Offtopic: Some Windows 7 tips and tricks.

Its been way too long since I wrote something up. The reason for that should be obvious: work and lack of inspiration. As such I’m going to talk a bit about Windows 7 today…My profession lies with IT which focuses itself mainly on Linux and Unix (-like) environments. Until not too long ago my main work environment was a Linux (“KDE”) desktop on which I did everything (mail, browsing, programming, network administration, etc.). Until that moment when I dove more into Ableton Live, Max for Live and later Max itself. Because Max can be extended with Java externals (where my expertise lies) it didn’t take too long before I moved my programming environment to Windows as well.

Right to that moment last weekend when my girlfriend suddenly mentioned that all I basically did with my old Linux desktop computer was check my e-mail after which I switched right back to Windows. And so, for well founded reasons I recently moved all my desktop requirements over to Windows 7 (I’ve been using Linux privately for nearly 15 years now; 10 year professionally.  I’m way beyond your average bias.).

I actually enjoy working with Windows 7 (I use the Dutch Professional version). So although I have very little inspiration on Synth subjects right now (could hardly spend some quality time unfortunately) I figured that I could just as well write up some of my Windows 7 findings & experiences which hopefully might help you to get some more out of your Windows environment as well.

Although I’m focusing on Windows 7 some of the things I mention here also work with Windows Vista and XP (tried XP myself, didn’t try Vista since I don’t have that available anymore).

Why Windows 7 ?

If you’re into software synthesizers (DAW’s) and use a non-Mac platform then I think your most reliable options are either to use Windows XP (though support for that is coming to an end; I think support stops around 2014) or Windows 7. Whatever you do; I strongly advice you to steer clear from Windows Vista because it has several (quite severe) limitations, as you can read in a previous blog post.

I have no hands on experience with XP when it comes to DAW’s so I can’t comment on that. But when comparing Windows 7 with my previous Windows Vista environment it truly is a day and night experience. And then I’m only commenting on what I can and cannot do within Live itself…

A new taskbar

One of the things which many people will immediately notice when they get confronted with Windows 7 is the new taskbar. Every program which you start is now represented as a large icon and to make matters worse they even removed the quick launchbar. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then don’t worry about it since you probably won’t miss it.

Still, the taskbar also brings many enhancements which can make your life a lot easier when working with several programs at the same time.

First…  When you start a program in Windows 7 you will see a “squared” icon appear on the taskbar. You can notice this behavior in this screenshot; after the first 5 icons you can see three “squares” with icons inside it. There represent programs which I have started during the writing of this blog (the lighter square is actually Windows Live Writer which I’ve been using more often lately to write up blog posts).

If you right click on a ‘squared icon’ you will have an option “attach to taskbar” (or very similar; I don’t have an English version available here so I need to translate from mind). This will make the icon appear permanently on your taskbar as you can see here. The first 4 icons (excluding the start menu icon) are Ableton Live, Reason, Max and NetBeans (a programming environment which I use for Java development).

Now; not only does this make it easier to start these programs by clicking on them. You can also use a keyboard shortcut to either start these or switch back and forth.


If you press the Windows button and then press 1 it will automatically fire up the first program in this list. In my case Ableton Live. If you then press Win-2 (Windows button and then pressing 2 while keeping the Windows button pressed) it will start the second program. In the original screenshot this is the Reason icon.

Starting, selecting and moving around

If you press Win-1 in my environment when Live hasn’t been started yet then it starts up. However; if you press the same combination again while Live has already been started this behavior changes; then it will either minimize Live (when it was the currently active and focused program) or activate it (so move it to the foreground and give it the current focus).

This allows you to quickly move between programs. I use this extensively myself whenever I’m patching in Reason (my workflow is entirely focused on Live; so I only run Reason rewired into Live these days) so that I can easily move back and forth without having to drag the mouse everywhere.

But there’s more…

As you can see in the screenshot directly above its also very easy to move icons around. In this case I merely dragged my blogging application right after that of the Live icon. When you do this Windows 7 will actually shift the shortcuts around. So pressing Win-1 will affect Live but pressing Win-2 no longer affects Reason but my blogging application. Now I switch back and forth from Live and my blog post.

And as soon as I either close the blogging application or drag it back to the rear again the original selection will become active once more; so pressing Win-2 will then fire up Reason again.

Note that these shortcuts also work with the quick launchbar in Vista, not with XP to my knowledge.

Start menu shortcuts

As you can see here the start menu has also changed quite a bit. In Windows XP and Vista the first 2 items on the upper left side of the menu were automatically assigned to your default Internet browser and e-mail program.

However in Windows 7 this is no longer the case. No matter what you select as default they will no longer automatically appear on your menu. I noticed that many people were quite puzzled or annoyed with this; but don’t despair! As you can see here its perfectly possible to get the same behaviour back again.

