Last week at NAMM Avid announced Sibelius | Cloud Publishing, a new cloud publishing technology based on Sibelius. Shortly after the announcement, I had a chance to speak with Sibelius senior product manager Sam Butler and product designer Joe Pearson about the new product in further detail. The duo was wrapping up their work at NAMM and was about to make the drive north to Avid’s Berkeley, CA offices to meet with their colleagues.
Sam said that the impetus behind the development of Sibelius Cloud Publishing was “an announcement from Google last year that Chrome was going to drop support for all NPAPI plug-ins, which is what Scorch is based on. At the time, they gave a really vague timeline, and we thought it was going to be at the end of 2014. Since then, they’ve extended the timeline to April 2015, which gave us some breathing room to work on a replacement.”
Google’s announcement came around the same time as the unveiling of the Avid Everywhere strategy, in which cloud-based services play an important role. “We’ve received a lot of feedback over the years regarding Scorch,” Sam explained. “It was hard to install, people didn’t really know to install it in order to see music, and Chrome was making it more and more difficult for people to get it to run at all. So we needed to make sure that we developed something that was easy for people to get on with, but also with the rise of tablets, smartphones and other devices, that whatever we do, it would run on those things as well.”
Sam and Joe said that Cloud Publishing is designed to eventually replace Scorch. There will be a transition, and Sam said that “if there’s a web site out there that still requires Scorch, it will be available for some time, but the hope is that publishers will take on Cloud Publishing as their main delivery mechanism.” The customer will continue to visit a publisher’s web site to preview and purchase music, as is currently the case.
At the heart of Sibelius Cloud Publishing, Sam said, “is, essentially a headless version of Sibelius running in the cloud. The publisher sends Avid their Sibelius file, PDF file, or secure Sibelius file (.sco format), as well as metadata about the file. We then convert each page into a series of images and render an MP3. We discard the original Sibelius file that we were sent. When the customer is on the publisher’s web site, it will request the images to be sent to the web browser.”
I was curious about the ‘headless’ version of Sibelius created for Cloud Publishing and how it compared with the familiar desktop version. “There is no user interface,” Sam explained. “There are no dialogs or warning messages that you might get upon opening a score with different fonts or playback configurations. It just sucks up the Sibelius file and gets going with its tasks of exporting the images and MP3. It uses load balances to expand or contract as needed, so if one copy of Sibelius is busy, it will just spawn another copy, and another, and so on. If any are idle, the copies will destroy themselves and not take up any room.”
If these mini-versions of Sibelius are being readied to run in the cloud, it’s not too difficult to imagine a consumer version of Sibelius running in the cloud, and I asked if that was in the works. “Maybe,” Sam said, “but right now we’re focused on just these exporting features essential to Cloud Publishing.”
“In a pre-purchase mode — and this the same as with Scorch — the publisher has the tools to restrict what the customer can view,” Sam said. “By default, only one page is viewable, but for single-page lead sheets, the bottom half of the preview can be blurred. The previews are relatively high-quality JPEGs. Once the music is purchased, the customer receives SVG (scalable vector graphics) files with embedded fonts, so the customer doesn’t need to install the fonts; that’s all done on our side.”
I asked where the files were hosted. “The Sibelius file or PDF file is always stored on the publisher side. We’re not keeping a whole big catalog of Sibelius files,” Sam said. “The images are stored on our side, and we send back a single viewer link that’s unique. All the publisher needs to do is embed that in an iframe on their web page [essentially, a web page within a web page], and we populate that with a viewer. It’s a responsive design, so that if the iframe is narrow, only one page is seen. If a wider view is desired, it will display 2-up, depending on the size of the paper.”
The MP3 that is generated on the Cloud Publishing server uses “a super-lite version of Sibelius Sounds that is around 2 GB,” Sam said. “By default, our server will generate a sound file using these sounds. But, if the publisher has their own live recording, or a demo using the full version of Sibelius Sounds or another sound library, they can send up a link to an MP3 of that recording. If that exists, we won’t bother generating an MP3. This isn’t implemented yet, but the publisher will have to provide markers for when to turn the page and follow along with the score with their custom recording. We’ll be flexible enough so that the publisher can give the experience that they want to give their customers.”
