The Strange Agency Isn’t Afraid To Design A Synth With A Mind-Blowing User Interface

Longtime Synthtopia readers may remember that one of our pet peeves is sexy 3D virtual instrument interfaces for software synths.

Software synth designers gravitate to ‘virtual instrument’ style user interfaces modeled after 30-40 year old hardware designs.

They do this because:

  • It makes their synth designs easy for knowledgeable synth users to understand; and
  • We’re suckers for all those ‘vintage’ knobs. Even if they are virtual.

Their are a couple of problems with this approach, though.

First of all, manipulating virtual knobs and sliders on a screen with a mouse or even with a multi-touch tablet is awkward. While the ‘virtual hardware’ look may be appealing, it’s too fiddly to perform with.

Second, designing software synths to imitate vintage hardware limits the way designers and users think about working with sound to 40 year old approaches to synthesis. Classic subtractive synthesis is wonderful – but it doesn’t make sense to try and make every new electronic music tool fit into an old school paradigm.

That’s why it’s exciting to see a couple of multi-touch designs today by people that aren’t afraid to design a synth with a mind-blowing user interface.

Earlier today, we posted an update on Subcycle, a new multi-touch controller designed by Christian Bannister that explores alternative ways of visualizing and controlling electronic music.

Now check out this user interface study by The Strange Agency for their Curtis granular synthesizer.

Watching the UI demo, it’s not immediately obvious how the interface works. But it’s clear that the developers aren’t afraid of exploring new approaches to direct, tactile manipulation of sound.

And, while The Strange Agency’s synth interface isn’t as immediately sexy as a software synth that looks like a vintage Moog synth – would Bob Moog have blown anybody’s mind if he’d imitated 40 year old instruments, instead of coming up with something new?

via TheStrangeAgency

6 thoughts on “The Strange Agency Isn’t Afraid To Design A Synth With A Mind-Blowing User Interface

  1. The sound-app design community’s fixation on designing interfaces that relate directly
    to physical devices is holding back the platform. whilst the strange agency’s apps aren’t
    immediately understandable to veterans of physical synthesis, they FEEL interactive, they
    allow a very different yet somewhat familiar sense of connection with an instrument,
    in a much more immersive manner than tweaking a pre-designed, reality-emulating
    3D image of a knob. How many times have you noticed you’ve been staring at the
    colored dots in Animoog, as they dance a colorful pattern on your XY pad?
    the approach of dynamic interfaces is what makes the experience fuller – visualizing your
    sound in new and interesting ways, which may result in you thinking about your sound in new ways.

    The world isn’t the iPad isn’t a physical static world – that isn’t a negative thing. start thinking about
    menus that evolve, knobs and buttons that adjust to your movement, that surprise you when you
    do something slightly different, that make you want to explore. visual feedback that has
    you mesmerized by sound and image harmonizing. yes we like to touch physical instruments,
    but we also like to make cool sh*t happen on screens in front of us.

    1. “es we like to touch physical instruments, but we also like to make cool sh*t happen on screens in front of us.”

      And maybe even to have the cool sh*t be mirrored to larger displays.

  2. We like to make cool things happen visually on screen but that is outside of the realm of music production. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just is something different. If we are talking about interface design for musical instruments and music production then sometimes the visual feedback distracts from the sound itself. I’m all for seeing alternative interfaces for instruments and effects but most experiments are destined for failure, although out of that the things that are genuinely better will survive and evolve. For now I’m heavily biased towards skeuomorphic interfaces because I believe that we are better adapted to representations of a 3D world than we are charts and diagrams. I am sure that some of these experimental interfaces will result in some genuinely useful innovations, but what we see now is people doing something because the technology now allows it. Don’t mistake the technical ability to do something with a well designed interface.

    1. ‘Skeuomorphic’ is a great word (I looked it up) – but photorealistic pictures of physical keyboards are pretty awful to actually try and play.

  3. After CP 1919 and Donut, I’d have to say that Strange Agency isn’t afraid to take chances. One theme with their apps is that they make use of the iPad’s touch interface in a way that wouldn’t work well with a keyboard and mouse.

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