The A-Zed of Audio
Tiller rope. Oarlock. Skeg. Gunwale. These are all parts of rowing boats that you will not see when you walk into your local gym and inspect their fleet of indoor rowers. What’s interesting when you look at these machines is if they didn’t bear the name that connects it with the thing people do in boats, it might be a real leap to figure out how they were even associated. Yet the rowing machine has become so established in its own right that there are even competitions held. Love the idea of sliding back and forth while pulling a handle on a chain, but hate the water? Maybe this is for you.
The indoor rower is good example of a design that has shed most of the vestiges that connect it to its waterborne counterpart. For avid rowing enthusiasts, a person could easily imagine a rowing machine complete with a useless hull and even a water sprayer to make the ‘rower’ feel a bit closer to the lake. Absurd as they may be, these elements sometimes go a long way in making users feel more acquainted with a new machine. They’re called skeuomorphs, and are elements that have no functional purpose, but resemble familiar elements that may have been necessary in designs once upon a time.
If you look up some examples of skeuomorphs you’ll find wood-panelled station wagons, a 1998 IBM proposal called RealThings which suggested a software suite of real-world interfaces so people would have no doubts about the proper use of their technology , and audio processing plugins, commonly referred to as VSTs.
VST, or Virtual Studio Technology, is a protocol developed by Steinberg, as a way to let audio plugins communicate with a DAW. They developed the first version of VST in 1996 to accompany the then-current release of Cubase, the DAW that has made Steinberg most famous. That introduction – I’m sure momentous for its day – included a whopping four plugins: a reverb, a chorus, a stereo echo, and an auto panner.
All of these plugins in Steinberg’s quaint first offering are audio effects. Before going any further we should cut the universe of VSTs into 3 parts:
- Instruments, which create sounds (synthesizers or samplers)
- Effects, which process and manipulate existing sounds (delay, reverb, chorus, as well as metering tools)
- MIDI effects, which manipulate MIDI data (an arpeggiator or pitch changer)
And to be clear, if you’re using an audio effect or a virtual synthesizer on a computer, there’s a chance it isn’t a VST. VST is one species of plugin that is popular enough that sometimes the words are used interchangeably, but like many other digital matters, there’s a turf war in the world of audio plugins, and there are competing formats like Apple’s AU (Audio Units) and Digidesign’s RTAS (Real Time Audio Suite), which was replaced by AAX in 2013. This matter of plugin formats gets confusing quickly, but what it all boils down to is most clearly stated by VST’s first letter: everything about these sometimes-sexy, sometimes-rustic audio plugins is virtual.
Whether we hear a harp, a harpsichord, or a dubstep wobble bass, if it’s digital it means that the ‘sound’ is a stream of information . In our topsy-turvy computer world, some information sounds like a harpsichord, and some information sounds like a wobble bass, but in the end it’s all information. The world of VSTs consists of manipulating information in order to produce a sound.
But for most of us, even if we could see the information or code that makes up our sounds, we wouldn’t want to. One of the great innovations to the computer is that we don’t have to look at code; this lets so many creative professionals work fluently on their computers. An audio engineer who is comfortable with a mixing board doesn’t necessarily want to learn to write 250 lines of code in order to add a simple delay to a keyboard sound she’s working with. If that were the case, she’d probably just stick with the trusty analogue effects pedal available for $200. If she’s going to use a digital version (and the audio world is full of some of the most skeptical and slow adopters in the universe), she’ll be much more inclined to use it if it resembles the plastic-and-metal unit with which she’s familiar.
Now remember when we were talking about building a rowing machine, how an enthusiast might feel more comfortable if he had water spraying at him while he rowed away in his living room? If you need to design a VST to make a luddite audio engineer feel comfortable, you’d be wise to pick up your handbook o’ skeuomorphs and consider including some of those quirky details of which this person is most fond.
Often, this is the exact approach that’s taken in designing these tools; VST interfaces can be incredibly detailed, showing handles, screws, labels , air vents and even characteristic scratches and rust to make them seem more real when they’re nothing more than arrangements of pixels on a screen.
The original unit may have used knobs or sliders or switches for functional reasons, but often the VST will have the exact same ones for the sake of familiarity. They’d hate to hear it, but audio engineers are looking for comfort blankets in the world around them, and sometimes the way this is accomplished digitally is downright weird.
Take the knob as an example. On an analogue unit, this was likely connected to a potentiometer which would resist the flow of current depending on how far it was turned. As a physical interface it works nicely because we can grab a knob comfortably and twist it and have a sense of tactility. Translate that onto a screen, and things become unusual. How do you turn a knob with a mouse? Do you click and move the mouse in a circular motion? As it turns out, nearly every knob functions in a completely different way than its layout suggests, because they require clicking and dragging the mouse upward in order to increase the value, and downward to decrease the value. From a design perspective, this is terrible because any new user for whom the knob has no nostalgic value is just confused until they learn that it’s actually a slider in disguise.
Beyond the challenge of unclear use, the main argument against skeuomorphism is that these historical vestiges limit the way people are able to think about a new technology, because they’re forced to see it through an outdated lens. The Universal Audio LA-2A compressor has a circuit board in it that manipulates electricity to adjust a signal’s dynamic range. The digital version, however, can theoretically do a lot more than that, but it doesn’t. It’s designed to faithfully replicate the physical version. We could call this the museum class of VSTs, which are digital translations of physical devices. They approach perfection when their output is exactly the same as their physical counterparts.
Yet there’s another approach to VSTs which throws the physical referent to the wind, much as many visual designers have done away with drop shadows and bevels (for now, at least). The merit in this approach is that it acknowledges computers as a medium in their own right with possibilities that differ from their analogue counterparts. Instead of attempting to mimic the ‘real’ thing, the other approach is to make something entirely different, with different possibilities. In other words, if the old pieces of analogue gear are Coca-Cola, the digital replicas are Pepsi. Basically the same as Coke, but with a huge marketing budget to tell you it’s something else. Instead of this, some people make Sprite. Or ginger ale. Or tea.
A great example of this approach is Valhalla DSP. Valhalla is in the business of making plugins and has several VSTs which incorporate a design aesthetic apparently influenced by NASA’s Human Interface Specification and the Swiss school of graphic design, including Josef Müller-Brockmann. There really is a breath of fresh air in looking at the Valhalla interfaces because of their incredible simplicity, or as they put it, “Minimalist GUI, Maximalist Sound”.
Even though there’s a place for replicating physical reality in VSTs, I think there’s something admirable in Valhalla’s approach. Computers have amazing potential because of their power and because of the way they process information. Skeuomorphic interfaces act as a bit of a mask and quietly suggest that everything going on inside the black box of the computer is exactly what would be happening inside the analogue unit. It’s not even close.
Indoor machine-rowing hasn’t (and probably will never) become a sport on par with soccer, cycling, or hockey, but it has been allowed to grow in a way it probably wouldn’t ever have if it were forced to represent a 17-metre boat with all its fine details. By taking only a few elements of the physical motion and bringing it into a new machine, the indoor rower has been able to grow in its own direction. In our world of computers, the sooner we can start acknowledging them for what they are, the sooner we can really start exploring creative waters uncharted even by the mighty rowing machine.
Jordan Mandel is a Digital Media Lab Instructor at the UW Stratford Campus, and writes for this blog regularly. His hobbies include knife sharpening, cable management, and busting ghosts. More of his work can be found at jordanmandel.com/blog, which is home to the award-winning satire rag, The Outa Times.