“Picking up with a fresh team has been a challenge,” Avid’s principal software engineer Michael Ost told me recently, in discussing his first few months working on Sibelius. In addition to his programming and engineering duties, Michael is responsible for being the technical lead and architect for Avid’s notation products, which include Sibelius, Sibelius First, the Scorch web browser plug-in, and the Scorch iOS app.
Michael was hired eight months ago and is based in Avid’s offices in Daly City, California. The events preceding Michael’s arrival are well-known to regular and casual users alike, but for those unfamiliar with the circumstances, a brief history is in order.
The task at hand
In July 2012, Avid announced a corporate restructuring in which its consumer audio and video product lines were sold to other companies, with the intention of focusing the company on its media enterprise and post & professional customers, and to improve operating performance. At that same time, Avid also announced plans to lay off a number of its employees.
With Sibelius not having been mentioned in the press release, concern in the user community grew about the fate of the Sibelius team and the future of the product itself. It was soon learned that the London-based Sibelius developers were to be terminated. Avid affirmed that it was keeping Sibelius as part of the company with two letters to the user community: one with an initial statement and another acknowledging the deep level of concern that users were expressing.
A pressure group was formed which unsuccessfully tried to influence Avid’s decisions, and the founders of Sibelius, Ben and Jonathan Finn, made twice-rebuffed offers to buy back Sibelius from Avid. Over the summer and fall, Avid transitioned Sibelius development and began terminating staff, concluding with the closure of the Finsbury Park office in October 2012. At that time, the new Avid team reached out to Sibelius’s UK community in a series of meetings.
Prior to their departure, the remaining members of the London-based development team issued Sibelius 7.1.3, which was the last update to Sibelius 7. Shortly after their last days at Avid, most of the team was hired by Steinberg in November 2012 to create a new music notation and scoring program. With those developers, who cumulatively represented decades of product knowledge, now gone for good, Sibelius development was effectively starting over.
Such was the situation in which Michael Ost (pronounced as in “most”) found himself in April of this year. (Indeed, shortly after being hired, Michael replied to a topic on the Sibelius chat page in order to dismiss a rumor that Sibelius was no longer being developed, saying “I can verify that this is absolutely not the case…plans are afoot.”) “Getting a handle on all of that has dominated my first few months here on Sibelius,” he said. “We rely on the remaining Sibelius team members at Avid for history lessons about why some feature is written the way it is, how some process works, and where to find some buried, tweaky feature.”
Sibelius and Scorch have required Michael’s full-time attention. He divides his working hours among programming, design and oversight, and he said that he really enjoys “both the nitty-gritty of fixing bugs as well as the visionary parts of the job — how to design and implement something new to make the program better, and easier to work on.” He also coordinates with developers in Kiev, “to make sure systems are in place so they can do their jobs efficiently.” Michael is then responsible for reporting on Sibelius to Avid Engineering colleagues, alongside the Pro Tools and Media Composer teams.
Music and computer programming background
A veteran of music software, Michael has been working in the field since 1989 — and even has a little bit of past history with Sibelius. While doing some work for Be, Inc. in the 1990s, Michael also contracted for some work on Finale. “During this period,” he told me, “I asked Sibelius about working for them, but wasn’t prepared to move to London at the time. A couple more interesting wrinkles!”
His most recent position was as a founder of Muse Research, where he was designer and lead developer on Receptor, a standalone player device that allows for the use of VST plug-ins without the need for a computer. “Receptor had so many moving parts,” Michael said. “A Linux OS, a VST host application, a web store, and more. That was very fun and challenging to design and implement.”
The most relevant experience that prepared Michael for working on Sibelius, though, was as the lead developer for Encore and MusicTime, which were early products in the music notation field. Both were developed by Passport Designs. “I’m very grateful to them for giving me my start in music software,” Michael said.
