Notable circular rhythm interfaces

There are few existing music software programs with circular interfaces. The following section analyzes three of the most prominent commercially available examples. It is significant that all three were released within the past year, demonstrating that this is a still largely under-explored interface paradigm.

Propellerhead Figure

Propellerhead’s electronic music production software represents both the worst and best of user interface design. Its flagship products, Rebirth and Reason, are heavily skeuomorphic, recreating the look of the hardware whose sound they are modeled on. Rebirth was designed to emulate the classic Roland TB-303 bass synth and the TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, hardware popular with dance music producers. Propellerhead did an admirable job of reproducing the sound of these devices. Unfortunately, they also chose to reproduce the originals’ impenetrable user interfaces. Users are forced to step-sequence drum patterns and basslines, without being able to see the entire pattern at once. This makes for a frustrating music-making experience, to say the least.

Rebirth

Reason is a substantial improvement on Rebirth because it includes a MIDI editor in addition to a fuller-featured step sequencer. Elsewhere, however, the interface continues to be excessively skeuomorphic. Reason is larded with nonfunctional “realistic” decoration evoking physical hardware: screws, labels, vents. The functional interface elements are modeled after the knobs and displays on rack-mounted gear. This aesthetic is attractive at first glance, but it swiftly becomes an obstacle to usage. You have to mentally struggle to distinguish functional onscreen elements from decorative ones. The skeuomorphisms occupy valuable screen space, making the usable elements smaller and harder to read. Turning fake knobs with the mouse is needlessly difficult and imprecise.

For users who started with software and have never even seen a vintage synth or analog compressor, the hardware metaphor is not helpful to begin with.

Unfortunately, graphic synthesizers which use the control-panel schema replicate all of the undesirable aspects of multi-knob interfaces—such as their bewildering clutter, their confusing homogeneity, and their unobvious mapping from knobs to underlying sound parameters—and none of their positive aspects, such as their gratifying physical tactility, or their ability to be used by multiple hands simultaneously. Furthermore, because identical knobs are often assigned control of wholly dissimilar aspects of sound, control-panel graphics share a disadvantage with scores and diagrams: namely, that they must be “read” with the aid of a symbolic or textual key (Levin, 2000).

Propellerhead’s mobile Figure app, shown in the image to the right, represents a clean break with the company’s prevailing design aesthetic. It has no skeuomorphism whatsoever. The interface is comprised entirely of flat-colored polygons and large, legible text. Everything on the screen is functional; nothing is decorative. Mobile devices force minimalist design choices simply by virtue of their limited screen real estate. For this reason, mobile apps and web sites tend to be less cluttered than their desktop counterparts. Propellerhead appears to have made the limitations of mobile into a virtue.

figure-01-drum

Figure is aimed at the casual beginner, and its input methods are designed to be maximally intuitive and effortless. The interface for selecting rhythmic patterns is particularly successful. A musically meaningful pattern is pre-loaded by default. The user selects different patterns simply by swiping a finger up and down within the ring.

Figure rhythm wheel - circular TUBS

Most input in Figure is performed by dragging with a fingertip inside a rectangle. This paradigm works well for controlling the filters on the synths. Dragging left and right controls frequency, and dragging up and down controls resonance. The result invites playful exploration of the interplay between the two parameters. However, the rectangles are less effective for sequencing drum patterns. Drum hits fall on discrete rhythmic intervals, and it is quite difficult to hit a specific beat with the rectangles, because there is no indication as to which screen regions map to what beats.

In fairness, Propellerhead’s goal with Figure is not pedagogical, and they are not trying to provide professional-level electronic music production capabilities. Interface designer Kalle Paulsson (personal communication, 2013) wanted to quickly move the user past sequencing and into the filters and effects, where most of the expressiveness of techno music lies. The clean aesthetic of Figure has been a major source of inspiration for the Drum Loop; a teaching tool with a similar look and feel would be invaluable.

O-Music O-Generator

The O-Generator aims to connect external representations of music like visualizations on the screen or standard notation to students’ intuitive understanding of musical structure (Ankney, 2012).

O-generator

Like the Drum Loop, the O-Generator represents rhythmic events on a clock face. It uses common time, labeling both the quarter notes and sixteenth notes, though it does not quite explain what the distinction is between the two. Rather than having each ring contain an individual sound, the rings hold collections of sounds: bass and snare, or percussion, or assorted samples and sound effects. While the choice of sounds is limited, the available sounds are of good quality and are well representative of the timbres one might hear on pop radio. Each grid cell can hold one sound from a given collection, accessible from pull-down menus. Multiple loops can be sequenced to form complete phrases and songs.

