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Notes for Musicians, Vocalists and Recording Engineers

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to give musicians, vocalists and audio production engineers a summary of resources which are available in respect of audio recording and editing using Microsoft Windows on the PC, together with my own experiences and concerns in this field.

Software

This article will focus upon two software products, CakeWalk Sonar and Sony's Sound Forge Pro.

I have used Sound Forge for about 13 years and I have just begun to use Sonar. Sound Forge is a single track editor and producer. This means it is not multi-track software. While it is true you can easily mix sound on sound, overlaying items as you go, you cannot lay out sound with each item on its own individual track. Having said that, it is the ideal tool for audio recording, mixing, post production, editing and restoration. I've used a few audio editors in the past, but Sound Forge to my mind has always beaten them all, added to which it comes bundled with a number of remastering and audio processing effects which are incredibly useful.

Sonar on the other hand is a multi-track audio platform which allows you to undertake many audio-related tasks. Not only can you lay out items on their own individual tracks, but it is ideal for musicians, those who wish to do karaoke, or work with music and sound purely in an audio capacity. In the case of Karaoke as a basic example, you can have the music on one track and sing on another while hearing the music at the same time. If the results are not satisfactory, you can retake all or part of the song again until you have something which is to your liking. Added to this, the V Vocal editor allows for manual or automatic pitch change together with other characteristics in fine detail. Audio effects are also added, such as reverb, equalisation, normalisation, etc. Sound Forge also contains these other tools in addition to noise reduction. Both products also allow for "audio scrubbing", which enables you to hear snatches of the audio as you move through it.

Product Accessibility

In terms of accessibility to screen-readers, my focus here is JAWS for Windows because that is what I use almost exclusively. It is also the product which grabs the most attention and publicity in this area.

My feeling is at the moment that the outlook for visually impaired people is grim. If you feel that you would like the latest and greatest releases of these two professional mainstream products then I am afraid you are going to be very disappointed.

Sound Forge access is quite straightforward. An excellent set of JAWS Scripts are available written by Jim Snowbarger who began writing them for Sound Forge 4.5 (when I started to use it), and has maintained them through to version 10.0, the latest. I am often asked whether Sound Forge can be used without scripts. It can, but not nearly as efficiently and there are some dialogs which are not as accessible. For example, when undertaking fine editing, there is information you need to know quickly, such as the total file length, the elapsed position, the amount of time selected, level metres and many other components. There is also the ability to "audio scrub" in various ways, and this makes for extremely precise and smooth editing. Sound Forge offers this facility without the scripts, but it is by no means as detailed or as fast. The scripts are 30 dollars, and I think if you are investing hundreds of dollars in Sound Forge you may as well spend the other 30 and get the scripts too. It makes no sense not to do so.

There is a fundamental problem with Sound Forge 9 and 10 with its "Mix Paste" dialog which is very unfortunate because it is one of the dialogs you will use most often. Sony have made some of the controls inaccessible to JAWS and at this current point there is no solution to this. To me, this is a very critical issue. If it is possible, you may wish to consider installing Sound Forge 8 with the appropriate scripts. If you are unable to obtain version 8, I suggest purchasing 10.0, and then explain the problem to Sony and ask for a downgrade to 8.0 which they should be able to do. After my discussions with them, Sony accept there are accessibility issues with that dialog. It is not ideal, since Sound Forge 8 is not meant to be used with Windows7.

With Sonar, things are a little more complex.

There are two JAWS scripting solutions for Sonar which provide a high degree of accessibility. These are JSonar and CakeTalking for Sonar.

JSonar is an open source project developed by a dedicated group of volunteers and is consequently freely available to download and use. CakeTalking costs 289 dollars as an internet download and was developed 13 years ago by a highly accomplished JAWS script writer David Pinto and is sold by Dancing Dots, linked to above.

