Music in the Palm of Your Hand

As a child, I loved gadgets: secret decoder rings, bat utility belts, all those sorts of things. So it figures that, as an adult, I have become a Palm
Publish date:
Social count:
As a child, I loved gadgets: secret decoder rings, bat utility belts, all those sorts of things. So it figures that, as an adult, I have become a Palm

As a child, I loved gadgets: secret decoder rings, bat utilitybelts, all those sorts of things. So it figures that, as an adult, Ihave become a Palm addict. Desktop computers simply aren't enough; Ineed a cool small device that fits in a purse or a pocket and does anamazing array of gadgety things. As you might expect, many people sharemy addiction.

Although many people know about the Palm handheld computer's prowessat storing and organizing phone numbers and appointments, they might besurprised by the variety of music-related hardware and softwareproducts for the Palm OS platform. I will discuss some of the mostinteresting products, but for readers unfamiliar with the Palmcomputer, here's a brief introduction.


Those who haven't used a Palm Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) needto know a few basics. You enter information into the Palm by writingand tapping on the screen with a stylus -- also called a pen --using Graffiti, the Palm's slightly awkward alphabetical entry system.You install software and synchronize files between the Palm and a PC ora Mac by placing the Palm into a cradle that mates with itsbottom-mounted serial port. A cable connects the cradle to the Mac orPC serial or USB port. The software that controls the synchronizationprocess is called the HotSync Manager.

The Palm is a handy little contraption, but what can it offermusicians — especially considering that the Palm lacks a truespeaker or amplifier? (Its rudimentary sound output is produced by apiezoelectric element.) Even when the software lets you reformat WAVfiles as Palm database (PDB) files, the speaker reproduces soundsinadequately. The Palm OS processes MIDI data, but only Format 0Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) are supported, so you can't edit tracksseparately.

None of those facts deter programmers, who continue to developmusic-related programs at an amazing rate — I soon realized thatI couldn't review all of the products on the market. I thereforefocused on hardware and software that is compatible with the Palm IIIseries of handheld devices and intended for real musical applications,as opposed to the many tools that let you catalog MP3 files, recordthoughts using outside hardware, or play movies.

Many programs not intended strictly for musicians can prove to bevaluable as well. For example, some programs let you convert MicrosoftWord documents and PDF files into miniature versions that can besynced to the Palm. The files can include everything from documentsabout basic scale forms to orchestration databases created forTealPoint Software's TealInfo database program. Once you own areader program, you can download a lot of free material from Web sitessuch as, which boasts more than 8,500 titles in variousPalm formats. I wrote much of my initial research for this articleusing the Palm Portable Keyboard and DataViz Documents toGo.


I'll start with some relatively simple programs, such as SamTrenholme's freeware Ear Trainer. The program plays a randominterval; you guess the interval, and it tells you if you're correct.That's all there is to it.

Wilson Cheng's MusicEar is a suite of ear-training programsthat includes modules for learning intervals, chords, scales, rhythms,and melodies at increasing levels of difficulty. Once I figured out howto answer the questions, it was fun and challenging. MusicEarcould be a great tool for music students and practicing musicians whowant to brush up on their skills.

Mike McCollister's McChords lets you select more than 70chord or scale names that are then illustrated on a keyboard and playedback. It's helpful for understanding what an Am6(9) chord or what apentatonic minor scale sounds like.

Programs designed to help guitarists determine chord fingerings arealso available, but I had to draw the line somewhere.


The Palm OS uses a 10 ms clock, and the timing of programs using anincompatible scheme could be uneven. Unless a program has a checkboxfor “ignore system information” or something similar, it'spossible that the timing can be thrown off by hacks, such as the onefor the Palm keyboard that lets you type text into the Palm.Hacks are small programs that allow changes within the basicPalm system to enable everything from fancier interfaces, such asSynergy Solutions' Launch 'Em, to fun things, like StarTrek sounds. Managed by programs such as DaggerWare'sHackMaster, hacks can be turned on and off. If you're havingproblems with irregular rhythms, especially with a program as laborintensive as miniMusic's BeatPad, try disabling your hacks.

