Circle from Future Audio Workshop is an upcoming virtual instrument that’s gotten our attention in a big way. In terms of sound, its capabilities are familiar, if very complete. What’s different is its approach to interface design and usability, refocusing on “Flow” and ease-of-use while looking forward to new interface capabilities in touchscreens, multi-touch, and OpenSoundControl. What makes that doubly interesting is that Circle appears to embody a trend in a new generation of music software — not that it stands alone, necessarily, as much as it seems to present a glimpse via an independent developer of where things may be going.
Eoin Rossney, our new writer and contributor to the Kore minisite, got a chance to talk to FAW co-founder Gavin Burke, a fellow Irishman. We’ll have more on the instrument itself soon, but it’s an excellent, coffee-fueled discussion of instrument design in general. -PK
I had the opportunity to visit Future Audio Workshop’s office in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland to have a chat with Gavin Burke about their upcoming synth, Circle. While instrument design is a collaborative process for FAW, Gavin’s area of expertise is in Signal Processing algorithms. I wanted to talk to FAW to find out some more about how the synth came to be, the company’s ethos, and the inclusion of OSC. What I got was a fascinating insight into the world of softsynth design and a sense that a shift may be about to occur in this area. If you haven’t heard of Circle check out CDM’s preview.
Over copious amounts of coffee, Gavin told me a little bit about how FAW came to be. Having spent a long time designing synths that strive to emulate old hardware (with many of hardware’s inherent limitations creeping across into the software effort), Gavin and the guys from FAW wanted to design a synth that does away with old conventions and embraces the type of advances in usability that we have come to take for granted in interface design over the last few years.
After giving a general rundown of the instrument (for something similar, check out Sonic State’s video from Messe), Gavin took me through some of the features that make Circle unique. The main things here are in the details. Changing a modulation amount is always a horizontal mouse movement, no matter what the current value is. The LFOs include a healthy number of wave shapes, and each can be crossfaded between two waves. Each wave is variable-phase: you just click and drag the picture of the wave horizontally to change phase. There are five modulation slots, and each can contain an LFO, a sequencer or an envelope. LFO and oscillator wave shapes are represented as simple pictures which are easy to see. And there’s no right-clicking — anywhere.
FAW say they’ve tried to create a workspace that’s simple and conducive to sound design. Gavin maintains that sound design is essentially an easy practice. Watching him quickly build presets from scratch, it’s hard to disagree. He quickly built for me a “faux beatbox,” with an LFO triggering white noise as a snare, another LFO triggering an oscillator as a kick drum, and yet another modulating the rate of a sequencer, slowing down and speeding up the sequencer’s rate organically.
This isn’t to say that Circle is short on features – there are quite a number of advanced features on offer here (hard sync on wavetable oscillators, anyone?), it’s just that anything that might obstruct or distract your workflow is neatly tidied away, or at least doesn’t jump out at you. It’s clear FAW have taken a good look at what makes interface elements work well, and they’ve taken inspiration from such sources as the iPhone and… multimeters?
Gavin: There is a very famous book by [Apple pioneer and founding Mac team leader] Jef Raskin called ‘The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems’. The inspiration for the color-coded connections came from Raskin’s example of how a simple device such as a multimeter has very easy-to-use, color-coded cables. He describes how all of the multimeter’s functions are different. Here you’ve got these leads: one’s red and one’s grey. That’s your positive and your negative, and when you actually have color representations of things that you can connect up, that was one of the influences for Circle.
This book just goes through all those things and tells you how to do, for example, switches properly. If you look at 99% of softsynths — if not 100% of them — at the moment they haven’t done this. The reason why people like OS X, or like using a Mac, is that it’s easy to use. You never even think about all of these things, but you find that all this talk about workflow, that’s where it comes from, from this guy. [Ed.: Some of the Mac team might well dispute that, actually, as Raskin ultimately had less of an influence on the Mac interface. But if you want some radical reading on interface design, this should absolutely be on your reading list! -PK]
There’s another guy called John Maeda and he writes a book called Simplicity — ‘The Ten Rules of Simplicity‘, and that was an influence. There were other influences, ‘The Paradox of Choice’, where the more choices you have the less likely you are to make a decision about something. We took that to the level of the interface, where… if you’ve five different note-stealing algorithms, you don’t need them. You’ll only ever use one, so why have you got five? It’s like when you get a Swiss Army knife – you only ever use the knife, but it’s got a magnifying glass, a spoon, maybe three different types of bottle openers, and when you want to use the knife all these other things get in your way. We still have all the bits and pieces, but we’ve just put them down on the bottom panel or moved them out of the way so that they don’t get in the way of the basic thing, which is the sound design.
