for young composers and arrangers, because in order to get correct playback by default, one has to resort to using the 4 or 5 stroke tremolos.

Elaine Gould, in her book “Behind Bars” (page 224), states “The standard indication for unmeasured tremolo is three tremolo strokes.”

So, how can we get these three stroke tremolos to play back properly? Let’s take a look.

Playback of articulations (and many other objects) are controlled in the Sibelius Dictionary. In Sibelius 6, the tremolos are found in Play > Dictionary > Articulations. In Sibelius 7, locate the Dictionary in the Interpretation group of the Play tab, then navigate to Articulations.

In the Articulations panel of the Playback Dictionary, you will see Articulations in the left pane and a corresponding set of Effects in the right pane. By default, when you choose the articulation called “8 tremolos” (that’s the three stroke tremolo in Sibelius), you will see that the definition is to “Play repeated notes: subdivide 8 times”:

You’ll note that no Sound ID change is defined for the 8 tremolos articulation. We’ll address that in a moment. If you click on “Subdivide” you will see an option to change the effect to “Unmeasured”. Redefine “8 tremolos” to be unmeasured:

While we are here, we also want to specify unmeasured tremolo in Sibelius’ SoundWorld language, using a Sound ID change. That way, if the current sample playback library has an unmeasured trem or roll sample for this instrument, Sibelius will use that sample as its first choice. The easiest way enter this text is via copy and paste. Copy the sound ID text “+tremolo.unmeasured” from the “16 tremolos” or “32 tremolos” articulation:

…then paste it into the sound ID change for 8 tremolos. Note that we have to retype or copy and paste this particular sound ID because it isn’t available as a standard effect option in the sound ID popup list.

The Sibelius dictionary utilizes a proprietary “fallback” system for categorizing sounds, called SoundWorld™. The idea of SoundWorld is that Sibelius will always choose the best and most suitable sound available on whatever the current SoundSet happens to be (if said sample library is mapped to the sound set). If you are working with a high end sample library and Sibelius, visit The SoundSet Project for more information.

At this point, you can save the current file as a Manuscript Paper or a House Style (the first Import option is the Playback Dictionary), so you can enjoy these tremolo settings in other scores.

That’s it! That’s all there is to it!

While the above solution will probably be sufficient for most users, you may find that you actually prefer the precision of the default “8 tremolos” setting for percussion at faster tempos, while at the same time, want true unmeasured playback for strings. What to do?


For this method, start by notating the passage as normal, with three line tremolos (keypad 3) on all the notes you desire.

We’re going to take advantage of the fact that Sibelius 6 & 7 offers users the choice of whether individual tremolos play back, on a case by case basis. This control is found in the Inspector of Sibelius 7, or the Properties panel of Sibelius 6. In Sibelius 7, the Inspector is found in the Edit Group of the Home Tab. In Sibelius 6, choose Properties from the Windows menu. Note that in Sibelius 7, you can also right click on a selection and choose the Inspector from the popup list. The Tremolo > Play setting becomes accessible when a note or passage with tremolos is selected:

You can now selectively turn off “normal” (or default) playback for any tremolos you want, by un-checking the box next to Tremolo that is marked “Play” (seen above). Now, skip down to the section titled “Playback, actually”.


This workaround uses two different versions of the visible three-stroke tremolo that play back differently; there are a number of steps to setting this up,  but if you actually need two different playback behaviors for the same three stroke tremolo, this works, so bear with me. Take a deep breath, here we go:

For this case, leave the Sibelius default three-stroke tremolo as it is – as an “8 tremolos” measured trem.

Go into Edit Symbols. In Sibelius 6, this is found in House Styles > Edit Symbols. In Sibelius 7, locate the Edit Symbols button in the Symbols Group of the Notations Tab.

Once in the Edit Symbols dialog, scroll down to the User Defined category, select the first available slot, and click the Edit button.

There is no three-stroke tremolo symbol in Sibelius per se. Sibelius creates the various strokes on the fly from the single tremolo symbol. In the Symbol Editor, choose the Special Symbols music font in the dialog, and then type “190” in the number field. This should select the single tremolo slash.

Now, in the Extra Symbols section of the dialog, click the “Add” button and add the two additional tremolo strokes. The distance between each stroke should be .75 spaces. For instance the vertical positioning of the first added slash should be .75 spaces, and the second added slash should be 1.5 spaces (with the main tremolo slash set to zero) :

Once you ok the dialog you will see your new symbol in the User Defined section of the Symbols dialog.

For your convenience, I have created the three stroke tremolo symbol above in a Sibelius 6 file. Download.

If you are fortunate enough to be using a soundset that already responds to the “+tremolo.unmeasured” Sound ID properly, you can now go into the Playback Dictionary, and define playback for this new symbol as an unmeasured tremolo, being sure to set the Duration of sound ID change to “Until start of next note”:

Apply your new three stroke tremolo symbol to the notes you want, and, as they say in the UK, Bob’s your uncle.

However, take another look at the first and second graphics at the beginning of this post. As you may have noticed, unfortunately, Sibelius doesn’t offer the “if no matching sound ID is available” fallback for Symbols, only for Articulations.

Unless you are using a high end library that responds specifically to sound ID changes, you’ll need a different solution. Before doing anything else, clear the “+tremolo.unmeasured” Sound ID information from this custom three-stroke tremolo, so that it is a graphic symbol only again. There is a more robust solution for playback following.


The solution for both methods above is to use a hidden articulation for playback in tandem with one of the non-playing symbol solutions above. Since we already have the graphic symbol, let’s create the hidden articulation. Go into the Playback Dictionary. Find and select “Custom Articulation 1”. Assign both the Sound ID change and the fallback “Unmeasured”. By default the three Custom Articulations are assigned to “null” or invisible characters:

Now, out in your piece, select the note(s) you want to play back with unmeasured tremolos, and apply the (invisible with playback) Custom Articulation 1 from the fourth keypad:

Play back the passage to make sure the hidden Custom Articulation tremolos are playing back correctly (and invisibly).

Remember, for the visible tremolo symbol(s), you should have already applied either the alternate User Defined Symbol, or unchecked Tremolo / Play in the Inspector / Properties for the notes which you’ve applied the hidden Custom Articulation.

It’s important to note that the *only* way you know whether these invisible articulations for playback are assigned to specific notes is to select the region, then look to see if the Custom Articulation in the 4th keypad is highlighted. Use invisible Custom Articulations with caution!

for Hans K. Kirsch


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