Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Xodo Docs is my music reader of choice on the Surface Pro 3

My list of needs when it comes to reading sheet music on a tablet:

  • Fast, clean PDF rendering
  • Good annotation tools with no separate edit mode, pick up the pen and draw
  • Bookmarks
  • Works with AirTurn pedal to turn pages (usually that just means accepting PgUP/PgDN or arrow keys)
  • Easy file switching
  • PDF manipulation - specifically the ability to rearrange pages
I started with Drawboard because it's one of the best PDF annotation apps in the Windows Store. Sadly, continuous view scrolls only a few pixels at a time with the foot pedal limiting me to single page view only. It worked well enough in practice so I gave it a go at a gig and it fell flat, big time.

Note - Drawboard is still one of the best PDF annotation apps in the Store, but they are specifically specializing towards the drafting market, making it less flexible for music reading.

In performance, with several large files open (our trio gigs out of several Last Resort volumes to cover standard wedding requests and I need to be able to switch between them quickly) rendering errors started to pop up where it would turn the page but leave a chunk of the old page up. No amount of turning back and forth would clear whatever spot got stuck and I was caught with part of a piece not visible in performance. Luckily, it was a section I knew well enough to get through without music.

I quickly switched off to Windows Reader for the rest of that gig and resumed my quest for a good Windows based reader. Windows Reader is actually a great reader. It's fast, keeps multiple files open at once in tabs, and works well with the pen - pick and write. It supports reading bookmarks, but can't create new ones, nor can you rearrange pages within a PDF with it. So, while it makes a fine reader, it wouldn't work as my only solution.

Yes, Music Reader still exists as a Windows program. Note - not a Windows Store app - a legit download an exe and install it program. It is not at all touch optimized. Annotation tools are weak and line rendering is poor. It's ugly. It costs a lot. Skip it.

Searching for a sheet music reader in the Windows store turns up nothing useful, so I dug through the many PDF annotation tools. I think I ended up with Xodo through the recommended apps section. I don't really remember. Unfortunately, the Windows App store is still just a mess in general.

Xodo won out. It does all the things I needed. It renders quickly without error. I can pick up the pen and it automatically starts writing in my preferred pen style. The pen button switches to erase. I can easily add bookmarks. A press of the Air Turn pedal scoots the page up enough in continuous view to be useful, so I don't have to turn a whole page at a time, but I can always have the next few lines of music visible.

The final important feature that means Xodo docs is all I need is the ability to rearrange individual pages within a PDF file. I love that the Pops orchestra provides PDF practice copies in advance of the first rehearsal so I never have to scan anything, but sometimes a few pages here and there will end up out of order in addition to the blank pages that get scanned in. Being able to remove blanks or title pages and rearrange the pages that end up out of order gets me the clean part I need to play the show straight off the tablet.

A note on tabbed file management: I actually prefer this greatly to the giant, flat list of bookmarks in ForScore. When I finally got around to cleaning my library, I had so many redundant bookmarks pointing to the same piece in different Pops binder PDFs because they do some of the same standards at every holiday (and big band) concert. When I'd build the setlist for the show, I had to scroll through my ridiculously big list of all my crap (teaching, trio gig books, several years worth of pops binders, and some random chord charts from church gigs) to find the pieces from that particular binder.

I'd much rather open trio books 1, 2, and 3 in a tab each and keep each turned to the page needed for the next song in the procession rather than scroll through my library to find "Wedding March." It's the equivalent of my trio-mates keeping each physical book open and just dropping the first one off the stand to get to the next piece in the procession when it's in another book.

I don't miss set lists at all. Pops PDFs come to us in alphabetical order and I bookmark the individual pieces, leaving me a short list of bookmarks from just that file. I can then reorder the bookmarks when the show order is decided Yes, it means I have to open the bookmarks list between each piece rather than the next one showing up automatically. But, I much prefer using my file browser to keep all my PDFs organized in nested folders. I don't miss the giant, flat list of all my stuff.

I appreciate the idea behind tags and metadata, but my file structure is already done and consistent no matter what app I'm trying to open things in. I have no interest in going back through my scanned collection to add tags.