Responsive Software's Responsive Metronome is a good basicmetronome that uses visual cues (a note moves from side to side) orsound to provide a basic tempo. A slider along the left adjusts thetempo.

TS Tempo (included with notation program TS Noter),from Italian developer TobelStudio, is another decent metronome thatfeatures an old-fashioned wand moving from side to side. It includes abpm setting and lets you choose sound and visual cues.

Eric Cheng's Metronome comes with PocketSynth. It alsooffers a bpm feature with a dot that beats on the left for downbeatsand on the right for subsequent beats. If you tap the Scroll Up buttonrepeatedly, the program measures the tempo you're tapping.

Gary Duke's Pocket Beat has an animated character sitting ata drum set. You can set up two tempos (each with a shuffle option) andswitch quickly between them. When you hit the Go button, a little spotflashes on the kick and snare drums as the corresponding synthesizedsound plays. You can also tap a count off to set the tempo. Althoughthe program developers claim that it's the most accurate Palmmetronome, the squeaky sound and size of the program (you must installPocketC) are drawbacks.

Calvin Gaisford's Musician Tools is a suite of nifty programsthat includes a tuner, a metronome, and a circle-of-fifths program. Thetuner lets you choose the base frequency, so you can tune to A-442 ifyou want. You can control the length of time that the note plays, andyou can choose other pitches. The circle-of-fifths program lets you goaround a circle of notes, and as you tap each one, it shows you thesharps or flats for that key. Musician Tools' metronome is thebest of the bunch. The downbeat sounds a pitch different from the otherbeats, and a segmented vertical indicator shows the current beat, whichhelps if you want to turn the sound off. Moreover, you can choosemeters with as many as eight beats to a measure.


The Palm can serve as a valuable portable reference resource to helpsolve studio-related problems, wade through technical jargon, and makecalculations. Palmetto Logic's Sound Advice, the most completeproduct in this category, rolls those capabilities into a singlethree-part package.

In Sound Advice's Q&A View section, a question field atthe top lets you choose a general question, such as “How do Iavoid feedback?” The program then offers a list of relatedtopics, such as “feedback, notch filter,” and providesspecific information about them. Choosing All in the question fieldshows all the topics, and you can bookmark single entries for laterreference. When you click on a topic, it puts you in Advice view; fromthere, the forward and back arrows take you to related subjects.Clicking on the Note button creates a dated attached note that you canbeam to other Sound Advice users with the Palm's infraredport.

The terminology section contains an alphabetical list of more than200 terms. You can access terms by scrolling down the entire list or bytapping in the Index pop-up box to jump to a letter; selecting a termdisplays its definition. The Reference Charts section includes a chartfor combined speaker impedance, recommended cable lengths, common valuemultipliers, and musical-scale frequencies. It also provides twocalculators, Volt/Ohm/Amp/Watt and RMS/Avg/Peak, that allow you to makecalculations relating to current and voltage, current and resistance,voltage and resistance, and power and voltage.

Sound Advice demands a lot of room for a Palm program —186 KB — but it has quite a bit to offer. At $7.95, it's a greatdeal.


Palm Tracker, from German developer Emperor Studios, is atricky program that seems to play three music tracks at once byslightly delaying each track relative to the previous one (see Fig.5). You create patterns using a small keyboard on the Patterns pageand then arrange the patterns on the Song Editor page. Its rathersimple note-entry capability only allows for short note values that arecombined to sound like longer ones. You can't really change the basic4/4 meter and feel, and the songs are not MIDI compatible.

Although you hear the songs through the Palm's speaker, they soundkind of cool. Palm Tracker has been used by game developers tocreate music for games such as Archon from Free Fall Associates.The full version lets you save files that you can export to yourdesktop computer and share with other users, although you can't openthe files with desktop applications.

MiniMusic BeatPad is a pattern-based sequencer that allowsyou to create a repeating pattern of melody notes (and drum patterns ifyou're using MIDI). It allows you to make changes as the pattern playsand provides interactive and graphical control over pattern parameters,including the pitch, duration, and volume of each note as well as thepattern's length and tempo.

