Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

Software for Music Notation

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

For many years, I’ve occasionally needed to generate printed music notation.  This has been for a variety of reasons including arranging music for piano, piano accordion, or choir, or re-printing old copies of music that are no longer available and where my originals are literally falling to pieces.  Finding satisfactory software has never been easy.   I remember using a few shareware programs in the days of DOS.  These programs worked well within their limited capabilities, but they were extremely limited.  Some of these have continued in development.  Noteworthy Composer is one that I played with many years ago which I see is still available.

For a considerable time when I was using Linux and Mac OS X, I became quite adept at using the open source LilyPond.  LilyPond is not for the faint-hearted as it is a scripting language — no graphics, just text. The output is first rate but it does take some effort to learn, and I found that often between versions (and updates for LilyPond were, and still are, released fairly rapidly), there were often changes to the syntax which meant running a provided utility to upgrade the existing input files.  If I didn’t use LilyPond for some time, then the update might need to be done by hand, and also I found that I had to at least partially relearn the program.  There are some graphical front-ends for LilyPond and also some nice environments for doing the development of notation.  I would recommend reading the essay on the LilyPond Web site which gives fascinating insight into music engraving.

As the LilyPond essay makes clear, music engraving is more complex than word processing because of the inherent two dimensional nature of musical notation.  One of the biggest problems with music notation, particularly when the music is more than very simple lead sheets, is that the articulations, expression and technique instructions, and any lyrics, not to mention the notes themselves can easily collide without some sophisticated algorithms for placement.

Recently, I’ve taken another look at the software available for music notation.  The two “big” programs are Finale and Sibelius, both of which are available for WIndows and Mac OS X.  Trials are available for both but these are expensive programs.  Finale 2011 is $600 and Sibelius 7 is £460.  In both cases academic discounts are available that make the prices much more palatable, but I do not quality for these.  Both Finale and Sibelius have cheaper versions with reduced functionality.

In the case of Finale there is a whole suite of programs from the free Finale Reader (which is only for printing and playing a file that you might have received in Finale format), through Finale NotePad, Finale SongWriter and Finale PrintMusic.  (There is also Finale Allegro but that doesn’t seem to have been updated for modern operating systems.) I have tried NotePad in the past and it really is only for the simplest music, but SongWirter and PrintMusic are both fairly capable.  Finale have a very open policy about upgrades so that you can buy without regret in that if you want one of the more expensive members of the Finale Family, there is an upgrade price that means you won’t have wasted money by buying a lower product first. For the things I needed to do, Finale Songwriter was almost good enough and Finale PrintMusic certainly was able to do the job.

Sibelius only has one reduced version for general use (there is a Student version but that I think is specifically tied to use by education establishments in conjunction with full academic versions).  This reduced version is Sibelius First.  Avid, who now own Sibelius, indicate that there is an upgrade discount for upgrading to the full version of Sibelius, but there is no explicit information on their Web site.  Avid also control the forums for discussion of Sibelius a little more than MakeMusic (Finale publisher) does for FInale.

I downloaded the trials for Finale PrintMusic, Finale SongWriter and Sibelius First.  In all cases I went through the tutorials that are included in their documentation.  I think this is pretty much essential with these types of programs.   While you can do a lot just by clicking around with a mouse, one really needs to learn the keystrokes in order to be able to enter and annotate music with any speed.  If it was going to take me an hour to notate a page of music then I would be as quick using LilyPond (for free!).

Finale PrintMusic ($120) essentially did what I needed.  However, the disadvantage is that the output required a lot of tinkering to get it to look right.  The only limitation that hampered me was that I couldn’t change a clef in the middle of a bar (measure).  I also found that adding some articulations to notes was fairly time consuming in the number of key strokes needed (and scrolling of lists).  However, I was pretty much inclined to go ahead and buy Finale PrintMusic.  PrintMusic and most of the FInale products import and export MusicXML which is the preferred way to exchange music between notation programs.  Overall PrintMusic seems to have a somewhat old-fashioned interface.