Bonus points: Xodo has apps for Android, iOS, Windows, and a web app (including a chrome webapp and extension for those of you in chromebook programs). I've recently picked up a new toy and will be able to share my experiences with Xodo on Android soon as well.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Surface Pro 3 vs paper music

Here's a look at the Surface Pro 3 at yesterday's pops concert next to my neighbor's paper binder. The Surface Pro 3 is about as tall as letter size paper, but because the screen is more narrow, the music isn't quite as big. This is the screen at 75% brightness. I actually played with it at 50% but the picture came out better when I turned it up some. The light reflection isn't an issue from where I sit, but sometimes I have to play with the angle of the stand to make that happen. I suppose I could add a matte screen protector, but it hasn't been enough of an issue to bother.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Sheet music on the Surface Pro 3 vs iPad (3rd Gen)

I've upgraded. I finally got tired of the rumors of the iPad pro (of course, right before it actually became a Real Thing) and got myself a bigger screen. In addition to always feeling less than satisfied with size of the iPad, I was getting increasingly frustrated with the tools available to write on my music. My 3rd gen retina iPad was getting slower and I refused to upgrade to a newer one with the same size screen and the same no-real-pens issue. 

I stalked craigslist for a while and found just the right deal on a Surface pro 3. I had initially considered upgrading myself to a Surface pro 3 as my primary computer, but realized I have no desire to haul my primary computer around to gigs and plop it on a music stand. Since this machine is a dedicated music reader, I got the low end 64GB i3. 

I was thisclose to getting a Surface (not pro), but I'm really glad I held out for a pro version. Turns out, while the surface is a little more square than the standard widescreen, it's still taller than a regular sheet of paper. So, while the screen is more than two inches bigger, you don't gain as much width as you'd think. I was concerned about having something with a fan in it on stage, but with the i3, the fan rarely comes on, and I've never heard it spin up in the context of reading. 

The real gains come from getting that extra bit of the next page showing at the bottom. With the PDF reader I'm using now (Xodo docs, more on that later) I can use a continuous scroll mode and use the air-turn to scoot up a little bit at a time, meaning I'm seeing plenty of what comes next. 

You'll notice the color difference. This is with both screens at the same brightness (about 50%). The surface doesn't get quite as bright. It's been a little more dim than I'd like at a couple of outdoor gigs, but for more orchestral work, indoors, a mid level brightness is just fine. 

The biggest difference is landscape size. The Surface is just way bigger. It's still tall enough to get enough lines of music, and with continuous scrolling, I can move the music up as I feel like it. I never could get used to how Forscore scooted music around in landscape and couldn't really use it that way. The Surface set up is much more usable in landscape for me, even though I still read in portrait most of the time. 

The biggest boon to switching to the Surface is the pen. I just pick it up and draw. No long press on the screen to bring up the drawing tools, dealing with either the really poor ability to draw small enough with a capacitive stylus or digging through stamps, then switching back to reading mode, usually with some wrong taps along the way. 

I'll be interested to see how the music reading apps on the new iPad pro work with the Apple Pencil. With the surface, I pick up the pen, write what I need as accurately as if it were pen on paper then I set it back down on the stand. While there is an edit/annotate mode in Xodo, you don't need to open it to just write. 

Pick up the pen, write, set it down. If it's any more steps than that, it takes too long and can get disruptive in a rehearsal. Getting back to that workflow in rehearsal has made the switch so worth it. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Well hello there 2015

Here we are, about 4 years after my last post. Where did I go? Well, a lot of life happened in between. Here's a quick overview:

Summer 2011 - I turned my love of writing about technology into a for real job by starting a year long internship for PCWorld. I wrote about a lot of things that appeared both online and in print and learned so so much from my wonderful boss Elsa Wenzel. After the internship, I was able to continue freelancing and got to work with the wonderful Melissa Perenson and Michael Brown.

While that gave me a great writing outlet and access to really cool stuff, it also left me with a conflict of interest. I was getting to see things and hear about things under NDAs and I got to play with lots of neat hardware, but it was all press samples under the property of PCWorld. So, as much as I wanted to share, it was best to leave that stuff off my personal sites.

Fall 2011 - You'll notice that was my last post. I barely got that one out. Not only had I added a part time internship to my full teaching schedule and frequent performances, I found out I was expecting our first baby. Sick and tired don't even begin to describe the early months of that pregnancy. I was completely unprepared for how sick I would be. I just survived. I went to work and slept.