BeatPad provides two main Views: Melodic and Drum. Across thetop of the Melodic View window are the controls for the 32 patterns youcan create and use. Below that, the Pattern Overview acts as a viewerfor the pattern creation process. Four tabs let you choose and editpitch, duration, Velocity, and master, the last of which controls themaster settings that don't change when you switch patterns, such as thetempo and the MIDI instrument patches chosen for the melodic and drumlines.

You can switch to the Drum View as a sequence plays by tapping on abutton in the lower left of the screen. Because the Palm cannot dealwith multiple sounds, drum sounds are audible only when using a MIDIinterface. The drum screen shows the percussion sounds, lets you soloor mute them, and allows you to set up rhythm patterns. You can alsoset up accents or loops and enable MIDI Clock in the Preferenceswindow.

MiniMusic solved the timing issue by using a special internal clockthat looks for the nearest system clock during playback. That seems towork well — BeatPad is a fun metronome. Included withNotePad in miniMusic's Mobile Software Pack, BeatPad alsocomes with Swivel Systems' SG20 sound module.

MobileSoft-Labs M.Play has an attractive 3-D interface thatincludes basic tape-deck controls for playing single-line MIDI files.The software lets you pick tunes from a library of prerecorded songs orcreate your own. Although M.Play is free, M.PlayEditcosts $10. With M.PlayEdit, you can create Palm-compatible filesfrom MIDI files and transfer them from your Windows-based desktopcomputer to the Palm. A demo version is included with M.Play. Icreated a MIDI file of one of my fiddle tunes with ease.

Tom Zerucha's free PlayMIDI is available in two versions.With the older version, PlayMIDI45A, I could play the files thatcame with the program, but I couldn't figure out the instructions forconverting regular MIDI files to files PlayMIDI could read. Thecolor was also odd, because the program wasn't created for a colorPalm.

The new version of PlayMIDI is part of a suite of programscalled ZboxZ that includes compression utilities, fax software, andother small programs. Unfortunately, ZboxZ lacks a real installer, soyou must go through a rather arcane set of steps to install thesoftware. In the new version, the files will not play without anexternal MIDI device, but you can actually hear the sounds as they wereintended rather than be limited by the Palm's speaker. I still hadproblems creating files that would port properly to the Palm (probablybecause I use the relatively new HotSync Manager 4.0), and I hadto manually rename some files before PlayMIDI would play themcorrectly.

If you use PlayMIDI, you will need plenty of memory: theprogram uses compressed files, and insufficient memory can cause acrash that requires a hard reset. I finally made the program workproperly, and it should be able to play a variety of MIDI files as wellas just music files. PlayMIDI is apparently the only programthat lets you create multiline MIDI files on your desktop and port themto the Palm with an included utility applet.

If you're a fan of the theremin, you'll love Theremini fromPete Moss; it lets you create the effect of a theremin on your Palmhandheld device. If you don't have a MIDI interface, use the Palm'sinternal speaker and make all sorts of weird and cool sounds by movingthe stylus across the screen. The x-axis controls pitch; they-axis controls volume. The left and right fields determine thefrequency range (from 1 to 20,000 Hz); either field can be higher orlower than the other.

If you have a Palm MIDI adapter, you can use the program to send outMIDI data through a MIDI interface. I used Theremini to playsounds directly from the Swivel Systems SG20 and ran the output into mycomputer, which opened up a new world of sounds.


Among notation products for the Palm, Eric Cheng's simplePocketSynth is probably the oldest in common use. You enternotes by tapping a note value on a palette (a Rest button is alsoprovided) and then tapping a key on the four-octave keyboard. The notesplay back and show up as text values on a line at the bottom of thepage. A note is represented by a symbol such as “c02,”which plays the note C in the bottom octave with a quarter-note value.Because the note information is just text, it can be entered or editedwith a text editor such as Palm's MemoPad.

A slider sets the tempo, but the time and key signatures cannot bespecified. You can export the notation information to ArkkraEnterprises' Mup desktop-music typesetting program using anintermediary Palm freeware program called ToMup from RMITUniversity. ToMup can combine as many as four melody lines andlets you enter time and key signatures, chords, lyrics, and othermusical information. You can then export the files to Mup andprint the music or export it as a MIDI file.