The Beginnings of FAW, and Future Frameworks
Gavin: So these were the things we were thinking about when we were starting, and we went to the guys in Germany [Christophe and Johannes] and they were also influenced by the same stuff like Maeda and Raskin. We got in contact with them, went over to Germany, spent two days with them and went for a few drinks and said we’d start up the company — the four of us just got together and did all the bits and pieces. Pierre and I moved to Ireland about a year ago and we started coding, and we had all the ideas drawn on a sheet of paper and had a think about the workflows. Then we started putting it together, and as we found that if something wasn’t working as imagined [in the workflow], we could make a change very easily.
Pierre and I were actually users as well as designing and coding [Circle] at the same time. So if we wanted to change something, we didn’t have to go through that big mechanism of making change orders and someone signing off on them. I could just say across the room, “Pierre, I don’t like this, can you change it?”
The main idea is just, you know, you’re on a computer. Why would you have a hardware panel with cables everywhere or right-clicks, all that kind of stuff? Why not show the LFO, why not put a dot on the envelope so you can see it? You know, let people see what’s actually happening rather than everything always being hidden behind the scenes. Then modulation is no longer this kind of thing that’s just ‘LFO 1 Amt’, you can actually see that the LFO’s moving.
When you can see everything on the interface, it means that you know all your options, you know what you can connect to what, and you can have ideas you wouldn’t normally have. That was another thing; keep it all on one panel. Then put the more complicated stuff down on the bottom. The other thing is to keep all the modules in drop menus as single clicks, so hopefully if there’s a touch screen around at some time, everything can be done in a very easy way.
And you start to get into it. That’s the whole idea of Flow. If you have an idea it’s very easy: you just grab the circle and drop it, rather than right-clicking and flicking between pages and that kind of thing. You’ll see some synthesizers have these modulation matrices with cryptic names like ‘KF2 to F1 in Trig.’ There should be no reason why anybody would do that in the first place. I can’t understand it. I think a lot of it has to do with the graphics frameworks, that the graphics just couldn’t do those kind of things, but now they’ve evolved to a stage where you can, and we’re taking advantage of that.
Eoin: And do you think that’s an advantage of the frameworks themselves — the languages that you’re building the software with?
Eoin: Or is it that the hardware has come of age?
Gavin: It’s a bit of everything, really. If you look at a lot of the companies that started ten years ago, they’re still using all their legacy graphics frameworks, and they haven’t been thinking about all these things. We wanted to correct that a bit with what we’re doing and still be able to do sound design, because sound design isn’t complicated. It’s just that the way it’s presented makes it complicated, so we want to make it easier.
Eoin: I can’t take my eyes off that LFO…
Gavin - [laughs] Yeah, it’s hypnotizing.
Eoin: But that’s the thing about it is, it’s an engaging interface. Looking at it you just want to go in and grab it and –
Gavin: – start doing the bits and pieces. Even MIDI Learn, you know — the majority of software synthesizers at the moment, if you want to learn a control you have to go Ctrl/right-click, click through a menu, click Learn, then go over here and move that, then go back out of the learn mode. We just said — [clicks the MIDI learn button, which like Ableton Live takes just one click] — like that. That’s the way it should be, then you just turn it off again.
Extensibility & Agile Programming
Gavin - For us, because we’re using Agile development, it’s very easy for us to be responsive and to get stuff done. We don’t have to check with ten people first before we can do something. We’re [talking about] adding to Circle [over time]. So we’re maybe going to do some nice, fancy FM oscillators, and as we get feedback from people, we can make changes. During beta testing, someone wanted OSC control over the individual steps in the sequencer and to be able to use MIDI Learn with them.
Eoin: And when you talk about Agile programming, can you describe what you mean for people who aren’t familiar with it?
Gavin: It’s just a set of rules for programming. It’s quite popular at the moment, and it’s starting to gather steam. It means that people like myself, Pierre and the two guys in Germany, Kristoff and Johanne, we could do something equivalent to what a big company could just by… not having the big company there! You can actually do more. It’s not just in audio software. It’s in loads of different fields where you’ve got small groups of people who are very dedicated. With the Internet and communication, people like us can get together and start to give the big companies a run for their money in terms of features and what we can do. So that’s very interesting, and when you apply the Agile rules and whatever it starts to work.
Eoin: I saw on the website that JUCE is the platform you’re running on. [Ed.: JUCE is a C++-based class library for cross-platform audio and graphics.] What’s that about?
Gavin: JUCE is a set of controls, that’s all it is. It’s all these sliders and stuff. [He demonstrates using the mouse to program OSC program as an example.] So what Pierre uses JUCE for is he can then position knobs on the screen. There isn’t an actual editor where you can drag and drop, you have to code it in, but it’s [easy to add] a knob or panel [in code]. It just allows us to do a lot of these things, to draw a line like that (using filter indicator line as an example).