Sibelius First (£120) also did what I needed.  There are some more obvious limitations in Sibelius First over its full price big version.  I noted a strong negative review on Amazon pointing out the limitations.  The most obvious one is the lack of being able to do double dotted notation.  Having said that, none of the music I need to notate seems to have any double dotted rhythms, and so for the moment that is not a restriction, and one can always get around it in a rather clumsy way by using tied notes.  There are some articulations missing that may also be a little restricting, but I haven’t had a direct need for them in my sample tests.  Sibelius First does not do export of Music XML making it much more difficult to get stuff out of Sibelius First.  in general, the number of key strokes required to do things in Sibelius First was less than in Finale Print Music and so input was generally a little quicker. The biggest plus of Sibelius First is the “magnetic layout” which automatically moves objects to avoid collisions.  While this was not at all perfect it meant that the time to do adjustments to get the music looking right was much reduced over Finale PrintMusic (where I gave up before doing all of the tweaks).  A disadvantage of this is that occasionally the notation can move around under one in a somewhat disconcerting way.  Manual tweaking is not so easy (which is a limitation of Sibelius First — I believe that Sibelius 7 has user modifiable rules and also the ability to turn off magnetic layout for individual items).  The other problem I noticed was that it was rather easy to accidentally move an object when intending to scroll the “paper”, or to mistype and have something unexpected happen, as many keystrokes are defined as keyboard shortcuts.  LIke Finale PrintMusic there is considerable documentation, and the Sibelius First user guide is both detailed and thorough while having a light hearted touch which is a pleasure in reading documentation, and as I said before, I believe that for these types of applications one really has to read the documentation to get the best out of them.

I also took a look at a graphical open source program, MuseScore.  This is remarkably good and a worthy contender with the big programs.  It is highly capable and has none of the restrictions of the reduced Finale and Sibelius versions.  There is a lot less documentation available for MuseScore than for the commercial programs and I found that some things didn’t seem to work quite as the documentation indicated.   Again, manual layout tweaks would be necessary to produce good output.  I also tripped over some inconsistencies which I couldn’t explain.  I found that MuseScore was fairly slow to input music and lacked some of the finesse of the commercial programs.

Another application of a similar nature is Notion 3.  I have not tried this, but I believe from the description and from other comments that it is probably more suited to those who are looking for a system to perform music which also provides notation.  I was more concerned with the notation as the primary objective, although all of these systems can drive MIDI devices (and take input from them) and have built in synthesisers.  Notion 3 is much cheaper than the full price offerings from Finale and Sibelius, but more expensive than their limited functionality versions.

What are my conclusions?

I think that for someone who is making money from music, or is able to get an academic discount, then they can really choose the big programs and the choice is probably one of what is used by colleagues, school or personal preference.   However, if the full versions reflect the reduced versions, I suspect that Sibelius 7 wins on getting good looking copy quickly.

For those of us who have to pay full price for software, then if cost is the prime consideration, then MuseScore is clearly a winner.  However Finale Songwriter is only $50 which makes it pretty affordable considering what it can do.

For a little more money the choice is really between Finale PrintMusic and Sibelius First (although the latter is about 60% more expensive in the UK at the current exchange rate).  I believe at this level the choice is between PrintMusic which can probably notate almost everything that I would ever need to do but take longer to get decent output, or Sibelius First where I suspect I will hit a limitation at some point — although not in my current test — but where the output requires very little tweaking to get a good result.  The “no regrets” upgrade path with Finale PrintMusic is attractive.

For what it is worth, I’ve bought a copy of Sibelius First having decided that getting good looking output quickly is worth the extra money.  If and when I hit limitations in Sibelius First, I hope that an upgrade path will be possible, or else I’ll be using MuseScore.


Mac OS X Lion

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

In the past (or at least since I’ve been using a Mac), I’ve bought upgrades to OS X on the day that they have been released.  Having said that, it has usually been a month (or even several months) before I’ve actually upgraded.

I remember the transition from Tiger to Leopard being particularly painful.  Although the operating system came out in the Autumn, I didn’t attempt to update my iMac until Christmas because some of the software that I used was not ready for Leopard.  When I did upgrade my iMac, I ended up reverting back to my Tiger system within about 24 hours or so because of problems.  (I’ve been a keen user of SuperDuper which is an excellent way of cloning one’s main drive to produce a bootable back up from which one can restore.)   Sometime in the following year I upgraded my MacBook successfully and my MacMini and then eventually updated the iMac.