The only difference is that in Windows 7 you need to add these yourself.

You basically need to do the same thing which you did in the task bar above.

Just open your start menu, then right click on the program which you want to pin down. If it doesn’t appear in the section to the lower left (these show the programs you started most often) then simply use the bottom option “All programs” and find what you want to attach there.

Then, like before, right click on the program and in the (probably larger) list you will also come across an option “Attach to start menu”. And that’s all you need to do here.

As soon as you selected that option the program will appear in your start menu. As you can see here I use FireFox, ThunderBird and IrfanView often enough that I chose to pin them down to the start menu.

Thunderbird 3 & Firefox 4 are very poor IMO

Although, as a short and highly offtopic comment it remains to be seen how long I’ll be using those first 2 programs. Still using Thunderbird version 2 because I despise the horrific idea of introducing tabs to an e-mail client without giving the user any regular option to turn that stuff off. Firefox is unfortunately more of the same story; still using version 3 because I heavily dislike seeing my plugin icons (NoScript and AdBlock plus; highly recommendable) suddenly move to completely new (and illogical) locations while I’m very used to the current situation. Once again: no easy way to simply move back to the previous look and feel (apart from not upgrading, which I did).

I don’t want a browser which tries to mimic “popular software looks”. I want a browser for what it is!



As you can see in the several screenshots above a lot of start menu entries have a black arrow behind them. These arrows point you to specific files (or entries) which you have used very often with the program.

As you can see here I’m showing you the entries which are available to my “Windows Verkenner” which is Dutch and stands for the Windows Explorer.

And once again, just like with the taskbar and the start menu Windows 7 allows you to pin down entries which you use most often and want to be available every time.

In my situation this boils down to my personal folder (the top entry; but I blurred it as you can see), a folder for temporary stuff, an ISO folder which I’m using for my TechNet studies and finally a transfer directory on a server in my network.

In the section below that you can see the entries I’ve been visiting more often as of late. As you can see mostly work and study related; though I do like to play the old DOS Yu-Gi-Oh card game every now and then.


Last item for this post (its getting late). Maybe I’ll expand on this, we’ll see. So far I still have some other series I need to finish up on (regexps as well).

New in Windows 7 are libraries. In fact; the moment when you fire up your Windows explorer from the start menu you’ll be put right into the library section.

These got me puzzled to at first but they are actually a very easy way to help you combine several folders which maybe related to the same thing.

For example (see the screenshot). I have a library called “DAW Libraries”. In here I keep all locations which I use to work with my DAW environment. So; my main Ableton data directory (D:\Ableton, it is here where I also keep the Live library itself) as well as my project folder (C:\Users\Peter\My Documents\Ableton) (I know its different from the screenshot; I translated it).

This can actually help me to quickly move around my DAW data with a single click of a mouse. I start the Explorer (thus ending up in my library section), I then open the ‘DAW Libaries’ library and I end up with 1 location which contains all of my DAW data.

Windows 7 either shows all the entries in a sequential manner (so one folder after the other) but in other cases it can even combine them so that it looks and feels as if you’re working in one big folder.

Last but not least….

To finish up let me share some interesting keyboard combinations I’ve learned in the past recent weeks…

  • Win-R : Opens the “Run…” menu allowing you to quickly type in the name of the program you want to start.
  • Control-Shift-Escape : Opens the task manager where you can control the programs and services currently running on your computer.
  • Win-E : Opens up the Windows Explorer while pointing at “Your Computer” (so you’ll get an overview of your disks and partitions).
  • Win-D : Show the Windows desktop (hiding all other programs). Pressing it a second time returns you to the previous state.
  • Win-cursor up : Maximizes the currently active program.
  • Win-cursor down : As can be expected; minimizes the currently active program.
  • Win-spacebar : Shows you the desktop as long as you keep the Windows key pressed.
  • Win-Home : Minimize all but your currently active (selected) program.

And there you have it.

Nothing synth related this time but I still hope this can proof useful for someone.



  1. What linux did u use? Just wondering; isn’t linux very easy to install and maintain now?

    Like ur post, as always. some stuff i didn’t know and it makes it very easy to work with!!

    Keep it up

  2. I’ve been using Linux quite a long time now but lately mostly Ubuntu LTS. My main frustration came when it was time to upgrade from LTS 8 to LTS 10 which turned out into a disaster. Of course I had backups, so when I wasted almost 1 day on a failed upgrade I started to look into the whole thing and ended up learning that I wasn’t the only one and my best option would be to re-install the critter.

    Well, as much as I respect Linux and love it on the server market; I simply can’t afford the time for all this tinkering anymore. At my home / office I need stuff which works. May require some time to setup, sure, but I don’t like the feeling that I need to re-invent the wheel every time.

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