A similar concept is a hallmark of SoundSlice, a relatively new browser-based notation viewer that syncs notation with real audio. Joe said “it’s interesting, I just learned about them since we announced our service, so I’ve just started looking into what they’re doing.”
Once the customer has purchased the music, he or she can print out all of the pages. “We’ve left up to the publisher to decide how many prints people get,” Sam said. “Even if the number of prints has been used up, the customer can still see the full piece on his or her tablet.” There will be an ability to personalize the copy — that is, to say that ‘this copy is licensed to Joe Smith’ — as a deterrent to piracy, but Sam and Joe acknowledged that the workarounds are what they have always been. “It’s impossible to prevent people from photocopying copyrighted music now, even though it’s illegal, and we can’t change that with printouts generated from Sibelius Cloud Publishing. We will do our best effort do ensure that people buy the music legally.”
Getting started with Sibelius Cloud Publishing
Once the service is launched, there will be a toolkit on the Sibelius web site available to publishers. “That’s where they will be able to learn about the service,” Sam explained. “Publishers will be able to see a demo and sign up. They will have access to documentation and a tester, where they can put in some of their Sibelius files and simulate pre-purchase and post-purchase views. There will be API documentation that walks through how to transition from the Scorch plug-in to the Cloud Publishing service, with examples provided.”
Once the publisher has completed setting up their files and templates, Sam said, “they can place the code on their web site and complete the e-commerce portion. It’s important to note that the financial transaction still happens on the publisher’s web site. The customer will be purchasing the music from, for example, Hal Leonard, Music Sales, or J.W. Pepper, just as now. Individual customers don’t need to set up an account with Avid; in fact, we won’t know who they are as we won’t store any personal information.”
Avid will bill publishers both a monthly certification fee and a percentage of the net proceeds of each sale. “We’ve always had that with Scorch,” Sam said, “but instead of individually negotiating each contract with each publisher, the fees will be standardized.” The amounts haven’t yet been announced, but they can be expected to be around 10-15% of the price of the music after the amount due to the artist.
The cost model is naturally different than Scorch. “Before,” Sam said, “the only thing that we really had to pay for was hosting the Scorch installer on the Sibelius web site, and its development. But now, there will be storage, bandwidth, and processing costs. Hopefully, as more publishers get on board, the revenue generated will enable us to more reasonably maintain the service on a per-transaction basis.”
Sam and Joe said that “after our initial release, we’re going to be adding transpositions and changing instruments, and that’s to match the same functionality we have with the Scorch plug-in. As it currently exists, the implementation is fairly static, but it it’s quite quick — only a matter of seconds. When somebody clicks a transpose button, and, for instance, says, ‘I want this up a third,’ it will go up to the server, re-process the score, and send down a new series of images in the new key. Once one user does this, we cache that version. Then when the next user comes along requesting the same transposition, it’s just like pulling images down from a server; Sibelius doesn’t need to re-process the score again.”
Joe said that “for the most part, there is no need to use the computing power of an entire copy of Sibelius when perhaps all the user wants to do is look at an image, for efficiency’s sake. Everything that goes up to the server gets cached at least once. It’s quite phenomenal, the amount of storage that’s available now. This service wouldn’t have been possible on this scale even five years ago.”
I asked if the technology, which is currently targeting large publishers, will be available for smaller companies or self-published composers to use. “It’s possible,” Sam said. “What you would do, if you have the standard version of Sibelius, is put all the Sibelius files you wish to sell on your server, but you would have to make sure that your database of files had a dedicated pipe to our service — you wouldn’t want people being able to root around and find the files on your server, and re-open them on their computer without paying for them. You would sign up with us to get full access to all the APIs, and then you could start writing your storefront. You can specify the number of pre-purchase preview pages available in the API calls using regular Sibelius files, something that was previously only possible with .sco files generated from Sibelius Internet Edition.”
Right now only individual Sibelius files are supported; it won’t be possible to purchase a score and a full set of linked parts in one go in the initial release of Sibelius Cloud Publishing. “If you want to sell the parts as well, you would have to extract the parts manually, for now,” Sam said. “In the future, it should be possible to extract parts on the fly in the cloud version of Sibelius, export the images and give you a way of displaying and printing them as part of one purchase.”
