September 15, 2006

Is it just me...

by Chris Randall

...or do all the new Native Instruments plugs look like they were made in Reaktor? Obviously, it's wise for a company to have a common look/feel amongst its products, something we've been struggling at with the AD line since the beginning.

There are two schools of thought to plug-in UI design. I, of course, am of the firm opinion that if there's a real-world analog for a particular plug-in, the plug-in should look exactly like the real-world device. This solves two problems. First, a customer can tell what a product does just by looking at a screenshot. Even with a small screenshot of Reverence, it's pretty obvious as to what it's all about, and we don't have to spend much time explaining it. Second, the customer already knows how to use the product as soon as he installs it, and the only reason he'd have to consult the manual would be for a technical explanation of a feature, or to learn how to use any "secret" things we've added.

When something looks like FM7, you know what it is, what it does, what it sounds like, and how to use it from the git-go. When something looks like FM8, given the screenshot above, at the _very_ least you have to read a couple paragraphs of liturature to even figure out what it is in the first place, never mind whether it's something you need or not. The only thing you can really tell for certain is that it's a synth, and it probably uses FM.

These are just my opinions. Your mileage, as always, may vary. I already know that there is a fairly even split between people that prefer modern UIs versus those that prefer the hardware look. I wouldn't turn down some thoughts on the matter, if you feel like typing them out.



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Sep.15.2006 @ 3:50 PM
Jeff C
I personally prefer user interfaces that don't try too hard to emulate 'real world' user interfaces, as often much of the benefit of a real world interface is in its tactile feel - something which isn't carried over into software. Just because something looks like a real world item doesn't mean that it feels the same to use.

Also, given that I don't have a long history with actual hardware, I'd personally prefer something that takes into consideration the added flexibility that a software UI can provide (ie. displaying only certain controls based on context, inline help, etc). There's a reason, after all, why word processors don't require you to draw out letters on a virtual piece of paper. It's all to possible to be too constrained to real world concepts.

Of course, if you're marketing to people who have all kinds of experience with this hardware in their studios - as you seem to be - basing your UI on real hardware actually does make some sense. It's sub-optimal for newbies like me, but then again people like me are probably not where you're making any money. :)

Just my 2c...

- Jeff


Sep.15.2006 @ 4:07 PM
First, lemme bitch about Reaktor. I've had so many problems dealing with many of Reaktor's synths that I've given up trying to program them. Take a look at Carbon 2, for example. Despite having "been optimized for maximum usability," everything's abbreviated and hard to read. The addition of different groups of tabs makes things harder to find than need be. Keep in mind, I program Kawai additive synths using Excel spreadsheets to calculate harmonics.

Unlike some Reaktor synths, FM8 looks like it will be pretty easy to get around. I notice there are no screenshots of the "Attributes" or "Expert" screens, though. I don't know about you guys, but if I'm going to buy an FM synth I want to see the FM screens. I don't need to see the fuckin' tube effects they included to "warm things up." Besides, if I wanted warm would I even use FM? Gotta give NI some pri-zops for moving away from the emulations into some new territory, though.

One new-type synth that really got it right is MOTU's MX4. Its so clearly laid out that I had oodles of patches programmed lickety-split, without a manual. Those cats really got it right. Native Instruments, on the other hand, may have lost the plot a bit.


Sep.15.2006 @ 4:21 PM
From the product page: "[easy edit page blah blah blah]. The synthesizer is however equally suited to experts in the field: operator details and the full range of advanced, editable parameters are all available and accessible within a vastly improved hierarchy." So there's still detailed edit screens.

I think FM is something that does not necessarily benefit from looking like the hardware, but I like the look of FM7 much better. It's idiosyncratic, rather than the bland and generic look of the new one.

But I really like Logic's FM synth too, not just because of its simplicity but because it gives the most important parameters big huge knobs. That's an example of "modern" design working out well.


Sep.15.2006 @ 4:32 PM
Nice topic.
As a designer myself, I've always been a big believer in making the form enhance the function. The problem with this is that in some cases (particularly with softwareUI design it seems) the function can be a bit fuzzy. Is it supposed to -a: Sell the product, b: Make the product easy to use immediately, or c: Provide lot's of usability and depth in the long term?
It's gotta do all of those things, and it has to do the last two within the structure of a predesigned meta-UI (the computer, OS, etc.). Frankly I don't think FM7 (or various other hardware clones) did that very well. Sometimes cloning the hardware UI just doesn't make sense. Imagine if you and Adam were cloning the Eventide Eclipse (yes, I know how ridiculous that is). You'd be fools to implement that interface in software.
That being said, the stuff you guys have done has all really lent itself to immitating the hardware UI.
And for what it's worth, I think that while there are still some problems areas, both VemberAudio's Surge, and Ableton Live do some very cool stuff in the area of UI.