The transition to Snow Leopard went more smoothly.  Again I didn’t do it for a month or two while waiting for applications to be declared stable, but the upgrade went smoothly with no problems that I can recall on both my MacBook and the iMac.  The Mac Mini couldn’t be upgraded to Snow Leopard because of hardware limitations.

With Lion and the download from the App Store, the buying and installing steps can be one and the same and so there is no real point in buying so that one has it ready for when one thinks the time is opportune.  On this occasion, only my MacBook is a candidate for being updated as the iMac is one of the first Intel based iMac machines and so only has a Core Duo processor rather than Core 2 Duo.

I haven’t even thought of updating the MacBook OS yet.  I know that I will need to do the following:

  • check software for compatibility
  • clean up the machine as there is precious free space on the hard drive currently
  • consider whether running different OS on my iMac and MacBook will be too disruptive.

My impression from reviews is that it is definitely an advantage to have a laptop with one of the modern trackpads that can do all the gestures (or to buy a Magic Trackpad for a desktop Mac).  Needless to say, my MacBook is sufficiently old that I’m not going to be able to use many gestures.

Lion clearly marks a major change in philosophy for the operating system in many ways.  The introduction of versioning, interaction with more gestures, and the “consumerisation” of the computer are an acceleration in the direction that Apple now seems to be moving.  It remains to be seen, how many Apple users slip away in this transition.  There is also the problem that some of the new features may not be fully baked yet and so prove a little fragile.  This article by TedLandau in the Mac Observer is a good summary of some of problems facing early adopters.

It would be nice to play with Lion, but I suspect that I will leave it a couple more months (at least until there are one or two “point” releases) and possibly until I need to replace on of my machines.


iCal, MobileMe and Synchronisation

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

In a previous post I mentioned using Calendar events to automatically download podcasts over night. When I set this up I just added an Events calendar (to keep this daily repeating event separate from everything else so that I could filter out its view).  However this was still within my MobileMe Calendar.  This meant that this calendar and its events was being synchronised to my other Mac computer and also to my iPad and iPod touch.  This was annoying for two reasons:

  1. It added an item to every day on the calendar which while a little annoying on my iMac wasn’t too bad as it could be filtered, but was really annoying on my iPod Touch and IPad where it is more difficult to filter calendars.  (As far as I can tell you can display all calendars, or an individual calendar, but can’t filter out individual calendars.)
  2. The associated event also appeared so that on my iMac I would get an error message each day saying the event hadn’t run because the script couldn’t be found.  On the iPod Touch and iPad a notification for the event would come up on the device.

The answer to this problem is not entirely trivial.  The new MobileMe calendar is effectively stored in the cloud and distributed to devices and as far as I can see you get all of it subject to some filtering on the iOS devices where events beyond a certain point in the past are not synchronised.  Therefore this event/action for executing the script needs to be in a local calendar.  This can be done by creating a new calendar in the “On My Mac” group:

iCal Menu Screenshot


I moved the Events calendar from my MobileMe group to the On My Mac group (and also renamed it to Alarms — Autorun).

Calendar on iCal

However, I discovered that this didn’t quite solve the problem as this calendar also become synchronised to my iMac.  To solve this one needs to go in to the MobileMe preferences and on the Sync tab un-check Calendars.  The Mobile Me calendars are still synchronised as these have a master slave relationship between MobileMe in the cloud and the individual devices.  Un-checking this box stops the local “On My Mac” calendars being synchronised between machines.

Synchronisation Preferences

This means that the local “Alarms — autorun” calendar now stays firmly on my MacBook which is where I keep my main iTunes Podcast library.  The next time one opens the calendar on an iOS device these events and alarms will disappear as they are syncing through the cloud MobileMe.

I imagine that you need to make sure that you are not synchronising calendars to iOS devices via iTunes.  However, if you are using MobileMe you probably shouldn’t be using iTunes syncing for calendars in any case as it should be the cloud syncing (and if you have both, the calendars probably have multiple entries!)

