Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.
 
June 27, 2015

The Origin Of The Species...

by Chris Randall
 



Steve Hamann asked an interesting pair of questions on Twitter this morning: "What is the origin of the floating hands and electronic gear music video?" And he followed that up with this: "For a lot of people it seems to have become a musical end unto itself, I wonder where/when it started?"

I am obviously a strong proponent of this particular form of expression. My first YouTube upload, in 2007, was only the first in a long string of Hands videos in my channel; roughly two thirds of my uploads fit in to this category. These sorts of videos are de rigueur these days for any aspiring synthNerd, and Audio Damage even makes a product specifically for making them with your modular synth and iPhone.

If you've been a long-time reader of this site (10 YEARS NEXT MONTH HOLY SHIT!!) I've inflicted these videos on you many times. To address the second part of Steve's musings, speaking strictly for myself, the video is absolutely the musical end, and I generally write the music specifically for the video. This started happening in the beginning of 2011; before that, I had generally done any sort of video upload as an afterthought, but this one is the first one where making the video was the goal in and of itself:



Many others followed, of course, and while the early ones were recorded and mixed, and the audio released elsewhere, I've gradually got to the point where the video is the release entire, and I don't actually include any downloadable audio content. I'll admit I hadn't actually thought about the "why" of this until today, and I don't have a good answer for it. In pondering it, I think that a lot of the reason I put up the videos (aside from demonstrating the cool shit we make) is that they show off my skill as a musician, inasmuch as I'm capable of demonstrating skill, and serve as "proof" that no trickery was involved. I think with the growing popularity of modular synths, and the dick-swinging inherent in that group of instruments, they also serve as a nice set of bona fides: "look at all this dope shit I have, and here's proof that I'm good at using it."

So, that's me. But it leaves Steve's questions sort of unanswered: where's the Ür Hands Video? And why do other people do it? I personally am curious as to why people put up so many really shitty ones. One of the groups on Facebook that I belong to, it's basically just a constant stream of really terrible sound (I won't even call it music) with cell phone mic audio. These videos are essentially worthless, whether a demonstration of prowess or a snapshot of a musical moment. Your thoughts? Can we find the first Hands video on YouTube?

 
May 4, 2015

Explorations...

by Chris Randall
 



For reasons passing understanding, I've decided I'm going to do my next release 100% Euro. So in my munificent free time the last couple weeks, I've been trying out different workflows to make that experience relatively painless, and by that, I mean that I'm looking in to ways that the context doesn't get in my way. My normal course of action would be to do everything in individual passes, and edit/mix/arrange in the DAW, with additional production being done digitally.

For this release, I'm hoping to avoid that and do entire songs in one pass. So I went through the trouble of assembling a Eurorack instrument-unto-itself; I'm still fooling a bit with the exact layout, but I pretty much have it down right now to something I can make complete tracks with. It's a 12U Monorocket case with a pair of Sequencer 1s and an obvious collection of modules. Taken as a single collective instrument, it needs to be learned and mastered. Which is what I'm doing right now.

The video above shows where I am in the process. This is by no means a musical statement, but rather just a recording of me exploring some different methodologies for performing with this thing, and learning what it is capable of. You'll note the thing I'm fiddling with off to the side, which is a Boss RRV-10 that I circuit-bent some years ago. It has made appearances in many of my videos, but it never occurred to me to "play" it in real time. So I'm experimenting with that here. The monome is hooked up to the Earthsea module, and I'm just using it to play the little melody that is running in to the RRV-10.

So, it's coming along. I think I'm getting close to being ready to patch some music in to life. I will be recording these tracks "stemmed" (in a manner of speaking) direct to 8-track tape, where they'll be mixed to my MTR-11 1/4" deck. I will _try_ to make a video of each performance, but I'm not making any promises there. Stopping a good creative flow to set up the camera, and deal with all that nonsense, is kind of a drag.

For an earlier snapshot of the current journey, you can have a listen to this (no video, sorry.) Unlike the above song, I made this before I made the decision to not multi-take things, so it is actually 4 passes, rather than one.


 
April 21, 2015

Crandall's Simple Steps To Avoid UI Suck...

by Chris Randall
 

When I gave my talk on UI design for music software at UCSB, at the end of the talk, I attempted to distill my rant to its essence, and provide a simple set of guidelines for uX and UI for plug-ins and apps for musicians. While some of this seems self-evident, I came up with these steps with the idea of providing some insight in to our world for engineers and academics that might not have any experience with professional musicians.

These are by no means Rules™ that must be adhered to, but rather some simple tips to keep your software product from looking like Pd. Basically. I break them all the time, but I have 75+ commercial products under my belt, so I get to do what I want. :-)

1. LIGHT ON DARK
Musicians are generally either in a dark studio/spare bedroom/basement or on stage, and generally working in the evening or at night. Looking at a bright white slab of screen can be irritating, and occasionally painful. A UI for musicians should be lighter colored elements on a dark background. The accepted guideline for contrast is 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text. In real world RGB terms, assuming a black background, your text should be at least #959595 or lighter. (I prefer lighter.) Dark text and elements on a light background just sucks for the most part, but if you do it, maintain the same contrast ratio for any element that provides information to the user.