Summer 2012 - Baby! No more sick, but really no free time.

Winter 2012/2013 - The realities of a mobile baby in an open loft condo set in and we realize we need out. We began the process of researching real estate to see if we could sell the condo and get into a house. In the San Francisco Bay Area. HA! hahahahahahahah!

Spring 2013 - We take the plunge and move out. With three cats, a baby, and way too much stuff in our loft, there was no way we could compete in the current market of urban professionals demanding move-in ready properties. So, we found a "reasonable" apartment and our amazing realtor helped us line up the work our condo needed. We got it cleaned up, fixed up, and staged. We had a two weekends of open houses and got several offers (yay for the crazy bay area housing market), picked a good one, and proceeded to closing with minimal delays. As tempting as it was to take the money and run to a cheaper area, we decided to stay. Which meant we couldn't be out of the market for long or we would never get back in.

Summer 2013 - We found our fixer and began the process of fixering it. Shortly after starting construction, the city came knocking and we found out about some pretty serious issues the sellers were having with the city, which they failed to disclose. Begin legal action. It would take nearly two years, but we finally prevailed. Fill out your disclosures carefully and truthfully folks.

Fall 2013 - Things settle down enough that I start teaching again a little bit. Mostly for an afterschool program at an elementary school nearby.

Late fall 2013 - We move in! There's still work to do, but we have a brand new kitchen, new wiring, new plumbing, and new duct work.

Thanksgiving 2013 - I'm feeling off, so I send my husband up to the dollar store to see if they're open and pick up some pregnancy tests. Bam! Kid two is on the way. Back to being sick, tired, and just surviving through the new teaching gig while parenting a toddler.

Early 2014 - Legal stuff. So much legal stuff. Also, more construction to comply with the city.

Summer 2014 - Baby 2!

The rest of 2014 - Mostly a blur. Staying at home with a toddler and a newborn is no joke. Oh and a lawsuit. That was fun. (but no, not really)

The first half of 2015 - Same deal, just now it's a toddler and a baby, and crushing post-partum depression. But we finally settled the lawsuit.

Summer 2015 - Things get much easier as the baby turns 1.

Fall 2015 - I'm taking on more teaching again. I'm heading the new beginner class at the afterschool program. I've started a group class and some private students through the same school my older son has his piano classes.

During this time, the tablet and technology landscape changed significantly. Intel's Baytrail platform meant that windows based tablets finally had enough power to actually run Windows. Windows 8 made navigating Windows on a tablet Not Suck. OEMs raced to the bottom to churn out Windows tablets that could under cut the iPad and rival Android tablets in price. Microsoft also entered the hardware game, giving the market lots of choices.

I went through a lot of tablets. I ended up on a 3rd gen iPad retina with a Page Flip Cicada for a long time. The mechanical clicker on the right side gave out (as it did to all the musicians in the Pops who were using that set up. One after the other, we all lost our right clickers. We have all since migrated to the Air Turn). My iPad got slower and slower and I got more and more frustrated with the small screen and hassles of trying to use a capacitive stylus and edit modes and menus to notate music and Microsoft's 3rd version of the surface pro came out with a larger screen. (The pros always had legit digitizers and I had just been waiting for one with a screen bigger than the iPad). I have recently migrated completely to the Surface Pro 3 with an Air Turn pedal.

But wait! Now there's an iPad pro on the way! With a real stylus! And the surface book screen is huge! Exciting things are happening again. And the chaos in my house is calming down enough that I can write about stuff again.

So, here we are. Hello again blog.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Blue Yeti Pro Review


I've been using a Blue Yeti USB microphone for recording at home and at the studio since its release last year.  At CES this year, I had a chance to see the next generation of that microphone - the Yeti Pro.  Now, I've had the opportunity to spend to some quality time with one to see how it compares.  Let's just get to the meat up it up front - it's amazing.  

Back when I got a Yeti for myself, my husband was disappointed to see only a USB connection.  That meant he couldn't "borrow" it for his projects too.  Blue fixed that by adding XLR output to the Yeti Pro.  The other main upgrade is the 24 bit audio signal and some other numbers that didn't mean much to me when I saw it at their booth at CES.  At the time, I was more interested in the flexibility of choosing between USB for recording directly into a computer, and XLR for going through a larger audio interface and adding the Yeti Pro into a mix of other mics.  The Yeti Pro has the same triple capsule set up as the Yeti allowing for 4 different patterns - omni, cardioid, stereo, and front/back.  