I’m not sure if this helps anyone else, but at least it is a record for me when in six months time I’ve forgotten what I did.


Another Mac App Bundle

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Hard on the heels of the MacLegion bundle that I mentioned, is a new bundle from ProductiveMacs.  This one includes eight applications for $29.99 (plus VAT for those of us in countries that levy Value Added Tax).  Like the MacLegion bundle, this one looks quite attractive as at least half of the applications are ones that I’ve heard of and at least thought of trying out or buying.

The applications are:

TextExpander — This one is often called out on podcasts that I listen to.  If one is regularly doing any significant amount of typing (even programming and web development) it can be a big time saver.

Path Finder — Probably the best known Finder replacement application.

Socialite — Not one that I know, and probably not very relevant to me as it really is aggregation for social networks.

HoudahSpot — This is a front-end to SpotLight.  I recall Don McAllister doing a ScreenCast on it some time ago.   I use and recommend HoudahGeo that is built by the same developer for geo tagging photographs.

Today — This is not one that I know, and seems to be a front-end / viewer for iCal.

Blast — Not one that I know and it appears to keep track of recently used files and provide easy fast access to them.

Keyboard Maestro — I’ve not heard of this one but according to the developer’s webpage it is John Gruber’s (Daring Fireball) secret weapon.  It appears to be a system for setting up quite complex keyboard shortcuts and so could well be a big productivity saving.

Mail Act-on — This I have heard of and is a Mail plug-in that provides the ability to improve the ease with which one processes mail (in  I’ve usually heard it talked about with other plug-ins such as MailTags which is another plug-in from the same developers.

TextExpander, Path Finder, HoudahSpot and Keyboard Maestro individually are priced at $30 or more and so if you want any of those, then this bundle is potentially a saving.

Will I buy it?  Well it is available until the end of this month, so there is time to think about it yet.  I suspect that I probably won’t go for it because although is very attractive, I find that I end up not using many of the applications that I purchase.   If I was sitting working at my Mac all day generating text I’m sure that I would heavily use TextExpander, but that is not my life at the moment.  I’m a little wary about Finder replacements and don’t really feel a need for the other apps, but this bundle is undoubtedly good value.

MacLegion Spring Bundle

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

I’m of two minds about many of the Mac Application Bundles that get offered for sale on the internet.   I have purchased some in the past including a previous MacHeist.  In the past I’ve often been seduced by the very attractive pricing and the low bundle price, but if I look back some months later I’ve found that I’m not actually using any of the applications that I bought in the bundle.   I then feel that I really would have been better off trying trial versions and seeing whether the applications really are going to be useful for me and then just buy what I want.

I’m hoping that the MacLegion Spring Bundle will prove otherwise.   This is $49.99 for 10 applications, together with HDRtist Pro for the first 9000 customers.  As I type this there are about 5 and a half days left in this promotion and about 6,500 bundles have been sold.  The attraction for me is that the bundle includes Data Rescue (which itself is worth more than the bundle price) and which I’ve thought of buying in the past in order to have it ready at hand.  Other attractive applications to me are ScreenFlow (again worth more than the bundle price, although I’m sure I will never get round to making any screencasts and so probably it will go into my “applications never seriously used” collection), Intego’s Virus Barrier (which I hope that I don’t want to use!), ForkLift (which I’ve thought of buying previously), Launchbar (another launcher that is well though of it the Mac community and which I have thought of buying) and Printopia (which provides AirPrint and more for those of us that don’t have the right AirPrint capable printers and is something I’ve thought of purchasing).  Applications that I probably won’t use (and may well not even install) are: Contactizer Pro, Amadeus Pro (I’ve already got plenty of other audio editing applications), Radio Gaga, and MacPilot.

In addition I’ve already used HDRtist (which is free) and so may well use HDRtist Pro.

All in all this bundle looks attractive with many first-class applications.   Well worth a look.