2. USE A MODERN DISPLAY FONT
Traditional fonts (and yes, I include the venerated Helvetica in this group) were not designed for readability on high-resolution computer screens at small sizes. They were designed for signs and newspapers. Don't use them. Make the effort with a modern display font, designed for modern systems. I am a DIN whore, I won't deny. But you can do far worse than Source Sans Pro, which is free as in your mom, and made by Google specifically for modern high-resolution displays. (Google actually makes quite a few modern display fonts for UI work that are free-ish.)

3. FLATTER IS BETTER
Unless, in addition to being a top-notch DSP engineer, you're also highly skilled at using 3D modelling software to make user interfaces, Don't Do It. There is a place for skeumorphism in audio software: this place is usually reserved for interfaces meant to ape vintage gear, to provide the user with a familiar experience. So I won't dismiss it out of hand. But it's something best left to pros. You're far better off just making a circle with a little line on it for a knob. It's hard to fuck that up.

4. MAKE THE UI FIRST
When an engineer or academic sort is intent on making a piece of commercial (or professional, at least) music software, he/she tends to get the DSP done first, then put a UI on it during or after the process. This results in a product that doesn't have a holistic feel. It is far better to codify your initial DSP idea, then design and code a full UI, then fit the DSP in. There's no law that says you can't change the UI during or after the process, but it really helps make a better product when you're building to a set goal, rather than "seeing where things lead." Sometimes, that's unavoidable, but you should really see where things lead before you draw the first pixel.

5. ASK A MUSICIAN
Designing products for musicians, if you're not one, results in bad products. You wouldn't want to buy a car designed by someone that doesn't drive, would you? There are... well, I won't say "standards," but there are ways of doing things in the music world that can perhaps go against normal uX conventions, and if you've never made music for money, in the studio or on stage (preferably both) then you should get somebody in your Circle of Trust that has, and does. And I don't mean at the beta-test stage. I mean as soon as you have the UI coded. Fitting the DSP in to a musician-friendly context is much better than trying to make a scientific/academic chunk of DSP musician-friendly by brute force after the fact.

Anyhow, these are just ideas that some may find helpful. If I'm way off the reservation, or other designers that read this blog have some different (or better) ideas, by all means hit up the comments.

 
April 14, 2015

Roland On The Case...

by Chris Randall
 



Details of the long-rumored Roland Eurorack modules leaked today, ahead of the Musikmesse announcement. In a nutshell, four 21HP DSP-based stereo effects units (delay, distortion, "scatter" effect, and bitcrusher/filter) with both 9VDC and Euro power connectors on the back, along with USB for Aira connectivity, and the ability to live as a desktop unit. $299 each.

Now, as my time in the music tech business has lengthened, I've gradually stopped putting up editorials about gear on this site, because I have to see all these people at NAMM and various other functions all the time, and I don't want to be that crabby old man that sits in the corner grumbling. But for these, I'll make an exception.

Roland is like Stevie Wonder. At one time, a long time ago, Stevie made some records that are ludicrously good. Then, in the mid-80s, he made "Ebony and Ivory" and "I Just Called (To Say I Love You)." And he's been coasting ever since. As musicians, each and every one of us respects Stevie Wonder, and we all own all those good records and know them by heart. But we willfully ignore everything past a certain point.

Sure, once in a while, Stevie does something that just makes us go "wow." But on the whole, we're not terribly interested. If Stevie went back in the studio and made some stinky, funky iteration of "I Wish," we'd all be like "daaaaaaamn, Stevie still got it!" But for the most part, we're not too concerned with what he's up to.

Same thing with Roland.

Talk of Roland snooping around Euro was the main grist for the NAMM rumor mill, at least among the Euro guys. Our general consensus was that either they would come up with something that would move the platform way forward, or they would repackage their guitar pedals.

As we can plainly see, it is the latter case.

I will say one thing: these will be a powerful gateway drug, as they will be a much less threatening introduction to the platform. But for the real Euro user, they miss the mark by a country mile. What a waste of the biggest and best R&D department in the industry.

EDIT:



When I wrote the above, we didn't know about the System 500. This changes matters quite a bit, and here's how:

1. Powerful gateway drug? I don't even. The System 500 is a very, very good thing on that front, as it is a comprehensive and (I assume) well-supported starter system with Roland's marketing machine behind it. This will really hurt companies that sell full voices for n00b buyers (Pittsburgh, Intellijel, Doepfer, et al) but for those of us that deal primarily in the icing, not the cake, this is a HUGE deal. Especially for us, because I'll note that we sell the best "Roland-style" sequencer on the market, and Roland didn't make a sequencer.

2. This system will be in every music gear retailer on the planet, thus bringing the concept of modular synthesis to the masses, in a way that the existing Euro manufacturers could never hope to do.

Overall, I'm like "whatevs" with the digital modules, because they're by and large pretty dumb and duplicate already-existing Euro products, and not well. But the analog system is, to all appearances, absolutely outstanding, and exactly what was needed.

 
April 10, 2015

Robotron...

by Chris Randall
 



Just for fun, we did a run of shirts with the marquee art from a Robotron coin-op arcade machine reformated for our nefarious purposes.

This is a strictly limited item, and when they're gone, they're gone. US$24.00, which includes shipping in the US. ($1.00 shipping everywhere else.) Get 'em while they're hot.
 

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