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by Tom Nelson

You may already have a video or audio studio set up in your home. Perhaps you used some of the equipment and suggestions from last week’s Rocket Yard Guide: Road to NAB 2018: A Guide to Mac Home Video/Audio Studio Gear.

You may also want to check out some related Rocket Yard Guides:

As we mentioned in the previous guide, we’re going to expand on the topic, taking a look at ways of improving your video/audio studio to make it more versatile, and generally improve the overall quality of the content you can produce in your home studio.

Turn an iPad into a excellent teleprompter by adding a stand and holder.

Acoustic Treatment
One of the first upgrades that can really improve the sound of any home studio is to add acoustic treatment to reduce reverberation and improve the quality of the sound you’ll be recording. But don’t think this applies only to those of you with a recording studio; you may be surprised to learn that not only will acoustic treatment make your videos sound better, but it can help make them look better, too. We’ll get back to that last point in a bit, so let’s get started with fixing the sound in your studio.

One of the sound problems we want to attack is reverberation. This occurs as sound bounces off the floor, walls, and ceiling. If there are enough reflective surfaces, sound can build up a reverberation effect that can be distracting, and muddy the sound quality of your project. There are various methods to combat reverberation, from basic to expensive; which you use is up to you, but in many cases, the basic options work pretty well and are a good place to begin.

Bass traps come in many configurations, from triangular-shaped acoustic foam with large fins, to stuffed, open-sided boxes. Credit: Powerjoe CC BY-SA 4.0

Add Some Carpeting
The floor in your studio space is one of the prime surfaces for reflection, and if the floor is wood, any of the resilient floor coverings, or concrete, you probably will need to add acoustic treatment to the floor to reduce the strength of any sound reflection. This can be accomplished using any material that can absorb the sound and/or scatter the sound away from parallel planes, such as the ceiling.

Carpeting is one of the easiest and least expensive ways of treating a floor surface. It can also help fix a common lighting problem that plagues studios with wood or colored flooring material, the casting of an unwanted color tone onto subjects, props, and backdrops. Pick a carpet in a neutral color, and you’ll help both the audio and video quality of your projects.

Comfy Chairs
Those hard-surface stools and chairs you find at the local office store may be inexpensive, but they can compound sound reflection issues you may be having. Try using plush comfy chairs and couches in the studio, when you can. Once again, keep the colors neutral, unless they’re being used for props with a specific color requirement.

Wall Panels
Acoustic wall panels, available as foam panels, usually in an egg crate design, are a common sound treatment for absorbing mid- to high-frequency sounds. They can help reduce reverberation within their frequency range, and since that range covers the human voice, they’re ideal to help tame voices with a more strident sound quality.

You can also make wall panels from drapes, and even leftover carpet, but this type of treatment is for general use and doesn’t help specifically with voice quality.

Bass Traps
The last treatment to consider is bass traps, which are similar to the wall panels we mentioned. They’re made of foam, but are thicker than foam panels, and have irregular sets of fins instead of the uniform egg crate shape. Bass traps absorb the lower frequencies, and can help reduce reflections and reverb from bass instruments, and noise from some equipment common in the studio.

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by Tom Nelson

It’s springtime, and that means the annual NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show is about to open in Las Vegas. The NAB Show covers a wide range of interests, including film, television, radio, audio, and video. OWC will be invading the NAB show at booth C3647, and showing off the new Envoy Pro EX, a portable SSD storage system that uses Thunderbolt 3 for extreme performance.

Pro users who already have a video or audio studio to work in may feel right at home at NAB, but that doesn’t mean you should feel left out if you’re just starting out and putting together your first studio, or making improvements to an existing one.

Basic home video studio with green screen backdrop. Credit: chrispodbo / Pixabay CCO

In this week’s Rocket Yard guide, we’re going to look at the gear you can use to build your first studio. This gear list is designed for someone who has basic knowledge about working with video and/or audio projects, and who wants to create a space to do more.

By the way, next week we’re going to delve further into this topic, and include a guide to expanding your first studio to make it more versatile.

Your Home Studio
A home studio for creating music or video is a goal for many up-and-coming talents in the entertainment world. It’s also a dream for many technically inclined folks who want to create remarkable projects from behind the scenes. No matter where you fit in, this guide is going to focus on the gear you will need, as well as provide a few tips about how to put things together and make a functional space for your studio.

The ThunderBay 4 RAID is a versatile Thunderbolt 3 enclosure you can build your storage system around. Image courtesy MacSales.com.

