Super-powered keyboard shortcuts with BetterTouchTool

Tutorials

If you’ve been using any professional software application — or reading Scoring Notes — for more than a few days, you’ve likely learned the importance of keyboard shortcuts. They prevent excessive context switching, which can break your flow and slow you down.

All of our favorite applications have both built-in shortcuts as well as the capacity to create custom shortcuts, and of course there are ways to extend those even further by using things like the Stream Deck. However, this article is about extending your keyboard shortcuts in software using a Mac app called BetterTouchTool by folivora.

As the name implies, BetterTouchTool (hereafter BTT) began life as a way of extending the capabilities of the trackpad, and it has since grown to include many different input methods, including the keyboard, MIDI, the TouchBar, and others. Like a lot of automation tools, BTT allows the user to define a trigger, and then associate one or more actions that will be launched when that trigger is detected. These triggers can be defined globally, or only within specific applications.

Every automation in BTT has three parts:

  1. The application scope, which can be an individual application, a group of applications, or all applications.
  2. The trigger, which can be anything from a tap on the trackpad to drawing a shape with the mouse to pressing a note on a MIDI keyboard.
  3. The action, which can include emulating keyboard input, moving windows around, or even running scripts.
BetterTouchTool Previous Page automation
Every BetterTouchTool automation has these three components.

Starter automation: Previous and Next Page shortcuts

Here’s a simple BTT trigger that you can start using right away.

Using the trackpad to zoom around a score is a pretty common task for those of us who use a track pad. Most of the applications I use have a keyboard shortcut for Previous Page and Next Page. I use a BTT trigger to keep my hand on the trackpad and to let me use the same gesture in any application.

In BTT, I select an application (say, Sibelius) and add a Trackpad Gesture. There are lots of options, but the one I like for this is tapping in the top left corner of the trackpad to go to the previous page, and the top right corner to go to the next page. Then, I can assign an Action for each trigger.

There are a number of ways to accomplish what I’m after, but the simplest is to have BTT emulate the keyboard shortcuts for this by default ↖ and ↘ for previous and next, respectively. (To send the diagonal arrows on a standard Magic Keyboard, you’ll need to use Fn-left arrow and Fn-right arrow.) You can also have BTT act by invoking any Menu Bar item for the application.

You can instantly make this automation more powerful by adding the same trigger to other applications: Finale and Sibelius both have similar page navigations, but even beyond notation, the idea of back and forward could be applied to everything from slide presentations to web browsers.

Next level: The Hyper key

I don’t use many universal automations in BTT, but there is one that I think could be useful to almost everyone in almost every kind of pro application: the “Hyper key”. The Hyper key (coined by Brett Terpstra) is an elegant solution to a problem that anyone who has tried to customize keyboard shortcuts is likely to have encountered: in a complex application, it’s almost impossible to create a new shortcut without colliding with existing shortcuts. So we end up creating really awkward combinations that combine Control, Option, Shift, and Command, plus one other key. Not only are these slow and hard to remember, they’re deeply unergonomic!

The Hyper key unifies all four of those modifiers, so instead of typing, for example, Control-Option-Shift-Command-8, you simply type Hyper-8.

BetterTouchTool Hyper Key
This is the simplest version of the Hyper key automation.

The problem is that we don’t have a Hyper key on our keyboards. BetterTouchTool, however, will let us make one using Caps Lock. You’re probably not using Caps Lock often enough to devote a whole key to it (and if you are, maybe consider toning it down a bit?). So let’s upcycle Caps Lock into Hyper by creating a BTT automation that works in all apps.

Just select All Apps from the applications list, add Caps Lock as a trigger, and add the Act as Hyper Key action from the Modifier Keys group.

Now if you still really need to get some things of your chest and use Caps Lock to “shout” in writing every now and again, you can create another BTT automation to do that. Just create a new Key Sequence trigger for double-tapping the Caps Lock key, and set the action to Toggle Caps Lock On/Off.

BetterTouchTool Caps Lock
Even though I’ve taken over my Caps Lock key’s normal functioning with my Hyper key automation above, I can still toggle Caps Lock in case of emergencies.

This was a very fast overview of setting up some common automations using BetterTouchTool. You can find a detailed description of the Hyper key setup in the official documentation.

Conclusion

As much as I love my Stream Deck XL and Notation Express, there are lots of times when I want to keep my hands on the keyboard or the trackpad. BetterTouchTool gives me some flexibility in how I access certain software features, and is endlessly customizable, not to mention absurdly affordable with licenses starting at $8.50! And to be fair to the developers, it’s worth noting that I have barely scraped the surface of its capabilities in this post.

If you’re using BetterTouchTool or something like it, feel free to share your favorite automations in the comments! I’d love to see what you’re up to.

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