Sep.15.2006 @ 5:29 PM
I think one reason I always liked Ableton Live is because it's built around providing the optimum computer UI, recognizing the computer as the actual piece of hardware you're using. Similarly the reason I can't stand Reason is because it's the opposite - it's built to emulate a hardware rack, with dangling cords and everything. Who wants dangling cords both on AND offscreen? Maybe some of you do, but I've learned everything on the computer rather than hardware. But as long as the UI is intuitive and fast, no matter what it looks like at first, it's great. Branding comes second. Coolness third.

Sep.15.2006 @ 6:10 PM
I agree with you completely on the NI interface design on the new plugs. I think it's worthy of mentioning another reason why real-world look-alikes can be a great benefit. It's somewhat more subtle but quite powerful; a real-world-referential gui helps evoke the emotional state and mindset the user had and felt when twiddling with the physical device. Especially for instruments, but also for effects that's a pretty big deal when it comes to creativity.

The new NI plugs, with FM8 the best (or worst) example, lacks that soul. They should've made it look like the DX7/FM7, even if different in details. Just keeping the color scheme would've helped alot.


Sep.15.2006 @ 6:59 PM
It really depends on the software I suppose. I appreciate when a UI really capture the flavor of hardware, and it gives me, a neophyte with limited studio exposure, at least the appearance of experiencing the intended schematic of the synth/effect. impOSCar, VintageWarmer, 914 FFF, et cetera, I find these not only interesting to look at but inspiring to work with. And its cool to see how devs add new features without breaking the flow of the emulation. However, sometimes its nice to see a product throw off the constrictions of hardware and find a new approach. For me, this is a hit or miss affair: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Though it's always weird when hybrid instruments are shoe-horned into pseudo-hardware interfaces.

But FM8? Feh. I'm getting a little tired of this washed, beveled and embossed look that seems to be all the rage. It's all over the web, but is becoming the UI go-to trick these days. It was inviting back with XPhrase, but this looks like it was modeled on a marshmallow. Actually, it looks like it was modeled on a plastic controller. (And as someone on KvR pointed out, wouldn't it make more sense for it to have *8* operators? Not sure what good it would do, but it makes more sense.)

I'm not sure I like this direction of NI, this convergence of all their plugs into one unified suite of all-but interchangeable interfaces. I like some personality in my plugs.


Sep.15.2006 @ 7:37 PM
The DX-7 has one of the worst UI's ever, why emulate it? The DX-200 software based editor has a "classic mode" which lets you pretend you're working on a DX-7, and it is perversely difficult compared to the main "show me everything" editor. FM synthesis is arcane, and the more you can see, the better your chances are at making out what's going on. At the very least, graphical envelopes help a great deal.

There are plenty of synths I can think of that you would not want to make into a photorealistic VSTi... obvious choice, the Matrix1000. Or any of the Roland synths that had external hardware programmers. (well, in this case, I guess you could emulate the programmer). What about the DSI evolver, or Waldorf pulse? - why would you emulate a matrix style programmer? There is a reason that Sounddiver has made a fortune... most synths (starting with the DX-7) have cheap-ass user interfaces that are madening to program! Even effects boxes benefit from software interfaces - like my old Quadraverb.

just my $0.02


Sep.15.2006 @ 7:43 PM
I appreciate both types of design but the people who hate the hardware look seldom offer any real innovation in its place. Even the flat vectory looking interfaces still use the concept of a knob or slider. Where is the crime in providing a little extra light and shadow to really differentiate the knob from the background? I think the people who are opposed to 3d interfaces are on a misguided crusade that has some truth at its core but fails to separate the useability issues from the purely aesthetic issues. Take Live for example. The usability would probably be the same or similar if it used photorealistic knobs instead of flat fields of color and yet Ableton made a glaring design flaw in not allowing users to freely move windows around. You can't even use the mixer and the main timeline simultaneously! But thank god it's nice and minimal on the surface :)

Sep.15.2006 @ 9:14 PM
I like a GUI as long as it is easy to use and isn't too awful to look at. Beyond that, I'm pretty easy.

I just can't abide by cluttered crap that is awkward to use, hurts my eyes, or requires me to remember many mystery-key combinations to actually get anything done.

I kind of like the look of FM8, it's very tidy. But yes, it is all very Reaktor factory looking.


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