Planning Considerations
Your studio should be in an isolated area, if possible, to help prevent encroachment of household noise, or for that matter, to help prevent studio noise from affecting others in the household; that’s one reason why garage studios are so popular. But just about any space can be used: a bedroom, den, unused dining room, even that old playhouse out back can be a good choice for studio space.

Power is an important consideration because studio gear can use a lot of electrical power. Most rooms in a house are limited to one, or at best two, 15-amp circuits. You can check how many circuits a room has by using a receptacle tester and asking a friend to turn circuits off and on in the circuit breaker panel. A receptacle tester will also make sure the outlets are wired correctly.

Don’t overlook heating and cooling. A studio that’s too cold can be difficult to work in, and one that’s too hot may not only have adverse effects on you, but also on your equipment.

Space in a first-time studio is usually at a premium; plan on areas of the studio performing double- or even triple-duty. A piece of plywood set on top of a bed can turn the space into a table for studio equipment. You don’t want to put electronic equipment directly on a bed; the soft surface can block airflow and cause equipment to overheat.

Equipment: Video
Cameras: If you’re just starting out in video production, you don’t have to spend a lot on one or more cameras. You may already have a basic camera on your smartphone or tablet that can meet your needs:

  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • Android

Most DSLRs have a video mode to record in HD, or in some cases, 4K formats. Credit: Martin Kraft CC BY-SA 3.0

A step up that provides better images, and the ability to use multiple lenses, are the various DSLR cameras:

  • Canon EOS
  • Nikon DSLR
  • Sony A series

Tripods/Stands/Stabilizers: Tripods and stands are an absolute must for supporting your camera, lights, and other studio paraphernalia. Stabilizers are used with a camera to dampen or isolate the motion of an operator while filming.

  • Tripods and stands
  • Stabilizers

Backgrounds: Chances are your home studio lacks a decent background to film against. With the addition of one or more printed backdrops, you can film in just about any environment you wish. Choose a chroma key screen, and you can add any background you want during the editing process.

Lighting: Lighting can be a DIY project using equipment from your local big box store, provided you control the color temperature of the bulbs you use. Be sure to do a little research before making a decision; you may be surprised at the low cost of some beginner and semi-professional lighting kits that are available.

Teleprompter: Often overlooked when starting out is a good teleprompter. They can be helpful for many types of projects, and you don’t always need dedicated hardware. Instead, consider a software-based solution running on your web browser.

Computer: If you haven’t already guessed, we’re going to recommend a Mac to serve the central role in your studio. If you need a Mac, MacSales has a nice collection of refurbished Macs to choose from.

Displays: Your Mac may already have a display built in, but chances are you’ll benefit from either a larger monitor or from connecting your Mac to multiple monitors. MacSales has a good selection of monitors, as well as display accessories, to use in a studio.

Editing Software: There are a number of video editing apps that are a good choice for a home studio. You can start with the free iMovie app included with your Mac, and when ready, move on to one of these more feature-packed editing apps. Each has a free trial available, so you can give them a whirl before you commit:

Storage: You’re going to need a lot of storage, more than what’s included internally with most Macs. MacSales shines in Mac storage solutions, with external solutions for every need.

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by Tom Nelson

Content Caching is one of the new services available in macOS High Sierra. Designed to reduce Internet data usage and increase the speed of updating Macs, iOS devices, and Apple TVs, Content Caching can also speed up iCloud storage by keeping a local copy of the iCloud data on your local area network.

Content Caching: History
Content Caching was originally one of the services included with Mac OS Server. By using the caching service, a system administrator could designate local storage as a repository for all of the software updates distributed by Apple for its various product families.

This allowed all devices connected to the local network to access the stored information without having to re-download the data from the Internet every time a device needed an update.

Caching was an effective way for administrators to reduce the Internet bandwidth used, while actually increasing overall system update performance for the end user.

Content, such as macOS updates, is cached, allowing others on your network to enjoy faster updates. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Apple ceased development of the Mac OS Server product, but the Content Caching capabilities have made the migration from the server product to the Mac, as long as it’s running macOS High Sierra or later.

Content Caching: How It Works
Once Content Caching is enabled on a Mac, it keeps copies of all of the software updates, App Store downloads and updates, and iCloud data, including backups to iCloud that are initiated by any client connected to your local network.

The next time a client on your network needs to download the same data, such as a macOS update, the data is retrieved from the content cache instead of being downloaded from the Internet. All subsequent client devices that need the data get it from the local network at what will normally be a much faster connection than is possible from the Internet.