Joe said that “one of the most exciting things about this service is that updates like that will automatically be made on our side, without the user needing to install anything. Previously, in the plug-in installation, we had to rely on the user to install the plug-in. If we wanted to push out an update, we had to first rely on people being made aware that there was an update, then the user had to install the update and assume it was successful. Because the Sibelius Cloud Publishing viewer will be running in an iframe and it’s a connection to our service, if we wish to push an update, or a fix, or a new feature, we can just switch it on seamlessly. It means that we can respond in a really agile fashion, and indeed, that’s what we’re planning to do: regular, small updates. It means that if a publisher makes a feature request, we can have it in an update next month instead of next year. It also means — and hopefully this wouldn’t happen — if something does go wrong, we could quickly back out of a change as well.”
This was reminiscent of very similar remarks that Peaksware CEO Gear Fisher made when I met with him a couple of months ago while talking about more frequent Finale updates. He said that “when you get updates for apps on your phone, or for modern web browsers like Chrome and Firefox, they’re frequent and you don’t even think about it. You just download the update without being fraught with apprehension about what or wasn’t included; that’s where I’d eventually like to get to with MakeMusic’s products.”
It was interesting to see the Sibelius team move in this direction, at least for the cloud publishing service. “When we started working on this project,” Joe said, “Chrome was on version 37, and now it’s on version 41. So as much as it’s a feature of our service, it’s also a necessity because things move so fast.”
What about the user who just wishes to share a score using this new technology without the commercial aspect, much as one can do with Scorch? “We will hopefully have features in Sibelius that allow individuals or educators to share a score, using the viewer.” Sam said. “We have sharing buttons now to share videos to Facebook and YouTube, and audio to SoundCloud; we could have another button that just gives people a link that goes to a page that has a viewer with your music, without any e-commerce printing restrictions. We haven’t done any of that work yet, but the possibility is certainly there.”
Right now, Joe said, “the service is aimed at commercial music publishers. It’s a full-on set of API documentation; it’s not very friendly for the average user yet, and each publisher will have to interface with us directly. But I can certainly see how we could use the technology to add sharing features to Sibelius in the future. Just like SoundCloud has a super-simple interface for the end user, but has API documentation for advanced developers, a similar possibility exists with Sibelius, and we’re definitely thinking about it.”
The service is fully up-to-date with the Sibelius 7.5 file format; no need to export to a Sibelius 6 format as is currently the case with Scorch. “And,” Sam said, “if and when we change the file format in the future, this will just update as well.”
What if someone wants to use third-party music fonts or particular text fonts with the service? “At the moment, it just has our fonts and common text fonts,” Sam replied. “It will behave in the same way as if you open a file with custom fonts on a computer without those fonts installed; you’ll either get strange-looking symbols or Sibelius will substitute similar fonts. But, if a publisher has their own font, and they need it, we can install that on our server and embed it in the SVG file. So the end user won’t need to install that font, or our fonts, for that matter.”
Sam said that “we’re hoping to launch Sibelius Cloud Publishing this quarter. We’ve still got some features to work out, but we’ve already been demoing the service here at our NAMM booth with a real working demo. In order to roll out the product, however, or even to put a working demo online, we’ve got to finish up the security features, and make sure the infrastructure is in place.
“That’s where Avid Everywhere comes in,” Sam continued. “This is being handled by Avid’s cloud operations team; they’re handling the technical posting and will be handling with front-line support so that Joe and I and the rest of the Sibelius team can get on with developing Sibelius.”
Sam and Joe pointed out that a publisher doesn’t even need to necessarily have scores as Sibelius files to start using this service; Sibelius Cloud Publishing will work with PDFs, if, for example, a publisher has a back catalog of music that they don’t plan on re-engraving. “The PDF capability is a feature in itself,” Joe explained. “One of my former teachers loves hand-writing scores, and he creates beautiful charts. We can scan those and bring those to life in the web viewer as well.”
“It’s a brave new world,” Sam said. “It’s very exciting, what we can potentially do with this.”