The bad news is that neither of these products functions with Sonar X1 or X2. X1 was released in late 2010, with X2 only recently being made available. This is not good because not only are we a couple of years behind in terms of accessibility, but Sonar 8.5 is extremely difficult to obtain, almost impossible. Dancing Dots do have some copies available (while stocks last), and CakeWalk in the United States also can supply it if asked, although it could take a while to reach you if you live outside America. As far as I know, noone yet has attempted a scripting solution for X1 or X2 which is very disappointing.

We decided to go for CakeTalking, but here are the differences as I see them.

Apart from the very high quality access to almost all of Sonar's features, the main thing CakeTalking has going for it is its 400-page tutorial and excellent setup documentation, which you do need as there is quite a lot to do in terms of configuration. If you follow the instructions however, it does work perfectly. But the inclusion of the tutorials really did clinch it for us. While the JSonar website does have a number of small guides available, if you are a beginner particularly it's a no-brainer. You go for CakeTalking.

The drawback to the tutorial is the way in which it is formatted. It is a very large HTML document which contains no heading markup. While links are included, JAWS does not retain the position you were in when you invoke the Links List. So you read a passage, realise you want to refer back to a previous lesson, and so bring up the Links List. On a standard web page, the focus is within the point of the Links List where you stopped reading. It doesn't work like that in this document, focus is at the end of the list. So you need to go back to the top of the list and start working your way down. While I used Placemarkers to good effect, I think if you want to produce an HTML rendering of your instructions, by default it really ought to include correctly structured headings.

While JSonar does have some JAWS script-related keystrokes included, its approach is generally to allow you to use the Sonar native keystrokes. CakeTalking's approach is to develop keystrokes and strategies to allow you to get the job done quickly and easily, and if that means modifying the approach a little, so be it.

CakeTalking contains a number of dialogs which allow you to manipulate Sonar in specific ways or to invoke JAWS user preferences. JSonar uses the Adjust JAWS Options dialog instead into which their user preferences are placed, such as to enable or disable specific features, and I have to say I prefer this approach since users will already be used to using it.

CakeTalking should really be used with JAWS version 11. I've tried using it with 13, but some aspects of the interface did not function as the tutorial said they should, and also there were a number of system instability difficulties. JAWS version 11 can however be used on a Windows7 64 bit system if you have it, so apart from the inconvenience of maybe having to switch JAWS versions to use Sonar, this isn't too big a deal. JSonar can be used with JAWS versions up to and including 14.

CakeTalking provides you with a lot of additional detail about how to interact with specific controls (of which there are many), and gives you reminders of how to work within individual dialogs. I think with JSonar some help is available, but the process of obtaining it isn't quite as detailed (or as automatic) as is found in CakeTalking.

If you are a user of Braille, there is a great deal of Braille support in JSonar. They've obviously spent a lot of time on that. CakeTalking has no braille support at all that I can see. If there is, I haven't been able to get it to work.

Conclusion

In summary, if you take time to purchase the correct older versions of the mainstream software together with choosing appropriate scripting packages to go with them, you are going to get a very accessible solution to serve your audio production needs. My concern is that as blind people we are used to listening to audio and so this is an area of work where we should excel and to be able to make a living from. The fact that time is slipping by and we are getting further and further behind in terms of accessing recent software versions worries me.

It is worth noting that Sonar does not allow you (it would seem) to mix items by fading a main audio source down midway through, overlay speech, and then raise the volume again. This would be particularly helpful since the "Mix Paste" dialog in Sound Forge 9 and 10 is inaccessible. One way of overcoming this is to purchase a "Control Surface". This is a midi hardware device attached to the computer which will then allow you to assign physical faders on the device to volume levels or other aspects of Sonar. You could then manually accomplish the fades in real-time, and in fact that may even produce superior results to what Sound Forge can do because, to my mind, there is nothing like human input into fading, whether you are producing audio or even broadcasting it. If you decide to go down this route, there is an accessible application developed by Raised Bar Computing, allowing a number of midi devices to communicate with your screen-reader so as to output useful information. This application is free to download.