Data Types That Are Cached
Not everything that is downloaded from the Internet is cached. Content Caching supports the following data types:

  • iTunes purchases (iTunes 11.04 and later)
  • iBooks Store content (iOS 6 or OS X Mavericks and later)
  • iOS app purchases and updates
  • iOS updates over the air (iOS 7 and later)
  • macOS updates
  • Mac App Store purchases and updates
  • GarageBand downloadable content
  • iCloud photos and documents for OS X El Capitan or iOS 9 and later
  • Apple TV apps and updates
  • iOS 10 and tvOS 10 On-Demand resources
  • iTunes U course material
  • Mobile assets, including high-quality Siri voices and dictionaries

Setting Up Content Caching
To make use of Content Caching, you’re going to need:

  • A Mac that is on 24/7, or at least whenever a client device is connected to your local network
  • A Mac connected to your local network via wired Ethernet (preferred) or Wi-Fi
  • A Mac with either a large amount of free space on the startup drive or an external drive
  • macOS High Sierra or later

Note: Apple recommends that the Mac being used for caching be hard-wired to your Ethernet network using Gigabit Ethernet or better. The caching system can serve hundreds of clients concurrently. To ensure adequate throughput, a high-performance wired Ethernet connection to the Mac is encouraged.

If you’re implementing Content Caching for your home or small business, with a limited number of client devices (Macs, iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches), a Wi-Fi connection may be adequate, though the caching Mac may see some negative performance effects if the cache is undergoing heavy use.

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by Tom Nelson

Space, the final frontier. It may seem like an astronomically difficult problem, trying to keep enough free space on your Mac’s startup drive, especially if you have a Mac with a small SSD.

Space is precious, and one of the largest users of your drive’s space is likely to be your various media libraries. You likely have one or more photo libraries, as well as all the music, videos, podcasts, audiobooks, and mobile apps that are managed by your iTunes app. In many cases, your iTunes library is one of the main users of drive space.

One of the best ways to increase the amount of free space on your startup drive, and better manage your media libraries, is to move them from their usual home to an external drive. This allows you to use a large but relatively inexpensive drive to house all the data.

Consider this: A new USB 3.0 external drive with a 2 TB hard drive installed can be had for less than $150, possibly even less if you already have an enclosure to use, or a hard drive kicking around.

That’s why one of my recommendations for controlling drive space issues is to consider moving your media libraries to an external hard drive.

Move iTunes Library to External Storage
In this tip, we’re going to show you how to successfully move your iTunes library from its default location on your startup drive to an external drive connected to your Mac. This method will result in a seamless move, with your iTunes app able to pick up right where it left off, with no hiccups.

The first step in the process is to determine how much external storage you need by finding out how big your current iTunes library is. This will help determine a bare minimum size for an external dedicated to iTunes, though I suggest you use this number only as a reference. I recommend choosing a larger size that will accommodate any expected growth in the library, as well as any additional media libraries you may choose to install on the external now or in the future.

The Get Info window includes information about the size of the selected folder. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Find Out How Large the Current iTunes Library is
The default location for the iTunes library is in your home folder, within the Music folder (~/User_Name/Music). To find out how big the library is, perform the following:

Open a Finder window and navigate to: ~/User_Name/Music.

Right-click or command-click the iTunes folder, and select Get Info from the popup menu.

In the Get Info window that opens, make a note of the folder size found near the top left of the window, just under the General: section.

The size listed indicates the current size of the iTunes library.

You can close the Get Info window.

The size listed is just about the bare minimum. I say “just about” because you’ll need slightly more capacity on the external to ensure the library will fit. As an example, my iTunes library is about 49 GB, not very big as iTunes libraries go. It’s unlikely that my 49 GB library would fit on a 50 GB external (if you could still find such a small drive), due to the amount of space the external will reserve for itself during the formatting and partitioning process. It would be better to go up a size, from 50 GB to 60 GB, as the minimum space needed.

To this minimum, add space for expansion. Perhaps you’re an avid collector of new music and podcasts, or you like to install lots of mobile apps. All of these things will take up additional storage. I suggest going with the largest external drive your budget will tolerate. This will ensure you don’t need to expand the drive size in the near future, and you can always use any unused space for other data, perhaps your photo libraries, or to stream movies from.

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by Tom Nelson

This is the last of our four-part guide to using the Mac’s accessibility features. If you missed the previous installments, you can catch up by reading:

Our last group of Accessibility options includes the Media and Hearing options, plus a couple of general tips.

