Code · Things that Are Gone

Hyvästi, Sibelius

This week saw the sad news that the UK office responsible for development of the music score-writing software Sibelius is to be closed down.

Maintenance of the software will be moved elsewhere, at least according to its owners Avid, the former video-editing software company that expanded madly throughout the professional audio and video world during the 2000s and now seems to be running out of money and ideas. I’m not sure I believe that much maintenance will happen.

Sibelius is a funny one for me.

I feel fond of it, because I remember its origins in the tail-end of the British homebrew software revolution of the 80s. It was developed by British students three or four years older than me for the Archimedes computer, a machine used almost exclusively in schools. Though I had left school for university before Sibelius arrived, I was still in touch with music teachers and I remember their delight with it. It was one of the most exceptional software products ever made.

More recently, for me as a developer, the SoundSoftware workshop we organised at work had a presentation from Paul Walmsley of Sibelius which hit very close to home—I wrote about it here—as he contrasted the things he knew now about software engineering with what he knew as a PhD student and earlier work on Sibelius. It’s clear that the current Sibelius team are very effective software engineers, and I would be extremely interested to see Sibelius on a CV if I were hiring developers now.

There are other, minor reasons to think of it warmly. I always liked its squidgy music font with the wide note heads. I liked the way it played a tiny clip from the appropriately-numbered Sibelius symphony on startup. I liked the way Charles Lucy when he accosted us as Linux trade shows used to refer to the Finn brothers as if they were old English eccentrics in his mould that he bumped into every other week. I liked the way seemingly every academic in computer music used to cite “you know, those Sibelius folks in Cambridge” as a possible model for their students’ future livelihood.

On the other hand, Sibelius hasn’t been especially good for me and mine.

When I was working on the notation editor in Rosegarden, one thing that motivated me was that so few people could afford to buy Sibelius. (The full version has always cost around £600; there are cut-down editions now, but there was nothing then unless you were registered as a student, which I haven’t been since 1994.) When Richard and I started a small company to sell products based on Rosegarden, even as I was trying (ultimately unsuccessfully) to turn Rosegarden’s notation editor into a full score editor that magically retained human performance timing, I was unable to compare my work properly against Sibelius because our shoestring company simply couldn’t afford to buy a copy. While it may be good that a potential competitor can’t afford your product, it’s probably not good that individuals with aspirations in general can’t.

Meanwhile, even as Sibelius was too expensive for personal use without piracy, it was cheap and available and competent enough to be totally disruptive in traditional music typesetting livelihoods. My cousin-in-law Michael, typesetter to the ABRSM and Boosey & Hawkes (as Barnes Music Engraving Ltd) whom I interviewed in 2004 as a professional typesetter, was seeing business disappear to bedroom typesetters with Sibelius; he left the business entirely a few years later.

Finally, after it had cut the legs off all its competition, the most frustrating thing about Sibelius is that it ended up being sold to a video production company who never seemed quite sure what to do with it, took half-measures in the new world of trivially-priced but widely-distributed mobile apps, and saw initially absurd upstarts like NoteFlight take a lot of the ground-level enthusiasm from it.

I would probably have done the same, in their position. But just as I find it hard to read poetry or prose that I could imagine having written, and hard to listen to singing that sounds like my own reedy and tentative voice, so I find it difficult to forgive companies making the same mistakes as I would have made.

(I’m afraid the formal-goodbye-in-Finnish in the title is entirely courtesy of Google—I’m sure there’s some grammar missing there, even though it is only two words. If you speak Finnish, let me know what I should have written.)

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