So, do you need both pieces of software, Sound forge and Sonar? That depends what you want to do. Within the context of my exploration into Sonar thus far, while I am very glad I have it I also really do appreciate what Sound Forge can do as well. I can see audio production jobs where both would be important. To emphasise this a little further, it is possible to send specific files you create in Sonar directly into Sound Forge without having to save them first and then open them in SF.

As a final note, you may decide that you wish to purchase some outside consultancy to help you get the most from what is very expensive software and this would be good advice to follow. Astec (the company I work for) can provide installation, configuration and training on all aspects of audio production. Please contact us for details.

If you live in the United States, please contact Dancing Dots who can provide you with details of tuition.

Questions about Cakewalk Sonar

Hi everyone

I am wanting to obtain software in the Cakewalk Sonar range but I am hitting some problems regarding compatible software versions and JAWS scripts.

As I understand it, CakeTalk Sonar is available, but it only functions with Sonar version 8.5 and not the current release which is X1. Sonar 8.5 is very difficult to obtain here in the UK, and even if I could get it purchasing the added scripts is probably well out of our price range anyway.

JSonar seems like a good option, but I am confused about which currently available software packages it functions with. The site does refer to Cakewalk Music Creator, which may do what we want, but again, obtaining a supportable version doesn't seem to be easy.

Can anyone please let me know which programs are accessible in this range which are currently available?

Thank you.

Some Thoughts on Twitter Spam

Hi everyone.

Well it's a late evening and my mind is winding down towards bed, but I have just seen yet another warning that there is yet another spam scam going the rounds. According to the excellent service called Tweet Smarter, this one is an Email inviting you to update your Twitter profile using a pretty new header. Only when you click the link, what you see is absolutely what you don't get. You are taken to a Canadian website selling sexual enhancement drugs. Yuk!

This, as scams go, is one of the slightly more inocuous ones. Usually these kind of scams come more lethally loaded. Clicking on links in Emails or direct messages can mean that unauthorized people have access to your Twitter password, they can hack into your account, or in the worst case, malicious code can infiltrate your computer.

The thing I find most disturbing about this whole subject is that spam is sneaky. You hear about these scams and think to yourself: "oh, I'm much too savvy to ever get caught." but don't be so sure!

While you might not fall for "Did you really say this about me?" "Check out this funny picture!" or "See who has stopped following you." spammers have other, much more insidious ways of getting you to click their links. I should know.

One morning I logged into my Twitter account and saw a direct message from a good friend. It said: "Hi. I thought you might be interested in this article." and there was a shortened URL. Of course, with hindsight I should have checked it, but I've often been sent articles before, I knew this person, there was no leading comment beforehand, it looked perfectly inocuous. So I clicked the link.

What I found myself reading was a blog entry about making money at home, with a link to a website in it. Obviously my friend had been sent a link similar to mine and had done exactly the same. I changed my password on the double and as far as I know I didn't send out any fishing messages, but it brought home to me how very easy it is for anyone, however savvy they think they are, and believe me I had a good conceit of myself before that, to be caught out.

I learned two things from that little episode. firstly and most importantly to be extra and specially careful, to check and check again if I am unsure of something. It's sad that Twitter has become something of a minefield and that checking before you click has become so necessary, but that's the way things are. The second is how quickly a person is condemned for a mistake of this kind., a mistake anyone can make. I saw with dismay the nasty and judgmental tweets which were heaped on my poor friend's head when, if my feelings were anything to go by, she was feeling bad enough already. I find it very sad indeed that as well as friendship, fun and exchange of information in this community we also let in meanness, unnecessary drama and even hatred at times.

In conclusion, I am really thankful for all the excellent information services out there like the aforementioned Tweet Smarter and others similar who keep us up to date with the latest scams. Spammers, like the poor, are always going to be with us, but thanks to their warnings I will go on fighting the good fight, reporting spam wherever I see it, checking before I click links and hoping to keep myself and thus my Twitter followers safe.

