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Home | Library | Articles | Is Productivity Dead?

Is Productivity Dead?

by Joe Martinson - President
When Joe isn't throwing stones at poorly designed pro audio products, he enjoys spending time with his wife Annette and 6 year old son AJ.

Article summary: A pro audio product's features must be easy to use to be considered a benefit.

Featured in Audio Horizons Fall 1999 PDF 520k| Newsletter List

In the last issue of Audio Horizons I considered if quality audio is dead. Now I would like to question whether productivity in audio is dead. Easy to use equipment is an endangered species. An industry that once prided itself for efficiency and productivity is being buried alive with difficult to use equipment, under the guise of heavily featured, low priced products.

Is the next generation of users doomed to spend their time fighting virtual work surfaces that slow every move? The engineer of yesterday could move from console to console and tape machine to tape machine with ease because of the similarities between them. Today's engineer is faced with incompatible file formats, inconsistent nomenclature, and control layouts that are wildly different from product to product. Add on top of that confusing layouts, multiple layers of menus, and controls that do one thing one minute and something else the next. Can a mouse and a CRT ever make a really good replacement for a console's mixing surface? About as well as substituting a QWERTY keyboard for the keys on a piano. Will a pocket protector, taped glasses and a degree from Cal Tech become the requirements for future audio professionals in place of artistic vision? I sure hope not.

Don't get me wrong. I love technology. But the application of it should be for the purpose of making creativity easier and turning out a better product, not to simply add more features per dollar. Low cost audio equipment has its place. It makes it affordable for anyone to churn out product. Just as MP3 and the Internet allow everyone to be a record company. But occasionally I enjoy listening to great material, masterfully done on the finest equipment, created by the Pros.

The true audio professional requires more than most semi-pro equipment can provide. Poorly designed or unintuitive products make a pro look bad. That's not a good career move. Sometimes all that's wanted is a good sounding, medium length reverb; not 1,500 buried parameters that try to make a bad reverb useable! Even small amounts of wasted time caused by irritatingly hard to use products will sap those creative juices. Does your equipment help you get your juices flowing, or do you dream of setting fire to it and collecting the insurance money?
To understand what it takes to make a great user interface we need to take a look at controls. Equipment has controls to modify its behavior. A control has a value that can be changed. The value varies some function that affects the way the equipment works. An input device is used to change the value. A display should be provided so that you know the control's current value and how that setting changes the function of the equipment.

A few decades ago life was pretty simple. Most controls on audio equipment were limited to switches and pots that directly changed how the unit functioned. These types of controls typically store the value mechanically. The input device also acts as the display so you can instantly see the current setting. Since the function is integrated into the control, each control has a single purpose and directly changes how the unit functions.

A good example is a simple audio fader. Its function is to change the level of a signal and it does this by directly attenuating the audio. You move its knob up or down to make changes and then look at the knob position to know how much the sound is attenuated. Now let's play design engineer and make it more sophisticated (complicated). Instead of running the audio though the fader, we will use a Voltage Controlled Amplifier (VCA) to perform the attenuation function. The fader now outputs a voltage that represents its position or value that is sent to the VCA. The fader still acts as the input device, display, and control, but the function has been removed to the VCA.

If we connect a computer between the fader and the VCA, we can build an automation system that allows changes on the fader to be stored and then replayed. The fader is still an input device and display, but the control has been removed to the computer while the function occurs in the VCA.

During replay, when the computer is changing the voltage sent to the VCA, the fader knob is no longer displaying anything useful. Devices that display incorrect control values are called lying indicators and are very confusing. Since the display on the input device (fader knob) is wrong, we need another display, like a computer monitor, to give visual indication of the current control value.

Now it's time to make a change to the control values stored in the computer. We will replay the values in the computer and use the fader to make changes. At the point where the stored value is to change, the value in the computer can do one of two things. It can jump to the current fader position and then store the absolute fader value as the fader moves during the update, or it can add/subtract any relative changes made to the fader from its initial position, once the update begins. One means that the fader knob displays absolute information, the other means that the fader knob displays relative information. But the computer display will always reflect the absolute VCA control value.

The awkwardness of this kind of automation led us to conclude in the mid 80's that the future of console automation demanded motorized faders. With a motorized fader, changing the control value either by the user or the computer requires changing the fader position; therefore the knob position display never lies. The need to put control values on a computer monitor is gone. What you see is what you get. Touch enabled updates on the moving fader can make stored changes easy and natural. But it turned out to be a lot harder to make a great automation system than just using a moving fader. Years of effort went into creating and implementing the Just Mix design philosophy featured in our Flying Faders automation system. That is why it has been known for over a decade for its power and ease of use.

Once a control value is removed from its input device and lives inside a computer, the whole world can change and not always for the better. With the control value disassociated, the same input device can be used for many functions, much like the mouse on your computer. This is a key tool to make things cheaper. The problem is that this approach destroys anchors. Your mind has the ability to associate things in groups and how they relate to other things. If things are always changing functionality, you lose your anchors and maybe your mind. It's like having a piano with 8 mode keys and 6 note keys. A note key could be middle C in mode one and F sharp in mode two. You know, after spending years using computers, that doesn't sound that bad.

A computer with a mouse, keyboard, and CRT can replace a 20-foot long console control surface. It would seem that having everything nearby would be a real time saver. But they can't fit all 15,000 controls found on a 20-ft console onto a 20-inch monitor. So they layer. Gone are many of the anchors. Now part of the display has to tell you which part of the surface you are looking at. Some designers add a small number of physical controls to augment the computer display and input devices. This can help, but often not very much. Even the big computerized consoles that claim to have dedicated controls to minimize the learning curve wimp out and double up on some functions.

Let's face it, the days of dedicated controls for each feature are gone and they aren't coming back. As the number of features and tracks continue to rise, it becomes unaffordable to make every control visible all of the time. That doesn't mean it's impossible to create easy to use products that have hundreds or thousands of features.

The trick to good design is to understand certain important design rules. Controls can be grouped into two types, configure controls and creation controls. Configure controls are set offline. With these controls you spend more time reflecting on what you want to do rather than doing it. These are set up functions done offline, before you get started.

Creation controls are used in the creation process and require a much higher degree of accessibility. They are used on-line in the heat of battle. Their use is instantaneous as you react to external events. You don't want the brakes on your car to be 3 menu levels down when the car in front of you slams on the brakes. Properly designed equipment favors direct access of creation controls and makes the location and change of the configuration controls simple and clear. Cost is always considered, but not at the expense of usability.

I was discussing these issues with Shawn Micheal, the head of Product Development here at Martinsound. I stated that we had two primary design philosophies: Just Mix which entails hassle-free user interfaces and Natural Sound which preserves the quality of the signal.
He looked at me as if I were totally clueless and passionately pointed out that he found that the Natural Sound of the MSS-lO mic preamp removed most of the hassle of mixing since he didn't have to try and fix the coloration induced by other preamps. It never occurred to me that Natural Sound is more than a quality issue, it's also a productivity issue.

Most manufacturers design modern equipment for maximum features and give little thought to productivity. Productivity means that it is user friendly, both from a sonic and audio control standpoint.

Tell me how you feel about it. What equipment do you love to use and what are your pet productivity peeves?  I would love to hear from you, whether you agree with me or think I'm clueless. It is your perspective that counts.

Joe Martinson
President, Martinsound, Inc.

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