October 31st 2012 was a pivotal day in the world of notation software
The London office of Sibelius closed its doors for the final time, following Avid’s unpopular summer announcement that development was to be moved to the US and Ukraine. Alongside the emotional goodbyes, there was a genuine fear amongst Sibelius users that this was the end of the road for productive notation software, such was the proficiency and imagination of the product management and development team that had been let go.
Things got a lot more interesting on 9th November 2012, when it was announced that the now former Sibelius development team were being kept together, now under the employ of Steinberg to develop a brand new notation software package. This became Dorico, released in October 2016.
In the meantime, Sibelius has received more attention from Avid than some feared, but gained a very controversial new pricing structure in the process.
Five years on from the day that the Sibelius team left Avid seems as good a time as any to review what has gone on within the field in a turbulent five years.
Let’s begin with the product most directly affected by the London team’s departure, Sibelius itself.
It was announced in 2012 that Bobby Lombardi, longtime Product Manager of ProTools, would take over the management of Sibelius, from Avid’s HQ in Daly City. Sam Butler remained as head of Sibelius support (based in the UK) and took on some of Daniel Spreadbury’s role as the ‘face’ of community interaction. As revealed during the summer of 2012, a newly-hired development team began work from Ukraine. In January 2013, an IdeaScale site was set up to crowdsource ideas for future releases, although promised regular blogs from the new development team were never forthcoming (and after just one introductory blog, David Tobin never took up his role as ‘official guest blogger’).
2013 was a very quiet year on the Sibelius front, and it was in January 2014 that we saw the first release from the new team, as documented on this blog at the time. It was widely considered that Sibelius 7.5 contained code that had been developed by the former team prior to their departure and was, as such, a ‘grab bag’ of features. Indeed, some of them were not implemented correctly, as ‘offline bounce’ support for audio export was lost as part of the introduction of Sibelius First’s sharing features. In fairness, the 7.5.1 release ironed these issues out and was one of the most stable releases of Sibelius that there had been to date.
From January 2014, the Sibelius team was re-jigged, with Sam Butler taking on the role of Product Manager and Joe Pearson becoming Product Designer. Bobbi Lombardi was shortly to leave Avid altogether. A further development team was assembled in Montreal. It was interesting to note the appearance that Avid had realised the need to have those familiar with the London Sibelius operation running the show, rather than integrate the product management into Avid’s audio stable at Daly City.
As I stated in my review of Sibelius 7.5, it was what was to come next that was the big challenge for the new team, as they developed featured of their own without relying on existing code.
The next release of Sibelius was therefore hugely disappointing. My blog post about it received a number of hits (including within Avid) and most respondents agreed with me that the introduction of a new licensing scheme (aligned with practically zero new features) was a poor way to treat users who were already wary of Avid following the events of 2012.
However, since then the Sibelius team have rolled out a slow stream of small (yet useful) updates. All the Sibelius 8 releases have brought together the following features:
- Rest collision avoidance in multiple voices
- Improvements to line alignment
- The ability to ‘slide’ notes along their rhythmic position
- A redesign of the Inspector panel
- Custom staff sizes on a system-by-system basis
- Magnetic glissandi
- A new Cloud Sharing platform, replacing the legacy Scorch plugin
- Various other small improvements and bug fixes
This is not the work of an Avid team that is merely ‘treading water’ as some feared would happen post-2012. The development team is not merely keeping the application compatible with current operating systems and leaving aside all other development. There is a product management and development team who are trying to improve Sibelius and acting with the best interests of the product at heart.
Unfortunately for them, the two factors which count against them are the slow release of features, in comparison to the old set-up which knocked out a major release every two years and none of the new features in Sibelius 8 could be compared with the ‘knock out’ features that we used to see in major versions, and the addition of (sometimes quite serious) bugs with the new code.
Nonetheless, one can look at the situation with Sibelius reasonably positively. The worst case scenario (a full-on asset-stripping of the product by Avid) has not happened, although development over the last five years cannot have said to have gone by entirely flawlessly either. It will be interesting to see what happens to the product over the next five years, as the new development team can only get more familiar with the codebase and the product. The product team is being run by good people with the best of intentions. However, they do now have some stiff competition…
Unbeknownst to the general public, whilst the outcry against Avid’s decision to shut the Sibelius office was in full flow, the highly regarded team of developers, testers and product managers were quietly being signed up by Steinberg, makers of Cubase, Nuendo and many other audio technologies.
Daniel Spreadbury, former Product Manager of Sibelius and now Product Marketing Manager for Steinberg began regular blogs about the new software’s development in February 2013. Gradually, prospective users saw mouthwatering details emerge – of notation details hitherto unexplored in computer engraving and the sheer beauty of Spreadbury’s new ‘Bravura’ font, alongside details of workflow and interface. Occasional interviews fleshed out details, and it would be fair to say that expectations for this new software package were sky-high.
An announcement of the new software’s name (Dorico, after Valerio Dorico, a sixteenth-century engraver) and release date came in May 2016, and the first version was released in October 2016, after just fewer than four years of development.
Dorico’s key concepts of ‘flows’, ‘players’ and ‘layouts’ enable a far more flexible manner of devising layout than previously. Additionally, the manner in which the application ‘thinks’ about music is lightyears ahead of Sibelius, with a strong algorithmic understanding of meter and rhythm. The user interface is very quick, with text-driven ‘popovers’ allowing for quick entry of all musical symbols and notations. And the final result is simply gorgeous, with minute details far beyond the capabilities of other programs, and with very few tweaks required before print-ready scores and parts. Of particular note to me, as somebody who frequently has cause to typeset keyboard music, is the deft handling of multiple voices on a staff with deep support for ties and slurs across voices and staves.
Having said this, there were certain elements of the very first release that appeared unfinished – the selection tools were incredibly basic, there was no transpose dialogue, and there were certain operations which ran very slowly.
But there have now been five releases since ‘day one’ and each one has added functionality and stability. The significant release was 1.1, which brought with it chord symbols, piano pedalling and a whole host of improved editing techniques for Write mode.
Version 1.2 is imminent, bringing with it support for unpitched percussion, cues and fingering, alongside other exciting smaller improvements. It has been stated that following this release, the team will begin working on Dorico 2.0, which will be a paid update.
I would implore everybody to try out Dorico. Whilst there are elements of relearning required from Sibelius, I have have found it very intuitive and powerful software, capable of absolutely brilliant results. Whilst there are still features that Sibelius has and Dorico does not, that gap is narrowing with every release, and when the Dorico team approach a new feature, they knock it out of the park.
If we consider how much Dorico has come on within just one year post release, then it is not hard to imagine what can be achieved in the next few years. It is very exciting indeed.
It will be interesting to see if Dorico can disrupt the share of the market that Sibelius holds. It is pretty much ubiquitous in the UK, especially in the educational setting, and whilst Avid has not delivered great improvements over the last 5 years, Sibelius is still a very mature and competent product. It will take a great effort to displace it as the scorewriter of choice, and I am fascinated to see how Steinberg succeed in taking their place in the market. Let’s not beat about the bush – Dorico deserves to be front-and-centre and I very much hope they achieve it.
It will be very interesting to see what occurs over the next five years – will Avid stick with it for the long haul, and will we see an upward curve for Sibelius updates? Or will Dorico take over number one in the UK market? One thing is for certain – there is going to be more updates available to users available in the next five years than the previous five (as Sibelius regrouped with a new team and Dorico was built from scratch) – and I can’t wait!