Thoughts on Flexible Web!

In Episode 70 of its monthly FSCast, Freedom Scientific announced the upcoming JAWS 14 feature "Flexible Web". I happen to think this is a real breakthrough in making the web user experience more intuitive for people. Please note that all the information I am about to discuss is already in the public domain through FSCast.

Flexible Web will allow a JAWS user to:

  • Hide content on a web page which may interrupt the reading experience. Many sites now contain Google Ad Frames or Links to social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, allowing people to share a page with these sites. If placed in the middle of an article or news story for example, these Links and Frames can interrupt the flow of something interesting being read.
  • Start reading at, (or set focus to), a designated point on a web page. Two basic examples would be as follows. When you carry out a Google search, instruct JAWS to start reading where the search results appear, bypassing the other content at the head of the page. Alternatively, when activating a Link to read more about a book on Audible.com, set JAWS to go straight to the summary so as to decide whether you would like to purchase it. Focus can also be set to other elements, such as Edit Fields, ARIA regions and Links.

These two features are governed by an intuitive Wizard which steps you through the process with helpful information along the way. You can create a "temporary customisation" initially, and if you decide you want to apply it you can create a permanent rule. The rules can contain a combination of "behaviours", such as to ignore content and start reading at a designated location. Options in the Wizard allow you to rename, edit and delete rules. Rules can be applied to all sites or to an individual one.

I really would advise you to listen to the FSCast on this subject. Jonathan Mosen does a first-class job of demonstrating all the options within Flexible Web.

One thing I learned from the podcast was that if you choose to hide content using Flexible Web, this also applies to MAGic if you have it running alongside JAWS. So as people are working their way through web pages, the visual focus tracks alongside JAWS. That is very cool indeed.

Not only do I think this will improve the browsing experience for people tremendously, but it will also add useful functionality for those using browser-based applications in the workplace. Together with Placemarkers and Custom Labels, Flexible Web will undoubtedly ensure people have the tools to become more efficient within the course of their work duties. JAWS does stand for "Job Access With Speech" after all!

When JAWS is officially released containing Flexible Web, there will be a number of ways you can get help to use it.

You can use the Context Sensitive Help already built into the Flexible Web wizard to give you useful guidance on how to use it.

You can take advantage of a webinar to be hosted by the Freedom Scientific Training department on 24 October.

Astec, (the company I work for), will remotely train anyone anywhere in the world on any aspect of using JAWS for 40 pounds per hour. This training is reinforced by the provision of documentation to support it. Note that this does not mean we will attend site but it is remote training using JAWS Tandem or similar software. For more information, please write to brian.hartgen@astec-at.co.uk

In summary, the introduction of Flexible Web just demonstrates why JAWS is a fantastic screen-reader. Using Flexible Web, Placemarkers and Custom Labels, Freedom Scientific really do give blind people excellent control of web pages, allowing people to find and read what they want very quickly. I wish them the very best of luck with this new feature.

Personal thoughts on creating an app

Hi all

Well, we have now released our Team-FM iPhone app. If you haven't read about it, the internet radio station, Team-FM (owned by myself and my partner Lulu), now has an app available for iPhones, iPads and iPods. This is obtainable from the App Store if you search for Team-FM.

I have to say this has been a big learning curve for us. It means as an internet radio station we have a presence in the App Store and as a result there is expertise we can draw upon (and tools available) so as to encourage people to listen to Team-FM and we will be taking full advantage of those. The range of promotional tools available for developers is very impressive. I am very proud of the fact that we have this app available and also that a similar Android app is on the way very soon.

It just shows that, if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it. Last year, I knew absolutely nothing about Drupal setup or administration. But we needed a nice accessible website using Drupal as a platform. I learned it and built the site. We needed a way of people being able to listen to our programmes when they wanted to. We went out and found a way of doing it. We needed pictures not only for the website but certainly for the new app. We got them created. We knew nothing whatever about creating apps for the Apple and Android platforms. We're doing it. Who knows what else we could do.

