NAMM 2018: NiceChart aims to make “nice” with on-the-fly arrangements

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Note: All this week, we’ll be publishing posts from the 2018 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 visit with Steve Morell, founder and CEO of NiceChart, a new online service that specializes in producing customizable sheet music on demand. NiceChart officially launched this year and I sat down with Steve to learn more about the service, its origins, and where he sees it heading in the future.

The concept of “arranging” music is, well, as old as music itself. Whether it’s reorganizing musical bits into a framework to fit a certain duration, modifying musical elements to suit a particular style, or re-writing parts to accommodate the players you happen to have available, the arranger’s task is an important one when it comes to producing music at a practical level.

It’s that last item — accommodating the players you happen to have available — that has long been a challenge when working with ensemble music. In order to reasonably reproduce some recognizable semblance of the music, you at least need to have players that can take up the treble, the bass, the midrange, the melody, the harmony, the rhythms, and so on. If you’re in an educational setting in particular, your obstacles may be the enrollment of your class, their various skill levels, and what instrument was popular that year. Actually faithfully reproducing an off-the-shelf arrangement can be a challenge.

The solutions, of course, have been for ensemble directors to make use of cues that were hopefully liberally supplied in the arrangement, or write the parts out themselves. Even with notation software making it easier, it’s still a time-consuming task when you have to juggle dozens of other items every day.

That’s the situation that NiceChart aims to address, by creating custom, on-the-fly arrangements that can be ordered with a few clicks and delivered digitally to your inbox in moments. It’s an interesting concept, to say the least. While it’s been in the works for several years and got a boost, thanks to its 2016 participation in Nashville’s Project Music tech accelerator program, NiceChart only officially launched about a month ago, right before Christmas 2017.

I sat down at NAMM with NiceChart’s founder & CEO Steve Morell to learn more.

The instrumentation of a NiceChart arrangement is limited only by your imagination — or more practical considerations like class enrollment

“Like most musicians, I’ve worn a lot of hats,” Steve told me. “Some of those have included being a professional working musician, freelance arranger, private lesson instructor, and a middle school and high school instrumental music director.”

Naturally, it was his experience in the educational environment that led to the NiceChart concept. “Arrangements by design are written for a specific instrumentation and an assumption that the musicians tasked with performing it are able to do so,” Steve said. “When it comes to actually performing an arrangement, especially in a school environment, you can not rely on either of those things being the case. As a music director, I would make my own edits to help players who were not able to play their given part as written, and move around parts from instruments that I didn’t have to the best alternative instruments so I wouldn’t lose what those parts were doing. I became obsessed with figuring out a process that could automate the decisions I was making when editing an arrangement and that obsession became NiceChart.”

NiceChart founder & CEO Steve Morell

It takes a lot to turn an obsession into a tangible product that comes to market, and I was curious what the effort and time investment was like on the NiceChart end of things. Steve said there was “quite a bit, but we’re getting much better at improving our process with new technology upgrades. Our goal is to provide music directors with a custom arrangement that requires no additional editing.  Every arrangement must be available to be performed by a large menu of instruments and many of those instruments require special attention to be prepared properly.”

A team of musicians is involved preparing each piece, Steve said. “We source out piano, guitar, standard percussion, pitched percussion and harp parts to specialists. If those instruments are not part of the original arrangement, they are written to tastefully compliment the piece. This allows us to offer features such as adding guitar tab, chord diagrams, changing a piano part to slash notation, choosing to include harp pedal markings, choosing what players to be soloists, and whether or not to include a written solo for the soloist you choose on jazz pieces. It’s really a ‘choose-your-own-adventure-style’ approach.”

Further, “each part we make is simplified to fit any proficiency level, and we often have to make an entirely different arrangement that is more appropriate for an elementary group when the simplification process erodes the original arrangement too much to function with the group as a whole,” Steve said. “Smaller ensembles are handled differently than larger ensembles, and we take extra care to make sure that a title’s main melody is never lost, even as an arrangement scored for a concert band shrinks to a sax quartet for example. We have an amazing team of passionate arrangers, instrument specialists, copyists and developers that work hard to make each arrangement come together when a customer makes their selections.”

Proficiency can be individually tailored to suit players’ abilities

Once those elements are created, NiceChart is able to assemble a complete arrangement based on the specifications of the ensemble. “We start with arrangements that are exactly like any other arrangement you would typically use. Our process begins by analyzing the piece and categorizing parts into different buckets. Those buckets identify a function such as if a part is carrying the main melody line at any point, or a direct harmonization of that melody line, or a bass part for example. Those functions help the algorithm chose how to distribute and balance the parts.”

