For those who make music, what matters most is the audio. The sonic result is all-important and, in the same way that we don't listen to mixes and immediately wonder which program was used to create them, we also don't concern ourselves about other things which don't directly relate to the finished article.
And yet, so many factors directly impact into the work we do and the way we do it. For instance, if you're running a computer which limits the number of plug-ins you can run at the same time, there's a good chance you'll choose sounds and their effects more carefully than those with infinite options. Also, we know that we work differently if we've had more or less sleep, or if a whole day is dedicated to work rather than a more fractured one punctuated by interruptions. What we eat, where we work, whether we collaborate; the list of external influences into that all-important mix is long.
Into the pot of distractions, let's add the actual interfaces through which our music is made. The plug-in tools we use, whether they're synths, drum machines, reverbs, EQs or any other of the myriad middle-men which sit between a good idea and a great mix all play their part. Take EQ, for instance. There are three basic controls for a single band of EQ—cut/boost, bandwidth and frequency. Yes, targeted frequencies can be affected by bell-shaped or shelf curves and there might be filters involved but fundamentally, these are the crucial controls. And yet, the GUIs of EQs vary wildly, partly because some are designed to replicate the look of the classic hardware they emulate, and partly because some favour numerical read-outs to display information, while others prioritise visual curves.
Recently I was introduced to FabFilter's mastering bundle which includes an EQ whose design is the best yet that I've seen. Upon opening the EQ, you're greeted with a long frequency line with no visible bands. Double-click a frequency and a band appears. Drag up or down to create boost or cut, or hold command whilst dragging to widen or narrow bandwidth. Click sufficiently close to the bottom or top ends and the interface intelligently works out that you'll want a shelf rather than a bell curve and, lastly, repeat this process up to a whopping 24 times per EQ instance. While the interface is designed as a mastering plug-in, there's nothing to stop you from using it in-channel and, the neatest trick of all is that the view displaying the amount of gain/cut automatically resizes as you add more extreme settings.
This plug-in sounds great but it doesn't sound as good as a couple of other high-end EQs I've got. Yet, since installing it, it's become a go-to choice for me partly because I love the way it works and looks. Psychologically, I trust it and find working with it rewarding. The same could be said for other GUIs I use regularly but it's when you're let down by poor GUI design that you really start to notice how there can be an impact on your work. We can all think of plug-ins where some text seems no more than 4 pixels tall, I'm sure. Logic is my DAW of choice and I get to see how its own plug-ins affect new users every year through the teaching I do; I, for one, can't believe that the Edit button to create a new instrument within the EXS24 sampler remains such an eye-squintingly tiny one, for instance. On the flip-side, Ultrabeat always inspires new users through its bold blue and red design.
Equally, poor colour choices, with blue and dark grey on black can let down even the most flexible plug-ins. While perseverance often gets you to a point where you know how to find what you're looking for, there's still an uncomfortable period of unfamiliarity and all of that time is eating into what could be a creative rollercoaster ride.
For me, plug-in manufacturers need to heed the warnings offered by '80s hardware synth design. The first two synths I bought were Roland's D-5 and the Korg Wavestation. I loved my D-5 despite the fact that editing sounds, envelopes and all other parameters via a 2-line LED display was more than frustrating. The Wavestation was the same—while the display was better all parameters were edited via "soft" keys below the screen, a pad of number buttons and an alpha wheel. Bearing in mind the complexity offered through programming, Korg's decision to prioritise minimal chic over a decent set of knobs and dials seems extraordinary, no matter how confident the manufacturers were in the sonic capabilities of their synths.
Counter this against '90s synths such as Roland's JP-8000, Novation's Supernova range and Access' Virus synths, all of which contain menu-based editing but make most parameters available via sliders and dials. The nature of programming these synths is much more fun, intuitive and rewarding and serves as a warning to modern-day designers: get the interfaces right or your plug-ins will soon be gathering dust too, no matter how great the sonic potential.