Software as medium
In live electronic music, software mediates the experience of composition and performance. Software is the medium through which ideas are developed and structured, it is the medium through which sound is generated and processed, and it is the medium through which sound is controlled. The nature and design of the software is therefore critical to an understanding of the ways in which it mediates user experience. Well-designed software can lead to a pleasant and productive experience, poorly-designed software can lead to frustration and rejection.
Max and the myth of neutral software
It’s not just a question of learning and software literacy. It’s true that the notion of ‘intuitive’ software is a myth, but software that draws upon users’ existing experiences has been shown to be more learnable and therefore more usable. These references to existing experience are called affordances. Affordances can be used to introduce novelty by calling the user to a given action. Software can also be made more usable by introducing assumptions about how the software will be used. These assumptions can be embodied in structured workflows, which mediate the users’ experiences in such a way that it reinforces their intentions.
The primary means for people to work with live electronic music is currently Max by Cycling 74. Max is a tour de force of software engineering, and incredibly powerful on a number of levels. It was originally written in the mid-1980’s as means to control hardware-based audio processing systems. It has since evolved to become very broad in scope, the current website says:
Max gives you the parts to create unique sounds, stunning visuals, and engaging interactive media. These parts are called ‘objects’ – visual boxes that contain tiny programs to do something specific. Each object does something different. Some make noises, some make video effects, others just do simple calculations or make decisions. In Max you add objects to a visual canvas and connect them together with patchcords. You can use as many as you like. By combining objects, you create interactive and unique software without ever writing any code (you can do that too if you really want to). Just connect.
Max makes few assumptions about what it will be used for beyond providing a low-level dataflow and DSP patching language for the creation of anything related to sonic and visual media. Max therefore presents itself as a ‘neutral’ tool for creative work, a tool where ‘the only limit is your imagination’. However, in reality Max has deeply embedded in it, the non-neutral assumptions of a software development workflow. Max is actually an advanced integrated development environment (IDE) for programming multimedia interaction and processing. Far from being a neutral tool, Max mediates the experience of the musician by imposing the workflow, prerequisites and aesthetics of software development on their user experience. With Max, the musician is programmer, instrument maker, designer and composer all in one. Many would argue this to be a positive trait, and in some respects it can be.
I believe that musicians need and deserve software that is better tailored to their specific requirements. They need software that has embedded in it, the assumptions of the musician, not the assumptions of the programmer. I call this musician-centred design. The way in which the software mediates the experience of the musician should be centred around the existing knowledge, practices and thought processes of composers and performers. Workflows should be structured around achieving the most common tasks quickly and easily. Interactive music technology has been through many experimental phases, we now know the creative possibilities are ‘endless’. It’s time to consolidate these possibilities and make them more accessible and more musically meaningful.
Some aims of musician-centred software:
- Software should encode the assumptions of the musician in how it operates
- Workflows should be structured around musical tasks
- Software should draw upon musicians’ existing experience
- Software should employ innovative UI design to achieve its ends
Max is a wonderful tool for the technically literate who want to employ creative coding to achieve their goals. However, there are many musicians for whom Max is simply too distant from their existing experiences to even approach. I believe the central challenge ahead for music technology research is to investigate and develop new user interfaces that are musician-centred. I see many possibilities here, and feel we haven’t started to scratch the surface in solving these problems. I don’t have the solutions yet, but I believe that collaboration between music technology researchers and designers should be the starting point. Comments welcome…