Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mr. Fix-it

Most kids, when they dream of and look forward to Christmas think about the snow, or the lights, or putting up decorations, or opening presents. I looked forward to those things as a kid too, but the thing that Christmas meant more than anything to me was that we got to set up the train around the tree.

This was dad's train, a collection of Lionel engines, tracks, and cars accumulated since the time he was a kid (and we know that was a very long time ago). Somewhere about the time I was 12 or so I was allowed to take over the annual "setting-up-of-the-train." I enjoyed it a lot. Probably because of the fantasy of running the machines, pretending I was actually in the engine and making it go, the wires, the set up, the layout. It was kind of the analog version of Sim City.

So fast forward a couple of decades and now I have the train, though the excitement has worn off a little, it's still fun to get excited about seeing it run yet another year, especially through the eyes of Reece, who just can't get enough of it. Anyway, crawling around on the hardwood, trying to assemble a couple of tracks, and get wires to plug into the right things, and set the wheels just right on the track to avoid a short, and don't touch things or you'll get a little shock just didn't have the same appeal it used to.

One of the set of engines that we had was this diesel model. A Union Pacific engine that just never quite worked right. I have memories of it roaring but not moving. Seemed it didn't have the weight the cast iron engines had to pull a lot of cars. Even when the load was lightened, it still moved reluctantly. I can remember dad taking it to have it worked on. I think this happened more than once. A little lubrication, an adjustment here or there, and it at least moved again, but still didn't compare to the robustness of the locomotive models.

Well today I ran the train for a while--Reece and Lindsey couldn't wait for me to do it! and all of the sudden the U. P. train just stopped. Light stayed on, but the train made no sound and went nowhere.

This happens occasionally. Tracks become separated, or the engine is sitting on a dirty part of the track, making a poor electrical connection, but nothing I did could get it moving again. So I picked it up and examined it. I found a loose wire underneath where the gears are. OK, that could be something--question is, do I want to get into this tonight? I figured out how to pop the top off and when I flipped it over on the inside, I discovered a different loose wire which had broken from the top of the motor.

I decided to operate. I found my little soldering pen, some solder, got my wire strippers, and went to work.

Reece just couldn't stand it. Totally beside himself with curiosity. Using that iron again brought back all the memories of breathing in that second-hand lead-rich smoke.

Anybody who has ever done any soldering will tell you it's a three handed job. I was having a hard time getting the iron hot enough....

..So I switched from the 10-watt iron to the 75-watt gun. THAT did the trick.

Put it all back together, and the final result:

Friday, November 28, 2008

Finale Issues

When you use a piece of software for what feels like nearly every day for over 10 years, you feel like you've earned the right to gripe about it a little. Finale is the software program I have been using since 1994 or 1995 as a grad student at Kent State. The theory/comp teaching assistants had the duty of being in charge of the computer lab on a rotating basis. That was my first real exposure to Finale.

Since then I've developed the love-hate relationship one develops when you learn to use a tool to help you create or enhance your art, but one who's quirks and idiosyncrasies can just drive you crazy sometimes. I've been lurking on the MakeMusic Notation forum, looking for answers to some of my issues, and finding none, or at least no satisfactory answers, I decided to create this post.

Post title: I will upgrade to 2009 when...

I have been using Finale since 1997. It was version 3.5 or something back then. It's gone from being a functional notation program with plenty of user deficiencies to a functional notation program with a much improved interface but with the addition of features and functions that most people will probably never use. Yes, it's nice to be able to define the bar thickness, but really--who actively goes in and edits that?

Alright, so here's the point of my post. There have been nagging deficiencies--things that seem like they should take fairly high priority to fix--that have been broken either since they were introduced or since I've been using the program and as far as I know have never worked properly or have never been addressed.

One caveat. I will admit that I may simply not know that there is, in fact, a solution to some of the issues I list below, and if there is an easy fix, please, please let me know! HOWEVER--I will say that I have no intent to shell out another $100 every year --or ever other year for new and likely obscure features that I will probably never use when more fundamental functions of the software has yet to be addressed.

*Articulation in multiple layers -- why is it that if I have a series of notes in layer one, and I add, say, staccato articulation to them, then go back and add another series of notes in layer two, the placement of the previously entered articulation gets all screwed up? The issue worsens if I need to add articulation to the notes of layer two as well. This should not be a hard problem to solve. Does Finale really think we oughta have accents and other articulation markings appearing in the middle of the staff, or on top of secondary notes? Why do I always have to move the articulation manually when this happens? This is dumb.

