Avid’s Michael Ost speaks about Sibelius’s past, present, and future

by Philip Rothman on December 16, 2013 · 16 comments

in People

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“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.

Avid's technical support specialist Joe Pearson and principal software engineer Michael Ost, at AIR Studios in London in August 2013 (Courtesy: Avid)

Avid’s technical support specialist Joe Pearson and principal software engineer Michael Ost, at AIR Studios in London in August 2013 (Courtesy: Avid)

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.

Members of Avid's current Sibelius team, in Kiev in August 2013. From left: Randy Fayan, Anton Plakhotnyk, Sam Butler, Bobby Lombardi, Michael Ost, Michael Sinitsin and Artem Launets (Courtesy: Michael Ost)

Members of Avid’s current Sibelius team, in Kiev in August 2013. From left: Randy Fayan, Anton Plakhotnyk, Sam Butler, Bobby Lombardi, Michael Ost, Michael Sinitsin and Artem Launets (Courtesy: Michael Ost)

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.”

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

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.”

Sometimes, "people just want to be able to paste tuplets"

Sometimes, “people just want to be able to paste tuplets” (from the Sibelius IdeaScale site)

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.

Scorch updates

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.”

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Matthew Treder December 16, 2013 at 5:59 AM

Nice to see something — anything! — alluding to current and future Sibelius development! It’s been a long, slow year waiting for news…

Abraham Oleksnianski December 16, 2013 at 10:37 AM

Well nice to finally hear something about current and future Sibelius development even if it is minimal and vague. My only concern after reading the article is Michael Ost’s ignorant knowledge of Sibelius and it’s specific user features. I understand he has been engrossing himself in the code and the back end of the program, but, in my own opinion, how can you possibly develop a program without knowing how to use the program as a user at all? Maybe because it’s, as he mentioned that he is still new the program, that he is still playing catch up. I don’t really know but it’s really my only concern at the moment. He at the very least seems passionate about continuing further development of the software. This is good news for me because I personally could never get my head around Finale and found it not user friendly at all and difficult to learn. I do agree with Michael when he said that Sibelius was a much strong program then Finale and I want to see it continue to grow. Although I am still very much interested to see what the Steinberg team (previously the Sibelius team) comes up with!

Ernie Jackson December 16, 2013 at 1:15 PM

I will admit we were spoiled because Daniel was so forthcoming and helpful to everyone – especially me. But change has come and there will be great things ahead. January NAMM show will provide some great news and put Sibelius back in the “comfort zone” of its existing – and future users.

Robert Puff December 16, 2013 at 3:07 PM

Very nicely written, balanced and informative article!

Mr. Ost’s response to the question about support for the proposed SMuFL font standard is telling – if he speaks for Avid, it would appear that the company will adopt a very cautious “IBM-corporate” stance moving forward in terms of development. A take no chances approach – follow rather than lead in all cases.

As the lead developer for Encore and MusicTime, Mr. Ost would certainly be aware that Passport Designs was one of the very earliest adopters of the MIDI standard in 1983. The MIDI standard became a cornerstone of technological development representing nearly all facets of the music industry including music notation. Early support by Passport Designs and other forward-thinking companies of this Open Standard made it possible.

A music technology company should be anything but “agnostic” about emerging open standards that will benefit their own customer base, even if the standard is something as unglamorous as font management.

In the meantime, fixing the incompatibilities with the current operating systems will help to avoid a customer Exodus.

Derek Williams December 16, 2013 at 4:22 PM

I don’t have the slightest animus against the new development team. They’ve got families to feed, and careers to drive, and I’m certain they’ll give it their best shot. Their presence at least means that the wounded Sibelius has the chance to limp along and remain compatible with operating system upgrades a bit longer. I wish them well.

At the heart of the Sibelius debacle, and still systemically unresolved from my perspective has been the appalling way in which the world’s premier scorewriter has been allowed to be brought to the brink of extinction by corporate callousness and greed through firing the world’s most experienced and competent music score development team, who were then immediately snapped up in toto by Yamaha-Steinberg, a company with the resources to outsmart Avid every step of the way. At the time, this looked like a death sentence for Sibelius. Now, maybe not so much, but at all times, the least of Avid’s concerns has been its customers. Firing their development team was never done with the object of improving services to Sibelius users, but was merely to milk more and more out of less and less until in due course, the cash cow that is Sibelius would perish. Why should they care? Their main objective of making short term millions would have been achieved, and they could find another high performing company to asset-strip. With sales continuing and overheads cut to the bone, money would line Avid directors’ pockets, without being reinvested in new features and products.

Avid is a middle man company driven by values that have nothing to do with ethics, invention, inspiration and customer service. Ask any Sibelius user whether they prefer the buggy and cumbersome Avid tech support over that previously offered when Sibelius was standalone. Compared with Apple, the corporation whose endless innovation was driven by its charismatic visionary Steve Jobs, or Microsoft, under Bill Gates, Avid has at its core a values system whose sole interest is making the quick buck, no matter what.

Over time, we will see the new Steinberg scoring application get legs, free of the baggage of legacy code, and cognisant of new devices like the iPad. The chances are very high that at the very least, it will halve the Sibelius user base over time. With the inevitable tailing off in profits from Sibelius, this will cause Avid to look again at where to make cuts.

The new development team would do well therefore, to study how Avid treats its most outstanding employees. They don’t care about you, nor do they care about their customers. Once they’re done with you, you will be unceremoniously fired.