The two Palm software titles most like those common on regularcomputers are NotePad and TobelStudio's TS Noter. Theprograms let you store songs and work with one at a time, and theyoffer keyboard and staff entry. They also allow playback as the notesare entered or afterward through the Palm speaker or through MIDI to anexternal device.

Although less well known than NotePad,TS Noter hasfeatures that make it just as valuable as its competitor. It's anintuitive and straightforward program with a variety of usefulfeatures. In TS Noter's Edit View (similar to Score mode inNotePad), you enter notes on a two-staff score by selecting anote value from a palette. The palette includes values from a wholenote to a 64th note and also provides triplets, rests, flats, sharps,natural signs, and an Eraser tool. Once a note is entered, you canselect one of the note values and tap on the note head to change it.You can drag the note up or down to change the pitch, and you can tieor slur notes together. Bar lines are entered in the same way: bytapping on an icon and then placing the bar line in the score. Althoughyou can't specify a time signature, you can set the tempo in themetronome screen.

Additionally, the palette includes an arrow that allows you toinsert numbered markers. You can later access those reference pointswith the Go To tool. Items in the File menu let you beam songs toanother Palm and export files as alarms to be used in otherapplications. (Alarms are audio or visual alerts that you canset to occur at specific times within other programs.)

The Edit menu provides the usual cut and paste functions and allowsas many as ten undo levels. You can transpose all or part of a song upor down by as much as an octave. A toolbar across the top of the windowoffers quick access to the tempo setting (using the metronome);playback, MIDI, and recording preferences; Play and Stop buttons; theScore view; and the List view. The Piano view has the same basic menusand toolbar and permits real-time recording of a melody on a keyboard.You can scroll to view and play almost four octaves. In the MIDIPreferences screen, you can choose the Palm's speaker or a MIDIinterface for output. If you select General MIDI (GM), the programprovides a list of patch names.

You can send files to your desktop computer with the optionalPalMusic Desktop application for Windows. Just openPalMusic, hit the Start button, put the Palm in its cradle,select Send to Desktop from the File menu, and then select Transmit. Adialog box asks where you want to save your MIDI file.

The Score View screen in NotePad looks similar to the one inTS Noter, with two staves for entering notation. WithNotePad, however, you can enter as many as four voices, one atime; select them by tapping in the numbered box in the upper-rightcorner of the screen. You can even build chords within each voice. Inthe Voice Preferences screen, you can choose a voice's track, its MIDIchannel, and an instrument (viewable by patch number, not GM name).Once back in the Score View screen, the Graffiti letter V togglesbetween “show four voices” and “show currentvoice.” You can also change voices by simply writing the numberof the new voice in the Graffiti area.

Along the top of the screen, you can choose note and rest valuesranging from a whole note to a 16th note. Enter notes by selecting anote value and placing it in the score. The note doesn't appear untilyou lift the stylus; however, you can hear where the note is as youmove it around on the score. Unfortunately, once you lift the stylus,you can't use it to move a note, though a note can be moved byselecting it and using the Palm's Up-Down arrow button. You can alsostep-enter notes from a MIDI keyboard and shorten or lengthen a note inincrements by drawing forward or backward strokes in the Graffiti area.Items in the Edit menu let you invert and reverse (retrograde) selectedpassages and convert notes to triplets. You can clear notes byselecting them and drawing an X in the Graffiti area.

Using the Song Preference box, you can select the category, key,meter (3/4, 4/4, 5/8, and 7/8), “play on entry,”“show four voices,” MIDI, and tempo. The time signatureconstrains how notes are entered, and placing a new note betweenexisting notes might push them over to another measure to preserve themeter. Play, Back, and Forward buttons are at the bottom of the screenalong with icons to take you to the Piano and Grid views. The Pianoview includes a condensed score at the top, so neither accidentals nora written key signature appear. You can't enter notes directly on thatcondensed staff, but you can select notes from the palette and playthem into the score from the piano keyboard. Switching to the Grid viewdisplays a window much like a piano roll, with a keyboard along theleft side as reference. You can still edit and play back the music inthis view, and Grid view also lets you draw each voice in a differentcolor.