Eoin: It lets you do your job more easily?
Gavin: Exactly. All the graphics are done in Photoshop, and it also lets us do stuff like fading. We’re using vector graphics and transparency layers and [JUCE's timing features].
Eoin: So this functionality is all built into JUCE?
Gavin: Yeah, and you can do any type of program with it. There are a number of developers using this framework.
Eoin: The fact that it’s mentioned on your website, that kind of caught my eye because people don’t normally say what tools they’re using.
Gavin: Yeah, and we’ve a lot of respect for Jules [JUCE's developer], because he’s on his forum there and he maybe has, you know, 200 people there asking him questions at the same time and he’s never short with anybody.
Gavin: We’re always thinking about what we’d like for ourselves, and personally I’ve always wanted [OSC support; see opensoundcontrol.org for more on this control protocol]. I was using this Mouse-to-OSC to test, and I was just getting the idea that it would be cool to have a single interface controlling Circles on different channels. If you want to control different plug-ins on different channels inside a host, it’s a bit complicated for the general user.
I can do it here now, I can add another Circle. Now we’ve got two Circles. But rather than having these two screens open and maybe a third one — so you’ve got three big screens open at the same time — you’ve just one screen. And you’ve got these controls assigned to the most interesting stuff on each of the synthesizers [via OSC assignments].
You’re not trying to think about MIDI and what MIDI channels you’re on and all that kind of stuff; it just keeps it nice and simple. [OSC] is where it’s heading. It’s where most people want to be; most people don’t want to [have to do MIDI mappings]. The Novation [ReMOTE SL's Automap feature] isn’t too bad, but it’s still not that easy.
Eoin:It’s something we’re interested in, because there hasn’t been a massive adoption of OSC.
Gavin: We put in OSC with the view that, once it’s in there, we can develop it more, add transmit [capability] and also be able to have the interface so that, let’s say, if you move something on the interface that it also updates on the Lemur [multi-touch controller hardware]. It’s just to keep things open.
That’s the main idea, really: to keep everything open and easy, to avoid getting crazy with the options.
Back to Basics
Gavin: If you look at the Maeda laws of simplicity, one of the laws is, do you really need it? And if you don’t really need it then don’t put it in there just because you can. I think a lot of other companies use the spec sheet. It’s like the bigger the spec sheet the better it is, but I think that just makes the thing more difficult, more complicated and more trouble, really. You know, if you’ve got a big massive spec sheet and they haven’t even bothered to do a proper MIDI learn, it’s a bit ridiculous. And they forget about the simple stuff, and for us using the software we want that stuff. We take it for granted that we’re going to have a hundred wavetables and it’s going to do oscillator hard sync.
Eoin: You don’t want it to be shouting it out from the interface.
Gavin: No, no. Because that’s not what you want to know about when you’re using it. You want to be into the circles and stay away from the big long spec sheets and five note-stealing algorithms and modulating the modulation with the modulation.
Eoin: That’s basically what you’re selling, then, is workflow. That’s your edge: you’re coming at it from a usability point of view.
Gavin: Yeah, we’ve done everything else. All the stuff that everybody else does, it does, as well. We do everything that everybody else does in terms of the sound, if not more. We have the width on the triangle oscillator there, small things like that. But the most important thing for us is to make it easy, and when you’re actually using it, it’s not the spec sheet, it’s the actual playing of [the instrument]. Adding features to get a big spec sheet doesn’t affect the end user, because it’s getting back to that thing about the Paradox of Choice. What we’re doing is concentrating on what we want ourselves, and whatever comes out of it in the workflow.
And the sound is good. We’re very happy with it, and we’ve put a lot of work into it.
Eoin: So, what’s down the road, looking at the future of the tool?
Gavin: We’re going to have a look at the iPhone SDK and see is there anything interesting in there, because that’s the next big thing. I’m not sure whether you could do a professional product on the iPhone but even for ourselves to do something cool, to give it a go.
We’re going to start using computers in a different way. There’s a bit of that in there with Circle, looking forward to the touchscreen [as an interface]. I think those things are going to change — usability, the things you get with Windows. I can’t use Windows anymore; it just drives me crazy.
Eoin: I have to say — and this isn’t trying to pay you a false compliment, but it does genuinely seem like a bit of a revolution in terms of the way that we think about music software design, that things are starting to change. The way we use things is changing, and one of the reasons I was interested is you guys seem to be forging ahead with that.
Gavin: We’re very interested in usability. I think it’s because I’m getting older <laughs>. My father, he’s 72, and he finds it hard to use the remote control for the television. After a while you get tired — not of learning new things, but putting up with things that should be fixed. You just want to make life easier for yourself when you’re using stuff. You don’t want to have to be getting involved in complicated things when you’re trying to do your music.