October 16, 2008

Plug-In Design Open Thread...

by Chris Randall

Over yonder (how is distance measured on the Intergoogles?) on KvR, Shamann started what has turned in to a semi-interesting thread on the base nature of plug-in design. To save you the trouble of reading all eight pages if you, like, have a life and stuff, the commenters are divided in to two camps:

1. All Or Nothing, Beeyatch!!! These sorts want every single possible parameter on a plug-in to have an attendant control on the UI, so that just in case they might want to touch a little something up, the option is there. Or, alternately, they want to spend a lot of time tweaking.

2. Keep It Simple, Stupid!!! These sorts (and I'll freely admit I fall squarely in this camp) want immediacy and simplicity, because they're apparently busy working on their song arrangements or getting the right sounds. If they want a delay, they want to instance a delay, select the appropriate preset, and go back to work.

Now, there are certainly products for both schools of thought. U-He makes incredibly sophisticated designs with a lot of parameters, for people that like to take the time to fine-tune every little thing. We, on the other hand, generally make simpler products that kind of work within our worldview of How Things Should Sound, but don't really leave a lot outside of that, generally.

Audio Damage has released, for the last couple years, products that generally are designed specifically to please group #2, at group #1's expense. However, we have a couple things lined up (and I suppose BigSeq2 would come in to the conversation here) where there is enough complexity to where group #2 is going to suffer a bit, and group #1 will accordingly be happier.

Since there's no earthly reason for us to pay for marketing research when we've got you guys here, I'll pose the question. (and in deference to you, my loyal readers, I'll mention that I have a fairly good idea of what the answer is going to be already) Do you fall in group #1 or group #2? As always with comments here, you should provide a little color commentary. What plug-in best exemplifies the approach you favor? Do you occasionally cross the border and do things the other way? That sort of thing.



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Oct.16.2008 @ 4:15 PM
I lean towards #1 but UI design definitely helps. I may be inclined to pass on a plug with an array of tiny knobs and buttons with tiny fonts to match -- and possibly miss out on a great new tool. Obviously it can present a psychological barrier.

Something that comes to mind as an example of a well designed UI w/ bells and whistles (IMHO) is the Sonic Projects OP-X Pro (softsynth) which has the normal looking virtual knobs for most things. But there are smaller buttons and virtual trimpots (!) for tweaking the fine points.

Some plugs have a virtual "backplane" which pops up with some less frequently used parameters when you click the logo, for example.


Oct.16.2008 @ 4:23 PM
This is an very interesting topic, and one about which books have written. Not so much about plugin interface design but user interface design in general.

I almost never use presets on anything, because I started making electronic music when that was considered the height of lame. But if a UI is too complicated I tend to either not use the thing at all, or use a preset.

One thing I always find in complicated plugins is that they have knobs that don't really make any audible change to the output, or only have useful affects over a small slice of the total range of travel. In that case you waste time trying knobs to find the ones that do something useful. That's weak.

The other end of the spectrum is plugins that have minimal controls, and minimal depth -- if they have a distinctive sound, you can't go to far from that sound, and you end up using the plug on a few tracks and discarding it because you've used it up as a color in your palette.

The ideal plugin to me has these attributes:

1. Enough controls to cover a fairly wide range of possible sounds -- more than perhaps 10 knobs being too many.

2. Whatever the knob range it does something audible over the entire range

3. Label everything well enough that the manual isn't usually needed.

4. Ideally, if there's a quirky or weird sonic possibilty, make it available via the knobs. In other words, given attribute #2, I welcome controls with well thought out ranges (attribute 2) but at the same time, any audio processor worth using is worth misusing, so don't leave off the nasty bits at the extreme knob settings.

As far as your group designations: Group 1 probably doesn't want additional knobs, unless they facilitate additional sonic possibilities. Wanting controls for values that don't make any difference 99% of the time is pathological. The Group 2 description is a little imprecise, because really, if all you use are presets, the perfect interface would be just one knob for selecting presets.

I think #2 people actually do edt presets to achieve the sound they're after. They just don't want a learning curve every time they use the computer.


Oct.16.2008 @ 4:29 PM
I'm a bit of a plugin junkie, it's a bit of a compulsion.
I own U-He, AD, and the Ohm Force line.