One of the fun things about NotePad is that it includes 19pieces of precomposed music that you can play back one line at a timeusing the Palm speaker, or you can play all the lines at once using anexternal MIDI device. NotePad is also part of the miniMusicMobile Software Pack along with BeatPad, Theremini, and thePalm-to-MIDI interface. You save files to your desktop computer througha conduit added into the Palm Desktop software. NotePad alsolets you beam songs to other Palm users.

Neither TS Noter nor NotePad imports MIDI files,though both export files that you can adapt with another program toreplace Palm system alarms. But that's another hack.


MiniMusic's Mobile Software pack includes the Palm-to-MIDIinterface. To set it up, connect a serial cable, cradle, or traveladapter to the serial port at the bottom of the Palm and connect theother end to the Palm-to-MIDI interface. A MIDI cable connects theinterface to your computer or the MIDI In port of a MIDI device. Youthen open a MIDI-compatible program on the Palm, make sure MIDI isturned on, and hit Play. I hooked up the Palm-to-MIDI interface to theMIDI In port on my PC and played through Voyetra's MIDI OrchestratorPlus with no problem.

The Swivel Systems SG20 is a small battery-powered tone module thatclips onto the Palm's base at the serial port. As wide and deep as thePalm, the SG20 measures less than 2.5 inches in length. The SG20 hastwo output ports: one for headphones and one for an RJ11 cable. You canplay MIDI applications and listen through the headphone jack, butthat's just the beginning. When you plug the provided RJ11 cable in toits port, you can connect a small device that has MIDI In and Outports, a MIDI-activity indicator light, and two RCA output jacks. In mytests, both units worked admirably.

The SG20 boasts a complete GM sound set and all the polyphony andfeatures needed to make it fully GM1 compatible. Its onboard sounds andversatile design make it suitable for serious Palm-based composition.Other small battery-powered tone modules, such as the Yamaha MU15 andRoland PMA-5, attach to the Palm through the serial port, but unlikethe SG20, they weren't created specifically for the Palm.

Handi-Q's HandiClip is an ambitious hardware and software system forremotely controlling high-end effects, mixers, and equalizers from thecomfort of the Palm. According to Handi-Q's Web site, the system workswith several devices, including the TC Electronic TC 1128, M2000,M3000, M5000, M-One, and D-Two; the Ashly Protea and VCM-88; theBehringer Ultra-Curve; the Yamaha O1V, O3D, SPX 990, and ProR3; theLexicon PCM 70, PCM 80, PCM 90, and MPX 1; various MIDI synths and drummachines; and some intelligent lighting-control consoles.

The HandiClip attachment looks much like the SG20 (a standard shapefor external Palm modems as well), except that it has a light thatblinks red or green to show MIDI activity. It comes with an RJ11-to-KLRA3M adapter cable and an XLR-to-MIDI Y-cable. The RJ11 (telephone)cable plugs in to the port on the bottom of the HandiClip and attachesto the XLR-to-MIDI Y-cable. You can then plug the MIDI connectors in tothe unit you wish to control. I plugged the setup into my PC, and itfunctioned the same as the Palm-to-MIDI interface and the SG20. Theadapters let you plug the HandiClip in to longer RJ11 cables or in to asnake for controlling your units from a distance. The XLR cable can beused with the Protea using the RS232 or MIDI protocol.

Handi-Q has also just released its new HotSync-to-MIDI cable, whichcosts considerably less than the HandiClip. It offers a directconnection from the Palm serial port to a MIDI-controllable devicethrough a MIDI Y-cable. Green and red LEDs on the MIDI connectorsindicate data presence; simultaneous in and out flow is supported.Because the interface lacks batteries, it drains the Palm's batteriesquicker than the HandiClip does.

According to the documentation, the HotSync cable performssuccessfully when connected through XLR cables on a snake cable run of750 feet, but for anything longer than 600 feet, Handi-Q recommends theHandiClip. The HotSync cable also lacks the HandiClip's protection forthe Palm from “improper cabling mishaps.” In my tests, theinterface worked just fine, but unlike most of the other cables, theends are female, so you need regular MIDI cables to connect it to yourequipment.


