October 8, 2012

Cut Me Off A Line Of That, Please...

by Chris Randall

It looks like Jonathan Heppner, the creator of AudioGL, has finally made a beta available; $80 for a full license, and there's a save-disabled version to try out, if you want to give it a whirl. (32-bit Win only, requires a pretty robust PC with OpenGL 2.0 support.) Worked fine on my system. I took that screenshot myself, but it's worth noting that my PC is so blown-out overpowered that I'm not a terribly good test case for such things. Don't let the look of it scare you; at its base level, it is more-or-less a boxes-and-wires synthesizer that we're all familiar with, that happens to have a very sophisticated sequencer, and you can, if you so desire, look at things in a perspective mode for some visual interest. No plug-in support, as yet. Peter Kirn did a full write-up with all the deets at CDM, so I won't bore you with the technicalities.

What I really want to talk about is how this shoehorns in to my latest flight of fancy. What I like about this app is that Jonathan has, for the most part, ignored the standard conventions that the music tech industry relies on. (COMMANDMENT ONE: THALL SHALT MAKE ALL COMPRESSORS LOOK LIKE A BEAT-UP 1176! ETC.) Instead, he's just made it look cool and logical.

There are two opposing points of view to this methodology. For those against it, the general vibe seems to be that music software should look like the music hardware it clones, because the interface is familiar, and musicians are stupid and can't be bothered to figure out even the most simple departures from this method. The second, and the one I personally follow, needs some explanation.

I find it ironic that musicians are so conservative in their use of technology, when their lifestyle choices are anything but. Of the 10 most popular DAWs, 8 follow the "tape deck and mixing console" paradigm, even though the vast majority of the people that use those DAWs have never set foot in a commercial recording facility, nor have they seen an analog multi-track tape machine in real life. Ask a guitar player what his pinnacle rig is, and dollars to donuts he won't say a Parker Fly Artist and a Kemper Modeling Amp (which is a demonstrably high-quality, playable, great-sounding, versatile combination.) He'll say a '57 Strat (sigh) and a vintage Marshall Plexi (deep, shuddering sigh.) Want to see an electronic musician jump around like a monkey on coke? Put him in the same room with a MemoryMoog, ARP 2600, or Prophet 5. Recording engineers? Fairchild, Neve. Fairchild, Neve. Fairchild, Neve. EMT! kktnxbai.

Of course, those things are all popular wishes because they sound "good," for various values of good. Although I've heard plenty of shitty records recorded on Neve consoles to analog tape, that have MemoryMoogs and Strat/Plexi guitars tracked through Fairchild comps, with EMT plate reverb. There are, no doubt, tens of thousands of suck-ass records that use those very pieces of gear.

My opinion on the matter is that when you are first presented with a piece of software, if that software's user interface follows some real-world gear, you concentrate on the things it can't do, or the reasons it doesn't sound like the "real thing." If, on the other hand, it is unique to the software, you spend your time figuring out what it can do, while you learn how to use it. Sure, the learning curve is a bit steeper; the only thing you have to figure out on an 1176 plug-in clone is how the developers implemented the "all buttons in" mode. But look at it this way: one day, way back in the mists of time, some engineer opened a box and in it was a brand new 1176, a product he'd never seen before, and didn't know how to use. He put it in his rack, and some time later he just, for the fuck of it, decided to see what it sounded like when he pushed in all four ratio buttons.

Nobody has made that discovery with an 1176 plug-in.


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Oct.08.2012 @ 12:25 PM
"Ask a guitar player what his pinnacle rig is, and dollars to donuts he won't say a Parker Fly Artist and a Kemper Modeling Amp (which is a demonstrably high-quality, playable, great-sounding, versatile combination.)"


Parkers ARE awesome btw...

Oct.08.2012 @ 3:05 PM
Yeah, one of the reasons I've never been sold on the Arturia analog clones is that they go to great lengths to duplicate the user interface quirks of the machines they emulate. They could have so easily made a logical UI for them, but because of the conventional wisdom about What Users Want, they didn't.

Face it, for reasons of design weirdness, implementation cheapness, and a callous disregard for end users, nearly all vintage gear has something really fucked up in its UI. Faithfully reproducing every last iota of WTF of a 'classic' allows a new generation of users get to be frustrated and baffled.

