What makes software easy to learn and use? How is it that some programs seem to anticipate everything we want to do in advance, while others fight us at every step? And why do some plug-ins need to be set up with minute care, when others just sound good whatever we do with them?
The importance of ergonomics in software has been recognised for a long time. User Interface (UI) design is a science in its own right, and there have been international standards since the 1980s. As computers become more powerful, and software more complex, one factor has become increasingly important, yet increasingly hard to achieve: simplicity. Simplicity is especially crucial in software that’s targeted towards people who are just starting out, and it’s at the core of the Focusrite FAST range of plug-ins, developed in partnership with Sonible.
From the top down
There’s no separation between form and function in good software design. What the FAST plug-ins do, and how the user interacts with them, are fundamentally linked. Every step in their development was carried out with both factors in mind. As Focusrite’s Dan Clarke explains, the design process begins with some very high-level considerations.
“We typically start by asking the question ‘How can we help musicians in making great music? How can we remove barriers to their creativity?’ We’ll normally focus that down in some way, to a topic such as compression. Then we’ll ask ‘What is difficult about compression? What did we struggle with when we started making music? What do other musicians find challenging when it comes to using this tool? Why do people use this tool in the first place?’
“From there we will likely carry out some research with musicians to find out more about what works for them, what they struggle with, and how they perceive things. All of that external input melds with our own ideas of what may help musicians and what the technology is capable of doing. From there we dive deep into the design, iterating until we hit on the design that works the best.”
Lessons from history
Compressors and equalisers existed in the hardware world long before there were plug-ins. Here, too, simplicity plays a key role. There’s lots of hardware that can sound great in the right hands: what makes the Pultecs, LA-2As and other long-standing recording studio mainstays special is that they sound great in pretty much anyone’s hands. It’s a quality that wasn’t lost on Focusrite’s development team, as Dan points out.
“A key element that the LA-2A permits is the ability to experiment without ‘breaking’ things. The more controls offered, the higher the chance we overthink things and affect the sound negatively. Additionally, most ‘classic’ hardware is known to be best applied to certain materials; one compressor may do great things for vocals, another works better for rock drums.”
The goal of the FAST plug-ins is to go further, offering the same foolproof simplicity in a processor that’s applicable to every style of music and every source. “Many people don’t have the luxury of having all that hardware, or they go the other way and have 20 different VSTs and never have the opportunity to truly master or understand them.
“With the technology we’re using, we have a tool that adapts to the user’s material and configures the plug-in in a way that will work best for that sound. It takes the guessing out of which plug-in should be used. Then we offer up controls to the user that allows them to experiment, but within the bounds of what will still sound great for that track.
“As the AI does a lot of the heavy lifting for the user, the controls presented in FAST view can be quite stripped-back, giving musicians control over their sound, but in a way that is safe.”
What does it all do?
There’s a lot of jargon in the world of recording. The controls on compressors and equalisers are classic examples. Understanding terms like threshold, ratio and bandwidth involves getting to grips with the inner workings of the processor. Properly learning what these parameters do, how they interact and how they change the sound involves yet more layers of experience and comprehension.
The FAST plug-ins short-circuit this learning process through a combination of machine learning and innovative user-interface design. Technical language exists for a reason and, eventually, it’s desirable for everyone to know what these terms mean. However, the FAST interface allows everyone to get good results not just once they’ve learned this information, but from the get-go. In other words, these are tools designed to let you learn on the job.
“From the outset we knew we wanted to make these plug-ins for musicians earlier on in their journey,” Dan relates. “We included a Detailed mode which opens up the plug-in for those that want or need that level of control, but we always started off with the FAST view.
“The key question for FAST view was always ‘What is the simplest way to present the information and give the musician creative control?’, but this was normally followed soon after by ‘How can we also educate the user on this tool?’”
When it comes to both education and real-world use, visual feedback is one of the most important design considerations. A good display can illustrate in an instant what our chosen settings are doing to the source audio. Once again, though, the established types of display are quite technical, and although an experienced engineer can learn a lot about what’s happening from a quick glance, a newcomer might struggle to interpret what he or she sees. One of the key priorities for the FAST design team was, therefore, to find a more accessible way to visualise the effect of compression on a signal.
“A key design decision was about how to present the compressed signal in the compressor, and how we could help users learn more about compression with it,” says Dan. “Compression can, and has been, presented in many different ways: VU meters, LED meters, scrolling graphs, X/Y graphs. On reviewing these, we found them all a little cryptic and requiring up-front knowledge before using them. We wanted to do something to help the user truly understand what was happening.
“We prototyped animations of different approaches, we tried waveforms that showed positive and negative peaks together (how most DAWs present waveforms), and only positive waveforms (how most compressors show visualisations). What we found is that the waveform that showed both positive and negative together was the most familiar and easiest to understand, and that is what you see on the FAST Compressor now.
“It is also common for visualisations to only affect new incoming audio, meaning that the user has to wait for that additional visual context, which some find useful. With FAST Compressor, we realised that updating the previous visualisation data was also a way to help users understand what was happening to their sound and educate them as they changed the control. Again, you can see that in FAST Compressor now.”
Simplicity is a quality that can carry negative as well as positive associations. We value simple things for their ease of use and directness, but sometimes we also find simple things too limited, or lacking in controllability. This is a trade-off that can be particularly acute with AI-based systems. Processors that use a fully data-driven or ‘black box’ approach can deliver amazing results, but even their developers don’t fully understand how they arrive at those results.
Read more about artificial intelligence within FAST Plug-ins here.
As a result, it becomes difficult to offer meaningful control over the process. In some cases the user is left with no option but ‘more’ or ‘less’. It doesn’t help us understand what is being done to the signal, and it’s frustrating if what you want is not more or less… but slightly different.
By contrast, the FAST plug-ins are not inscrutable ‘black boxes’. AI is not replacing traditional compression and EQ parameters, instead it optimises those parameters and helps the user relate them to what we actually hear. If you want to add warmth to a vocal, you don’t need to jump through the hoops of figuring out which frequency range needs to be boosted: FAST Equaliser will automatically create a band called Warmth. And if you’re curious to know how ‘warmth’ translates into technical language, you can open up the Detailed view and learn more.
“Overall, we tried to keep the control set minimal,” explains Dan. “In FAST Compressor the main FAST control is a single fader that updates threshold, ratio, and other parameters in the background (which can all still be accessed from Detailed view). In FAST Equaliser we offer bands of sliders with a preset range and bandwidth. This helps the user to understand what the AI has set as the optimum adjustment area to the sound, based on what it has heard. The bands are also labelled with descriptive text that describes the quality of the sound in more common terms.”
Of course, Focusrite and Sonible aren’t the first developers to recognise the importance of simplicity. There are already many other plug-ins designed to be as straightforward as possible. Some even have just a single control, with no equivalent of the Detailed view. What makes the FAST plug-ins different is that they’re not just simple.
“The first thing I noticed was that these are really cool for people who are looking to better understand what EQs and compressors do”, says Red Means Recording. “You are empowered as an individual with the information you’re given on screen to go and make additional choices that suit your mix better. (They are) probably the first ‘powered by AI’ plugins that I have really enjoyed.”
“For me,” says Dan Clarke, “there are two key elements that the FAST plug-ins offer. They’re a tool that works with you by listening to your music and your goals, to help you achieve a great sound; and they’re a tool that is honest and transparent. Although simplicity is a key part of the experience, we still want users to understand what is going on, what the impact is on their music, rather than everything being hidden from them.
Keeping it simple can be a complicated business!