Feel the Music: A Review of Music Production Software
Cakewalk. Sound Forge. Cool Edit. These terms may not be familiar to you, but for those of us who either make a living recording music or who write songs and record music as a hobby, the terms represent indispensable tools of the trade. They are computer software packages, just like Microsoft Word or Qualcomm's Eudora. Like every other Windows program, they present many difficult challenges to the blind user. In this article, we are going to offer quick overviews of these software products, as well as the GOODFEEL braille notation program, and discuss some solutions to the particular problems they present to the visually impaired user. We'll also take a look at some of the utilities that come with Creative Labs' popular Sound Blaster Live sound card. These programs can all be operated successfully with both JAWS from Freedom Scientific and Window-Eyes from GW Micro.
A Piece of Cake
When it comes to recording musical compositions on a computer, sighted users can choose from among many different packages. Most of them, however, are extremely graphical and offer no alternatives to dragging the mouse around to activate functions and edit their results. So, if you want to record a musical performance on a computer and add other instruments to it to produce a finished product with vocals, drums, keyboards, and other instrumentation, in our opinion there is only one piece of software that allows blind users to be as productive as their sighted counterparts when using the program independently: Cakewalk. The roots of Cakewalk's accessibility can be traced back to its DOS origins. Although the Windows version of Cakewalk has undergone many changes over the years, much of its basic design is very similar to its DOS-based, keyboard-driven predecessor, whereas other software packages were converted to Windows from Macintosh. Although Cakewalk is a Windows application, it still retains a lot of keyboard shortcuts to complete nearly every task. Once you become comfortable using Cakewalk, it's actually not too far-fetched to consider using it with no screen reader on the system, making it possible for a blind musician to work in a sighted colleague's studio.
JAWS and Cakewalk
There are two ways that JAWS for Windows users can run Cakewalk. The powerful scripting language of JAWS makes it possible to really get Cakewalk talking. If you buy Cakewalk Pro Audio 9.01 or higher, you can use it with JAWS 3.7 right out of the box. JAWS will load the necessary scripts when you start Cakewalk. There is help documentation in the "Help with Specific Applications" section of the JAWS help system that will give you tips for setting up Cakewalk to work with JAWS. The bundled scripts are reasonably stable and comprehensive, but you will need to read through the Cakewalk manual, which comes on the installation CD in either PDF or text format. If you want to use the PDF version, you'll need to first use the access plug-in that is available on the Adobe web site at www.adobe.com to change the file into an accessible format. Quite a few users have been very successful using Cakewalk Pro Audio with the included JAWS scripts.
The other alternative for JAWS users is to buy the Caketalking program from Dancing Dots. Developed by David Pinto, a California-based music educator and programmer, Caketalking is the closest thing to having a custom-made computer program for blind musicians. David has used the JAWS scripting language to add features and functionality to Cakewalk that sighted users can only dream about. Add to that a very comprehensive set of tutorials that will get even the novice user making music in practically no time at all. For $195, Caketalking is a real bargain.
Unfortunately, although Cakewalk offers several flavors of its program, some of which are quite inexpensive or even come prebundled with sound cards like the Sound Blaster Live by Creative Labs, only their flagship product, Cakewalk Pro Audio, has been scripted to work with JAWS. Whether you are using the bundled JAWS scripts or Caketalking, the many features of Cakewalk are too comprehensive to go into in detail within the scope of this article. We're just going to touch on a few key points.
Let's use an example to show how you might accomplish some basic recording and editing tasks in Cakewalk. There are two types of recording, MIDI and audio. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and is a standard protocol that was adopted in the early 1980s by nearly all major manufacturers of electronic musical equipment and software. MIDI recording is done by playing a music synthesizer, drum pads, or other suitably equipped device that has been connected to your computer through a MIDI interface. Audio recording is done by connecting a microphone or mixing board to your computer's sound card. Once you've decided which type of recording you want to do, you need to set up a track in Cakewalk so that it will receive your input and allow you to hear what you've recorded. This task is done in the track view, which is the main work area in Cakewalk. The track view is set up like a spreadsheet, with each cell representing a different control on a different track. You move from cell to cell with the arrow keys, or, if you're using JAWS, you can move directly to a specific horizontal cell in a track with keyboard shortcuts. The column headings and cell contents will be spoken. If you're using the Caketalking scripts, you can also move directly to a specific track, which is very handy when you are working on a large project.
If you are starting with a new file, all you will see on the track view are the column headings and the track numbers on the left side of the screen. To set up a track, move to the source column and press Enter. This opens a dialog box where you fill in information about the track, starting with the input source. Most of the fields in the dialog box have lists of available options that can be scrolled with the arrow keys. Some fields require typed input, but others open up nested dialog boxes when you hit Enter. When you're done with this dialog box, pressing Enter will take you back to the track view, where you'll notice that all the cells on the row of the current track are now filled in.