Mac App Store

Friday, January 21st, 2011

I got around to updating to OS 10.6.6 a couple of weeks ago which brought with it the Mac App Store.   On the whole, I am impressed and think it could make quite a disruptive change to the Mac application environment.  Apple has got us used to casually installing applications on our iOS devices — between my iPod Touch and iPad, I have 147 applications listed in iTunes.  Installation of apps via the Mac App Store is so easy and cute that it does present a very attractive way of buying applications.   Arguably it is too easy and attractive as I can see folks accidentally buying expensive applications.  Clearly Apple is making a move to encourage much larger sales of potentially cheaper applications.  The very fact that their own Aperture 3 application is so much cheaper (£44.99 in the App Store compared with £173 as a boxed version from the Apple Store) seems to suggest this.  I’ve notice a vast number of applications in the App Store that I have never seen before and some of those that I do know and use seem to have adopted an introductory pricing.  For example, RapidWeaver that I use for building Web sites has effectively set its price in the App Store to the price that it was charging for upgrades.  This has worked well for me as I hadn’t upgraded to the latest version and so chose to get the new version from the App Store.  This seems to be a pattern that other publishers are also using.

In the longer term,  Apple is going to have to offer some way for doing upgrade pricing as I can’t see Apple or any of the publishers of really expensive applications suddenly selling everything at upgrade prices.

I’ve been going through looking at my free applications and replacing them with versions from the App Store where available to make future updating easier.  As I’ve written before, keeping applications up-to-date is a chore, even for those of us who are experienced users.

I have purchased Aperture 3, and have it on both my older iMac (which only meets the minimal requirements for Aperture as it is just a Core Duo processor) and on my MacBook.  One of the tasks I was planning to do was to merge my various iPhoto libraries that I have on my MacBook and on the iMac.  I probably won’t do that now, and instead will progressively import everything into one or more Aperture Libraries.  I shall, no doubt, write about that in the future.  My initial experiences with playing with Aperture 3 have been favourable and my Topaz filters work much more smoothly from Aperture than with iPhoto.

iOS4.2.1 on the iPad

Friday, November 26th, 2010

A couple of evenings ago (well probably the early hours of the morning!), I got around to syncing my iPad and accepting the iOS4.2.1 update.   This took hours to install on my iPad, although I think that was largely my fault. My USB hub was being hammered as I was also doing some backups between external portable USB drives at the time.  I’m sure the update wouldn’t have taken 2 hours otherwise!

I’m very happy with the update, although already miss the hardware orientation switch.  One thing I noticed yesterday that I hadn’t seen mentioned anywhere else is that when on the plane attempting to adjust the time zone, this is now set to automatic.  I didn’t take it off automatic and noticed that when I was at home again the time had been corrected for the new time zone.  I’m assuming this works like on Mac OS X where once one has a network connection it updates the timezone automatically.   I have to say that when Mac OS X started doing this it saved me having to remember to update the MacBook after each flight (and I have been flying between timezones about once every couple of weeks for almost four years).  The only thing to remember now is to set the timezone support correctly on the calendar.

I seem to have quite a few applications happily “multi-tasking” in the somewhat restricted but practical way in which Apple allows this on the iPad.  If I hadn’t read it in other blog posts I wouldn’t have known about the ability to swipe the “task list” to the right to get to the panel with orientation lock, brightness and iTunes controls.

I am really liking the AirPlay capability that is now available on the iPad.  I have an Airport Express connected to my hi-fi and the ability to stream audio directly from the iPad is really good.  I just wish that my iPod Touch were more modern (I still have a first generation which is not supported under iOS 4).  I’ve often used the remote application on the iPod Touch or IPad to control one of the Macs iTunes but the ability to bypass a computer is rather handy.   I feel that I shall probably buy an AppleTV before long and explore the video streaming to that.

Keeping Software up to date on the Mac

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Keeping Apple software up-to-date on the Mac is easy.  Just run Software Update and follow the instructions.   Indeed if you are an administrator and have the right settings, Software Update will simply pop up periodically to tell you that new software is available.

However, updating third-party software is more tricky.   Adobe Flash is a pain on the Mac because unlike on Windows, it doesn’t automatically check for updates as far as I know.  I now find myself having a reminder every week or so to actually go to to check whether my version of Flash is up-to-date.