“Encore got its start out of the Master Tracks Pro sources back in the late 1980s and came to market around 1990,” Michael explained. “The main competitor at the time was Finale — a back to the future moment for me now — and Encore was positioned as being an easier program to get started with. I started on the Atari ST port of Encore and over time became the lead developer for the Mac and Windows versions. Encore and MusicTime sold well and, as I recall, were dominant in the music notation market through the early and mid 1990s.”
Michael and his colleagues at Passport “watched with interest as a new notation program called Sibelius sprung into the market. It really wowed people at the time, and here I am now working on it!”
Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, Michael was part of a musical family. “Dad sang and played guitar; Mom, the piano. My sisters are both singers and my brother does folk guitar,” he said. He studied piano from an early age and later took up the horn. “I was pretty serious about it in high school,” he recalled. “A quartet I was in played Schumann’s Konzertstück with the Indianapolis Symphony. That was a high point. I was honking down on fourth horn, but the first and second horns were really soaring and both went on to professional horn playing careers.”
Michael still plays music with two friends who he described as his “musical brothers,” mostly on the piano but also on bass, guitar and drums. “We have been working on a CD for an embarrassingly long time now — maybe 10 years? Will it ever be finished? I don’t know.”
While pursuing his computer science degree at Indiana University, Michael took courses in performance and composition at that university’s music school. He credits his introductory computer science class there with sparking his passion for computer programming. “The professor was Douglas Hofstadter who had recently published Gödel, Escher, Bach. I felt pretty special just being in that class. He assigned us the Tower of Hanoi problem using recursion in the LISP programming language. I struggled with a solution for that, but had an ‘Aha!’ moment in the middle of the night in the computer lab. That feeling of having everything click together in a satisfying way was what really hooked me.”
Current and future Sibelius development
By working on Sibelius, Michael gets to pursue his twin interests of music and computers, and I asked him for some of his initial impressions. “I am floored by the depth of the program,” he said. “All of the things I thought ‘wouldn’t that be nice’ back in my Encore days are actually implemented! For instance, Encore was never very good about shipping useful starter content. We talked about something like Quick Start, but never found the time to do it. Sibelius has that. It’s humbling, frankly, all that is in this program.”
Michael also felt that “Avid’s commitment to education, and Sibelius, together with Pro Tools and Media Composer, plays a key role in providing the tools students need in learning skills valued in the world of media creation. Sibelius is especially strong in this regard, helping students learn music theory and composition.”
He continued, “I also like the tie-in with Pro Tools, the way the applications complement each other. Having the Pro Tools development teams in the same company opens up a lot of possibilities for closer integration between the two,” although beyond adding a Sibelius-powered score editor to Pro Tools in 2008, the two programs have not yet been further integrated at the user level.
One of Michael’s favorite Sibelius features is Magnetic Layout. “That’s a wonderfully designed and implemented feature — I’m very impressed with it,” he said.
When asked for his favorite tips or techniques, he admitted, “I’m still finding my way around Sibelius so I don’t have much special user knowledge to share,” He also said he wasn’t very familiar with any particular projects that used Sibelius: “I’m pretty new to the team so I don’t have much special perspective on this.”
With Sibelius 7.5 having been referenced in a recent Avid Knowledge Base article about Windows OS compatibility, I asked what was in store for the future of the program. “Avid is totally committed to the continued development of Sibelius and music notation,” Michael replied, “but I’m afraid I can’t comment on future developments, sorry.”
However, Michael did say that he monitors IdeaScale regularly. IdeaScale is the site where users can submit feature requests and bug reports to Avid about Sibelius. “It’s very interesting to see what real-world users of Sibelius are running into and what would help them be more productive,” he mentioned. “That perspective is sometimes lost when you’re in the internals of an application all the time. You are thinking about the next big ‘whiz-bang’ feature, while people just want to be able to paste tuplets. And seeing rankings is very instructive.”
He had a couple of requests for users, to keep things in IdeaScale focused and directed: “General requests like “fix all existing bugs” really don’t help that much! And try not to have the initial topic morph into something else. That throws off the voting and makes it harder for us to follow the original intent.”
