Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Holiday Performances and the aftermath

Years of going back to Ohio for Christmas followed by a few years of drowning in little kid and I'm very out of the loop when it comes to the holiday gigs out here. It's been nearly a decade since my last Messiah and I've managed to have never played Nutcracker. Like ever. I know! But anyway, I did have a concert with the Pops and my trio played a short holiday program for a retirement home.

I played the Pops concert from the Surface Pro 3 and Xodo docs as usual and it went off smoothly. I'm getting comfortable in that set up. Our bass player had an iPad Pro. He had pre-ordered it the minute it became available. He did not have a Pencil however. He's comfortable with the workflow of using stamps and typing notations and doesn't feel the need to have more than a capacitive stylus for other markings. He's also very quick with the zoom/write/zoom flow to get more detailed markings. I don't even like switching in and out of edit mode, so adding zooming to the flow really wouldn't work for me. But everyone's flow is different. It should also be noted that he's one of two bass players, and is usually the only one, so bowings aren't really something he has to worry about. Last minute bowing changes are the number one thing I need to scrawl out in rehearsal, and it usually needs to be done as it's happening.

The vast majority of our trio gigs are weddings or parties where we're just background music, so we read from our gig books which I have scanned, and I do it all from the Surface. Since this was a legit concert where folks actually sat down and listened to us, we pulled out the Mozart Divertimenti and other trio sonatas. I haven't scanned those, so I decided to just go with it and use the paper parts. I grabbed an actual pencil, like the kind with lead in it, and marked a few fingerings and bowings. I've forgotten how easy on the eyes paper music can be.

I still practice off paper parts a lot as I haven't gone through and scanned my solo library. I don't really need to as I don't carry it all around with me all the time. The primary purpose of the Surface is to allow me to carry more music with less bulk. Half of my practice routine is memorized anyway, so pulling a sonata and the Bach Suites off the shelf isn't much bulk. But I haven't performed from paper parts in years.

It's made me wish epaper took off more. It kind of fizzled out as demand for ereaders that could be used as full on media consumtion devices took off. The Kindle DX was an exciting device and I often wished it had pen input. Sadly, there was never a big enough eInk screen with pen input. Sony did make a few ereader with a stylus and Entourage made the eDGe, which was an interesting device combining an android tablet and an eInk screen in a book like case. The eInk screen had a Wacom pen. But it was an idea ahead of the technology and the Android side was woefully behind standalone tablets of the time. The company went under and the devices are no longer supported.

Sony has an amazing 13" Digital Paper tablet, but it's $830 and who knows what it's running. Then again, that's what an iPad Pro would cost and if you're only real need is to eliminate paper clutter, that might not be a bad option. As it is, that's not in my budget. In fact, it looks like my budget for the forseable future is about to be blown on a nearly 150 year old piece of tech as I've fallen for a rather old viola. It's had some questionable repair work done, so I'm still not sure how I feel about it, but it plays so wonderfully.

I just have to make my decisions before the end of year so I can deduct whatever I decide on. ;)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Surfacebook Clipboard vs. iPad Pro screen size

Okay, so it's not a picture of the real things, but it's a good illustration of the size difference of the actual screens. It's easy to come by the dimensions of the tablets themselves, but finding stats on just the screen is a little harder. Since the aspect ratios are different (4:3 on the iPad Pro vs 3:2 on the Surfacebook) comparing inches to inches diagonally doesn't tell you which will be wider in portrait mode, which is generally what matters most for music reading.

Thankfully, there are forums full of people willing to do the math for me and website that will nicely line up these little boxes. Thanks to Marty on the tabletpcreview forums we can see how the screens actually compare.

Even though the IPP has less area (79.88 in² vs 84.12 in²), it's got .3" in more vertical landscape space (7.74" vs 7.49")
For more reference, the surface pro 3 I use now is about 6.6" and the 3rd gen iPad is 5.75". At nearly an inch wider, the Surface Pro feels roomier when reading music. The Surfacebook would give me nearly another inch, and the iPad Pro would give me a little than an inch extra. I'm not sure the .3" difference between the two would really make much difference. The aspect ratio only really comes into play if you've scanned A4 orchestral music at full size. Then the extra height of the Surfacebook would come in handy. Most of what I read is in 8.5x11 PDFs, so it's a wash. Either would make a good upgrade.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

So, I went to the Apple Store....

Specifically one that had iPad pros listed as in stock, because, why not?

I really wanted to see how Forscore worked with the Pencil and since Best Buy doesn't have that set up, I needed to head to an Apple store to find that out. I walked out without anything new. It was, in a word, disappointing.

First off, the Pencil. Glossy plastic may look pretty in press renders, but it's not comfortable when you've come from years and years of matte and soft touch stylii. It's also long, really long for how thin it is. The proportions felt awkward to me. That combined with slippery glossy plastic made it something I suppose I could tolerate, but not something I liked.

