looking for a few good ideas

  amongst the irregular verbiage

I Hate Knobs

Here begins a series of posts discussing the state of the art of User Interface design in music software.

I'm annoyed at the current state of visual representation of virtual instruments such as VST and DXi synths and effects. For example, here is what the Vintage Channel 64 (VC-64) effect looks like when launched from inside Cakewalk's SONAR 6:

You can click on this image for a larger view.

This user interface (UI) is simply hideous. Form and function have been sacrificed to looks, in the sense that it's appearance is mimicking a physical piece of equipment. Trying to adjust the parameters with the mouse is difficult and error-prone, and I am not brave enough to try using the keyboard - I don't even know how I would do that. (There is a caveat here that this particular module is bundled with SONAR 6 Producer edition and there is a theory that the interface has been made deliberately hard to use so that people are pushed in the direction of buying the commercial version of the software. I believe the original UI of the commercial plug-in on which this version is based can be seen here. It's a little better.)

Here's another example: a section of the UI from WaveArt's TrackPlug module.

You can click on this image for a larger view.

This is somewhat better, in that it doesn't try to be "photo-realistic" in the appearance of its controls. Certainly the readability is much better - you can easily see what value each control is set to. However, I still find that this style of knob is tricky to use with the mouse. How is each value adjusted? Do you click, hold and drag? In which direction?

I admit to liking the graphical representation on the right side of the screen shot. I haven't used the plug-in, but I assume you can grab the bright orange nodes with the mouse and move them around. But I'm still guessing.

Here's an example of "soft hardware" that I really enjoy the look of:

You can click on this image for a larger view.

TCElectronic's DVR2 module is specific to ProTools, I believe, so again I haven't had the pleasure of trying to interact with it. But while I love the subtle use of color, I am resigned to having to become familiar with another style of "look and feel" of the UI control components. Are those round things buttons or toggles?  How do I adjust the value of the Hi-Cut frequency? Which widgets are read-only and which ones are editable?

One of the reasons I find this confusing state annoying is that the problem has been addressed by software development frameworks for years. We take it as read that any development toolkit will provide a set of standard control widgets that meet certain requirements of a UI,  a certain level of completeness of design and function that remove the burden of ease-of-use from the developer.

I will conceed that perhaps music software such as FX processing modules and digital audio workstations may bring additional UI requirements that standard development environments do not find necessary to support, but why do these custom UI widgets seem to use this as an excuse for total UI anarchy?

In future posts I am going to discuss standard UI requirements and make a modest proposal: a set of standard UI widgets that support both conventional UI needs, and the requirements of attractive "soft hardware" implementations.

This series is continued here.