The creators of O-Generator are quite explicit that the software is intended for the creation of popular dance music in 4/4 time. More specifically, “the objective is for students to compose back-up tracks to support lyrics they have written in dance music style” (Ankney, 2012). Alternative African and Latin sound collections are available for purchase separately, but none of the versions support any time signature other than 4/4. There is no way to output a track in standard notation; the software produces audio recordings only.

Users of O-Generator who wish to compose tracks using multiple loops cannot view the contents of more than one loop at a time. This is a severe shortcoming, since other programs are able to at least show simplified or miniaturized representations of the entire piece in addition to the section that is in immediate focus. For example, see the elegant solutions used in Loopseque, discussed below.

O-Generator’s developers deserve credit for attempting to include the ability to create melodies and basslines. However, the interface for doing so is awkward at best. Tapping a cell brings up an unwieldy pulldown menu of the chromatic scale spanning three octaves. Some pitches are flatted and others sharped, seemingly arbitrarily. The user receives no guidance whatsoever as to what pitches might sound good together. Perhaps the designers are expecting users to have learned music theory previously. Nevertheless, the O-Generator would be significantly more accessible if the user could select a key or mode and have the pitches from that mode be given some priority in the selection.

Casual Underground Loopseque

The strongest analogue to the Drum Loop presently on the market is Loopseque, an iPad app made by Casual Underground. The superficial similarities present themselves immediately: concentric rings divided into sixteen steps, wrapping a time-unit box system into a loop.

Loopseque

Loopseque handles the problem of visualizing multiple loops with considerable deftness. Four loops run simultaneously, two containing drums, two containing synthesizer patterns. My initial plan for a sequencer within the Drum Loop was to show miniature graphics of the loops lined up along the bottom of the screen. These loops would play sequentially by default, though the user could skip to a particular one by tapping it. Loopseque uses a similar paradigm, but it is more sophisticated. Instead of progressing through the sequence in a linear fashion, the loops are arranged into columns, and you can jump freely between them the way you would with clips in Ableton Live’s Session View.

Loopseque sequencer

When a new loop is selected, the app waits to begin playing it until the current loop has completed, thus guaranteeing seamless transitions and making it impossible to produce jarring or unmusical sounds. The rhythmic “safety net” invites playful improvisation.

Loopseque has a pedagogical component in its “Master Class” mode. The lessons are enjoyable, but they do not delve very deeply into musical content. Users are given blank patterns with blinking boxes that they tap to activate. Like the Drum Loop, Loopseque introduces generic patterns in various dance music styles. However, there is no explanation as to what makes one style different from another. Text boxes pop up to explain the exercises, but they are not very illuminating, consisting of unhelpfully vague advice like “pay attention to the interaction of the bass and drums.” There is no real mention of musical terminology like strong beats and weak beats. There is some discussion of syncopation, but the text uses the words “symmetric” and “asymmetric” incorrectly in its explanations. There are no loops explicitly drawn from actual music, and the exercises have a “paint by numbers” quality, a linear structure that discourages tinkering and play

In spite of their visual similarities and beginner-friendliness, Loopseque and the Drum Loop diverge widely in their respective intended audiences. Loopseque is aimed at the casual market, would-be DJs, “non-musicians” and people seeking entertainment. To that end, perhaps to appease its investors, Casual Underground is attempting to “gamify” Loopseque. From the web site copy (http://loopseque.com/):

Despite its apparent simplicity, Loopseque is a challenge to the musician. How fast you can change the patterns, which patterns you create, what effects you use – that’s what makes the difference and determines the quality of music material… Loopseque is a game in which ‘achievements’ are measured by the richness of sound created by the musician on the fly, and ‘high score’ is the number of listeners who enjoy the music of the artist.

It makes sense for Casual Underground to build in a community aspect;  they want users to keep coming back to the app, and not just toy briefly with it before forgetting it. A competitive game aspect seems a reasonable enough strategy. But does it make sense for a music tool like this? What is the win condition in Loopseque? On what basis are users competing with one another? The answer is unclear.

By contrast to Loopseque, the Drum Loop is primarily intended for the education market. It acts a music teacher, not a game. Loopseque wants to be a destination; the Drum Loop wants to be a gateway into broader musicianship.

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