Media and Hearing are the last two Accessibility categories we will look at. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

To open the Accessibility preference, launch System Preferences by clicking its Dock icon, or by selecting System Preferences from the Apple menu.

In the System Preferences window that opens, select the Accessibility preference pane.

Scroll down the list on the left-hand sidebar until you come to the Media section.

Accessibility Media
The first media option we’ll look at is Descriptions.

Descriptions: This is Apple’s implementation of Audio Descriptions, which involves playing back narration that has been added to the soundtrack of movies, videos, TV programs, and other visual media.

The narration service attempts to describe what is displayed on the screen with concise descriptions of settings, costumes, even sight gags. The narration occurs during pauses between dialog, songs, or major sound effects.

Not all video media includes Audio Descriptions.

To enable Audio Descriptions, launch System preferences, and select the Accessibility preference pane.

Select Descriptions from the list in the Accessibility sidebar.

If Siri is enabled, you can use Siri to bring up the Descriptions configuration by saying, “Hey Siri, open Accessibility Descriptions.”

To turn the description service on, place a checkmark in the box labeled Play audio descriptions when available.

Captions: The Mac’s accessibility options include the ability to display subtitles and closed captions from any media that has embedded captions. Captions are available in two different formats (when provided by the media being viewed): as standard closed captions or as subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH).

The primary difference between closed captions and SDH is their appearance on the screen; additional contextual clues are included in SDH, such as who is speaking, background sounds, or music lyrics. SDH also uses a more film-friendly font format that doesn’t block as much of the screen as standard closed captions.

The Captions feature allows you to select a caption style as well as choose between closed captions or SDH. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

To configure Captions, bring up the Accessibility preference pane and select Captions from the sidebar.

Once you select the Captions item in the sidebar, you can select or create a subtitle style to use. The Captions feature comes with a few styles already created; you can choose one of the available styles from the list or create your own.

Subtitle styles are displayed in the box above the style list, so you can easily see how each style will look.

To create your own style, select one of the existing styles to use as a template. New styles you create inherit the settings of the currently selected style. Press the plus (+) button below the list of styles.

In the dropdown pane that appears, enter a name in the Style Name field.

Set the color that will appear behind the caption text using the Background Color dropdown menu. You can select from various predefined colors.

The Background Opacity can be set using the dropdown menu. Choose from:

  • Opaque
  • Semi-Transparent
  • Transparent

Set the caption’s color with the Text Color dropdown menu. You have the same color choices as the Background color menu. Remember not to pick the same color or the text will vanish into the background.

You can create your own subtitles style sheet to customize how captioning will look. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Use the Text Size dropdown menu to choose:

  • Extra Small
  • Small
  • Medium
  • Large
  • Extra Large

Use the Font dropdown menu to choose any installed font on your Mac.

You’ll also find that each dropdown menu has a checkbox next to it labeled Allow video to override. Selecting this option allows the embedded settings for the captions to take precedence over the style you created. If you want to ensure your style is always used, remove the checkmark from every “Allow video to override” box.

You may want to let the embedded caption settings override the Background Color and Text Color selections to ensure good visibility against the video. You can always force your style to be used after trying the settings out.

Once you’ve made your choices, click the OK button.

Your caption style will be added to the style list, and will become the selected style. If you would like a different style to be the default, you can select it from the list of styles.

If you would prefer the closed captions to use subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing (SDH), place a checkmark in the box labeled Prefer closed captions and SDH.

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by Tom Nelson

This is the third installment in the Using the Mac’s Accessibility Features series. If you missed the previous installments, you can catch up by reading:

In this installment, we will look at the Interacting category of the Accessibility preference pane.

Accessibility’s Interacting category covers how you can interact with the Mac’s user interface. It includes a number of features that allow you to use dictation for both typing text and controlling basic Mac functions, modify how the keyboard, mouse, and trackpad work, and set up and use alternate physical controllers to interact with the Mac.

Dictation

The Mac’s dictation system is controlled using two preference panes. Basic dictation, that is, using dictation to enter text wherever you would normally type text, is configured from the Keyboard preference pane. Controlling your Mac by speaking, or by creating custom dictation commands, is configured using the Accessibility preference pane’s Dictation options.

Basic Dictation Services:
Launch System Preferences, and select the Keyboard preference pane. You can let Siri perform the task by saying, “Hey Siri, open keyboard preference pane.”

The basic dictation system needs to be enabled before you can make use of the advanced dictation features, including voice command. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

With the keyboard preference pane open, select the Dictation tab.

Use the Dictation radio button to turn dictation on or off.

