Saturday, January 16, 2016

Initial Jitters

I have an admission to make; I find the process of thinking of novel interfaces to be very difficult. I'll design bespoke instruments all day long, but the interface with those instruments are in no way novel; if it isn't completely programmed or programmed in MIDI, than I'll use standard interfaces like drum pads or piano style keyboards, or sometimes going further back to simple analog knobs and switches if that is all the mechanism calls for.  It's always been the aural and visual outcome rather than the feel of the input that I have concentrated on.  That being said, I've never shied from challenge, so we sally forth.

In my initial thoughts on the problem, I started to recognize some basic needs which were key to me: should it be discrete verses continuous control?  Can I have both?  Will I be designing an interface and then finding a family of sounds that suited that interface, or is it the inverse; do I want a particular set of sounds and then I design the interface to suit them?  Does it aid in musical execution and or lead to new creative avenues?  And the most vexing to me of all because I have quite a bit of experience in music but almost none in design, what does it look like?  How does it feel?


The difficulty in the question of discrete versus continuous control is this: when I design an array of buttons to give me the same amount of discrete pitch control that I would have in a traditional instrument there are two outcomes, and neither of them are satisfactory.  The first outcome would be to just copy the fingering system from a traditional instrument, but then you have something derivative at best and a copy at worst; nothing novel there, might as well go with the original.  The second option is to come up with a fingering system from first principles, a fingering system that was easy to use and at the same time allows access to multiple octaves and is flexible enough to suit virtuosic execution.  I have seen several systems which were interesting and could support virtuosic playing before; for instance I have tinkered with the C-Thru Music controller,

which was an interesting and engaging interface, but as I was already experienced in both piano and saxophone, a MIDI keyboard or a MIDI wind controller suited me much better.  Maybe I missed out on some new understanding of harmony using the C-thru, but I didn't have the time.  That's the thing about a new discrete interface:  it's a lot like the language Esperanto, well conceived, rationally constructed, made with all the best intentions, but it's nobody's native language and so remains of interest only to a small group of enthusiasts.  Maybe that's why the C-thru has gone out of production.

A continuous controller seems a more productive route, yet it too can be musically limiting.  In a gross simplification, a continuous controller is nothing but a variation on the mod or pitchbend wheel on a classic MIDI keyboard.  There are strategies for getting around or compensating for this, but limitations remain.  There are historical instruments with continuous aspects that can be played virtuosically; standard string instruments have no frets, the trombone has a slide.  But once again you run the risk of making something derivative that would best be done with the original.  It is imperative that some method of controlling an ADSR envelope be included in the design lest you sweep glissandi every time you change pitches or parameters.

There is of course a third way out of this dilemma, and that is using non-tonal or non-musical sounds only with your controller.  While I am an enthusiast and practitioner of that aesthetic, it becomes problematic when combined with novel interfaces.  Often the audience, and frequently even the musician, have a hard time decoding the relationship of the gesture on the interface with the audio result.  In a live performance situation, too much novelty at once loses the musical link between what is happening on stage and it's place in historical and cultural context: we can take audio chaos in a live performance if it's apparent how the musician is doing it or we can take alien gestures on an interface as long as the gestures translate into meaningful audio effect, but both at the same time are just too much.

Which came first, the sound or the interface?  This is a more philosophical question than a practical one.  Of course, on any sort of musical instrument digital interface, you can assign whatever sound you want to whatever MIDI note or CC you assign to it, and the same holds true on any novel interface.  That being said, and once again falling back on the metaphor of standard instruments, can you write a legitimate heave metal guitar line on a piano keyboard even with the top of the line software instruments, effects and amp modeling?  Or is there something intrinsic about the way the intervals on the strings are laid out that would make playing the lines on the piano clunky where they flow effortlessly off the guitar?

My initial reaction as a musician is that, since ultimately the sound is the point of a musical endeavor, then the sound should come first.  Once it's been decided musically what needs to be achieved, then you design the tool that allows you to most easily achieve it.  But I wonder; through history, was every new instrument design based totally on the sound it would achieve?  Could it have been that new sounds were made when the designer was just trying improve on the playability of an existing instrument, or just improve one particular aspect of an existing instrument?  Was Cristofori intending to make a whole new timbre with his piano-forte, or just simply trying to get the damn harpsichord to have some dynamics and sustain?  Did people say 'Nice trick Bart, but it doesn't really sound like a harpsichord anymore'?

So, while sound is obviously important, I'm tending towards interface first for a couple of reasons.  One is that we have the freedom to assign any sound we want to it, so I'm sure there is something out there that can be made to suit.  The second is that it's interesting to imagine the feel of a new instrument, how it hefts in your hand, how fast the action is, what motions are necessary and how their comfort (or lack thereof) contribute to the musical act and ultimately to the sound.  This also leads to my next question from the introduction; how does it aid creativity?  While I can and do think up new sounds and compositions quite comfortably on standard interfaces, maybe throwing something different in will lead to some new explorations, akin to a relatively tonal composer throwing some Serialism in to a transition just to shake things up.


I only know one Design dictum that I would hold to; Form and Function are one.  As soon as you stray from that, superfluity begins to creep in.  I was shocked the first time I found out that all the brilliant pillars and cornices of 18th century Italian architecture had nothing to do with the structure and were completely facade; it turned soaring heroic buildings into carnival displays.  I am the opposite of Rococo (though I do have an occasional weakness for tasteful filigree).  Beyond that, I haven't thought too much about the design of things.  Either a thing works well or it doesn't, it's appearance is of little consequence.  So when it came time to design something, I had to go fishing for inspiration.

I turns out this is harder than I thought.  While the last century heralded a major explosion of interesting gizmos and clever solutions for modern living, currently most of those gizmo's utility has been usurped by the Swiss Army Knife of technological interaction, the touch screen.  So many interactions have been brought under the sway of our thumbs that there are few examples of any sort of interface that doesn't include them.  Even in all the major design blogs Ix/Ux are coding problems, not physical objects.  The few places where I could find innovation in physical interactions involved jobs where people are still obliged to use their hands: tools and medical.  Even in these cases, there aren't very many revolutionary advances, more tooling about the edges of proven designs: it's hard to improve on a drill motor.

So trapped between the ubiquitous history of musical instrument design on one side and the monolith of the touch screen on the other, I repeat my original concern, I find the process of thinking of novel interfaces to be difficult.  It needs to be succinct, original, meaningful and done in a month or so.  That being said, I've never shied from a challenge.

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