I'd rather be baffled by something that's baffling on it's own terms, as opposed to something that's baffling because an engineer in 1981 did something goofy to save 25 cents on switches.

Oct.08.2012 @ 3:37 PM
Plugins that look like a piece of hardware but don't sound like it really make me crazy. You'd think I'd have gotten over it in the last 10-15 years, and I have somewhat. A little. If it doesn't sound A LOT like an 1176 then what's the freakin' point of making it look like one? And yes, I spend too much time noticing how wrong it is instead of what it does good.

The Parker though? Shudder... Feels like a Guitar Hero controller, looks like a cheap PRS knockoff, sounds like it's made of hollow plastic.


Oct.08.2012 @ 3:50 PM
Chris Randall
Yeah, that guitar that doesn't stay in tune at all (and heaven forbid you hit the whammy bar), has a sticky neck, buzzes like a motherfucker, and weighs a ton. Oh, shit, that's right. I'm talking about a vintage Strat. My bad.

Seriously, though, that last comment is exactly what I'm talking about. I have absolutely no interest in getting in a religious debate about guitars on this site. I could honestly give two shits, and that's one more shit than the rest of these keyboard players give. I'll just say that of the three things you said about the Parker Fly Artist, one is a subjective opinion, and the other two are demonstrably false.

But then again, a Triton LE is a better piece of equipment than a CS-80 in almost any way you'd possibly care to name, except maybe as a boat anchor, but that won't stop someone from dropping $15K on one of those things every few months. That's how musicians do.


Oct.08.2012 @ 4:08 PM
I like fast workflows, and not too many bells and whitsles. Don't care how it looks otherwise. I like vintage looking plugins because they're generally easy to use (see LA-2A) and I like modern looking plugins that are easy to use (see Fabfilter Pro-DS). I suppose this is all for a few reasons:

1. I get to feel all pro and manly when I'm using an 1176 that looks like the real deal - and it's easy to figure out

2. I get to feel all cool and hip when I use something with an awesome modern UI that looks great on the screen

3. But most of all: I'm inherently lazy and just can't be bothered to open a manual. If I can't figure out how it works without looking at it (or watching a YouTube demo), then I'm never going to bother learning it. I'd rather use that time doing something productive like learning piano, practicing sight reading, writing a song, cooking, cleaning, walking the dog, etc.

Moral of the story: I don't think I'm alone in saying that I prefer things that are simple and hard to screw up. Look at Fluid, Liquid, Dubstation, Ratshack...not a lot of controls, hard not to get the sound I want out of them. Meanwhile, I wouldn't have a clue what to do with something like Automaton (it looks like a video game) or this AudioGL thing.

Oct.08.2012 @ 6:03 PM
Chris, you've touched on something that hasn't been discussed yet in the whole skeuomorphic debate: Familiarity isn't always a good thing.

We're making tools that are (hopefully) being used for creative purposes. If the GUI is unfamiliar enough at first glance to slow someone down, that may not all that bad. By slowing down, the user may be forced to look at things from a different angle, and step outside of their existing world view - or at least their world view with regards to compressors, EQs, reverbs, etc.

Oct.08.2012 @ 6:17 PM
@bongo it's funny you say that the Parker sounds like plastic and that's why you don't like them. I was listening to a track recently on which they used a Parker and my thought was that it sounded like weird plastic. However, contrary to your opinion I thought it was one of the coolest, most unique guitar tones I had ever heard. It's not my dream guitar, but I would love to have one.

Oct.08.2012 @ 7:17 PM
Greek: skeuos - vessel or tool.

That's an interesting sort of gender-ish "or."

Never mind me. I'm the guy (tool) in the back of the class that should probably be in whatever today's equivalent of special ed is, or at least, reading the remedial blog.

Heck, I'm still trying to figure out what CR sold from what he still has, and I was good at algebra.

CR: Aren't you doing kind of a 180 from last year's "limit yourself" epistemological context?

Oct.08.2012 @ 10:01 PM
So what does "all buttons in" mode sound like?
Care to model it?

Oct.08.2012 @ 10:11 PM

I'd probably agree with you if I heard that sound. Or lie and say I did.

Every sound is useful for something; there's no guitar, amp, keyboard, or digeridoo in the world that isn't capable of making a really cool sound that's just right for the right track. It's just a question of how many times you're going to want that sound and do you need to own a digeridoo or just rent one if the need should arise?


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