The option to enable enhanced dictation is available by placing a checkmark in the Use Enhanced Dictation box. I recommend using this option. When it’s selected, Apple will download an extension to Dictation that allows the service to be used offline; the extension also enables dictation commands, a very powerful part of the dictation service.

Use the Language dropdown menu to select the language you wish to use for dictation.

Use the Shortcut dropdown menu to select a keyboard shortcut for turning dictation on and off. This is an important shortcut to remember, as you probably don’t want your Mac trying to convert everything you say to text.

Dictation can use any of the Mac’s audio inputs. You can change the default microphone by clicking on the Microphone icon, and then selecting a mic from the dropdown menu.

You can create custom dictation (voice) commands to control your Mac in the Accessibility preference pane. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

To create a custom command, click on the plus (+) button.

Enter a phrase to use to trigger the custom voice command.

Use the While using: dropdown menu to select an app (including Any Application) that the voice command will be used with.

Use the Perform dropdown menu to select what the command will do. You may be taken aback by seeing only a few options available, such as Open Finder Item, Open URL, or Paste Text. But within the list are three very powerful options:

Press Keyboard Shortcut: This allows a voice command to be used to cause any keyboard shortcut to be performed. Most apps have a large number of keyboard shortcuts available, and if the function you wish to perform doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut, you can either create one using the Keyboard preference pane, or use the next option below.

Select Menu: Enter a menu name exactly as it appears in the app’s menu.

Run Workflow: This will allow you to run any Automator workflow you have created. The Automator item must have been saved as a workflow, and not one of the other options.

Click the Done button when complete.

You start Dictation using a voice command by placing a checkmark in the box labeled Enable the dictation keyword phrase. Once you place a checkmark here, enter a phrase to use to activate dictation.

The last two options are:

Play sound when command is recognized.

Mute audio output while dictating.

Place a checkmark in the appropriate box to enable the above options.

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by Tom Nelson

Last week, we started our foray into the Mac’s Accessibility features with an overview of the services available, and a look at the General category, which provides quick access to many of the Accessibility features. If you would like to review Part One of this series, you can find it at:

macOS 101: Getting Started With the Mac’s Accessibility Features.

In Part Two, we’re going to look at the Vision category, including:

  • VoiceOver: The Mac’s built-in screen reader.
  • Zoom: The ability to enlarge or shrink the view on the Mac’s display.
  • Display: Options to enhance the display for easier viewing.
  • Speech: Using the Mac’s speech options to read alerts, speak text, and modify characteristics of the voice used in the VoiceOver application.

VoiceOver
VoiceOver is the Mac’s screen reader app, though it does quite a bit more than just telling you what’s happening on the screen. It provides voice descriptions of each onscreen item, suggestions about how to use them, supports 35 languages and braille display, and offers a wide range of voice options, including the ability to control your Mac with just a keyboard.

Once VoiceOver is enabled, the caption panel will be displayed. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

VoiceOver is often thought of as an app that’s included with the Mac OS, but actually it’s a core service of the operating system. This allows third-party developers to integrate VoiceOver into their apps to provide simplified navigation with their products.

To configure and use VoiceOver:

Launch System Preferences by clicking on its Dock icon, or by selecting System Preferences from the Apple Menu.

In the System Preferences window that opens, select the Accessibility preference pane.

If you have Siri up and running, you can say “Hey Siri, open the Accessibility preference pane” as an alternative.

In the Accessibility preference pane, select VoiceOver from the sidebar.

The VoiceOver options will be displayed in the configuration pane.

To enable Voiceover, place a checkmark in the Enable VoiceOver box, or use the command + F5 keyboard combination. You can also use Siri by speaking, “Hey Siri, turn on VoiceOver.”

VoiceOver can also be turned on using the Accessibility Shortcut panel. See Part One of this series, macOS 101: Getting Started With the Mac’s Accessibility Features, for details.

Once VoiceOver is enabled, a caption panel will appear in the bottom left corner of the screen. Within the panel, the text that VoiceOver speaks will be displayed.

VoiceOver will speak and display descriptions of each element on the screen as you interact with them. Besides speaking a description, the VoiceOver caption panel will provide hints and instructions for how to interact with the various elements you encounter.

VoiceOver provides a large number of ways to interact, including an extensive collection of keyboard shortcuts, gestures, and other input methods. A complete list of all the ways to interact are a bit beyond the scope of this overview, however, VoiceOver has a built-in training system that takes the user through the process of using the Mac via VoiceOver commands.

