Saturday, 26 May 2012

The window on your world.....

Interfaces can be strange things. They sit between our hands and our products, and we use dozens of them every day without even thinking about it. Drive a car? The interface in the driving seat has, give or take a few details over the years, changed little from what it was at the start of the motor industry. Play an instrument? That interface could be hundreds of years old. Use a computer? The mouse is a relatively recent invention, but still about as common as it gets.

But that's all hardware. And the thing about hardware interfaces is that they're not easy to change, So when you learn to drive, you have to learn the standard control system. You might think that you'd be happier with the gearstick on the other side, but unless you go to a country which drives on the other side of the road that's not going to happen. Those of us who are left-handed have lived with interfaces designed by right-handers all our lives and there's not been much we can do about it. This isn't always a bad thing of course; imagine a world where every car had a unique control system. Part of the learning process is developing the "muscle memory" so you can operate the controls at a level where you don't have to think about it, and this can only easily work with a standard layout.

Once you get into software however, the whole thing changes. You potentially get a blank canvas on which you can design whatever you want, so you have a chance to make a unique interface which is uniquely "you". The big question is: is this a good thing?

Take sound desks; the classic analogue style of desk is common throughout the industry, and is well known to almost every engineer. Here's a typical analogue desk, the Calrec Q series in the Jeremy Kyle studio:

On this desk, the layout is absolutely standard, and fixed. You will always find the same control in the same place, and much like the car, you can't do a lot about it. But take the time, mix a few shows and you'll find that your hand will instinctively find the control that you need. If you were to then go to the other side of the world and walk into a TV studio that used an analogue console, you wouldn't  need long to get up to speed.

Very importantly though, the layout of these desks was designed many years ago, often by the same engineers who would be using them, so the controls are layed out in a sensible, logical way.

If we now leap forward to Calrec's latest desk, you'll see a very important difference. This is one of the Calrec Apollo consoles at MediaCityUK in Salford. The first thing you'll see is that the hardware platform is merely a "display", much like a big computer screen with some controls added, and the "controls" are layed on using software. What you CAN'T see from the picture is the unique thing this desk offers: The ability to display any group of controls in any location. With this desk you can move controls around however you like, much like arranging windows on your desktop, so your interface is whatever you want it to be.

But here's the problem with a totally "soft" interface. If you have the freedom to lay out your controls any way you want, then you'll never develop the muscle memory I mentioned earlier. Without this, you can't just instinctively reach for a control and find it under your fingertips, because that control won't always be there. Unless you discipline yourself to use a fairly constant control layout, you'll always have to think before you reach that hand out. And when you walk into another studio where someone else has set the surface up for what THEY want, you'll be as lost as I was when I first saw the Apollo.

Take away the hardware and go to software only, and you can have a similar problem. Most us are used to software having a "File" menu on the left with a "Save as" option somewhere in the list. This goes back a long way and may not really be the most efficient layout, but look what happens when someone like Microsoft releases Office 2007 which completely changes the location of every single menu option. Is this therefore a good thing or not?

Actually, this problem is probably more common in software than you might think. Take two audio workstations: Pro Tools and Reaper. Pro Tools, give or take a toolbar layout, will be the same wherever you encounter it, and this is what the manufacturer wants. Walk into any recording studio which uses it, and you'll find it looking and behaving exactly the same as any other studio, from the window layout down to the keyboard shortcuts. (Which are, of course, non-customisable. Whether you like them or not....)

Fire up any two installations of Reaper however, and you'll be lucky to find them the same. The whole ethos of Reaper is that you can customise it to the Nth degree, and make it work and look EXACTLY how you want it to, even down to skins which will give you a wooden mixer. But get too used to yours, and you may never be able to work another....

Which is the correct approach? Of course, there isn't really a right or wrong answer; like anything else it's up to you the user to decide. Do you want a standard, or do you want freedom? Do you really want to accept someone else's way of doing things? That's one thing we DON'T do in my department.

And why should we? That wooden mixer is just far too cool.

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