Note: All this week, we’ll be publishing short posts from the 2017 NAMM Show in Anaheim, California. It’s a huge exhibition, so we’ll focus on what we try to do best: cover the field of music notation software and related technology.
In this post, I talk with Sam Butler, Avid’s senior product manager for Sibelius.
When Sam Butler, a Sibelius veteran, was named senior product manager for Avid‘s music notation and learning products in January 2014 — including Sibelius, Sibelius First, Sibelius License Server, the Sibelius Scorch web plug-in and the Avid Scorch iPad app — the news was welcomed by the user community. Well-known to frequent and casual Sibelius users alike in his former role as technical support manager, he brought more than a decade’s worth of Sibelius experience and knowledge to his new position.
In the three years since he assumed his new role, Sibelius 8 was unveiled along with new upgrading and licensing options, Sibelius Cloud Publishing was introduced, replacing the deprecated Scorch plug-in, a new Montreal-based development office opened, and Sibelius First was updated to become aligned with the pro version of Sibelius.
Along the way, Avid released five “8.x” updates, each with new features and bug fixes (and, often, several “8.x.x” updates to fix more bugs) as part of the new license plans. “We used to release upgrades and new features every two years, and we’re now releasing new features every few months,” Sam said in a post on Avid’s official blog from October 2016. “The goal is to continue to release the larger features every few months, but also release smaller fixes when they are ready—saving users from waiting for an important fix.”
Perhaps the most important task that Sam has overseen is the challenge to unify the Sibelius code base, which had diverged as the product offerings diversified. “Previously,” Sam said, “the apps all had varying degrees of separation from Sibelius, and their own build jobs, meaning we couldn’t update them all without reapplying and replicating the work multiple times.”
Now, the applications no longer have “their own roadmaps, source control streams, and build jobs. These applications—as well as our License Server, Avid Scorch for iOS, and the iOS SDK (which allows anyone to build their very own iPad app to handle native Sibelius files)—are now all on the same roadmap, and share the same code and build jobs,” Sam said.
For example, recent Sibelius updates have introduced the ability to define new staff sizes and color notes individually. “Those with keen eyes, and an iPad, will have noticed updates to Avid Scorch to support these new features as well,” Sam said. “Our applications are now unified, which means that once we add features to the main version of Sibelius and kick off a new build, all of our related apps are built all at the same time with support for the new feature we will have just added, without having to write any more lines of code. This gives us the flexibility to quickly release new versions of all our apps, or just one or two, depending on how suitable the feature is. This allows the whole development team to focus on the features for the right application, and not worry about how the other applications will inherit that change. It frees up the whole team to be more focused.”
I visited the Sibelius stand at Avid’s booth (6400) at this year’s NAMM show to see the very latest release (8.5.1) demonstrated to show attendees. Later, I caught up with Sam and product designer Joe Pearson.
Sam has enjoyed seeing Sibelius in action recently. “I particularly enjoyed seeing the orchestrator at Abbey Road Studios in London working with the composers and copyists on last minute changes on the music for the Islamic Solidarity Games, which are taking place in Batu later this year,” he told me. “Seeing the quick turnaround of changes, even if it’s a small cue change or a whole new section of music materialise in front of your eyes, and seeing Sibelius keep up with the huge demands coming in from the scoring stage, is truly impressive.”
Of the reception at NAMM so far, Sam said it’s “been great. The recent Sibelius 8.5.1 update is working well, and customers new and old have been streaming through to see the latest features. On the booth, we have Drew Parsons, who has been with Avid in Australia for a long time, and Gary Atkins, a legend in the music industry having worked with Herbie Hancock and many others. I’ve been giving live interviews on the main stage with Benny Rietveld and Joe Trapanese, asking about how they use Pro Tools and Sibelius to create their music for stage and film.”
Reflecting for a moment, Sam said, “When I started at Sibelius nearly 15 years ago, I never knew I’d have the opportunity to do what I’m doing today. I’ll always be proud of all the hard work the developers and the wider team have put into Sibelius, to bring it to where it is now.”
Each Sibelius 8.x update has introduced new features, some of which had been requested for a long time. I asked Sam how features were prioritized. “We have a huge list of feature requests and improvements to make in Sibelius, dating back many years,” Sam said. “We aim to have the next two or three releases spec’ed and scoped in advance, so we collect up as many similar improvements and features we need for each. For any minor update, we collect all the minor issues we weren’t able to get to in the previous release, and start adding to it the immediate feedback we get.”
Sam continued, “From there, we rank these in order and the developers scope the work. From that, we can calculate the release date and our development manager distributes the work to the developers. Some developers will have already started on the next release – so the team is fluid and adaptable based on the work needed. For example, during the 8.5.1 release, we were also working on our Avid Scorch iOS SDK (to resolve problems in Xcode 8), Sibelius Cloud Publishing, Sibelius 8.5.1 and 8.6 and 8.7!”
Sam said that feature requests and product suggestions are welcomed “in any and all ways. There’s direct e-mail to Joe and myself, support tickets, Sibelius.com forum, Twitter direct messages, Facebook posts, IdeaScale and so on. We will collate everything that comes in and decide whether we’ll add it into the version we’re working on now, or see if it works well with something else we’re looking to create down the road.”
“I also do regular customer visits and I will take back all their suggestions to help improve their workflows,” Sam continued. “An example of this was last year’s visit to JoAnn Kane in LA, where they wanted a different spelling of an accidental in a part compared to the full score. Joe and I took that back to the developers in January of that year, and it was included in Sibelius 8.2 just two months later. Our new approach to regular releases allows us to be really flexible and adapt our short-term roadmap with the features and improvements we’re hearing from our customers.”
NAMM showcases a great many innovative products, and I asked Sam what he thought some of the most interesting developments were in the past year. “Undoubtedly, Microsoft’s Surface Pen and Apple’s Pencil have started to create some pretty cool innovations,” he said. “NotateMe, StaffPad and the new Komp app are starting to get pretty impressive. Before these new methods of interacting with a screen were widely available, fingers just weren’t accurate enough to draw music notation. We’re also seeing great online cloud-based solutions pop up, like our own Sibelius Cloud Publishing technology, allowing publishers to engrave in Sibelius and publish music within the same eco-system. There are some great browser-based innovations coming from the likes of Noteflight and Soundslice as well.”
Updated at 2:37 pm to correct an editing error.
Interesting how, in your chat, Sam reproduced word for word several paragraphs from the Avid Blog, October 2016 :-)
Hi Laurence, thanks for catching that. That was an editing error on my part. At the last minute, I moved up the photo of the Avid stand to earlier in the article and also inadvertently moved text along with it that said when I started speaking with Sam. I’ve corrected that mistake and, for clarity, I have also linked to the blog post you’ve referenced in your comment.
Insightful NAMM 2017 interviews and great reporting – thanks, Philip!
Thanks, Bruce, and great meeting you!