To launch the VoiceOver training, return to the Accessibility preference pane.

Make sure VoiceOver is selected in the left-hand pane, then click the Open VoiceOver Training button.

The training instructions will be displayed. You can move through the training pages using the arrow keys on the keyboard. Use the Escape key to end the training.

Apple also has a VoiceOver Getting Started Guide that I highly recommend. The guide is also available in an English Unified Braille version, and an embossed braille version is available to order.

The Getting Started Guide covers working with text, navigation, VoiceOver basics, working with tables, navigating the Internet, and much, much more.

VoiceOver tip: Control + Option is the default set of VoiceOver keyboard modifiers, and is referenced in most VoiceOver keyboard commands. If you’re using OS X El Capitan or later, the caps lock key also works as the VoiceOver modifier. It lets you press a single key, and when VoiceOver is enabled, the caps lock key doesn’t function as a normal caps lock anyway.

The VoiceOver Utility allows you to customize VoiceOver to meet your needs. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

The last component of VoiceOver we will cover is the VoiceOver utility, which provides a way to customize VoiceOver to work the way you would like it to. You can customize the following:

  • Verbosity: Specify the verbosity level for speech, braille, text, announcements, and hints.
  • Speech: Select the voice, rate, pitch, and volume, as well as how certain text is pronounced.
  • Navigation: Customize how VoiceOver works with cursors, groups, redundant items, and more.
  • Web: Control how web pages are navigated.
  • Sound: Change basic sound parameters.
  • Visuals: Control VoiceOver cursor size and movement, caption panel size, braille panel font size and color, and menu font size.
  • Commands: Allows you to assign VoiceOver commands to keyboard characters
  • Braille: Customize settings for an attached braille display.
  • Activities: Create sets of preferences for use with specific activities.

To access the VoiceOver Utility, return to the Accessibility preference pane.

Make sure VoiceOver is selected in the left-hand pane, then click the Open VoiceOver Utility button.

You can also ask Siri to do it by saying, “Hey Siri, open VoiceOver utility.”

VoiceOver tip: Use the Speech options in the VoiceOver utility to try out different voices. Alex Compact and Fred are popular VoiceOver voices to use. Be sure to try a voice with different speaking rates and pitch to find one that intones clearly.

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by Tom Nelson

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the Mac’s built-in accessibility features that are designed to make using a Mac as easy as possible for everyone. Is the mouse cursor a bit too small? You can change the cursor size within the Accessibility preference pane. Is a standard keyboard difficult or nearly impossible to use? Once again, within the Accessibility set of features you can modify how a standard keyboard works, or create an onscreen keyboard you can control with head or eye tracking technology.

AccessibilityIcon

The range of capabilities in the Accessibility preference pane is so large that one article wouldn’t do them justice. So, let’s get started with a quick overview and a look at some of the more general settings and capabilities.

Accessibility Overview
The Accessibility API became an official part of the Mac with the release of OS X 10.2 (Jaguar), though it was known then as Universal Access. The name change to Accessibility didn’t occur until the release of OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion). While the initial release lacked many standard features that are taken for granted today, it did include tools for those with partial vision loss, though in its original offering it lacked an important tool for those with visual impairment: a full-screen reader.

With each release of OS X, and later, macOS, the accessibility features grew and were refined to bring equal access to the Mac to all users.

As we delve into the Accessibility options it’s important to point out that not every feature we mention is available in all versions of the Mac operating system. Apple moved the location of some features around within the Accessibility preference pane from time to time. Where possible, I’ll attempt to mention if a feature has been moved, and where it used to be located. I’ll also concentrate on the versions of the Accessibility preference pane starting at OS X Mountain Lion and going forward, with emphasis on the version included with macOS High Sierra. The earlier versions, known as Universal Access, have many of the same features, but the user interface is different enough to make including the older versions cumbersome at best. If I miss any changes, be sure to leave a comment below, letting us know.

The Accessibility options are currently organized into five categories:

General: This category was added with macOS Sierra. The general pane is primarily used to select which Accessibility options will be available in the Accessibility Options Shortcut panel.

Vision: This category was originally called Seeing, but it underwent a name change in OS X Yosemite. This group includes Accessibility options useful for anyone with vision-related impairments.

Media: The Media category was added in OS X Yosemite. It allows the use of subtitles and spoken descriptions in media that supports the feature.

Hearing: Basic audio controls involving alerts and converting all stereo sound to mono.

Interacting: This is the largest accessibility category and covers all the user interface elements used to interact with the Mac, including keyboard, mouse or trackpad, Siri, Dictation, and Switch Control.

