My name is Greg Dell’Era and I’m the VP of Product Development here at MakeMusic. As many of you already know, Classic SmartMusic will be retiring on August 31, 2020. While we recognize that this may be a difficult change for some, we feel that it is important to provide more context and perspective about New SmartMusic.
We share your passion for music.
First of all, the underlying passion for music education is clear when receiving feedback and concerns from Classic SmartMusic users. This is a true testimony to your ongoing dedication to the field, and we feel privileged that Vivace and Classic SmartMusic were important tools in your missions. To be clear, the team at MakeMusic share this same level of commitment towards music and music education. At all levels in the organization, we have professional musicians, teachers, professors, composers, and, above all else, music lovers. The choices we’re making as a company for our products can be discussed and challenged, but we stand united with you in the passion that animates us all. As for myself, I’m not a professional musician, but I’m a passionate one. I’ve been trained as a recorder and bassoon player at a Paris Conservatory aged – to 18, and I definitely appreciate your comments about baroque accompaniments, ornaments, 415Hz tuning, etc. I ultimately followed an engineering and business path, with a deep study of math and digital sound processing (including a few patents involving music and audio algorithms). I’ve never forgotten my conservatory training, and my love for music-making has remained a driving force in my career.
The reality for SmartMusic has shifted from a virtual accompanist to a teaching platform.
As most of you are pointing out, SmartMusic’s core business has evolved from a pure accompaniment solution with Vivace in 1995, to a teaching and learning platform with SmartMusic Classic from 2005 to 2015. Although we maintained the virtual accompanist content, we added virtually all popular method books (174 of them!), ensemble and choir titles, as well as assignment abilities and gradebook features. Far before the introduction of New SmartMusic, the academic market had become the financial and user-base reality for Classic SmartMusic.
In 2015, we decided to move to a web-based version. There is no doubt Classic was still used and loved by certain segments for its original performance features with ‘follow-me,’ mp3 upload, high-quality tempo slow-down, and manually crafted MIDI accompaniments. But given New SmartMusic had to start from scratch—with not a single line of code reused (for basic tech stack reasons)—we had to be pragmatic and focus on the reality of the market for SmartMusic.
But why a New SmartMusic?
Now, it’s legitimate to ask why we went to a web-based version rather than maintaining Classic. This is simply because 40% of current SmartMusic students use Chromebooks in schools. This massive wave started in 2014: had we remained focused on Classic, it’s likely that SmartMusic would not exist at all today. The music practice market is a niche industry, and we cannot afford to ignore such a large segment.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to maintain Classic and New altogether. Building from scratch, improving, and maintaining new SmartMusic requires a lot of resources. MakeMusic is a relatively small company, and we’re just not in a position to support two products on two very different tech stacks.
With this new product, we made a bold choice and commitment to make SmartMusic accessible to the widest audience possible: in terms of technology with a web-based version compatible with many more devices, but also in terms of pricing. Classic used to be $40 and $140 for Premium subscriptions. We’re now at $20 and $40 for students and teachers, respectively. We even have a $10 subscription for a full year (!) that requires the teacher to assign. As noted in one of the comments, students cannot explore freely with this Tier, though a method book can be pinned to a class for unlimited use. Access to the whole catalog is $20 a year, which equates to $1.70 a month. Most audio or video streaming platforms start at $7 a month, basically to only display content. We offer a deep catalog, a notation engine, a sight-reading builder, and assessment features for less than $2 a month.
We stand strong in our choice of focusing on the web. The dramatic current pandemic confirmed our choice. With a web-based platform, we’ve been able to offer literally thousands of music titles for free to millions of musicians worldwide who would not have been able to continue their practicing otherwise.
So what does the future look like?
Now that we have focused on our core K-12 market for the last 4 years (and we’ll keep improving, stay tuned), does it mean we cannot address the more advanced market? Certainly not. But I want to share some constraints with you that have been mentioned apropos in the comments. They can be seen as regressions for some compared to Classic SmartMusic, but in the long run they will become strengths. These constraints are about music display, device compatibility, and audio playback.