In general I first turn to AD for something, because of the immediacy, then if I need to go up a level of complexity I go to Ohm Force, and the if I really want something wacky I go to U-He.

When I'm in a composition mood and I just want something quick, I basically use your guys stuff to not get my head out of writing space. It's only when I'm in tweak stage that I worry about the other plugs.

Just my $.02


Oct.16.2008 @ 4:33 PM
Interesting discussion!

I personally prefer plug ins which subscribe to school of thought #2. The reason is that I like to work with both software and hardware which has a particular identity, and allows me to tweak whatever parameters are on offer without completely changing that identity. The sonalksis plug ins probably exemplify my favourite approach - a certain amount of flexibility but you know that you can tweak them hard to extreme settings and still get a predictable result. They also have GREAT accurate metering, which is a huge advantage.

I would say that the waves plugs, for example strive too hard to emulate vintage interfaces and responses but sacrifice clarity and accuracy. On the other hand, I have used the U-he plug in Zebra but it wasn't for me - too many parameters available without any sense of which ones do the 'cool stuff'. Although I'm happy to wade through parameters I love it that on my favourite synths there will always be a huge fat robust filter knob which demands to be tweaked!


Oct.16.2008 @ 4:38 PM
I used to think I was a tweaker's tweaker and was constantly looking for the next deepest synth: K2x00, TG77, FS1R, MicroModular, you name it.

Turns out I am *not* a tweaker's tweaker. My cassette tape delay (with a total of five knobs and switches) annoys me because it has separate controls for playback and record volume instead of a single fader.

With plugins especially, I go for things that A) sound good B) are reasonably simple and C) have controls that make audible differences. I just chain simple plugs to get the sound I want.

Sometimes I think "I'd like an envelope to control knob X" and then look for a more complicated but still good plug (a search that usually fails) or try to get the effect I want in some other way (e.g., mapping the knob to a pitchbend wheel), which usually succeeds and is waaay more fun.


Oct.16.2008 @ 4:39 PM
Meant to say: I use Digitalfishphones and Kjaerhus a lot, along with some very simple utility plugs I wrote a long time ago in SynthEdit.

Oct.16.2008 @ 4:43 PM
I straddle both groups. Five years ago, I was firmly in Group 1, these days I'm much closer to Group 2, with the exception of never using a preset mostly because it seems harder to me to get a preset to work in a given project than just learning what everything does and setting it as necessary.

Of the delays mentioned at KVR and here, I have and use all of them, pretty much. I have a license for MFM 1 and 2, Ohmboys, Dubstation, Dr. Device, Ronin, and Fabfilter Timeless (and several more). While I like them all and have used every one at least once on a finished track, I'll reach for Dubstation first before anything else. The others are all more complex and several of them can probably sound exactly like Dubstation if I look at them just right on a Sunday, but Dubstation always sounds like Dubstation, has a fairly distinct sound, and never sounds like any iteration of those other delays unless they are trying to sound like Dubstation. The simplicity itself doesn't draw me, but creative simplicity does. I can think of a lot of delays that have even fewer controls as Dubstation, but they aren't nearly as appealing.

Similar thing with compressors, I have complex compressors like Kjaerhus's GCO-1, but will use TbT's TLs 2095-LA or Sonalksis's TBK3 or more recently Rough Rider first before the complex ones. Admittedly there's plenty those three compressors can't do well, but I'll try them out first every time on the off chance they do, simply because they have an particular sonic character in a way that swiss army knife-style compressors don't.


Oct.16.2008 @ 4:52 PM
I do most of my composition in the knob-rich Reason, which takes care of about 80% of my sonic palette. To augment I generally look for highly-specialized, single-purpose plug-ins, which puts me firmly into group #2. I think I seek simplicity in my other music software as a reaction the sometimes exhausting depth of possibility in Reason.

Oct.16.2008 @ 4:53 PM
Definitely Group 2 for me. The all-or-nothing thing seems to lead to plugs like the Admiral Quality Poly-Ana. Eyuk! I don't mind if deeper parameters are nested or tabbed a la Massive, as that seems to work really well on that plug. For effects plugs I generally want to instantly see the two or three most important knobs and meters; anything else I can look for it if I need it.

Oct.16.2008 @ 4:55 PM
Group 2 thanks...


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