The General settings are used to specify which options will be displayed in the Accessibility Shortcut pane. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Accessing the Accessibility General Category
All of the Accessibility options are accessed through the Accessibility preference pane. To bring up the pane, do the following:

Launch System Preferences by clicking on its Dock icon, or selecting System Preferences from the Apple menu.

Select the Accessibility preference pane.

The Accessibility preference pane will open, displaying a sidebar on the left-hand side that contains a list of all of the Accessibility options, organized by category. On the right is the configuration pane, which allows you to control how each of the accessibility options is used.

In the sidebar, select the General item. The General category was added in macOS Sierra to support a new feature: the Accessibility Shortcut panel. You may need to scroll to find the item. If you’re using an earlier version of the OS, you can skip down to the Accessibility Status section, below.

In the configuration pane, you’ll see a list of accessibility services that will be shown in the Accessibility shortcut pane when it’s displayed. You can select which items you wish to have shown by placing a checkmark in the corresponding box.

Note: Placing a checkmark in the box doesn’t enable the feature; it only allows it to appear in the Accessibility Shortcut panel.

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by Tom Nelson

I’ve heard it said that an SSD or hard drive that isn’t used for extended periods of time will likely have performance issues, or worse, actually lose data in the span of a few years. I’ve even heard it said that SSDs could lose their information in less than a year, and in the worst case, within a few days.

Of course, I’ve heard a lot of things, and not all of them bear up well when looked at closely. So, let’s find out if we need to keep exercising our storage devices to maintain information and performance.

Data Retention
The ability of a storage device to keep the data it contains intact is known as the data retention rate. The actual rate cited for various devices is predicated on the storage device being non-powered, undergoing no refresh of the data it contains, and being kept in an ideal storage environment, usually mentioned as around 25 C / 77 F.

Under those ideal conditions, hard drives are predicted to be able to retain their data for 9 to 20 years. The long range is due to the different architectures used in the manufacturing of modern hard drives.

SSDs (Solid State Drives) have a reputation for having a very low data retention rate. Numbers commonly cited suggest one year for consumer grade SSDs, and as low as one week for enterprise class SSDs.

If you believe the reputation is true, then SSDs would need to be exercised at defined intervals to ensure they keep the data stored intact. However, is that reputation valid? We’ll find out in a bit, but first, let’s look at hard drives.

Hard Drive Failure Mechanisms
The length of time your data will be retained on a hard drive in storage, one that isn’t powered and kept in a controlled environment, is based on four primary factors:

Magnetic Field Deterioration: Permanent magnets generally lose their field strength at the rate of 1% per year. After 69 years, the field strength would have dropped by 50 percent. That much field strength loss will likely lead not only to general data corruption of the stored data, but also to the loss of the index tracking marks which tell a drive where a sector starts and stops. So, not only is the stored data lost, but the ability to read the drive may be gone as well.

Magnetic Field Corruption: Magnetic fields external to a stored hard drive can adversely affect the stored data by altering the charge at one or more locations on the drive’s platters. Magnetic disruption can be caused by nearby high power magnets, motors, or even by unusually strong geomagnetic storms caused by solar mass ejections on the sun.

Environmental Conditions: Humidity and temperature ranges for stored hard drives differ by drive manufacturer. Western Digital recommends storing their hard drives between 55 F and 90 F. Extreme high temperatures increase the risk of damaging mechanical components, such as warping heads or platters, while extreme cold temperatures can cause bearing failure, or allow the spindle and motor to become misaligned. (Related: Keep Your Electronics Warm and Safe This Winter)

Mechanical Failure: Even with the proper storage conditions, mechanical failure, such as the platters failing to spin up due to motor failure, or spindle bearing failure, can happen. These types of failures tend to occur when drives are stored for exceptionally long periods of time without ever being powered on.

Mitigating Hard Drive Storage Failures
Of all the possible issues with hard drive storage, two of the most common ones can have their effects mitigated by exercising the drive. In the case of mechanical failure over long time frames, the simple approach is to power on the drive occasionally, ensuring the bearings, motor, and grease are all warmed up, and preventing them from becoming stuck in one location.

Refreshing the stored data can reduce magnetic field deterioration. This would require the drive to be powered on and connected to a computer system. Reading the stored data isn’t enough; to refresh the magnetic charge the data must be read and then rewritten to the drive. An easy way to accomplish this, assuming there’s enough room on the drive, would be to copy the content to a new location on the drive, or create a disk image and copy that to a new location on the drive. Another option would be to clone the drive to another storage device, and then clone the drive back again.