Craig December 16, 2013 at 4:45 PM

I’m encouraged by Mr. Ost’s background with Encore and also that he finds Sibelius currently both loaded with features and at times surprising in it’s approach. Having spent formative years with Encore, the intuitiveness and directness of that (now-limited) program still far exceeds the “intuitiveness” of Sibelius. Being an occasional user of several versions over the years, I find myself similarly vacillating between being impressed and being aggravated. Some things could be FAR easier to accomplish.
I’m hoping that Mr. Ost’s fresh-eyes approach will result in a program that is still more streamlined, more flexible, and less obtuse — while still moving forward in advanced features.

John Randolph December 16, 2013 at 6:10 PM

I’m not sure I understand Avid’s strategy. They layoff an entire design team who have proven themselves over and over and replace them a year later with an unproven team that from this article appears to not even have a firm grasp of the software. And this is eight months after this guy was hired. Can anyone explain this to me?

Thomas Hewitt Jones December 16, 2013 at 7:10 PM

All power to Daniel Spreadbury and team. Sibelius users will stick with them!

Peter Roos December 16, 2013 at 11:52 PM

Very interesting – thanks for posting Philip. There’s a lot of bad feelings towards Avid for what they did to the Sibelius development team (all of it deserved) but let’s wait and see what the future beholds. Michael seems to be a decent guy, though he has got big shoes to fill.

Bob December 17, 2013 at 11:37 AM

+1 on Derek Williams’ comments. (‘Debacle’ describes this well. So ‘Disaster’.)

I’d also add that ultimate responsibility goes to the Finns for selling to Avid in the first place. Back when the sale was announced, the first thing that came to mind was ‘this can’t be good’. I wish I’d been wrong.

As much as it’s nice to see that there is indeed a team working on Sibelius, that’s ultimately cold comfort.

Would have at least liked to see a mention of Mavericks compatibility. Yesterday’s small Mavericks update didn’t fix it, and Avid’s statement in the previous blog post didn’t inspire confidence.

Phil Shaw December 17, 2013 at 11:41 PM

The Avid strategy appears to be to acquire popular high-quality products, terminate the expensive development team, hire a bare-bones maintenance team, and treat the products as cash-cows. In a very long software career I’ve seen this done several times, and it always results in the degradation of the product.

The new maintenance team has three sorts of tasks: (1) bug-fixes, (2) upgrades for operating system changes, and (possibly) (3) some cosmetic new features.

But, the new maintenance team has neither the time nor the motivation to understand the product that they are changing, so changes that they make in one part of the product almost always introduce problems (bugs) into other parts of the product.

For a Sibelius user the best strategy is to stick with 7.1.3. Unfortunately, that’s only good for the medium-term at best, since Microsoft will be forcing operating-system oriented changes, and in the long-term 7.1.3 will simply not work with some later Windows release and Windows 7 won’t be available on new computers.

Neil Rolnick December 18, 2013 at 12:29 AM

It’s practically unbelievable that the person hired to replace the Sibelius development team still isn’t an expert user of the program after 8 months on the job, and doesn’t seem to feel compelled to understand how users use it. And the fact that Avid seems to think that the solution to Sibelius incompatibility with Mavericks is to wait and hope that Apple will fix it just seems the height of hubris. For me, when I start my next project, probably next month, I expect to do it on Finale 2014 if Sibelius hasn’t fixed current incompatibility with Mavericks by then. And I’ll be on the lookout for the new Steinberg product … at least the team putting that together know how to make notation software, as we’ve seen in Sibelius all these years.

Michael Ost December 18, 2013 at 9:42 PM

Interesting responses!

One thing I would like to comment on is that I am an engineer on this product. I don’t work at the user or product design level like you might recall other Sibelius spokespeople doing. Rest assured that there are people at Avid who are looking after the feature set while I work on how the code works, implementing new features, cleaning up old code, etc. I would have preferred for Philip to leave out my “non comments” about favorite features and so forth, but oh well.

Pat December 18, 2013 at 10:49 PM

Michael, I think Phillip was just highlighting the fact that users are frustrated that a completely green staff was hired after laying off an entire office experienced employees – and we are feeling the effects. To us, you not knowing the program well enough to highlight features in an interview is baffling – especially when the program as it stands cannot even run smoothly on OS Mavericks with large instrumentation or long length.

I hope that soon we can hear you say in an interview that one great “feature” of the program is that it runs as intended on up-to-date operating systems.

I’m sure you’re all working hard, and of course we can all plainly see that you didn’t do the laying off! But – surely you can understand why your “non-comments” were, in many ways, the most interesting and concerning part of the article for users.

Lastly, it is curious to me that your only comment on this article seems to be defending yourself – not the program.

Philip Rothman December 19, 2013 at 7:46 AM

For the record: In the course of replying to the interview questions for this article, Michael did not indicate a preference for any of his remarks to be withheld from publication.

Ukfraser December 19, 2013 at 1:23 PM

Michael, as a scorch iOS user, from my perspective, we had to live with an unusable buggy product for 18 months and the release in summer, fixed the major bugs but it is still unusable for a musician who plays an instrumented needs to use more than 2 scoresin a performance. We need the remaining minor bugs fixed and a workable set list feature in order to make this usable for performances and this has been needed for the last 2.5 years. Yes it’s great to be able to open different formats, but for performance, we still have to convert them to PDF and then use other feature rich apps like forScore so Scorch remains a practice app at best.

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