October 30, 2007

A Terribly Unscientific Poll...

by Chris Randall

I'm deep in the throes of wrestling the UI for our next product in to submission, and I was kind of curious about something. I know there are basically two schools of thought viz. the user interface of a plug-in, as far as consumers go. There's the "hardware look" guys who want every plug-in to look like an 1176 exact, and the "Starship Enterprise" guys who think that anything that appears on a computer screen should look like Hello Kitty's toilet paper, except with animation.

That would, of course, be a gross generalization, but before we wade in to it, let me say this much: the user interface informs the use of the device, no matter what it is. Especially when you get in to the territory of stuff that doesn't exist in hardware. The UI and the DSP code are symbiotic, and one is essentially pointless without the other. This might not seem obvious at first pale (a well-coded 1176 clone will work just as well with the generic slider interface as with the photo-realistic rendering) but it is a fact. The UI sells the plug-in, more than anything else, and the sales provide a comfort zone in which R&D can occur, and the R&D births better DSP code.

In any event, I personally am comfortable with any UI, whether it have fake knobs or space-age OpenGL 3D sliders, as long as it is logically laid out. Nothing against the designers in question, but in my opinion this and this are both glaring examples of how trying to be all things to all people results in a UI of such ridiculous complexity as to actually hinder someone's workflow. The one-knob-one-function design ethos gets terribly overbearing when you consider that most people step through the presets until they find one they like, and maybe touch up the filter frequency a bit afterwards.

Obviously, each effect needs certain controls to be useful, and I won't argue that point at all, but our last release (Vapor) could easily have had 20 controls or more, if we made each possible data point in the algorithms accessible to the user. But it really wouldn't change what is useful about the plug-in, or how it will be used and in what context. It would certainly look more impressive, but ultimately, well, you know...

I am rambling a bit due to the excellent medication my dentist gave me today, but what I'm trying to learn is this: in a plug-in that has a certain complexity level which requires a couple dozen controls, do you prefer the immediately obvious, but somewhat overbearing and anachronistic hardware look, or the not-obvious-at-first-glance, but somewhat more apropos-to-the-context "Starship Enterprise" vibe? If you're gonna answer, try to explain your reasoning and put it in some sort of context, rather than just posting "hardware" or "Hello Kitty." I already know how the percentages will split.



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Oct.30.2007 @ 9:51 PM
brandon daniel
For plugins whose complexity have reached a critical mass, I really like contextual display/hiding of parameters. It gives me the option to use these extras, but keeps them out of view when I'm not working with that specific part of the UI.

I lean towards "hardware"-looking UIs in general, but if it's a good sound, I'll deal with all the ableton-clones if need be.


Oct.30.2007 @ 9:51 PM
I generally like NI's interfaces, which while clearly not hardware, are not what I'd consider "Hello Kitty" either. Somewhere in between?

Oct.30.2007 @ 9:58 PM
i prefer it to look like it's on a computer screen. even more importantly:

- i want to see the exact value of a control as a numerical value if at all possible.
- i want to be able to double-click, etc, any control and set it to any numerical value by typing.

plugins that fail the above drive me CRAZY. i tend to remember and conceive of things based on numbers and values (ie. actual digits) and not visual feedback or positions. and call it OCD, i want to know that it's exactly 50% wet and not 48% or 53% depending on how i squint.

MOTU mx4 has a great interface, imo. well, the first version did.


Oct.30.2007 @ 10:10 PM
Chris Randall
Peter, I know where you're coming from. However, I don't agree with it. Our products tend towards where they do largely because Adam and I both agree (or at least I agree, and he doesn't try to stop me) with the thought that how it sounds has very little to do with any number we might display. Whether it says "50% wet" or not has little bearing on what it is actually doing, so why display it?



Oct.30.2007 @ 10:46 PM
Knobs are a pain for mousers (at least for me, even with my trackball). Prefer sliders, select-boxes, switches - just easier and more immediate. Also great are controls that respond to other qwerty keyboard keys, including but not limited to the arrow and number keys.

BUT - I tend to mostly interact with my plugs without seeing them...I'm usually drawing automation in the Arrange and only see the plug to instantiate it.

Flat UI is preferred, because I feel CPU performance must be more efficient, and it is (in best design cases) quite gentle on the eyes. The Reason UI literally torments my eyes.

If text appears that is meant to be read, please make it quickly and clearly readable, not terminally hip looking and hard to read.

Speaking of freakadelic UI, Logic's Sculpture is another one...

Thanks for soliciting our thoughts about this.


Oct.30.2007 @ 10:46 PM
yeah, mix with your ears, not with your eyes. it's easy to get distracted when you're working with a computer, considering the fact that a higher level of visual feedback is usually provided, and the fact that you are normally accustomed to being oriented towards a computer's screen. but that said - i'm totally the same way :)

as for the question at hand - i don't think it really matters what the UI looks like. i mean, it MATTERS, but it's more important that it be logically arranged than that it look like anything in particular. (but you knew that!) i'll be cheap and say go for the best of both worlds - whatever works :)


Oct.30.2007 @ 10:47 PM
I really liked the Liquid/Fluid/Vapor interfaces the best of any plugins. I imagine that you could easily adapt that approach for other more advanced plugins. I found the Dr. Device/Replicant interfaces somewhat inelegant, yet functional.

Oct.30.2007 @ 10:50 PM
Ableton Live annoys the shit out of me with the numerical values appearing in the bottom left corner and not at the knob. It can be handy to have numerical input.. if you know you want it about halfway, you can just type in "50" and then maybe tweak it a little. I find that faster, and often easier, than twisting the knob to the halfway point on many vsts.

As far my eyes slowly get worse with age, I find the hardware look to be increasingly annoying. I'm more of a half hardware/half enterprise person.. leaning towards enterprise. Image-line did a nice job with Toxic III.. single page with all the necessary controls without going nuts. Contralogic's Feldspar has a nice, subtle look and Vember Audio's Surge packs a lot into a single page layout without it feeling claustrophobic (the way you assign modulators to the sliders is also genius.) NI did a nice job with Massive, but I've never liked the UI of Kontakt or Battery that much. Dblue Glitch is kinda cool, but inconsistent with the application of 3d elements and hello kitty-ness. I think my favourite UI is probably Novation V-station.. I love the way the knobs respond; they are easy to grab and I never wonder if I've grabbed the wrong one. They could lose the fake hardware "box" look but otherwise I like it.



Oct.30.2007 @ 10:53 PM
My biggest problem with all plugins are the knobs!!

Knobs are for the axial rotation of the human hand not the linear sliding of a mouse or touchpad. Sliders translate better with computer intefaces available today and give better visual of their position...MPG-80...

Also, you can have two levels interface; the default, obvious control panel and the hidden parametric control panel accessed via the geek button.


Oct.30.2007 @ 10:55 PM
I don't mind Star Trek as long as the controls' functions are clear. I don't want to move an orb around a pond like Kai's Power Tools, unless that's really the best way to control the plug. (Dr D is a good example.) Vintage-based UIs at least give a point of reference. I agree that sliders are better than knobs for most functions. Also that you guys do a great job at keeping number of parameters to the usable range. Those two UIs you linked made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

I'll bet vintage-based UIs sell much more than Star Trek. I remember the AES show when I figured out that metal knobs = charge $200 more for the product. Now who's rambling?


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