Note: This past week, we’ve published posts from the 2020 NAMM Show in Anaheim, California. It’s a huge exhibition, so we focused on what we do best: covering the field of music notation software and related technology. Follow all of our NAMM 2020 coverage at Scoring Notes, and on our social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
In this post, we interview Avid’s Sam Butler, senior principal product manager for Sibelius, and music notation consultant Sarah Rossy, about the Sibelius development process and the emphasis on adding support for accessibility in recent updates.
As part of the recent Sibelius 2020.1 release and several other updates in the recent past, Avid has focused on adding enhancements to the software that make it easier for sight-impaired users to work with the software. For the third consecutive year at the NAMM Show, Avid joined with Native Instruments and with accessibility leaders from Berklee College of Music, I See Music (a leading provider of audio technology training for the blind and adaptive technology services), and other presenters in the NAMM Pro Accessibility Panel with demonstrations of the latest in accessibility for music creation.
In addition, at the show, which just concluded yesterday, Avid presented two accessibility presentations at its mainstage stand and another as part of the TEC Tracks presentations.
Avid’s Sam Butler, well known to Scoring Notes readers, was involved with these and other events at the show, but he and colleague Sarah Rossy managed to find time to meet me at the NAMM Media Center to discuss these and other Sibelius developments.
When it comes to Sibelius development in general, Sam described the process by which features and improvements get identified and addressed. “At least twice a year,” Sam said, “I’ll get to Montreal to be with the development team. To prepare for that, we take everything that’s in our bug database and feature list — which is comprised of all the feedback we ever get — if someone comments on Facebook, for instance, I’ll take a screenshot and I’ll put it into the system. I might not have time to reply to all of them, but we’re quietly monitoring to see what we need.”
Then, they’ll take that feedback and get to work. “So we compile this big list, and we have a big whiteboard,” Sam said. “We draw a big cross on it, and we have easy to hard, and we have [little to great] value for customers. So if something’s really hard and will give no value to the majority of people, we’re probably no going to get to it. But if, because of something we’ve done recently, it looks like we can do something else now, then it goes on the easy path. We line them up, and then the product designers will work up a big feature, and there are a series of features we can see, and that’s our workflow. We can change them around, and its that way we’re agile in what we’re planning.”
Sam gave an example of something that can change, and it led into our discussion on accessibility. Sam said that “we wanted to do MIDI import in a very different way than what we finished with. It was all happening at the same time we were coming up with a plan to help our blind and visually impaired customers. We realized that the design we had — we went through about four different iterations — before it was accessible, you couldn’t do the MIDI import process without using the mouse. So we had throw all those designs out and start again.”
When it comes to accessibility, “It’s is a big challenge,” Sam acknowledged. “On Windows and Mac, there are built-in screen readers. It will genuinely read menus and other text, because screen readers can pull that out of the user interface. So navigating through the menus and the Ribbon, we were getting that for free. But then you look at a musical score, and it’s really hard to describe music without seeing some of the pitches, or whatever you have to do, because it’s really meant to be a translation from someone’s musical ideas to someone’s performance. And you’ve got to change the perception of how we deal with that.”
For starters, Sam continued, “you don’t have a mouse. Everything has to be done with the keyboard. So [the screen reader] will describe where you are on the page; it’ll say the bar number and the beat that you’re in, and the pitch — but the written pitch, because the sounding pitch can be different if it’s a transposed instrument — then, whether it’s under a slur or not, or the end of slur, or a beginning of a slur, whether it’s tied or not, and all these other things. But we also wanted to make sure that we didn’t get too bombarded with data all the time. So in the most recent update (2020.1) we’ve got verbosity settings. It’ll dial that all back, so you only hear the things you haven’t known about yet.”
In addition to the work with Berklee, Sam has met with Microsoft, who, he said, “have done amazing work on accessibility. They told us, don’t try to tech this as a screen reader — “hey, it looks like we think you’re blind” — don’t do that, it’s really patronizing. A few applications do that, and it’s really bad.”
Indeed, Sam said, “Accessibility features are for everybody. A lot of people turn on accessibility features just because it helps them navigate menus anyway … It’s the same in Sibelius. Find in Ribbon is a great example. You can now touch type your way around the entire interface without having to wait 3 seconds for [the program] to show you visually where something is in the menu. Now you can just tap comma, type some of the word that you’re looking for, press Return, and it’ll just do it.”
Magentic Layout — the feature introduced in Sibelius 6 that automatically repels objects so that they don’t collide — was itself a response to demands of sight-impaired users. “All of the visually impaired users went, oh my God, this is amazing, because it gives them their independence back, they don’t need somebody to sight-check their music before they can send it off to somebody. Because of Magnetic Layout, and now Auto-Optimize, it just makes music look great all the time.,” Sam said.
During most of our interview, the background music and noise was extremely loud, and unfortunately for much of our interview the audio was too difficult to process, including my discussions with Sarah Rossy, who contributed to the new house styles introduced in Sibelius 2020.1. She said that the idea to update the house styles “came from people opening up Sibelius and having choices of templates without having to fidget with the details afterwards. Now with the new import settings [introduced in 2020.1, where Engraving Rules can be imported separately from Document Setup] where don’t have to mess up your whole score when you import a new house style, you can try it out and see what it looks like.” Sarah said that her work as an active musician in particular contributed to her efforts.
Sam acknowledged there was more work to be done. “Sibelius hasn’t always done a great job of getting the defaults right. The work on ties started off as a much bigger project — adjusting the default settings of ties. So we’re researching how a tie is drawn now and how they should be drawn, and we have many examples of this from users — here are the ties, here are the slurs, that I have to manually raise every day. So we need to create better defaults and add some more settings in Engraving Rules to allow those to be chosen.”
Balancing progress in those areas with the task of maintaining a mature product is a challenge. “At no point do we ever want people to open up a score and have the music change,” Sam said. “We’re very careful about that.”
In terms of new features, we got a little Scoring Notes breaking news: “Now that we’ve done ties into notes,” Sam said, “I’m sure we’ll be able to do a little tie on the other side — a little l.v. [laissez vibrer],” before quickly adding, “Maybe. It’s on the board. Because we’ve done all this tie work, we can now do more ties. So they’ve moved away from being hard and down towards the easier area. It is something we know exactly how to do now, because Sibelius is much more aware of the notation, thanks to the work we did with multi-edit workflows.”
Sam said that as they continue to develop Sibelius, they are looking for new beta testers to join the existing team. “If people are very passionate and have the time to test,” he said, “it’s always good to have new people come on board going forward.”
A portion of our interview is below. As is often the case, the surrounding environment at NAMM was very loud, but we did our best to mitigate the background to the extent possible. Apologies if it’s a little hard to hear in some places. Watch through to the very end past the closing tag for a little outtake!