Arming for Recording
Directly to the left of the source column is a letter R. Depending on its background color, this indicates whether a track is armed for recording or not. If you press Enter when you are in this cell, JAWS will say either "armed" or "unarmed." This process is similar to putting a track into record mode on a conventional tape recorder.
To get ready to record your first track, you may want to set the tempo and time signature or set up a reference click—similar to a metronome—to help you keep time while recording. All of the functions can be accessed within menus or by pressing key combinations to invoke JAWS scripts. When you press R, you'll hear the click and you can start playing or singing. Once you're done, press the spacebar to stop, and press W to rewind to the beginning. Press the spacebar again to hear what you've recorded.
Is That Me Singing?
It is easy to fix mistakes. You can either "punch in" by pressing R while the track is playing and rerecord the part you messed up, or you can go into the event view and edit notes and other events individually. The event view is another spreadsheet, in which you can edit the pitch of a note, the start time, how hard it was played, and several other parameters. All of these functions are accessible with speech. Holding down the shift key and repeatedly pressing the spacebar will let you step through and hear each note, making it easy to find what you want to edit.
Tuning Up Window-Eyes
Window-Eyes users need to do a little preparation before accessing Cakewalk. You can go to the GW Micro web site and download "mCakewalk. zip," which contains set files for the track view and event view, set file documentation, and the Gord standard layout (a special window layout that you load into Cakewalk to make it work properly with screen readers).
Adding Custom Controls
Cakewalk has a customization feature in the options menu, called key bindings, which allows you to assign a Cakewalk function (there are over 200 presented) to either a computer keystroke or a key on your MIDI controller. This feature is helpful if your MIDI controller is some distance from your computer keyboard. You could assign a pedal and note combination to record and playback and not have to move from your instrument.
Additional Editing Features
There are many other features in Cakewalk that make it possible to edit music just like you would edit a text file. You can cut, copy, and paste selected portions of selected tracks with standard Windows commands, and the process of selecting what you want to edit can be accomplished with a few easy keystrokes. The Caketalking program even makes it possible to "scrub" through an audio track, which, for those who might remember, is like rocking an open reel tape back and forth to find where you want to cut the tape with a razor blade. The only difference now is you don't need to draw any blood in the process. You can also apply a wide range of effects to your audio tracks to give your songs that polished studio sound, and all of these tasks can be done from the computer keyboard.
Printing Out the Music
Cakewalk is also the closest thing to having an accessible score-writing program. Although the developers make no pretense about making Cakewalk a publishing-quality music printing package, it is very possible for a blind person to get notes, chords, and lyrics down on paper for sighted musicians to perform, especially when using the Caketalking program. If you're using Caketalking, it's even possible to hear lyrics read back by JAWS while a melody line is playing.
Cakewalk has assured us that the company will continue to be aware of screen reader access when developing future versions. This means that an investment in Cakewalk Pro Audio won't become obsolete in the near future.
Feeling All Right with GOODFEEL
Many blind musicians, especially those involved in the performance of choral, orchestral, or classical piano music, rely on braille music notation. The braille music code consists of a special group of braille symbols to represent printed notation. Until recently, the only way to get braille music was to either order pretranscribed scores from a braille library or, if the score you needed wasn't available, it would have to be transcribed by hand.
GOODFEEL, a software program developed and marketed by Dancing Dots, allows a person to turn music that has been played into a sequencing package like Cakewalk into a hard copy braille music score. Braille music can be custom made for specific situations. A student in a high school band or orchestra can now have his or her part brailled out in advance so that it can be learned ahead of time. The same can be done with choral music, making it possible for a blind person to "sight sing" with the rest of the choir.
How It Works
To use GOODFEEL, you first need to create a MIDI file in another program like Cakewalk. A sighted musician can play each instrumental part of a score into a separate track in Cakewalk. Or a blind composer can play in the parts to produce a braille score to use as a reference when conducting that debut performance. In either case, the music needs to be played in very rigidly to produce an accurate transcription.
If you are using the Caketalking program, it's also possible to put other notation symbols into your score, such as expression marks, dynamics, and lyrics. Caketalking has been specifically designed to be compatible with GOODFEEL.
