Upgrade your desk [updated]

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Listen to the podcast episode

On the Scoring Notes podcast, David MacDonald and Philip Rothman acknowledge that although it can be worthwhile to have a consistent workspace for a long time, sometimes the opportunity presents itself to start anew. Here’s how to make those upgrades — from the desk itself, to what’s on and around it. Listen now:

Scoring Notes
Scoring Notes
Upgrade your desk — and what's on (and around) it
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I have taken the opportunity to blow up my whole workstation and rebuild it. Well, not literally blow up — but I had been using my own cheap stuff from Ikea for a long time, and I finally thought it was time to recognize that I’ve made a career out of this music thing, and it was time to show my work area some love and respect. And what better way to share that love and respect than to turn this endeavor into a Scoring Notes blog and podcast episode?

In this post, and in the podcast, Philip and I talk about what’s on and around our newly upgraded desks — not to mention, the desks themselves.

I know that for some readers of Scoring Notes and listeners of the podcast, music preparation is their main job that they do all day long; for other people it’s mostly a hobby; and there are still other people for whom it is somewhere in between — it’s a component of their job, but it’s not the only thing that they think about and do all day.

So I’ll depart from talking directly about the usual diet of Finale, Dorico, Sibelius, MuseScore, StaffPad and all the other music notation software that we usually cover around here. Even though what’s on our desks and the things on our desks will apply to your day-to-day work lives that involve those programs, it also applies to other work, and maybe even hobbies outside of work, too.

The desks

Philip and I recently basically got the same desk from two different companies. I went with the Fully Jarvis sit-stand desk, and he got an Uplift v2 desk.

Both of these companies have very reputable sit-stand desks, and they both have a really fun configurator that you can play with and tweak what desk type and what desk size and what features of motorization that you want to have, along  with accessories that you can add on to it.

It’s really fun. I’ve never had a standing desk before, and it’s been really nice to work this way. First thing in the morning, if I have to get up super early to get stuff ready for the day, it’s great to help me wake up and get going to have to stand at my desk.

I’ve got cable management grommets in the corners. Philip has power sockets in place of the grommets, which, for an upgrade fee of $39 for one or $69 for two, allow you to plug devices directly into your desk. He also opted to put casters on the legs (another $30-60, depending on what kind you get), to make it easier to move the desk around.

The desks start at $599 for the 42″ x 30″ size, and increase in price with size, desktop style, and other options. (Mine is 60″ x 27″, and Philip’s is 72″ x 30″.)

Recommended is the 4-button memory preset controller, so you can quickly adjust the desk to your favorite positions without fiddling with it every time.

The chairs (and foot rest)

I can’t say I’m particularly excited about my chair, so I’ll defer to Philip, as well as our colleague and Scoring Notes contributor John Hinchey, to recommend their seats of power.

Philip likes the Bowery Management chair from Laura Furniture. It comes with a cushioned seat and a lot of adjustable settings that you can set. He said it was very easy to put together, following directions, in about a half an hour. He sprung for the upgraded casters. If you have hardwood floors, you’ll want to get special casters for an extra $40 that roll and don’t damage the floor.

John doesn’t use a chair at all — instead, his favorite piece of of tech is the aeris Swopper Stool. He’s 6’5″ and before using the Swopper, he suffered from back problems for years. But that’s all gone now. The Swopper takes a little getting used to at first because it springs up and down and it goes left and right. As you’re working during the day, it does kind of little micro movements that you eventually don’t notice and firms your core up.

Philip also recommends the ErgoFoam Adjustable Foot Rest to go underneath the desk. It’s really soft and comfortable, and easy to clean with a dry sweeping cloth like a Swiffer.

The computers

These are the big-ticket items.

The reason I blew up my whole desk and started over was because I got a new computer. Until about a month ago, I had been running a 2017 iMac. I loved it, but it was getting a little long in the tooth.

The new Mac Studios were announced in early March. I jumped the on pre-order bandwagon, but I still had to wait several weeks. I did eventually receive my new Mac Studio and Apple Studio Display (more on that shortly). They are now all set up on the new desk and everything is pretty much as I want it to be.

I have the Mac Studio M1 Max. I didn’t go crazy with the processor because I don’t need the extra graphics cores, but I did bump up the stock RAM from 32 GB to 64 GB, and the storage from 512 GB to 2 TB.