That said, ink is beautifully accurate and smooth in Forscore. I'm not a graphic or visual artist, so I can't speak to the pressure curve or any other fancy, artisty type needs, but for scratching bowings in to a part before anyone has noticed I dropped out for a bit, it's great.

BUT! And this really big but has tempered my excitement over the device - you still have to long press, or two finger tap, or whatever your shortcut of choice is, to enter edit mode. A long press or two finger tap to edit isn't the end of the world, but for me, it's enough of a trip up to be annoying. It takes me out of the rehearsal and into the device. Or out of "play the music" and into "do stuff on the tablet" mode. Gears I don't have to switch to write on the Surface.

Another biggie is the lack of an erase button. Sure, the Surface pen's "eraser" isn't really, it's just a shortcut to OneNote button. But there are two other buttons on the pen under your thumb, one of which IS an eraser. That means I don't even have to turn the thing around to erase, let alone tap on the erase tool from the toolbar in edit mode.

Oh! And there's that little thing where Forscore kept freezing and then crashing when I tried to erase stuff. I would have chalked it up to being and evaluation version of the app, but the iPad mini did not crash when I loaded it up with markings and then erased them with my finger.

Well, all of those things and the fact that the Pencil isn't really available yet. An apple store employee mentioned they get a few in at a time, but they sell out very quickly. The website still shows a 4-5 week shipping delay.

At least we were able to have some fancy-pants boutique grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner while we were down there.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out that as of yesterday, an update to Forscore allows direct inking. Thanks Techinmusiced. Maybe there is an iPad Pro in my future after all...

Saturday, December 5, 2015

So I went to Best Buy...

And man is the new iPad Pro big. Like, BIG. Wow. All the pictures on the internet can't do it justice. It made the iPad air next to it look like a toy. It also kind of confirmed how I've felt about the iPad since I first saw the first gen one in a Best Buy years ago - it's too big and too small.

We still have our first gen iPad. It's currently got about a dozen toddler games on it and a lot of restrictions and my three-year-old loves it. He gets a little iPad time when the one-year-old naps and I get some much needed quiet time. But it's really big to him. He doesn't really hold it, he just sets it places.

I tolerated that iPad for two years as a music reader, then upgraded to the retina iPad hoping the higher resolution and clearer text would make reading easier. Not really. But the thinness and battery life (especially the batter life) made it worth not going back to the various windows tablet pcs I had tried along the way. But it really was too small.

I've also had a handful of 7-8 inch tablets over the years, and for me, 8 inches is the ideal size for reading. I currently have a Samsung Note 8 that I'm currently working through Man In the High Castle on (which I'm sadly pretty disappointed in - the story, not the tablet, love the tablet). I've used the stylus plenty in the short time I've had it. Now that One Note supports inking in the Android app, the Galaxy Note 8 makes a fantastic little notepad device, but much thinner, lighter, and with longer battery life than even the best of the 8 inch windows Intel Atom BayTrail based tablets (and I got to try and review pretty much all of them during my time at PCWorld).

So the 10 inch iPad was always too big to be a good reader/companion notepad and too small to be the music reader I really wanted. But the iPad Pro....on man, that thing's the perfect size. It's SO BIG. It's a good thing the Pencil still shows as shipping 4-5 weeks out on Apple's website or I might have already picked one up. As it is, we're considering heading out to an Apple store later this afternoon so I can see how the Pencil works with Forscore. The displays in Apple stores are supposedly running Forscore and have the Pencil available to test. Best Buy did not have either of those things.

BUT! Best Buy also had a Surface Book. As if the iPad Pro wasn't awesome enough. I had less than a minute to oogle the Surface Book before I had to go wrangle small children, but man is it also nice. AND BIG. As much as I like my current hybrid tablet set up, I'd pick up a Surface book in a hot minute if it could be had for under $1000.

But alas, the model I want is $1899. Do I really need a dedicated GPU? Not really, no. But my Sims sure would look pretty. So, realistically, I could go with the $1699 model, but it's out of stock. I've already tried using a machine with a 128GB SSD as my main machine and it was maxed. I can store stuff on a microSD card, because windows machines can do that (side eye going to you Apple). But it was tight. So, theoretically, I could make the $1499 model work. But that's still too much.

And I'm still left with the dilemma that I'd rather not have my primary computer sitting on a music stand at every gig. I'd like to consolidate. I have too many machines. But I don't think I'm ready to commit my primary computer to do double duty as a gig machine. I'm not willing to trade my Surface Pro 3 for an iPad Pro until the Pencil is available, and that's only if the Forscore will see the Pencil as pick up and write and not require tapping into edit mode.

So, I'll sit here and try really hard to not buy things. Must. Not. Buy. Things.

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.