My message is, don't give up. If you want something, go and get it if you can.

I must say that the app evaluation and review process from Apple seems to be very thorough and that is as it should be. The app submission process and documentation for developers is all there for anyone to use and it is accessible. Go for it!

We've received some amazing comments and encouragement as a result of launching the app and thank you so much. Please do keep your suggestions coming. We've already received a number of suggestions for improvement and features, and we are already very actively looking at moving forward from version 1 of the app to improve the user experience. This is only the beginning. We will keep improving.

If you have comments to make, (for example if you are having a problem with the app), do let us know. We cannot possibly improve anything if we don't know about it. If you have questions or suggestions, do send them to info@team-fm.com and we will do our very best to improve the app. We can only learn, but I think what we have is a very good start and something to build on.

Have a good day everyone!

StationPlaylist Scripts V5 now available, please read!

I am very pleased to be able to bring to you version 5 of the StationPlaylist Studio scripts for JAWS. These scripts are distributed free of charge for anyone to use.

Before continuing, I would like to thank Ross and his team at StationPlaylist for providing magnificent support through the process of creating the scripts. I could not produce them without the tremendous co-operation given.

Please read these notes through carefully before upgrading.

If you plan to upgrade to SPL Studio version 5, you will need the new scripts which are available from
www.hartgen.org/studio

If you are already using a version of the scripts, my advice is to download the zipped archive of them for 5.0, and extract the contents of the archive to your JAWS Settings/Enu folder, replacing the files which already exist.

Then restart the JAWS program.

If you wish to install them using the installer method, this is also available for you from the same page. Again you should restart JAWS following the conclusion of the installation.

When StationPlaylist Studio version 5 loads, you can press Insert+Q. This will hopefully tell you that version 5 of the StationPlaylist Studio scripts are running and that you are using build 1. If jaws does not output this information then clearly there is a problem with the installation.

The scripts support JAWS version 10 through to 14 public beta.

If you are using what might be described as a "cracked" copy of JAWS, you should under no circumstances install the scripts.

If you have questions prior to updating to the new scripts, have questions about installation, or you encounter a problem with them, this is what you should do. Send an email to
jaws@hartgen.org
clearly stating the problem that you have and the Windows operating system you are using. I will then do my best to resolve the problem for you. Please note that a resolution (or fix) may not come right away. I will do my best to fix the problem as quickly as possible, when time permits. Problems with script installation or JAWS configuration will always be pushed to the top of the support list. Thank you for your understanding.

The best way of keeping up-to-date with build changes, (which may occur frequently in the initial stages of release), is to follow me on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/brianhartgen
or friend me on Facebook
www.facebook.com/brianhartgen

Here are the features and changes in this version of the scripts and I hope you enjoy using them.

  • Changed a keystroke to read the elapsed time of a playing item from Control+Windows+- to StationPlaylist Key then - (dash).
  • Added a keystroke, StationPlaylist Key then V, to output the "popup information" relative to a track in the JAWS Virtual Viewer. The "popup information" displays information on the screen when the mouse is moved over a track icon in a Playlist. Note that the information which is output is controlled from within StationPlaylist's "Options/Track Info and Logging" Dialog Box.
  • Added a keystroke, StationPlaylist Key then Control+T, to read the total length of tracks which have been selected or checked.
  • Keystrokes have been added to enable or disable metadata streaming. When any of the keystrokes are pressed, you are asked if you would like to enable or disable metadata streaming. Please refer to the section of the scripts User Guide relating to metadata streaming.
  • Added an option to automatically disable metadata streaming when you exit StationPlaylist Studio by pressing ALT+Control+X.
  • Added an option to warn you if metadata streaming is enabled when StationPlaylist Studio is launched.
  • Added a keystroke, ALT+Windows+6, to announce the song pitch status.
  • Added a keystroke, ALT+Windows+7, to announce whether the playlist has been modified since it was previously saved.
  • Changed a keystroke from StationPlaylist Key then Y to ALT+Windows+8, to announce the playing status of StationPlaylist Studio, whether the playback has stopped, is in Live Assist, Automation or Paused.