The RAM is useful if you do any work with sample libraries. Because of the way sample libraries work, there are thousands of teeny tiny audio files that all need to be accessed relatively quickly. Being able to load a whole bunch of those into memory makes it really easy and really fast to use those in something relatively close to real time.

I really value having that big RAM ceiling. It’s also useful for opening big giant score projects. If you’re looking at a whole act of an opera, it’s useful for that, but I find it mostly useful for media work.

For the storage, it’s a real load off my mind to be able to sync my entire Dropbox folder to my Mac and still have hundreds of gigabytes leftover that I can play around with. It has been a very freeing experience to have that much headroom, storage-wise.

Philip is the proud owner of a 16″ MacBook Pro M1 Pro, with 16 GB RAM and 1 TB storage. He reports that it’s blazing fast with great battery life, and lives up to the hype. If it was his main computer, he’d up the RAM and possibly the storage as well.

The displays

The Mac Studio is a nice chunk of hardware, but it really shines when paired with my new Apple Studio Display.

It is basically the same 27″ 5K Retina display that was in my old iMac. But a couple of things are slightly different. It has actually surprisingly good speakers for built-in speakers to a display, which is actually very cool. I wouldn’t use it for real audio work, but for just listening in the background or watching YouTube videos, the speakers on this thing are great.

It’s got a pretty nice built-in camera. I got the version that has the regular glossy glass finish. I did not go for the microtexture anti-glare finish because that costs a lot more and apparently little trickier to maintain.

I also went with the VESA-mount option (more on that shortly) so that I could have it on a little arm instead of sitting on top of my desk.

Philip likes his Dell U3219Q 4K displays. He’s had such success with them that he’s gone all-in for his next setup, with three U3223QE, or its slightly more human-readable name, the Dell UltraSharp 32 4K USB-C Hub Monitor. He really likes the ports that it has, so it can basically serve as the entire hub of your setup as like a docking station in and of itself.

It’s got an Ethernet jack, so if you do still have a hard-wired jack in the wall, or coming from your router, you could plug that into. the display and then run the USB-C into your MacBook and get fast wired internet. You don’t need a separate dongle for it. It’s got four USB 3.2 ports and a couple of USB-C ports, and it’s got an audio line out. Since DisplayPort carries audio as well as video,  you could hook up the speakers directly to your monitor and never have to plug them into your computer. We don’t always think of the monitor as a docking station, but the Dell U3223QE can actually serve as a docking station for your computer.

With all of that screen real estate to take care of, keeping it clean is a priority. I use the WHOOSH! Screen Cleaner Kit.

Monitor arms

Getting a bunch of things off my desk and into these VESA-compatible arms has made it feel like I’ve got acres in front of me. Monitor stands take up a lot of desk space, so mounting them on arms has helped me reclaim the space.

They come in a single-arm version and a dual-arm version, so you can have one mounting point on the desk for two arms. I wanted to have them separate for a little bit more flexibility, so I got two single-arm versions from Fully.

Philip has three monitors, so he got a dual-arm mount and and a single-arm mount from Uplift.

Surge protector

There are lots of surge protectors out there. I have the TROND Wall-mountable Surge Protector, which, as the name says, can be mounted on the wall — or on the bottom of the desk, in my case — to save floor space. It also has an extra-long cord, 3 USB ports, and an angled flat plug that doesn’t block the bottom receptacle.

Wireless charger

Hyper is a company that makes a bunch of electronic accessories and they watch them on Kickstarter, which makes them seem a little sketchy, but I’ve had very good results with all the Hyper stuff that I have. My latest Hyper acquisition is a 4-in-1 magnetic wireless charger.

It is one thing that sits on my desk and I can magnetically slap my iPhone on it. I can put my Apple Watch on it. I can put my AirPods on it. It’s got a spot for a generic wireless Qi charging device. So if you’ve got an Android phone or some other thing that charges with Qi you can set it on the pad there and it will charge them all at once.

It is plugged into the TROND power strip that is stuck to the bottom of my desk. So the Hyper charger just takes up one little thing off to the side of my desk, and I can charge my phone. I can see what’s on my phone, so it mounts it in a way that you can really nicely see what’s going on there. I’ve only had it for a few weeks, but it’s been really good to me so far.

Keyboard tray

Something that I removed from my old outgoing desk and affixed to my new one is a 3M Under Desk Keyboard Tray. I like having my computer keyboard and trackpad off of my main surface.