For my usage though, it turned out the be the 24 bit sound processing that made the most difference.  My main recording scenarios are all tied directly to a computer.  I'm usually just recording one track, either a single instrument or an ensemble with a single mic in the middle.  The samples of my trio were all done with the Yeti in the middle of group on omni with some reverb added later in GarageBand.  For the most part, the Yeti lives on my desk, ready to go for single instrument recording of my own practicing, both solo and with Smartmusic accompaniment.  

First a quick word on the hardware.  Just like the original Yeti, the Yeti Pro is big and heavy.  Rather than the smooth silver finish of the Yeti, the Pro is wrapped in a grippy black textured material.  It feels about the same weight wise, but I find the textured finish on the Yeti Pro to be more, well, professional feeling.  The wiggly volume knob of the Yeti is no longer a problem on the Pro, and the whole thing feels sturdier in general.   

A lot of handling noise came through on the XLR connection, so Blue also makes a shock mount specific to the Yeti and Yeti Pro.  It's incredibly sturdy and very high quality.  It's also massive.  Unlike the cylinder style mounts I've seen in the past, the Yeti shock mount is a ring inside a larger ring and connects to the base of Yeti, leaving the whole thing looking pretty unbalanced, but it gets the job done.  Luckily, my desk doesn't produce a lot of vibrations, so I didn't really need the mount most of the time.  If you are in an area where vibrations are an issue, or you'll be moving the mic often, the shock mount is a great addition.  


The vast majority of what I do at home is recording for my own practice purposes.  Nothing beats listening back to a recording of yourself to get an idea of how you're really sounding.  The more realistic the sound coming back, the more helpful the recording is.  In this case, the Yeti Pro makes a world of difference.  24 bit was just a number to me until I turned it on.  

Which brings me to a little aside about the software.  The Yeti installed its drivers automatically through Windows.  The Yeti Pro required downloaded them from Blue's website.  Windows was still set to record in 16 bit, and I had to dig through the advanced setting to turn it up to 24 bit and take full advantage of the Yeti Pro's increased sound resolution.  

Creating recordings with Smartmusic as accompaniment was easy and the results sounded great.  Unfortunately, the Smatmusic license doesn't allow for those recordings to be posted, but I was impressed with the Yeti Pro's performance.  I was able to set it at the edge of my desk, in front of the speakers, and with the pattern set to cardioid, I had no problems with bleed through from the speakers.  A mid level gain was all I needed to get good balance.  

multi mics

Recording straight into Audacity via the USB cable was just as straightforward.  Audacity will give you dual channels if you have the mic set to stereo, or a mono track if you're using a cardioid or omni pattern.  I wanted just the sound of the instrument, and not the whole room (or the buses that go by outside), so I sat close and had the mic set to cardioid.  

My final testing was done via the XLR connection going through an Apoggee duet into Garage Band.  For that test, the gain on the Yeti Pro was set all the way down, and gain adjusted through the duet.  I had no problem getting a strong clear signal.  The sound through the XLR connection is a little cleaner and smoother to my ears than through USB.  

The 24 bit recording certainly makes the biggest difference though.  I liked the sound of my Yeti, until I heard the Yeti Pro.  Now the Yeti sounds harsh and brittle.  The extra bits bring through way more of the detail in overtones that a bowed string instrument (viola in my case) produces.  The sound was much richer, warmer, and smoother than the Yeti.  It's a much better base of sound to work with.  Of course, most of this can be covered up in post production with various effects and such, but it would take much less work to turn the Yeti Pro's signal into something I'd throw up on the web or on a demo CD.  

(Posting these recording is just not in the cards right now.  Crazy things have been afoot the past few months, and processing and posting the test tracks just didn’t make the list of things that happened.  I know sound samples are the best way to judge a new mic, and I hope to be able to get those up sometime in the future.)

If you already have a system to take advantage of the XLR port, I would recommend that set up for the best sound. But the great thing about the Yeti Pro is that it also has the USB port, so you can toss it in the bag with your laptop and get a great sound in a mobile package.  For casual home, desktop, or even small ensemble recording of acoustic instruments, the Yeti Pro is a fantastic choice.