Sunday, 19 February 2017

How I practice piano (warning - uber-geeky in every aspect)

Here's something I don't share with my students because it's just so technical that it would alienate them - the way I organise my practice is based entirely on a flashcard-based language learning program and ipad app called Anki, using the following:
  • Setting up custom flashcards (including some basic copying and pasting of html code)
  • Tweaking its algorithms to suit skill development as opposed to pure memorisation as it's designed for.
  • Downloading sheet music from IMSLP and cutting it up using screenshot software. I have also scanned in some scores that are unavailable elsewhere, which probably contravenes the copyright but I would argue is a fair use as there is no other way of me experimenting with the practice technique.
A practice session will go something like this:
  • Sit at piano, put ipad on music stand, load up Anki, it shows me a snippet of music that I need to either practice if it's new, or check that I can still play accurately and musically.
  • It shows me a few options: 
    • If the snippet needs more practice I'll work on it for a while and then choose the red button. The snippet will come up again later that session. 
    • If the snippet is secure I choose green and it will come up again after a certain number of days. This number increases every consecutive time that option is chosen.
    • If the snippet feels very easy there's another option which delays it coming back up for even longer 
  • Having chosen one of these options, a different snippet shows up. Rinse and repeat!
  • Some cards I have labelled as 'Daily', such as scales and exercises. Some of these use html code to randomise their contents, e.g. I have a chord card that randomises an enormous list of chords which I play through until I'm bored or mentally exhausted from playing 3rd Inversions of double sharp 9th/aug 5th chords!
  • Each snippet appears 3 times - one for normal practice, once to practice linking to the next snippet, and once to memorise what comes after it. These never appear on the same day.
Here are what I feel the benefits are:
  • Only small snippets of music are presented at a time, focusing the mind entirely on the problems in that small passage
  • Easier sections of pieces are quickly deprioritised, meaning I spend longer focusing on challenging sections
  • There is something addictive about using the app
  • The whole practice process is automated
  • I don't need to carry round loads of books
Things that don't work:
  • The spacing algorithm still isn't quite right for all the snippets of pieces I have in my collection. I'm also dubious about the soundness of the research behind the original algorithm. However in practice this doesn't seem to matter too much.
  • It doesn't help with large-scale practice of a piece - that requires good old fashioned books for playing through and pencils for analysing form.
  • You can't write in fingerings, so have to memorise them. Turns out there is an extension to the desktop app that lets your edit images in Anki files, which could be very useful for all sorts of scribblings including fingering reminders. I'll have to take a while to experiment with this new feature.
The app also provides stats, so I can see that since working in this way:
  • On days when I used Anki to practice, I have averaged 70 minutes a day
  • I have worked through 1400 cards. The snippets probably average 3 bars of music, but each snippet appears 3 times, so this works out at roughly 1400 bars of music learnt and memorised. 
The repertoire has covered Beethoven, Chopin, Prokofiev, Debussy, some Clementi studies, some Bebop standards, music from Super Mario, carols, an entire show (not included in the total card count as I deleted it once I'd finished the show), a bunch of accompaniments, score-reading exercises (alto and tenor clef... fun!?) and many more random bits and pieces. At a guess it's probably around 2 hours of music, plus an extra hour unmemorised from the show. It has been a lot of fun and I'm certainly going to continue using this method for developing my keyboard skills and repertoire.

This is a very brief teaser, I would like to expand on some of the bullet points when I have the time and will update this post as and when that happens.

Monday, 22 July 2013

BCR2000 - A Brief Review / Reaper x64 Tutorial

This is a 2-part post: At the top is a review of my experiences. Scroll down for a tutorial to get this up and running with Reaper 64-bit.

The BCR2000 is a rarity among Behringer's product line - something that scores highly on all three of the holy trinity of budget music production equipment criteria - cheapness (available new at Amazon for just £135, the cheapest I could find including eBay), reliability and versatility. Famously used in Daft Punk's live shows, I'm pretty sure I've caught glimpses of it at a 2 Many DJ's gig and at a SubDub/Exodus event in Leeds. It's a central part of my home studio and I use it to control VST instruments and effects in Reaper.

The BCR2000 is one of a range of similar-looking control surfaces from Behringer, but in my opinion it is by far the superior offering due to the lack of mechanical parts and a proliferation of encoders.

While this is a fantastic piece of kit, it's hard to give it a sensible review as it is so unbelievably versatile that really it is what you make of it. For those with MIDI-controllable hardware in their setup, it can be used to control that and there are 32 preset spaces for you to program. Personally, I use a reaper plugin which requires just one preset. To start with I had difficulty getting it to work properly, and changing machine to 64-bit meant that I had to go through a whole new level of hassle, but after a lot of searching and experimentation I've discovered that there's only really a few hoops to jump through to get it working perfectly.