Other third-party software is getting easier in some ways.   Many applications now automatically check for updates on launch and will download and update themselves with one-click and the inputting of an administrator password.   However,  I often find myself just needing to do something and therefore not wanting to update an application just as I’m starting to use it.  I opened it to do something, not to update it.  Again I find myself putting little reminders to myself to update third party applications when I’ve deferred the update — otherwise I’m sure to forget.  I’d much prefer to devote an hour every couple of weeks and updating everything and knowing that everything is up-to-date.

I use to rely heavily on a little dashboard application (AppUpdate) by Georg Kaindl which would periodically check Apple’s site, MacUpdate and VersionTracker looking for updates to software applications.   This generally worked very well, but its utility has dropped significantly with the replacing of VersionTracker by CNET Downloads. A number of my applications never seem to show up on MacUpdate.

For a while I used AppFresh but found that it wasn’t that reliable.  Certain applications it would always report as out-of-date when they were not, and for others, even when they were genuinely in need of an update, it wouldn’t download the update.  It relies to a large extent on the information on i use this.

On my iMac I’ve successfully used the CNET TechTracker application, but although CNET claims that you can use the application on up to three machines, I found that using it on my MacBook would simply take me to the update details for my iMac.  Despite following the instructions (and uninstalling / re-installing the application), I haven’t been able to get that to work.

While I have mixed feelings about the proposed Apple OS X Application store, I can see that if it automates the updating process as we are all pretty much used to on our iOS devices, that will be a neat benefit.   I certainly wouldn’t want the Application store to be the only source of Mac software though.

For the moment on my laptop I think I’ll have to stick with making notes when applications report updates available and relying on AppUpdate for the things it finds.

HTML Editors

Monday, October 11th, 2010

A few days ago I was talking to a colleague at work who was asking about HTML editors.  As I did a quick bit of research on available editors I thought I’d reproduce it as a blog post.

There are ten Mac (although many come in versions for Windows and Linux as well) HTML editors listed here.  Of the one’s listed I’ve used:

  • Eclipse (but that is the full environment for Java / SOA development so it is a bit overkill for simple HTML editing),
  • Amaya (although I don’t recall using this for long),
  • KompoZer (which I think I only tried out of curiosity),
  • Nvu (also probably only out of curiosity),
  • TextWrangler (which I have on my iMac and use), and 
  • Emacs (as I’m an old Emacs keyboard wizard).

For most HTML that I do these days I use Espresso but largely because it came with a bundle of other applications.  It is overkill for what I need and I probably wouldn’t have bought it directly.

The top one on the list referred to above is Komodo Edit.  I remember using ActivePerl from ActiveState in the past — although probably 15 or 20 years ago!  I downloaded Komodo Edit and it seems a pretty neat useful text editor that works with a Perl, Python, and Ruby as well as HTML, XML and XSLT files.  It does take a little while to load while it brings in all the syntax and tool tips information for each language.

Most of the sites I maintain I do through other third party tools so one can virtually avoid writing any HTML or Javascript directly and any site with more than a small number of pages requires discipline to keep tidy if you do it all by hand, particularly if one is included menus or links between pages.   RapidWeaver has been my tool of choice on the Mac for sometime as it is easy, quick to use, and has a vast community who generate plug-ins of various sorts.


iPad RSS Readers

Monday, October 4th, 2010

One of the things I use my iPad for a lot, is following news stories through RSS feeds.   I’ve almost given up actually visiting web sites directly, but subscribe to the feeds and then go and read the stories that interest me.   This works well with technical news sites, although more general news sites seem rather more problematic unless they have multiple feeds.  I am extremely unlikely to read sports stories, but will read many business and political pieces.  However, I have a large number of technical and more general news feeds set up which I read on my Mac with NetNewsWire, on my iPod Touch usually by directly using the google reader and I’ve tried a number of applications on my iPad.

I started out with NewsRack which I bought on the basis of good reports from various sources, but prior to that I’d downloaded an early version of Feedler which at that time I found somewhat buggy.   Over the past couple of months though I’ve found that I’ve given up on NewsRack and moved almost totally over to Feedler, largely because I find the syncing with Feedler seems to work better.  It could be that I’ve got some settings not set optimally for NewsRack, but if I compare what is outstanding and available to read via the Google site, NetNewsWire, Feedler and Newsrack it would seem that Feedler seems as if its syncing is rather better.