Getting It into Braille
Once you're done recording and editing the music in Cakewalk, the process of producing the braille score is quite simple. Load the GOODFEEL program, which is a standard Windows application, and then open the MIDI file that will be used to create the score. When the file opens, you are placed in a dialog box that allows you to choose from among several options, the simplest of which is "automatic transcribe." If you hit the automatic transcribe button, GOODFEEL may present you with some helpful error messages if it thinks that something isn't right with the file, such as an incorrect key signature. If there are no errors, you can Tab over to a number of possible brailling options, including: "braille as score," "braille for keyboard," or "braille parts." Choosing one of these options brings you to another dialog in which you can choose to either make a hard copy if you have a braille embosser connected to your computer, or you can edit the braille if you have a refreshable braille display. If you choose to edit the braille, you are automatically sent to WordPad, with the newly created braille file open and ready for editing. There is also a braille font available so that a sighted user can actually see what the braille will look like on the computer monitor.
The GOODFEEL interface is very straightforward and speech friendly. There is ample online documentation, as well as very good customer support. We would recommend GOODFEEL to anyone who needs to transcribe music into braille for a wide variety of situations. Since the $795 price tag may be a bit high for the casual user, a GOODFEEL Lite version, priced at $195, is available.
Sound Forge Sounds Pretty Good!
Sound Forge is a digital audio recording program put out by Sonic Foundry, a software company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Its lite version is called Sound Forge XP and can be found bundled currently with several manufacturers' sound cards. The pro version, depending on the dealer, sells for about $359, and XP sells for $49. The XP version is a bargain, even though it won't give you access to Direct X plug-ins (audio processors developed by third-party vendors) or allow you to convert WAV files (its default format) to RealAudio or MP3. The good news is both these packages are very accessible to JAWS and Window-Eyes. JAWS 3.7 ships with Sound Forge scripts, and Window-Eyes set files can be downloaded from the GW Micro web site. Both programs allow you to record a stereo or mono audio file at sampling rates from 2000 to 96000 Kilohertz in either the 16 bit or 8 bit formats.
Getting Around in Sound Forge
The Sound Forge programs offer a number of bells and whistles that are both practical and entertaining, depending on the way you use them. You can perform complex editing functions or add effects, such as reverb, time stretch and compress, or even reverse all or a portion of the audio file with ease. What brings about such ease is that Sound Forge is loaded with keystroke equivalents for just about every task you would want to perform in the program. You can navigate through and select portions of your files using standard Windows commands. You can use Alt plus letter combinations to move around in the menus.
Both programs come with demo files you can load and practice on. You load a file by going into the Files menu and choosing Open, or by hitting Control-O from within Sound Forge's main window. You then choose your file from the list and hit enter to load. Once the file is loaded the spacebar plays from the time indicated by the position of the curor, the enter key pauses, and the right and left arrows move through the audio file in small segments.
To select a portion of a file for editing you can hit the shift key plus the right or left arrows, or you can place a beginning and end marker to determine the selection by hitting the left and right bracket keys, respectively. You can place markers in your file by pressing the letter M and then move among them by pressing control with the left and right arrows. Control-shift plus home will select from the cursor to the top of the file. Likewise, control-shift plus end will select from the cursor to the end of the file. These two commands are useful when you want to eliminate silence from either end of your file.
The Auto trim/crop function in the process pull-down menu (Alt-P) allows you to remove silence from both ends of a file. We have found, however, that if you have a decaying sound, such as a cymbal ring out at the end of a song, it will be clipped before the sound can fully decay.
Alt-O followed by P will bring up the preferences dialog box in the options menu. Here you're presented with a group of tabs dealing with the configuration of your program. You can select audio record and playback devices, a route directory for your files, and also get rid of the tip of the day screen on boot up!
Getting Information on the Screen
The status information (sample rate, bit rate, length of file, available disk space, and mono or stereo setting) is in the bottom right corner of the screen. The cursor location information is available in the same general area, but is not spoken as a part of the status line. It's a simple task to identify and include it in a user window if you're a Window-Eyes user, or a frame if you're a JAWS user. Window-Eyes users may find it useful to assign Sound Forge's navigation and selection keys to read this window. The JAWS 3.7 scripts already do this out of the box.
The most inaccessible feature, as it is in all other digital audio programs, is the waveform display, which is totally graphical. The wave display gives the viewer a visual representation of level changes in the audio file. By using the peaks and valleys in the wave form, a sighted user can easily identify edit points. There is one aspect unique to the Sound Forge waveform display that is accessible. The pointer changes as it moves through the waveform. It turns into the letter L for the left channel, R for the right channel, and gives you an I-beam when in the stereo part of the waveform.
Sound Forge Plug-ins
Sonic Foundry also offers several good plug-ins. Their noise reduction plug-in allows you to remove extraneous background noises from your audio file. These include hiss, hum, and—to a certain extent—sounds like fans and air conditioning. Sound Forge and its plug-ins are user-friendly and accessible programs on both the input and output sides. Their help systems are ample and clear, with downloadable manuals in PDF format. The Sound Forge 4. 5 manual is also available in braille from HotKey Systems; phone: 718-335-1788; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also obtain from Freedom Scientific (phone: 800-444-4443; web site: www.freedomscientific.com) a four-cassette clear and fast-moving tutorial produced by Jonathan Mosen called "Forging Ahead with Sound Forge."
How Cool Is Cool Edit?
Cool Edit, produced by Syntrillium Software, is another sound editing and recording program similar to Sound Forge. There are two varieties of Cool Edit, a stereo version called Cool Edit 2000, and a multi-track version called Cool Edit Pro. The two-track version has many of the same capabilities as Sound Forge. The multi-track version is more expensive, but can be used to record audio similar to the way Cakewalk does. Unfortunately, the multi-track capabilities of Cool Edit Pro are not very accessible. Mouse clicks are necessary to move from one track to another, and you need to click on parameters like volume or pan to activate sliders that can be changed with arrow keys. You can also right-click on a track number to open a dialog box for setting properties. With some tinkering, we were able to record a few tracks of audio and have them play back simultaneously. If you don't need to record MIDI instruments, and you don't mind doing some experimenting, it might not hurt to give Cool Edit Pro a try, especially since Syntrillium has a very liberal demo policy. Both demo versions of Cool Edit will work for 30 days, and you can choose two features from a list to try during each session.
Editing in Cool Edit
The editing functions in both versions are quite similar. To select a portion of an audio file for editing, you use the left and right arrows to move the start point of the selection, and the shifted left and right arrows to move the end point. Pressing the spacebar will let you hear the selected portion of the file. We found this approach quite a bit more cumbersome than Sound Forge's approach of placing beginning and ending markers to make a selection, but quite a few users have been able to use Cool Edit to do a wide variety of audio editing projects.
Some Great Processing Features
One of the main strengths in Cool Edit lies in its included processing functions, which are called transforms. The noise reduction function, for example, is much easier to use than the one that comes with Sound Forge. All of the transforms come in the form of standard Windows dialog boxes, and most of the fields speak properly. Cool Edit also has the ability to map keystrokes to specific functions, similar to the key bindings found in Cakewalk. You can find demo versions of these programs at www.syntrillium.com.
Sound Blaster Live
Anyone who has tried to use a piece of modern outboard equipment, such as an effects processor or synthesizer, can understand the frustration in trying to control these beasts. Usually it comes down to memorizing procedures by rote (for example, "press button A three times, then press button B twice and turn the data wheel four clicks to the right.") The ability to do this sort of processing on your computer sounds promising indeed.
If you own Sound Blaster Live, you're in luck. Several of the included utilities are very speech friendly. They are found in the main Audio HQ utility, which is in the "sblive" submenu of the Creative folder on your computer.
A Word About SoundFonts
When you open Audio HQ, you'll be given a list of programs you can run. The first is called SoundFonts. SoundFonts are banks of MIDI instruments that are stored in your system's memory that can be played from a MIDI keyboard. You can load and edit SoundFont banks from within this program. There are many sites on the Internet that offer free SoundFont banks, and you can buy really good ones from companies like EMU Systems. All of the options in this program can easily be accessed from the computer keyboard, and you can even determine how much of your RAM (random access memory) you want to allocate for loading sound fonts with a slider that can be changed with the arrow keys.
Using Special Effects
Another useful application in the Audio HQ menu is called Environmental Audio. Here, you can add reverb, echo, and other effects to MIDI instruments or audio. From within a multi-page dialog, you can easily choose an effect, determine how much of it will be sent to a specific source, and even alter a wide range of parameters for the chosen effect. You simply choose the parameter you want to change from a list and then Tab once and use the arrow keys to change its value. It is then a simple matter to store the edited effect as a preset for later recall. We have never seen such a friendly interface for editing the actual components of an effect. Creative Labs should be commended and encouraged for offering such a useful interface.
It is easy to see that there is a lot going on in the music and audio field when it comes to computer software. Although only a fraction of this software can be used by visually impaired people, even that fraction offers great potential for realizing your creative and productive goals. We hope that this article has shed some light on the ever-growing number of possibilities available to us.
Company: Cakewalk, Inc.; phone: 800-234-1171; Web site: www.Cakewalk.com.
GOODFEEL Braille Music Translator
Company: Dancing Dots; phone: 610-783-6692; Web site: www.dancingdots.com.
Company: Sonic Foundry; phone: 800-577-6642; Web site: www.sonicfoundry.com.
Company: Syntrillium Software; phone: 888-941-7100; Web site: www.syntrillium.com.
Company: Creative Labs; phone: 800-578-1258; Web site: www.creative.com.
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