Have Screaming Laptop and MIDI, Will Travel

September 1, 1998

Dear Squeak and Blat,

I am starting to travel a lot these days and give talks on music software. I understand that you two do the same thing and was wondering if you had any tips about making my load lighter and my work more efficient. It seems I am dragging half my studio around and am always missing some piece of equipment or running into problems with the site I am visiting.

Music Roadie


Dear MR:

Well, I hear you. It really can be a "drag" to carry a lot of heavy equipment. I remember the days when I carried around my old Mac SE30 in that tote bag that looked like it might hold three trumpets, a couple of music stands, and the unabridged Arbans method book! Thankfully, equipment has really gotten lighter and lighter, while growing in power. Software that supports portable computing is improving too. I'll let Squeak talk about hardware items like sound devices, portable computers, and the like. I'll try my hand at some software tips that might be useful for you.

My goal is always to head off with everything self-contained and ready to go. In other words, I hate to rely on my host for such things as a copy of Finale or PowerPoint. This seems obvious I suppose, but never assume anything. Even if the folks you are visiting insist that they have "all you need," assume that they do not and you will have to supply everything yourself.

Let's start with the issue of backup. I have all my software installed and running on my PowerBook, but I also try to back up my entire system on a Zip disk. I have a Zip drive installed inside my PowerBook where my old floppy drive used to be and I make sure I bring Zip disks that have my original work and copies of my application software as well. I even have Norton Utilities (http://www.symantec.com/nu/index.html) installed on a Zip tools disk, together with a full working copy of my system software in case something goes wrong. This way, if my entire hard disk dies, I can rebuild what I need. It might also be prudent to pack your original system software CD.

I make sure I pack my modem and ethernet cables in case I need something from home. I try to put important files on my server at school so that I can download things if I need them. I can't count the number of times on the road I have needed something from the Internet from my home server for a special need that my visit requires!

Be prepared with examples of all kinds of music software. You may be asked to give a talk only about composition software for example, but when you are in the middle of your talk someone will likely ask you about your favorite multimedia program for teaching music history or how to do digital sound editing. Obviously you can't bring everything, but some good examples of different kinds of music software ready to go will help you respond to your audience.

Squeak will give good advice about MIDI sound, but I will add the idea of software-based MIDI solutions. If you can't afford to carry a compact MIDI sound device, don't forget the power of QuickTime. (http://www.apple.com/quicktime) Each new version of the QuickTime extensions for Mac and Wintel machines offers a wonderful way to get your laptop machine to render MIDI files without a MIDI device. I am always sure I have the ability to route all my MIDI applications to the built-in MIDI sounds to avoid disappointment with supplied MIDI equipment.

Always be sure to bring a digital copy of all your handout materials. You may run out of the copies you bring and it may be possible to give the file to your host for printing at the place you are visiting. (Install common print drivers on your portable computer so you can print directly from your own machine!) By the way, if you really get stuck for a hardcopy of a document, you can always fax a copy to a local fax machine by using your installed fax software that came with your built-in modem!

It's very hard to pack manuals for the software you demonstrate, so it's a good idea to include as many software solutions for reference as you can. You may think you know a program cold, but there are always some questions asked that may stump you. Most major music software vendors now include on-line documentation or manuals on CDs. Be sure to install the help files or pack the CDs in your CD case (you do have a CD case, right?)

My last software tip is about personal organization. If you are using a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) like the PalmPilot (http://palmpilot.3com.com/home.html), be sure that it contains information about music software companies, important email addresses or web sites, serial numbers of installed software you own, and travel information about the places you visit. If you don't have a PDA, have a database on your computer that has this information.

If all fails, be sure to have a Plan B-overheads (or at least a copy of your presentation). Never set out to give a talk somewhere without materials that can be used in case of TTF (Total Technology Failure). .


Dear Roadie. (Didn't I know your Aunt? While, anyway, I won't tell.) Funny you should ask? My personal goal has been to create a portable computer setup I could travel with that would let me do multimedia and music computing tasks like MIDI performance and notation. The quality of my Dell laptop is such that I find I use it more and more for just about everything from back-and-forth from school, from my office-to-classroom, and from home-to-workshops on the road. I first discovered this was possible when I saw Henry Panion's setup (University of Alabama, Birmingham) that he uses on the road while conducting and arranging for Stevie Wonder. He had everything he needed to crank out an arrangement with Finale in the airplane or in the hotel and have parts ready for a studio rehearsal with Stevie the next morning.

