Friday 28 November 2014

Portable Apps

If you are going travelling or use computers away from home then you may want to consider using portable apps. Portable apps are programs that you can run off of removable storage device such as USB flash (thumb) drives.  They allow you to use your programs on any computer without having to reinstall the software and as a result allow you to take your preferences and settings with you. There are a number of portable apps but the most common are web browsers such as firefox and chrome portable. The benefits of using a portable web browser are that you can take your extensions and customisations with you and you can maintain your privacy by keeping your browser history on the thumb drive and not on the computer. As an example, I have chrome portable setup with Lastpass, a password manager extension. This means I can plug my usb flash drive into any computer, fire up chrome portable and have access to all my passwords so I can login to my websites automatically.  I have also setup a portable version of Dropbox. Dropbox allows for files to be synchronised to the cloud so it is available on multiple devices. To use Dropbox, you would usually install it on the computer but with the portable version you can plug your flash drive into any computer and sync your files without an installation. The portable version is called DropboxPortableAHK. It can be tricky to setup but once it is operational you can benefit by having important files on your flash drive synchronised to the cloud as a backup in case your drive fails or gets lost. This is significantly better than just storing your files on your drive directly. You will always have the latest version of your files on your flash drive no matter which computer you are working on, and you don't need to install dropbox on the computer as it will run as a portable app on the flash drive.
There are some limitations to be aware of though. Firstly if you plan on storing a lot of files with DropboxPortableAHK you will need a flash drive with enough storage, you can customise the installation so you only synchronise a subset of your dropbox folders if you want to minimise the storage required. Secondly the speed of the flash drive is a limitation and can impact on the performance of the portable apps. It would be advisable to pay a bit extra to get the faster speed drives (take a look at some recommendations here Lastly, because flash drives are portable and small they are prone to being lost or left in a computer. As a result you run the risk of someone gaining access to your files and so you should bear that in mind when you consider the confidentiality of the documents you are storing on the drive. A way to mitigate this is to encrypt the drive, which essentially means that a password is required to unlock the data on the drive (see for more info). This may impact performance again so it I should be weighed up against the risk of someone gaining access to your files.

If you can overcome these limitations then you can benefit from using portable apps which will allow you to access your files and settings from any computer. For more details about portable apps and DropboxPortablAHK follow these links:

Sunday 2 November 2014

Software for practicing music

I have been looking for suitable software to help with practising on musical instruments. My intention was to connect up my electronic drum-kit and electronic piano to the studio computer and use software on the PC for this. I found it difficult to identify any suitable programs but did manage to find Synthesia for the piano and Drum Tutor, from Roland, for the drums. Both programs allow for a game based interface whereby notes are played visually (as they drop down the screen, similar to Rock Band on gaming consoles) or by using sheet music. The songs are based on MIDI files, a format which is used to communicate with electronic instruments. The MIDI files contain all the relevant notes and timing details required for the software to play the songs and keep track of your performance. Your performance is rated by how accurately you play the notes and keep in time. You can also extend the built in songs by downloading midi files from sources on the internet. There are a lot of free files available, especially for classical music on the piano.

To get the system working you will need a PC that can run the software, any current Windows version will do, Macs are also supported but you may find limited choices for software. You will also need an electronic instrument that supports MIDI (it will need MIDI in and out ports) and a MIDI to USB cable. The cable will connect the instrument to the PC. Finally, you will need software that can interpret the MIDI files and play them on your PC. I found Synthesia to meet my requirements for the piano. It cost just over $35 but is well worth it. It has various play modes to suit your level of development and the ability to add music through downloaded MIDI files is very useful. For the electronic drums there are probably fewer choices for software, generally the vendor will make something for practising with. Roland have the DT-1 V-Drums Tutor and Yamaha have DTX software. Although I have not tried it, it may be possible to hook up the instruments to console games like Rock Band.

All that aside there is no replacement for an experienced music teacher. These programs will help with day to day practice but to learn basic techniques one should always start with an experienced teacher so no bad habits creep in. For more information check the following links: