Archive for technology

Braille Music Notator

I’m thrilled to announce something new today that has nothing to do with Sparky the Music Theory Dog (though I’m sure he’d approve): Braille Music Notator, an online system I’ve been working on since early last year. It’s still in development — I’m calling it an “alpha” version because there are still a few features I’d like to add — but it’s at the point where I could use some more folks tinkering with it.

What is it? Well, there are a few utilities out there — free and otherwise — that will translate a music score from a program like Finale or Sibelius into braille music notation, and they work pretty well as far as automatic translation systems go. But even if a translation system is advanced enough to avoid sometimes hilarious mistranslations, the result still often feels clunky and inefficient.

The idea behind Braille Music Notator is to encourage us sighted folk to learn a little braille music — it’s really not that hard — so that we can create legible, well-designed braille scores from scratch. The utility provides a work area for you to build the score, but it displays the characters using familiar music notation rather than the raised dots of braille. (You can switch between viewing the characters as braille or as music symbols, if you wish.) So while no knowledge of braille or braille music is required to use the system, you will find yourself learning as you use it! Once you’ve constructed the score, you can save it to your computer to work on it later, or export it in a format which can be sent to a braille embosser to produce an actual physical score.

Although the system is designed for sighted musicians — the primary interface is very visual — it is also completely accessible to users who rely on a screen reader like VoiceOver on Mac OS or JAWS on Windows.

While I know that for some, existing translation systems work just fine. But my hope is that more sighted music educators will see the benefit of learning more about braille music notation — not just to make it easier to create materials for their visually impaired students, but to be able to teach more effectively and comprehensively.

Check out Braille Music Notator here! You can either dive in (I tried to make it pretty intuitive!), or check out the Users Guide first. If you rely on a screen reader, you may wish to begin with the Quick Start for Screen Reader Users. And above all, let me know what you think. Thanks!


The Manta TR1 & Mira

Just as with cars, I tend to use computers until they die. So laptop upgrades for me are generally times of wonder and amazement as my new computers represent, to me, some six or seven years of technological advancement.

Such was the case this summer, when I replaced my 2006 MacBook Pro with a new 2013 model with a Retina display and a solid state hard drive. And like with every other upgrade, I love everything about the new machine.

Until, that is, I went to give a Keynote presentation for a class. I consider myself something of a guru with Keynote, with participants coming up afterward to ask not only about the topic of the presentation but about the presentation itself. Of course, Keynote itself works beautifully, and the Retina display makes everything look absolutely stunning, but with the new model, Apple decided — no doubt as a space-saving measure for the increasingly compact designs — to omit the infrared port.

The reason this was a problem is because I used an Apple Remote to control my Keynote presentations, and it worked beautifully. The simple design of the Apple Remote includes just what I need: controls for the next and previous slide, and control of the system volume. The remote is compact and slips easily in my pocket or computer bag, and the older plastic models and the new brushed steel models are interchangeable and work equally well.

Apple doesn’t generally leave its users in the lurch, however, and the official replacement was Apple’s own Keynote Remote app for iOS. I do have an iPhone, and this app is nicely designed, but it depends on a Wifi signal, and I have never been able to make it work consistently. (Part of the issue is wifi availability, but even the workaround for that — setting up an ad hoc wifi network between the laptop and iPhone — was extremely unreliable in my testing.) If there were a way to make the app work via Bluetooth, I think it would be more reliable, but unfortunately it is not designed to do so.

There are several presentation remotes on the market, and though some are nicely designed, none of the reasonably-priced models I was looking at included the important feature of volume control. For presentations, I took to using my Apple Magic Mouse as a clicker, which worked well for advancing through slides (though I had to be careful not to click it inadvertently) but which had no volume control.

Manta TR-1

The Manta TR-1 USB Receiver from Twisted Melon.

Finally I happened upon Twisted Melon, the developers of Mira, a software utility for customizing how your computer responds to the Apple Remote. In addition to their software, they sell an external infrared receiver, the Manta TR1. Combined with Mira, the Manta TR1 appeared to be able to allow me to use my familiar Apple Remote with my new, non-IR equipped laptop. I purchased their bundle (the Manta TR1 and a license for Mira) and the hardware took about a week to arrive.

I am delighted to report that the Manta TR1 worked exactly as advertised, and exactly as I’d hoped it would. I had been a little nervous because I didn’t see any explicit mention of the product working with the latest hardware and operating system (OS X Mavericks, in my case), but there are no incompatibilities as near as I can tell. The device isn’t much bigger than a 9-volt battery, and ships with a standard USB ‘Mini-B’ cable to connect it to the computer. All I needed to do was connect the device and install the software, which appears as a System Preferences pane. The standard Keynote controls were already set up by default (as well as instructions for a host of other applications), and so after opening Keynote I was able to control both slides and volume with my Apple Remote, just as I had before.

Well, actually a little better than before: the Manta TR1 has a small red light to give visual confirmation that the signal was received, which I find especially useful. Having the infrared port in a separate unit allows me to position is somewhere more accessible, though the device is able to detect a signal from several yards away, regardless of position or orientation.

Mira and Manta are available from Twisted Melon at their website, At the time of writing, the Mira/Manta TR1 bundle, normally $40, is available for $29.99.

UPDATE (January 30, 2016): I’m now running El Capitan (specifically 10.11.2), and after upgrading Mira to the latest version both Mira and Manta TR1 continue to work flawlessly. Well, with one interesting exception… presenting this week at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, OH, in lobby areas and meeting rooms there must be something emitting infrared light at the exact same frequency as the Apple Remote, because the LED on the Manta TR1 indicates that it’s constantly picking up signal, and it prevents the Apple Remote from being detected. (I would assume that this would be an issue with any IR receiver, not just the Manta TR1.) Easiest solution was to place the Manta TR1 somewhere where it’s shielded from the overhead lights (which seem to be the source of the unwanted IR light); the Apple Remote signal still seems to get through just fine.