Here's what I have so far for my setup and then I'll follow with what I still need to add to my system to make it more useable. Blat covered the software in his usually attention to detail, so I'll not tackle that part of the equation.

  • Dell Latitude laptop, 266 mHz Pentium II with 64 mb of RAM, a 4 gb harddrive, a CD-ROM drive, and a 13 inch LCD screen (about $2600 refurbished from Dell). I like the keyboard and LCD display on this so much, I almost prefer it to my desktop computer with standard 17-inch video monitor. Other laptop manufacturers include Apple Computers, Micron, Toshiba, IBM, and Compaq, to name just a few.
  • 56 kHz PCMCIA card modem and a 10 mHz Ethernet PCMCIA card (about $100 or less each). With the PCMCIA slots on the laptop I can plug in whichever network device I need, modem or Ethernet. My card modems are 3COM, but several other vendors provide similar solutions.
  • Axial very small and portable Zip drive that plugs into the PCMCIA slot and requires no power cord ($200). We talked about Zip disks in one of our previous columns and Blat mentions them above. Microtech makes one of these portable Zip drives for laptops as well.
  • Yamaha QY70 very portable MIDI synth module with built in MIDI interface (It does like to eat batteries however. The QY70 has a one-octave keyboard configured in the top of the hand-held module that you can use in a pinch, especially just to use and demo CAI and multimedia stuff. (about $400). The Roland Personal Music Assistant (PMA-5) will also work well for portable MIDI applications.
  • Novation 2.5 octave portable keyboard controller (about 2 feet in length and will fit into a suitcase) to bring along if I really need a controller with full-sized, velocity sensitive keys; it even has a modulation wheel and a port for a foot controller.
  • Logitech First Mouse+ (2 buttons with a scroll wheel in the middle). I can't get use to the touchpad for fast editing and the middle scroll well is great for surfing the web and scrolling down through web pages. Microsoft also makes an equivalent mouse with the scroll wheel.

What would I still like to add?

  • A portable printer, like one of those battery-operated bubble jet models that have received good reviews.
  • DVD drive in place of my CD-ROM drive (I want to watch my DVD movies when I'm on the road! Smiling). Check out an earlier S&B column on DVDs.
  • Better solutions for batteries. I'm researching NiHM vs. NiCAD batteries for things like my QY70 and also for batteries for my laptop and my digital camera. There are some real-long duration batteries (that look like a thin plate that fit under the computer) that give 5-6 hours of a charge.
  • Solutions to eliminate as many wires as possible, and simplify the wiring. That includes better power sources to eliminate those dreaded AC/DC power adapters you have to carry along. I like the portable Axial Zip drive, for example, because it draws its power from the laptop's PCMCIA port.

One last hardware element that needs to be discussed is the video projection. Best is to request SVGA-quality, color video projector (where the projection and the lighting is all built into one, portable unit). Ideal is XGA projection with the highest resolution. The lowest (and poorest) projection is from a VGA (256 colors, low resolution) LCD plate that sits on top of an overhead projector. Avoid this if at all possible. The latest Mac and PC laptops work great with SVGA quality video projection. Early Mac laptops require a special Mac cable to connect to the display projector. They are making video projectors light and portable these days so, if youíve got the money to purchase one ($4000+), you can even take that on the road with you. We covered projectors in more depth in one of our previous columns.

Put this hardware with Blat's repertoire of software, and you are ready to take your music computing any where, any time!


Note 1. I like Blat's tip about a back up of overhead transparencies. Another idea Iíve thought of doing for a backup, especially if you are showing Internet browsing or showing off software, is to make a video of your demonstration segments and bring the video along. You can always find a VCR in a pinch.

Note 2. I make all my handouts as web pages. I just print out the web pages when I need hardcopy for handouts. If I run out, I give people the web link so they can retrieve the copy from home or their lab. Then, the online version of my handouts has hotlinks to other sites.


2131 Last modified on December 19, 2013
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