It gives me a little bit more flexibility over the height of the surface compared to the height of the keyboard. It also gives me that space in front of me for books or papers or whatever else I’m looking at right now. I’ve got some giant Carta no. 27 staff paper on my desk. That takes up the space that my keyboard and trackpad would normally have.

It’s deep enough that I can fit my Stream Deck XL on it behind my Apple Magic Keyboard. I like it because it can have a negative angle, so it’s very slight, but I can have it slope away from me, which is really comfortable for typing.

So they’re both on this tray and I can slide it all underneath the desk and have my desk be wide open in front of me, which is really nice.

I would recommend if you do something like this, drill pilot holes, so you don’t break or split anything on your desk.

Uplift and Fully both also sell keyboard trays that can be installed on their desks or any other desk.

Cable ties

The more stuff you have on your desk, the more cables you’re likely to have. One of my favorite things I buy these several times a year is like a hundred pack of Velcro cable wraps.

They’re just on a big spool and you can use them for everything. I use them for cables that I wrap up and unwrap all the time. They’re great for audio cables, but they’re also good for wrapping things too, like just ramping a big bundle of cables together to make kind of your own little snake. They’re super useful and they’re super cheap.

Because they’re super cheap, I keep them in my office at school and I just give them out to students all the time. If they’ve got a messy wad of cables that they pull out of their backpack, when they want to show me something on their laptop, I just say here, please take these and treat your things nicely.

Keyboard and trackpad or trackball

I have the aforementioned Apple Magic Keyboard with Touch ID and Numeric Keypad. What a name! Yes, you can find other keyboards, but the Touch ID is only available from Apple.

I use the Apple Magic Trackpad. One of the reasons I like a trackpad, is that it makes it really easy to scroll horizontally, not just in a long score document, but also in an audio or video project.

I’ve been using the same one for five or six years since I got my iMac. It has a glass surface and clicks everywhere equally on its surface.

The battery lasts a super long time. I really like it for being able to use gestures on the track pad, and there’s lots of apps that lets you set up gestures. BetterTouchTool, which we’ve talked about on the program, is one of those for the Mac. I would have never believed that I would prefer to use a track pad with my desktop computer until I started with the Magic TrackPad.

Philip swears by his Logitech MX Ergo trackball. You can read his review here. It has a rechargeable battery and requires very little motion to move the trackball. He’s never experienced fatigue in the 4+ years he’s used it, and the original unit he reviewed is still going strong. It connects via Bluetooth or via a Logitech USB unifying receiver.

Manuscript paper and pencil

One of the benefits of using the keyboard tray and getting the keyboard and trackpad off my desk is that I can actually use my desk for writing music. I’ve got some giant Carta no. 27 staff paper on my desk which takes up the space that my keyboard and trackpad would normally have.

It’s 18″ x 12″ in a bound pad, so I can open it up and have two of those side-by-side in landscape.

The staves are a little smaller than I’d like, but it’s a good size that I feel like can spread out. I like having a really large sheet when I’m doing some open-ended sketching.

I like the color and the tooth of the Carta paper. It’s a little smoother than some people would prefer, but I don’t mind it.

Of course, to write on the paper, one needs a good pencil. I use the Uni Shift Pipe Lock Drafting 0.9 mm Pencil.

Lighting

You don’t need to rewire your house or even swap out a wall socket to take advantage of a variety of lighting options to suit your mood and style.

I’ve got Nanoleaf Essentials A19 smart LED bulbs screwed into a couple of, Ikea side desk mounted TERTIAL boom arm lamps. They’re great. The thing that I really like about the Nanoleaf bulbs is that they natively integrate with the Apple HomeKit system.

So I can control it, not just from the Nanoleaf app, but from any other app that can talk to Apple HomeKit and anything that responds to Siri. Because of that, it’s really easy to control it, not just from talking into the air, but also from pressing buttons on the Stream Deck — because why would I have anything if I couldn’t control it by pressing buttons on my Stream Deck?

Philip, oddly, did not go for the brand with which he shares a name — although the Philips Hue bulbs are very nice — but instead with Wyze White bulbs. These are simple light bulbs that don’t need any separate adapter other than just controlling them with your phone — any white color temperature from soft 2700k white to daylight 6500k, and full brightness to a soft glow, and anything in between. They are very easy to set up and can be programmed further using the Wyze app on iOS or Android.