First, our goal is to always display the music. Many, many titles in Classic were just accompaniments, without music on screen. We have renegotiated deals with publishers to ensure we can offer music on screen. This requires engraving, and thus, time. We are still lacking accompaniments that used to be in Classic. But we have migrated many of them, and we keep doing so—all of them now have sheet music. Additionally, we currently maintain the largest subscription music catalog of any major educational practice platform on the market, and we’ll continue to see this catalog grow significantly in the coming years.
Next, as mentioned earlier, we have to work on Chromebooks. Classic was an installed software, directly leveraging the machine’s resources to perform assessment tasks or score following (‘follow-me’) tasks. New SmartMusic works within a browser, which for many users is running on a $150 Chromebook.
Lastly, as a reminder, we have rebuilt all of our technical components from scratch. We developed a MusicXML-based display engine as Classic SmartMusic used to leverage the Finale viewer, but it is not compliant with web technologies. We had to convert every single title from the SmartMusic catalog: notation, metadata, assessment setup, etc. One very challenging piece of work was to build an audio playback engine. I hear and understand your concerns about the audio quality, and without disclosing too much, we are fully committed to significantly improving the playback quality of our titles. One important thing to understand is that SmartMusic’s catalog can be broken down into 2 buckets:
- The largest section of our catalog is using MP3. We’re playing back the audio file provided by the publisher, most always a very nice recording of a professional orchestra. At default tempo, it plays perfectly in New SmartMusic. When you slow down the tempo, you have to apply what is called a time-stretching algorithm. It is relatively computationally intensive. Not a big deal for an installed software like Classic. But when running in a browser, on top of audio recording, real-time assessment, real-time engraving (display) of the sheet music MusicXML, it adds up quickly, especially on low-end devices. We currently have to make some compromises. But we’re constantly re-evaluating our algorithm, and when the majority of our users are on more robust devices that support it, we will upgrade it.
- We have a small catalog of titles that rely on MIDI files for the accompaniment. Most user comments and feedback refer to this subset of the catalog: a set of advanced, often public domain titles for committed amateur performers. These comments are right—we are not yet matching the quality that was offered by Classic. Classic was relying on a nice MIDI SoundFont and a playback engine that has been tuned over decades since the release of Vivace (the cartridge-based, $2,000 ancestor of SmartMusic). But New SmartMusic has a much more powerful foundation to surpass it. On the one hand, we are now relying on the whole Garritan library to playback MIDI accompaniments and My Part. Those are high quality, real instrument samples. But to get the most out of them, it requires a strong playback engine that will understand the context of the score (dynamics, ornaments, tempi, rubato, etc.) and manipulate the samples (layers, humanization, envelopes) to sound realistic. We are currently working on this, intensively. But it is a multi-year effort, and to be honest, we will not be able to deliver just yet. But we definitely will do so in the mid-term, and as a recorder and bassoon player, I can’t wait to see more depth and life in the Vivaldi or Telemann titles that we currently have in SmartMusic.
One recurring piece of feedback we receive is about the ‘follow-me’ feature. We don’t have any plan in the short term to support this in New SmartMusic simply because we are not yet at a point where we can confidently offer this feature to our users. Yet the long term ambition is clear: offering follow-me on every title—even the ones using MP3 as a playback track—not just MIDI titles. We have recent patents that prepare for this. However, in all transparency, we’re first focusing on other, more critical components for our core market, which will also be relevant for all musicians: playlists, sharing of created music, integration with Finale, expansion of our catalog, and critically, a brand new feature coming this August (which I simply can’t disclose yet, but is a huge effort on our part to help school budgets, teachers, and students during these uncertain times with in-person and remote teaching!). So please stay tuned!
Classic SmartMusic is retiring at the end of August 2020.
The web-based version will now be SmartMusic. It has powerful, though still young, foundations that are well-suited for the challenging times the music practice community is facing right now. SmartMusic is certainly different from the original intent in 1995, and its current incarnation can’t yet match all expectations from all musicians. We certainly understand that some of you might say goodbye to SmartMusic as a result of sunsetting Classic SmartMusic, but we trust that it will only be an au revoir and not a permanent departure. In the meantime, SmartMusic will continue to evolve, adapt, enrich, and continue to serve and support the millions of music-makers and music teachers, globally, in the best way our committed team knows how!
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