My favourite new features in SPL Studio V5!

StationPlaylist Studio version 5 has now been released, so I thought very quickly I would post information about my favourite features. Studio, Creator and Streamer have all been updated with new improvements. We use all of them.

Studio has two internal audio players, each of which will play a song alternately. You can now assign each player to output via a different soundcard. This means you can assign two soundcards for use as the audio playback. If you have a sound mixer, and you use Studio through that as I do, you can assign a channel on your mixing desk to each audio player, making for some very nice cross-fading. It works really well.

Next is a feature which allows you to change the properties of an item you have inserted into your playlist. So if you've inserted a spot group in error, you can change that to a manual track or any other item, such as voice intro.

Multiple tracks can be selected for copying or deleting for example by pressing Shift+Down Arrow repeatedly.

Here's a cool one, probably my favourite. In the track preview player, you can hear the last 10 seconds of a track so you can find out how the song ends. I love that! Gets you ready for those cold endings.

"Unsaved playlist warning" is a new option in the General Options. When checked, if a playlist has been manually altered and not saved, Studio will display a warning when exiting Studio or clearing all playlists.

There are stacks of other new features too. Creator has been completely redesigned and has some great options, such as a break note which disables cross-fading, something I particularly asked for.

The JAWS scripts for Studio V5 have been completely rewritten and they differ substantially from V4.33. We do have some new features, and I'll post the changes along with the scripts.

Enjoy your new products if you decide to upgrade!

Not Here For Your Inspiration? Why Not?

Ok, I think I must be really weird. I've heard people all week long rhapsidising about this blog by stella young. It discusses the Scott Hamilton quote "The only disability in life is a bad attitude", which has been freely used to illustrate heart warming/stomach heaving pictures of disabled people doing normal things. I agree in the main with a lot of what Stella young says here, and that quote is patent bolderdash. If the only disability in life is a bad attitude, could someone please press a switch and give me back my eyesight? No? Thought not.

What I am having a problem with is the latter part of the article. I read that while Stella was on the way to work one day, someone took the time to let her know that she, that is the co-traveler in question, found her, Stella Young, an inspiration. Stella had a problem with this, and I just hope that kind, well-meaning person did not get to see herself used in a blog in the way that she was. I have heard a lot of my friends say they hate it when people call them inspirational/amazing/something complimentary for doing ordinary things which they do every day. We are not here for your inspiration, grumps Stella Young. Why not, exactly?

Being called an inspiration to someone is something with which I have never had a problem. Now please, don’t get the idea that I am an attention-seeking, vainglorious, self-satisfied holier than thou goody two-shoes, who goes around trying to shed light on all the world. I’m not. I do the same ordinary things as everyone else, and probably less than some. I get frustrated about inaccessibility, I moan about my health, I have my weaknesses and my imperfections like everyone. But the way I see it is this. If somebody sees me bumbling along, leading my life and finds me inspirational, what right do I have to spoil that for them by making myself unpleasant about it? I certainly don’t seek it, but hell, I’m certainly not going to bust anyone’s bubble by being rude about it either.

And when you think of it, the fact of having or not having a disability shouldn’t have anything to do with it at all. Don’t you think it would be cool if we were all an inspiration to someone? Not because we have a disability and just get on with our lives the best we can, but for who we are, for what we do, for the difference we can make, however tiny, in the world we live in?

Oh sure, I can hear everyone saying “My disability is the least important thing about me!” and of course that’s true. But for me, if something about my being blind and doing something ordinary made a positive impact on someone then I can only see it as good, not bad.

When it comes right down to it, I’d rather have a positive effect, however tiny, on someone’s life than be thought of as a complete asshole, or, even worse, as just a makeweight.

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