Relying upon an algorithm to create a musical arrangement might seem unusual, but, in a way, it automates what had been a tedious mechanical task of manually rewriting parts. “If you’re customizing an existing piece to fit your ensemble,” Steve said, “NiceChart will be faster and cheaper than buying an arrangement and then having it edited by an arranger or commissioning an original arrangement of that title to fit your group’s needs. If you need an original piece commissioned for your group or we don’t have the title you’re looking to perform, that would of course still be best handled by your local arranger. We love suggestions, so we encourage directors to email us with titles they’d like to see.”

In terms of the market, Steve said, “We did a survey in 2016 to gauge the need for customization and found that 64% of music directors regularly buy arrangements that call for a different instrumentation than they have in their ensemble. Almost 80% of music directors think they could retain more players if struggling players who quit their music programs were given more level appropriate parts.”

The artists in NiceChart’s small but growing catalog

Nicechart is dependent upon a combination of open-source and commercial technologies to create its final product. “We are a MusicXML-based technology,” Steve said. We have to move parts stored in concert pitches around to different concert keys, to different instrument transpositions, to different instrument ranges depending on the proficiency of the player and function of the part they are playing. All parts and the score are made to order for each unique ensemble that is inputted by a customer. MusicXML is an amazing medium and NiceChart could not exist without it.”

Customers can preview their custom arrangements before they purchase. Steve said, “We’re thrilled to be working with Adrian Holovaty and his team at Soundslice as a way to hear an audio sample of the actual arrangement we’ve built for that customer and an alternative way to preview the score besides the formatted one we are selling. Soundslice is an incredible technology and we’re proof of the many different applications their technology has. We use Finale because it provides the best XML export and import capabilities. Many arrangers we use work in Sibelius, so we export the XML from Sibelius and clean it up a bit in Finale to get ready for their final XML export.”

Previewing a NiceChart arrangement before purchase

Steve acknowledged that NiceChart is still in its early days when it came to the appearance of some of the automatically generated arrangements. “Knowing the demographic that uses Scoring Notes as a resource religiously — I know because I’m part of that demographic — I want to just emphasize that the goal of NiceChart is to help music directors save time, and we know it is not going to earn us any Paul Revere Awards at this point! You may see some collisions and other small unsavory notation issues at times. We are working to fix these issues and will never stop continuing to improve the quality of our arrangements.” Steve encouraged customers experiencing problems to contact the company.

I thought it would be interesting if Steve had considered applications of their technology beyond its use in NiceChart. Steve envisioned one day where “customers bring their own MusicXML to it and allow customization of their own content. Right now the design of the backend of onboarding a piece does not allow this to be feasible, but perhaps down the road there could be applications opened up to everyone for their own content. We also have a patent pending on a choral process that will help customize choral arrangements and even flex to match individual vocal ranges.”

NiceChart’s flagship product is their band/orchestra product, NiceScore, and Steve said that “it is designed for music directors leading instrumental ensembles. Any situation where an ensemble’s instrumentation does not match the arrangement being performed, NiceScore can help. It’s also great for situations where not all the players have a uniform proficiency level.”

The piano/vocal/guitar format is ubiquitous, but its one-size-all format can make it difficult for particular musicians. “Many players are just looking for a lead sheet or a solo piano arrangement when they buy P/V/G arrangements,” Steve said. “That is why we have chosen to apply our technology to lead sheets and solo piano as our other two product offerings. We are targeting private lesson teachers and students with lead sheets that can be catered to any instrument, proficiency level, and display preferences such as hiding lyrics, adding guitar tab or switching to big note. Our solo piano arrangements are great for lessons and casual players, and can flex to any key and proficiency level and to hide/show lyrics and switching to big note.”

NiceChart’s product offerings

NiceChart is fully licensed — Steve said that “this was a major hurdle to overcome, but we have obtained the proper permissions on all copyrighted works we sell and are paying out royalties to the respective rights owners.”

NiceChart charges by the number of instruments you select. The per part cost ranges from $1.99 to $3.75 depending on the length of the piece and its copyright status, and conductor’s scores are $8.50. The maximum cost for any arrangement is $120, but Steve said that the typical sale price averages $40-$70.

Blog readers can use the promo code SCORING25 to get 25% off any purchases at NiceChart through March 1.

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