Applied Theory12:12, 21st April 2016
After snapping up a crack team four years ago, Steinberg has patiently supported a painstaking development process for a brand-new program which it hopes will revolutionise the market for notation software. Project leader Daniel Spreadbury talks to Alex Stevens
As MT readers may be aware, there is a new notation program in the pipeline. It has been in development for several years now, and while a release date is not yet public, MT is assured that we will see the software in ‘the fourth quarter of 2016’. So, before the year ends – but not quite in time for the new school year – there should be a new kid on the music engraving block. Notation software might not be something which people generally get excited about, but there are several reasons to be excited about this one.
The story began in the summer of 2012, when structural reorganisation at Avid, parent company of Sibelius – the current market leader, alongside MakeMusic’s Finale – meant that the UK-based Sibelius development office was to be closed and development work moved to California. As Avid’s audio vice president, Martin Kloiber, wrote in July 2012: ‘Our plan is to integrate Sibelius development more closely with the rest of Avid’s audio development teams in California, and I’m confident we can leverage our innovative development teams and continue to raise the bar in the future.’ However, there was much disagreement in the online community, with many expressing the view that Sibelius’s successful future lay in the hands of the small but experienced London team.
That team was snapped up by Steinberg, and – as documented in an in-depth blog written by product marketing manager and former Sibelius senior product manager Daniel Spreadbury – has been developing an entirely new notation application since November 2012.
This ability to start from scratch, without the technical and organisational baggage, is why people are getting excited. ‘It’s an incredible gift,’ says Spreadbury. ‘All of us love working on notation software, and we would have been happy continuing to work for Sibelius – that was the plan. But to be able to start from scratch… If we were working for one of the existing organisations making scoring software, there’s no way that it could be done, to turn your back on decades of development work and start again. To be hired by Steinberg and basically be given free rein to create something from scratch is an exceptional opportunity for our team, and we’re determined to make the best of it.’
Being able to work from the bottom up has meant that the new program’s foundations are significantly different to what has gone before. ‘Part of what we wanted to do was to reduce the penalty of changing your mind. If you’ve ever tried to insert, say, a semiquaver between a couple of other notes in Sibelius or Finale, you’ll know how painful that can be. So what we’ve tried to do is to make sure the notation in our system is really fantastically good at the rules of music theory. The way the notes go in is much more like MIDI notes in a track or stream than a note in a traditional scoring program. Sequencers can get you towards a much more plastic and flexible representation of the music: they are much easier to chop and change, to invert and scale things, and really experiment with musical ideas.’ Much of the development work over the last few years has been on developing this music theory engine: the notation is the output of this engine rather than itself being the fundamental building blocks.
‘We’ve had three goals with the application: one is that we want it to be really flexible in terms of the input and editing, and I think there’s a lot specifically for education in that. The second is that we want the graphical output to be as beautiful as possible and as automatic as possible. And the third is that because it’s a Steinberg product, we want the playback to be fantastic. We’ve got the legacy of all Steinberg’s innovation in audio and so we want to bring that to bear on the notational software world.’
In the classroom
‘The hope is that it will strongly enforce ideas about rhythm for students,’ says Spreadbury. ‘And if you’re a teacher and you’re using it for preparing arrangements for a school band or choir, the hope is that you can have confidence that the program will produce really good, solid, legible, clear, rhythmically unambiguous results.
‘If you’re writing complicated syncopated rhythms, on Sibelius you’re constantly putting in ties and things – whereas in our program you just type, specify or play the underlying note value and in it goes, and it looks really clear. And of course you’ve got all sorts of rules that can govern that behaviour so you can tweak them if you don’t like it.
‘The problem with the existing software is that there’s always this assumption that it does the right thing. But having the program do it for you allows for discussion. It will start something from the students when they see that they typed in a crotchet but got tied quavers: why is that?’
This architecture is also partly informed by a desire from Steinberg to integrate the software with its other products, such as Cubase – and the program will also include a basic MIDI editor. ‘That desire to be able to build integration later on has also allowed us to build every block from the bottom: to design out some of those problems right from the beginning.’
Back office support
That desire for compatibility, and the long, public development process, suggests a desire from Steinberg to get the product right: perhaps because it sees space at the front of the market for a flexible notation system that could work across the media and education industries. Among other things, this should make playback and integration with sound libraries particularly easy, and the first edition of the new program will come with Steinberg’s Halion Sonic SE and Halion Symphonic Orchestra libraries.
‘It’s fair to say that we’ve missed a couple of the ideal release windows that have presented themselves in the last couple of years! But because Steinberg is a software company through and through, they know that these innovations don’t come easily and they really support the expert engineering that they’ve paid for.’
New users will get free updates for ‘several months’, says Spreadbury, a process of adding features and filling in gaps which developers hope will be informed by direct feedback from the first cohort of users. English-language and European support will be provided through Steinberg’s offices in Hamburg.
Spreadbury is open about the fact that the first versions of this software will not have all of the education-specific features that teachers might want, and indeed the development blog states: ‘Building an application that is suitable for truly professional use is our primary goal.’ Yet the education market is potentially huge and commercially vital. Was there a challenge in making a programme which works for both situations?
‘Version one of anything is not the end of the journey,’ he says. ‘We have indeed prioritised features that are of more importance to professional users – publishers and composers and so on – ahead of things that might be useful to teachers, like classroom management features and resources.
‘It’s also the case that Steinberg doesn’t yet have the perfect classroom licensing system – although I’m pleased to say that our program won’t use the hardware license that Cubase uses, but the software one.
‘But in my experience a lot of the stuff that’s done with scoring software is more or less the same: whether you’re a pro user, a teacher or a student, really the core functionality is the same.
‘Having a really solid program that is fit for purpose for teaching composing and theory, producing teaching and learning materials, and producing music for school ensembles, choirs and instrumental teachers – or whatever it might be – for that, it will be exactly what you need.’
‘Even though we’re trying to be as quick and nimble as we can, the first version of our program will obviously not have every feature that Finale and Sibelius have. But what we hope it will do is demonstrate that there is a new way of working.’