Refreshment

I got the Ember Temperature Control Smart Mug from my brother for Christmas a couple of years ago. (Thank you, Kevin.) It’s a smart coffee mug, which sounds like the dumbest thing ever. But it keeps your coffee warm! Because sometimes you make coffee and then you get a little distracted working on your thing and your coffee gets cold. So this will hold your coffee at whatever temperature you ask it to.

It has an iPhone app or an Android app, of course. You can tell it what your preferred temperature to hold your coffee yet is, and you can change the color of the glowing light. So if you have two of them in your household, you can have the colors indicate which is which. Heaven forbid you grab the decaf instead of the regular (or vice versa).

MIDI keyboard (updated)

When I first wrote this post, I omitted mentioning a MIDI keyboard — a rather glaring oversight for a web site about music notation software and related technology, and one that many readers and listeners quickly noticed. We didn’t mention it in our conversations because neither Philip nor I upgraded anything in that respect.

Still, any talk of a desktop setup for music would not be complete without some recommendation in this area. For me, if you look closely at the photo, you can see the corner of it on the left. I have a full-sized Yamaha digital piano. I have some smaller ones I can put on the desktop if I need to do note entry while standing, but for now I only enter notes in the sitting position.

But we’ll go with Philip’s recommendations here of the Xkey line of MIDI controllers, since he’s written several reviews about them, starting with the original 25-key wired version, and then the 37-key wired version, and later the Bluetooth wireless versions of both the 25-key and 37-key models.

He still has all the models that he reviewed, and uses them all regularly, and happily reports that they have stood the test of time. The one on his desk at the moment is the 37-key wired Xkey, which, if you can grab at the current sale price of $169.00, is a very good deal. When using the Xkey 37 for step-time entry, you can cover nearly the entire range of most instruments without needing to switch back and forth using the octave key. And when playing in real-time, you can actually play a reasonable amount of two-handed music comfortably.

The Xkey 37 on Philip’s desk in 2019, along with the Logitech MX Ergo (they’re still there today)

All Xkey controllers have six on-board buttons: one each for octave up and octave down; one for modulation; one each for pitch bend up and pitch bend down; and one for a sustain pedal. The buttons themselves have a nice feel and respond to easy presses, although at first you might press harder than you need to because there isn’t any visual or tactile feedback that the Xkey has recorded your input.

The keys themselves have a different feel. They almost feel like a computer keyboard, although they are velocity sensitive, and in fact have polyphonic aftertouch capability — a rarity in a keyboard of this size. Because of its extreme slimness, playing the Xkey won’t feel anything like playing on a real piano or an electric one with weighted keys. Initially it took a while to get used to, but in time Philip came to prefer the Xkey to the O2 because it had a more symmetrical feel to a computer keyboard and he was able to enter notes more quickly.

The one downside is that the clicking noise generated from the key’s mechanics is significant, especially if you strike the keys with moderate level of velocity or greater. Working by yourself in a non-live environment, though, it’s not an issue.

Pet

Dolphy is one-of-a-kind, and she’s not for sale.

Comments

  1. JP Thomas

    I went down this road recently, in a couple of stages. I added a Vivo 16″ pull-out drawer to my Uplift desk. I bought one of the Fully Jarvis VESA monitor arms, but for my other monitor, which I don’t move much, I bought a Vivo arm that isn’t nearly as fancy ($40 vs. $120). The Vivo monitor arm (really a pole with an arm) can also support a laptop tray. I really like having my two laptops “floating” above the desk surface on these tray surfaces that are slightly larger than the footprint of the laptop (I have two of these Vivo poles mounted to my desk).

    1. Philip Rothman

      Great info, JP! Thanks.

  2. David

    No Keyboard controller? What do you recommend to compliment the setup?

    1. Philip Rothman

      I’ve had very good success withe the Xkey 37. It’s still going strong since I reviewed it in 2015. There is also a wireless version. This is important enough that we’ll update the post. Thanks!

  3. Bill

    I still have the desk I got from Ikea 30 years ago! It’s 63×30, large enough to have narrow drawers on the left and rack mount computers and audio interface on the right. I just got a StudioLogic 73 keyboard, which is a great size. That sits between the two monitor speakers. I have a single wall mounted 40″ 4k screen. At the front of the desk are keyboard and mouse, and of course a Stream Deck15.

  4. Tim Parkin

    Thanks, I to have a 16 inch M1 Max but with 64GB RAM. Going to have a good look at the Dell Ultrasharp Monitors (a pair of them) for my upgrade

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