©1998 BY Eddie Ciletti
Nothing is more disruptive to the creative process than a "tool" lacking an intuitive user-interface. While sound "quality" may be our primary target (see the sonic sidebar), many great products fall by the wayside because they are hard to use. Unlike analog hums and buzzes, digital gear rarely lets you know why it canít process an incoming signal. For this reason, I think greater emphasis must be placed on products that not only recognize problems but also have the ability to offer a solution. Finally, while I love my digital workstation, the pointing device alone is not the answer.
A microprocessor-based product has increased power, memory and features when compared to its analog counterpart, yet the number of dials and switches will ó almost without exception ó be less. The ability to write software and create hardware is a true gift, even if, from the user-perspective, this is not immediately apparent from the control panel. Hereís an example of logic, in the form of a simple "If - Then" statement, that we can all understand:
IF a control surface lacks a sufficient number of familiar knobs, buttons and "feedback," THEN that product has failed its primary mission, ease-of-use. This is especially true for free-lancers, reviewers and users that get stuck with a new piece of gear on the first day of an important session. Reading a poorly written operatorís manual is also a challenge especially when you are in a hurry.
As for "feedback," Iím talking about the ability to communicate ó mano y machina ó via indicator LEDs and real alpha-numeric and graphic display panels. Granted, our business is extremely cost-driven, forcing manufacturers to take every step to minimize non-essential hardware. It goes both ways, ya know.
Just imagine ó for a horrendous moment ó The Ultimate Guitar Amplifier (TUGA) as designed by a company specializing in digitally-based products. TUGA would have a single "data entry" knob to modify all parameters: Bass, Treble, Volume, etc., selected by a pair of "arrow" buttons. TUGAís display window would deliver cryptic error messages like "bslWY@'VÖ - 41." After looking up the error code, it seems that the combination of bass and treble settings is illegal.
TUGA might have a sense of humor and possibly the ability to humiliate. Picture this. You are in the middle of a great solo when, all of a sudden, a blinding light show begins that is completely out of sync with the tempo. After quickly turning around to determine the cause, TUGAís LCD projector flashes a sixty-foot error message like "leDZEp eRRoR Ď69" or "InsuFFicient GrungE." It then interrupts the feed to the house with the "voice" of a phone answering machine. "Out-of-memory-error. Please-play-last-note-of-solo-and-press-ENTER." TUGA would have a back-up battery and enough memory to replay highlights of your worst performances at the next rehearsal.
As powerful as microprocessor based products are, thereís no excuse for machines that generate error messages without the ability to solve at least some of their own problems. Címon. When was the last time your computer threw a tantrum because it couldnít find a file? Doesnít it know how to use the "File Find" utility?
Computers do keep a log of sorts ó altered mission-critical system files are renamed and dated. (If not, they should be.) Yet, if YOU attempt to change a parameter that could potentially foul the system, there are few, if any, warnings. Worse still ó when the computer wonít boot ó it isnít smart enough to know how to go back to the "Last Known Working Configuration." Even when Windows 95 boots in SAFE mode, it rarely tells you why. And why is it that no one at tech-support has ever had "your problem?" Perhaps a computerís modem should be integrated into the BIOS so that, regardless of whether the operating system can boot, the computer could still be interrogated by tech support.
This leads me to repetitive stress. When was the last time sitting at an analog mixer or open reel tape machine gave anyone "car-pool tunnel?" No matter how intensely you hold a grease pencil or a razor blade, the only damage is the possibility of a poked eye or a serious cut. These are not repetitive stress issues ó make the mistake once and itís not likely to happen again. As workstations become our primary tools, the interface will become more important to our health as well as productivity!
THE GAT AGREEMENT
In Guitar Amplifier Territory (the internationally acclaimed GAT agreement), the basics are all thatís needed. Turn a knob, something happens and thereís no ambiguity. Is it any surprise that some of the most popular products are vintage or retro re-issues? Though sonics may be their primary reason for popularity, no one was ever stumped by an LA-2A or a Fender Deluxe. Thatís why we need to merge "back in the day" with "Y2K."
In the future, the favored devices will be those that re-integrate dedicated, intuitive knobs and buttons to our control surfaces. More than just a Monday or even one personís Birthday, the upcoming Millennium is a global mile-marker. We must not passively cross the threshold, but boldly strive to make high-tech products more human.
I urge all readers to voice your needs to the manufacturers. Yes, the phone lines are often busy or else youíre put on hold forever, but keep trying. Audio creativity must not take a back seat to a geek-a-zoid interface.
If you couldnít tell, one of Eddieís soapboxes is "The User Interface and Control Surfaces."
"Sonic pleasure" is an extremely personal issue. Notice that I did not choose words like "accuracy" or "precision." We judge sound with our ears and emotions; performance is measured with test equipment. While occasionally the measured specs and our ears concur, quite often, people who crave "warmth" are lacking Vitamin D ó harmonic enrichment via Distortion.
Without over generalizing, there arenít many vacuum tube / transformer coupled products that can deliver precision. Designs that emphasize "transformerless" and "discrete transistor" circuitry are more likely to deliver the "nutrients without the fat." (Isnít it funny that "fat" always tastes better!) Hey, you might even be surprised to know that some opamps can deliver the goods.
One particularly frustrating issue is "copycat ignorance." One case in point ó a real conversation ó concerned the description of two rival digital tape machines; oneís relative warmth when compared to another. As I probed to learn the details of this "observation," it took no time to unearth a great flaw in this personís non-scientific method. The "comparison," made in two different studios on two different projects, was an extrapolation of hype and hearsay. (Excrement by any other name is just as pungent.) At no time were both machines in the same room!
It should come as no surprise, then, that I take this matter of "sonic yenta" very seriously. When reviewing a single product, there is no ability to make comparisons except via memory. It sounds great or doesnít ó neither of which can be attributable solely to the "device under observation." Further, what works for me may not work for anyone else, yet, I have been known to mate a lonely compressor/limiter to a discriminating bass player/producer with great success. (To my knowledge they are still married.)
The next time you are about to say that one product sounds better than another, consider your method of evaluation. In order to make accurate comparisons, it is necessary to feed the same signal to all "devices under test," adjust so that all operating levels are optimized and equal, then be able to listen to the same source over and over again while having someone else throw the switches. Realizing how difficult it is to make accurate comparisons is humbling. Notice that you rarely see a "shoot-out" in EQ. It may even permanently alter your speech patterns.
I openly admit to not hearing sonic discrepancies that some golden ears proclaim "obvious as night and day." Am I deaf? A fool? Does the emperor have no clothes? Does my system suck? Am I listening to the type of material that will reveal the flaws?
Perhaps the differences are extremely subtle and it is the ability to hear such subtleties that are being proclaimed as momentous. I will soon be upgrading my monitoring system in order to find answers to some of these questions. Stay Tuned!
Visit the "The User Interface and Control Surfaces" workshop overview held at the '98 AES in San Francisco.
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