To use the Handi-Q products, choose the apparatus you wish tocontrol and then download the appropriate Handi Systems ControllerSoftware. Within the software, select a MIDI channel for each devicethat you want to control and adjust the parameters using faders. In theEQ software, you can set the faders in real time. You can also run inunsynchronized mode in case the EQ settings on the unit get changedwhile you are away from it. Then, hit the Synchronize button to sendthe information to the unit. In Handi-Q Ultra-Curve, thesoftware's EQ curve is added to or subtracted from curves already inplace on the EQ device. The documentation for the HandiMix VCAcontrol software states that you can use the program with any equipmentthat has insert capability.

Because I use effects devices with my electric violin, I triedHandiFX. It lets you choose and name the mechanism you wish tocontrol, set the MIDI channel, assign the controller number, andspecify the minimum, maximum, and default settings. You then switch tothe main screen to operate the faders attached to the selected device.You can save the settings to a Palm Memo file for retrieval later andback them up to your desktop computer when the Palm is synced. I triedthat with an MPX 500 from Lexicon, and it worked great. It won't sendProgram Change messages, but that capability is coming in a freeupdate. Although the programs can be downloaded from the Handi-Q Website, they only send out MIDI data after you enter the HandiKey(available after you pay for and register the product).

MiniMidi, from J. T. Solutions, simply sends messages to MIDIdevices; it's more basic and less expensive than the Handi-Q products.MiniMidi's first screen is the Main/Keyboard page, which has akeyboard at the top to test the selected MIDI channel settings. A smallhorizontal slider lets you choose the MIDI instrument for the selectedchannels in the line of boxes below. The vertical faders just belowsend continuous controller messages to the controller, which you choosefrom a pull-down menu that includes three presets and four usersettings. You can save settings on four pages. All the settings canthen be sent at once, on the appropriate MIDI channels, to a number ofMIDI-controllable devices. The program also lets you send differentcontroller data on the same MIDI channel. You can set the controllernumber and the name for each field in the setup screen. As with theprevious section, four banks of settings can be sent simultaneously. Itested MiniMidi on my PC, and it worked fine.

Geoff Smith's MidiMonitor lets you monitor incoming MIDImessages using a number of configurable fields. Data can be received inhex format, in decimal format, or as raw MIDI data. I testedMidiMonitor with the volume and wah pedals on a Line 6Floorboard sending messages in to a Pod Pro and out the back as MIDIdata. Although the program displayed continuous controller MIDI data,it did not seem to be consistently accurate. That was also the casewith MIDI data from my PC. MidiMonitor may eventually be verycool, but at the moment, it's somewhat unreliable.


If you'd like to learn more about music-related products for thePalm OS platform, I recommend the following Web sites: the HandheldMusic Homepage ( andthe Composing Music on the Palm page ( Mostprograms mentioned in this article are available as shareware atPalmGear ( or Handango (

Cat Tayloris an eclectic electric and acoustic violinistspecializing in Celtic rock. Her current bands include Fiddler's Fancy,the Veil, and Avalon Rising. Special thanks to Larry the O for histechnical assistance.






HandiClip HC2

HandiClip $149; other cables $15


HandiClip HotSync-to-MIDI cable



Palm-to-MIDI interface

included in Mobile Software Pack

Swivel Systems

SG20 sound module

$200, including miniMusic software





Eric ChengPocketSynth

1.24 (w/Metronome)


Wilson ChengMusicEar


$ 9.90

Gary DukePocket Beat


$ 8.00

Emperor StudiosPalm Tracker



Calvin GaisfordMusician Tools






Handi-QHandiMix VCA






J. T. SolutionsMiniMidi



Mike McCollisterMcChords













Pete MossTheremini



Palmetto LogicSound Advice


$ 7.95

Responsive SoftwareResponsive Metronome


$ 8.00

Geoff SmithMidiMonitor



TobelStudioTS Noter



TobelStudioTS Tempo



Sam TrenholmeEar Trainer



Tom ZeruchaPlayMIDI

(ZboxZ 0.25rc5)