*Cancel and OK quit working -- some have suggested repairing permissions to keep the dialog boxes working properly. Really? This works only for a second, if at all. I have Finale on two computers. The problem persists on both of them, and it happens in no other app that I run. If I get a staff tool dialog box, for example, I make my selections, click ok, and it does nothing. It only works when I click at some black area of the dialog box. That is so dumb. Can we fix that please?

*Rhythmic notation - I am frustrated with the arbitrary nature of the rhythmic notation. It appears on the middle line of the staff with the stem going down whether you want it to or not. I would love to be able to flip the stem, and if necessary, move the location of the rhythmic notation so I can place notes in other layers if necessary that are non-rhythm notation notes.

*Enharmonic memory -- When you are in speedy entry and you put up an accidental in the key of C, say a G#, the enharmonic settings may be that Finale reads it as an Ab. OK, but in this case you need it to be a V/vi so you change it to G# by pressing 9 on the key pad, but then if you have another G# in the same measure, it still puts up an Ab. Duh. Really? I JUST told you this pitch is a G#. Even if my enharmonic spellings are set to favor flats, it really oughta look at that and say-Oh, he's working in sharps right now, not only will I assume that for THIS measure that's the orientation we need, but if there is a tie from the G# of the measure in question to the next measure, I'll make an appropriate note of that too. But NO.

*Placement of brackets with quarter note triplets-- can we get this right already? I mean come on, MakeMusic has been working so hard for so long to perfect the slurs, but they've completely forgotten about triplet brackets colliding with note stems or beams. Come on.

* Pickup measure help --When setting a pickup measure, why doesn't Finale auto-fill all other measures in the score with the corresponding pickup value with rests? If I have an eighth note pick up in one or two instruments, the opening measure in everyone else's part should not remain a whole rest, it should automatically be changed to the value of the pickup measure.

*Autosave -- This needs a lot of work. I have learned over the years that you never know when Finale is going to crash. It will crash, it is the nature of computers and software, and Finale is not notoriously stable. So Autosave is an important feature. It has baled me out (see untitled loop below). I currently have my Autosave set to fire every five minutes. Yes, five minutes. However, this leads to significant problems while operating in various functions of the program.
--Autosave sometimes crashes the document by putting you in a loop you can't get out of if you've freshly opened a document ("untitled") and haven't had a chance to "save as..." If your autosave kicks in and you have this untitled document open, you can't get to the box that lets you name it and save it. The only choice is to force quit. Completely unacceptable.
--Autosave needs to be kept in the background and keep it from interrupting whatever I'm doing. For example, when one becomes significantly proficient at speedy entry, you can be humming along, entering, entering, rest, note, rest, note, note [autosave] note, tie, note--dialog box--too many notes in the measure, etc. What? Oh, no I didn't --stupid autosave occurred as I made an entry that wasn't registered BECAUSE AUTOSAVE TOOK PRECEDENCE. FAIL.
--Autosave interrupts anything the user is doing: whatever menu you have pulled down, whatever speedy entry or lyrical entry you're attempting to make and totally takes you out of your flow. Again, the software should serve the user, not the other way around. Make autosave happen completely in the background and seamlessly, so I don't even know it's happening. I don't even need to see a dialog box flash up there for a second. Just do it.

* Staff expression shortcuts -- When working in a score, there are plenty of times while using a staff expression tool I would like to use the shortcut of holding down an assigned key and clicking and adding something to most of the score, but not all the score. For example, maybe I want to add a rall. but I don't need it to appear on both piano staves or both vocal staves. But it needs to appear everywhere else. Is there no global way that I can still use that shortcut but specify staff exceptions? I know about groups, but that doesn't work with short cuts [that I know of].

*Staff group extraction -- the new extraction process is the opposite of user-friendly. I cannot figure out what single thing has benefited or what advantage has been gained over the previous approach. Can someone explain to me why I can't name a staff in a group and have the group show up in the extraction window? Really? Dumb.

*Document preferences -- Certain prefs oughta stick with the document. For example, if I last leave off inputing lyrics in "section 1", save the doc, open it on my other computer (or later on the same one), and continue entering lyrics, I don't want to discover that I've been entering in default "verse 1" for the past half hour. If I leave off in section 1, save the doc and open it in another context, or on another day, it oughta remember where I was.

In fact, the doc should open to the last place I was editing, with the tool I was using, not at the very beginning, or at least this ought to be an option.

OK--I can't be the only one. What other aspects of Finale need to be addressed that have long-standing difficulties. I think most would rather see these annoyances dealt with rather than new features added.