Once it is working with your equipment/DAW, it is a dream to use and customise. Each encoder has LEDs to indicate its position and because it uses encoders and not pots, bi-directional control is possible (with your software sending MIDI values to the BCR, avoiding jerky changes when you twiddle a knob). Because it doesn't use the motorised faders of the BCF2000, there is very little mechanically to go wrong and it means that for the same price you get double the amount of controllers. Motorised faders may look 'professional' but they aren't really a necessity and at the BCF's price point are a definite compromise (users report them being noisy and feeling flimsy). 

If you are switching presets regularly, or have it set up as I do for DAW control of all your plugins, there is little point in making notes on the scribble strips regarding what encoder/button controls which parameter. But they are useful if you are using it to control one synth, for example. 

Using the Reaper plugin for this control surface (32-bit installation is clearly explained in the downloads, make sure you read 'Important Note.txt'; instructions for 64-bit Reaper are below), there is handy little piece of accompanying software that annotates a virtual BCR2000 with scribble strips that apply to the plugin it is controlling at that moment. I used to try to use it on a laptop but really it was just too big for the screen. Now that I have a nice 27" widescreen monitor, it is not nearly as much of an issue.

The BCR2000 Console showing parameters for Korg's MS-20 in Reaper. The dots reflect each encoder's CC value so you can control parameters without looking down at the BCR2000.
For serious MIDI geekery, there is the BC Manager software (Win only). With this you can get right into the depths of the unit's capabilities, controlling things like parameter acceleration if you so desire. There is a yahoo group dedicated to programming it with a lot of hard work being shared so you may be able to avoid getting in depth and just enjoy the fruits of the labour of those before you.

BC Manager gives you access to the darkest depths of MIDI programming with the BCR2000

Conclusion: The BCR2000 forms an integral part of my home studio. Its versatility and the number of knobs could confuse some, and to get the most out of it I use an additional free plugin for controlling parameters in Reaper. For this function it is absolutely outstanding. I have no experience using it to control hardware but it's probably a similar combination of flexibility and complexity.

In Use:
Here are a few interesting videos covering the different ways people use the BCR.

1: Controlling some hard-to-access parameters on an old synth

2: Controlling EQ Parameters

3: Controlling a step-sequencer. This probably took the longest to set up.

Tutorial: Using the BCR2000 to control 64-bit Reaper in Windows 7

If you just want the x64 plugin and know the rest, it's here

Step 0: Make sure you have installed the drivers for the BCR2000. Search 'BCR2000 drivers' and get them from Behringer's website.

Step 1: Download

Step 2: Download the x64 version of the Reaper plugin

Step 3: Unzip the file from step 1 into somewhere where it won't get removed (I put mine in the 'Program Files\Reaper x64' folder). Right-click 'Install.cmd' and run as administrator.

Step 4: In the same folder, right click prjbcr2000console.exe and choose 'Properties', go to the compatibility tab and check the top box to run in XP compatibility mode.

Step 5: Copy the file from Step 2 into Program Files\Reaper x64\Plugins

Step 6: Load the setupbcr2000.syx on to preset 1 of the BCR2000. This sets all the knobs and buttons so they work with the plugin:
a) Download and install the top version of sendsx from
b) File-Open then locate setupbcr2000.syx
c) Midi Out - BCR2000
d) Send
e) Alternatively do this in another program such as Sonar if you know how

Step 7: Turn on the BCR2000, hold the EDIT button and press STORE. Turn the 2nd encoder from the right (next to the one labelled 'mode') on the top row clockwise until the value is at 100. This sets MIDI deadtime to 100ms and stops feedback problems. Then turn the encoder labelled 'type' to select U-1. This puts it in the most compatible mode. Press 'EXIT'

Step 8: Load Reaper. Options - Preferences - Control Surfaces (on the left) - Add - Behringer BCR2000. Set Midi Input and Midi Output to BCR2000 - OK.

Step 9: Double-click the bottom-right 'Encoder Groups' button. If it has worked, a picture of the BCR2000 should appear with labels on to indicate what does what. For info on how to actually use the control surface now that it's set up, check the documentation in the folder you unzipped at the beginning.

Controlling 32-bit plugins in Reaper x64: The plugin parameter control only works for plugins that Reaper hasn't had to 'bridge'. So if you are running 64-bit Reaper with 32-bit plugins, the BCR will be unable to change those parameters. This is easily solved by using jBridge, which is £14.99 and works very well indeed. It still 'bridges' the plugins but in such a way that Reaper still thinks they are 64-bit.

If you decide to get jBridge, follow the instructions included and then in Reaper go to Options-Preferences-Plugins\Compatibility and choose 'Only Native' from the drop down menu. Then go to VST and choose 'Clear Cache/re-scan'.