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

 
April 2, 2015

A Little Context...

by Chris Randall
 



As you've no doubt seen if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook or down the street in real life or whatever, we've been busy shipping our new module, Odio, which is a little 2-in, 2-out audio interface for using iOS devices in your Eurorack kit. Entirely coincidental to this, but alarmingly convenient, Chris Carlson finally updated his excellent Borderlands granular synth for iPad to v2.0.

Never was a match more made in Heaven than Odio and Borderlands, as Marcus Fischer's post yesterday on his excellent Dust Breeding blog proved. I thought a little video demo of using Borderlands with Odio might be appropo, so after my shipping chores were done for the day, I busted the above out.

In the video, the analog synth melody is coming from my full boat of WMD/SSF modules I just got this week, the hi-hat is coming from our Mad Hatter module, and the speech synthesis is courtesy of a prototype module I'm currently researching that runs a full emulation of the TI speech synthesis chip. (In other words, those aren't samples, at least in the traditional sense of the word.) The whole mess is sequenced via Sequencer 1.

You can hear in the beginning that the synth line is passing through the iPad via the AudioBus app. After a moment, I instance Borderlands. Since Borderlands is a synth, and not a real-time effect, the audio is interrupted. I then flip to the Borderlands instance, and record a couple measures of the synth line.

After fooling with that for a bit, I then move the speech synthesizer's output from the mixer to Odio, and record a bit of it, while I'm twiddling knobs on the prototype. What happens after that should be pretty self-evident from watching the video.

Anyhow, I think the video shows how powerful the Odio/Borderlands combination is. If you'd like to see videos of other iPad-based software in use, let me know your specific requests.

 
March 15, 2015

Im In Ur Rack, Blinken Ur Lites...

by Chris Randall
 

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Just got back from my trip to the Denver Synth Meet 2015. Pretty good showing for a regional meet, all in all. Saw lots of old friends, made some new ones, got some business done. No complaints. Here's a Flickr set of all the gear on display at the meet, if you're in to that sort of thing.

We showed our newest product, Odio, to the public for the first time at the meet. Odio is a 2-in, 2-out class compliant USB audio interface designed principally for using an iPad or iPhone with your modular. These will be shipping to retailers this week, and you can pre-order Odio at Control Brooklyn or Analogue Haven right now. Other retailers to follow shortly. It is a super-handy little module, and I'll have some videos up of use cases very soon.

In other news, all the ad-ab-01-based modules (everything but Sequencer 1 and Odio, basically) are in production, and will be back in stock at our retailers, and in our store and Amazon, within the next few days. And we just pulled the trigger on another run of Sequencer 1. All this building and shipping will give me something to do while Adam puts the finishing touches on the hardware design for our next product, which is a whopper.
 

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