Competition, the marketplace, and open standards
When Finale 2014 was released last month, MakeMusic said that “While others take music notation software development for granted, Finale is doubling down to provide you and your music a clear path to tomorrow,” in what seemed to be a swipe at Sibelius. “I can understand why they would take what they see as an opportunity there,” Michael conceded, but added, “I think Sibelius is a stronger program than Finale.”
He explained, “I think our strong presence in the educational market and having integration with Pro Tools helps us to provide more complete workflow solutions and stand out from the competition.” In perhaps a challenge to his competitors, Michael said, “Sibelius is the number one-selling music notation program in the world. I think with Avid’s commitment to the future of Sibelius assured, the Finale team will have their work cut out for them.”
When offered an opportunity to name some Finale features that he admired, Michael demurred. “Personally, I think Sibelius rules the roost, but being new to the program I’m not the best person to discuss specific features,” he said.
The other looming major competition for Sibelius is, of course, the new Steinberg product in development by Michael’s predecessors. Its potential effect on the professional music scoring market is the big question, Michael said. “To me it seems like a very crowded space for them to enter into. I’m not sure I would go straight after the ‘Big Desktop Notation Publishing’ market if I were just starting out. But,” he acknowledged, “they are bright and very capable engineers. It will be very interesting to see what they come up with.”
The Steinberg team, headed by former Sibelius and Avid employee Daniel Spreadbury, has periodically updated the public on its progress. One of its early accomplishments was the creation of the Standard Music Font Layout (SMuFL), which aims to provide a standard for mapping musical symbols in Unicode. Key to SMuFL’s success as an industry standard is its eventual adoption by other applications, but Sibelius users shouldn’t expect to see support for it anytime soon. “I’m agnostic on this issue,” Michael said. “I don’t see the big win at present, but I’m interested to see what develops.”
MusicXML is a much more established open standard. First developed by Recordare founder Michael Good and now owned by MakeMusic, its purpose is to make it possible to share music notation files among different applications. “It was interesting to me when I started at Avid that there was a commitment to MusicXML as an open standard,” Michael said, and “I see no reason why the commitment to that standard would diminish going forward.” Sibelius 7 includes full support for importing and exporting MusicXML files.
It has been nearly two and a half years since Sibelius 7 was released, and the last update of any kind to Sibelius was more than a year ago. Scorch was another product that had been gathering dust even longer, and that’s where Michael first turned his attention once arriving at Avid. “Compatibility with modern OSs has been the main focus,” he said. “After lying untouched for years, the Scorch plug-in now works in modern, 64-bit browsers.”
The Scorch iOS app has also seen a fairly recent update. “In the 1.2 Avid Scorch update that came out this summer,” Michael said, “we added a sharing menu for distributing non-copy protected scores, so users can print or e-mail a score directly from the app. We made it so MusicXML files can be imported by simply adding the file to the Scorch library in iTunes. Other new features enhanced compatibility with the iPad mini, including the ability to change staff sizes with automatic repagination.”
With companies like Musicnotes and Sheet Music Direct enjoying increased sales, and popular artists embracing the format, notated music appears to be undergoing a popular renaissance. “It was pretty clear to us,” Bobby Lombardi, Avid’s director for product management, told me, “that the Sibelius web plug-in was the number one area that needed to be addressed. It was also important for Sibelius to remain committed to the Scorch platform for our publishers in the printed and digital sheet music markets.”
Michael echoed that sentiment, saying that Scorch “has huge potential as we move into the new world of browsers that act like full operating systems and the ubiquity of tablets.” Foreseeing this new world “was another example of the visionary nature of the Sibelius development team.”
In reflecting on Scorch and Sibelius, Michael was clearly appreciative of the legacy that he has inherited. “This is another shout-out to my predecessors for all they poured into this platform,” he said in concluding his remarks. “As I said earlier, it’s humbling to be following on after them. I hope I do the program justice. And I love knowing that the work I do, day in and day out, is supporting musicians out in the field. That’s what keeps me motivated.”