How often you should perform this exercising of a hard drive is difficult to say, but once a year or once every two years would be a good starting point. While a longer time frame is actually possible between exercising a hard drive, the task tends to get overlooked when the time frame becomes longer. It’s much easier to remember a yearly exercise routine than to try to remember to perform this task once every x number of years.

Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

SSD Failure Mechanisms
A few years back, a presentation was made at the JEDEC Standards Committee for solid state drive requirements at which a slide showing expected data retention rates for SSDs in a powered-off stored state was shown. That slide indicated the very poor ability of an SSD to retain data for any length of time when powered off. Specifically, it mentioned the following data retention rates:

Consumer grade SSD: 1 year at a 30 C storage temperature.

Enterprise grade SSD: 3 months at 40 C storage temperature.

In both cases, as the power off storage temperature increases, the data retention rate falls. In the case of consumer grade models, data retention can fall at one month at 50 C, while enterprise class SSDs can see less than one week at 50 C.

Pundits quickly picked up this information and it spread around the Internet, leading to the poor reputation SSDs can have for data retention when powered off. The problem is that it’s simply not true. The information being conveyed in the original presentation pertained to a worst-case scenario, one where the SSD under question has nearly reached its end-of-life, and has had its P/E count (Program/Erase cycle count) reach the point where data cells would start showing write failures. But when the background information was removed and only the information on the slide was presented, a legend, or at least a reputation, was born.

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by Tom Nelson

Do you have a few USB flash drives lying around? Chances are you have at least a couple, or maybe even a small drawer full of them. In my case, I have about a half dozen, with no specific use assigned to them. That means I have a source of flash drives for trying out a few unusual uses for these handy take anywhere storage devices.

Image courtesy of MacSales.com

There are lots of uses for flash drives, including using them as an easy way to copy files between computers, as intermediate storage for photos, music, and videos, and what may be a primary use this time of year, sending tax return data to and from your tax preparer.

But those are more mundane uses. In this article, we’re going to take a look at four more interesting uses for flash drives you’re currently not using.

RAID 0 Security Array
A USB flash drive can make a surprisingly versatile and reasonably fast Striped RAID array (RAID 0). All that’s needed is a powered USB hub with enough ports to accommodate the flash drives you’re going to connect. The speed you can get out of a USB flash RAID 0 array is based on three factors: the number of flash drives you use, the speed of the flash drives, and the speed of the USB interfaces.

You can use flash drives to create a small but reasonably fast striped RAID array. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

Assuming you’re using USB 3.1 gen 1 ports, hubs, and flash drives, the maximum theoretical speed is 5 Gbps, which you’re not likely to ever actually see, but it does set an upper limit. In actual use, the flash-based RAID array is going to be limited chiefly by the write and read speeds of the USB flash drives. Some of the fastest flash drives available can have write speeds a bit better than 150 MB/s, and read speeds coming close to 200 MB/s. However, most USB 3.1 flash drives have much more modest write and read speeds, with sub 25 MB/s write speeds and sub 100 MB/s read speeds being a bit more typical.

Even with the slower flash drives, if you put enough of them together, you can get pretty surprising write and read performance out of them in a RAID configuration.

To build the USB flash drive RAID array, plug as many flash drives as you have on hand into a USB hub. It’s best if the flash drives are the same size, speed and manufacturer, but it’s not a requirement.

You can use the RAID Assistant built in to all versions of the Mac OS (except OS X El Capitan), or you can use SoftRAID or SoftRAID Lite to create the RAID 0 array.

Even this modest three flash drive RAID set achieved write speeds of 70 MB/s and read speeds of 240 MB/s. Not bad for scrounging together some leftover parts. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

You can use your USB flash-based RAID array for just about anything you would use a normal external RAID for, but these two uses may be of interest:

As an old-fashioned secure data storage system: Data stored on the flash array is effectively divided between the flash drives that make up the array. Split those drives apart and store them separately and the data on them can’t be reconstructed. Bring all of the flash drives back together and you can access the information they contain. For even more security, you can encrypt the array using the FileVault encryption options built into your Mac.

As a fast array for scratch space for graphics, audio, or video apps: Be a bit careful here, because if you’re using low-cost flash drives, the write speed may be a bit low for this type of use. On the other hand, the read speed is probably quite good.

As with any RAID 0 storage system, there’s a danger of data loss should one of the drives fail or is lost, so be sure to use a backup system if you plan to use this RAID array beyond just trying out the idea.

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