Segments: Slices From the Macintosh Life
The Interface is the Instrument
As a computer musician, I think of my computer as my instrument. That may seem strange to some of you, but ask yourself, “What exactly is an instrument?” I could answer by describing a complex mechanism consisting of eighty-eight switches, each of which transfers energy through a separate series of levers to a hammer, which in turn strikes a suspended string, or set of strings. This action produces a complex collection of vibrations which resonate through a large acoustical chamber and interact with complex signals produced by other strings. Or I could just respond “a piano.”
My point is that all instruments are mechanisms. Some are simple—a membrane stretched across a circular frame (a drum) or a hollow tube with holes at regular intervals (a recorder); others are complex, like the piano, or an even more complex instrument where the switches activate bellows that push air through long metal tubes (a pipe organ). What makes a successful instrument? The sound it produces? A piano would sound the same if you struck the strings directly with hammers, and an organ would sound the same if you blew really hard through the pipes, but they would be incredibly difficult to play in this fashion. No, the success of an instrument depends on the ease with which one can play it, and ultimately become fluent, perhaps even a virtuoso. The success of an instrument depends on its interface.
Why are piano keys the size that they are? Because of the length of our fingers and the size of our hands. Why do some wind and brass instruments have tubes that bend in on themselves, sometimes in elaborate coils? Because of how long our arms are and how far we can reach. Why don’t we make guitars with eighty-eight strings or pianos with six keys? It’s all about the interface.
The same is true for computers. Different manufactures use different hardware, some chips are faster than others, and some hard drives are bigger. When we talk about computers, though, and specifically when we brag about the ease of use of a Mac, we’re talking interfaces. Software design is the key to a successful interface. When the OS and the applications are awkward, getting in the way of what we want to accomplish, the interface needs improvement.
This is what originally drew me to the Macintosh interface when I began working in computer music. My first class in 1987 used a Mac, as has every class I have taken or taught ever since. It was, and still is, the simplest, most elegant, and most transparent operating system in production. This is the reason for both the incomparable loyalty of Mac users and the strong connection Macintosh has with creative artists. We know a good interface. This is also why Apple survived through the mid-1990s despite itself. The interface was too good to give up, and the alternative was, and still is, unacceptable.
In summary, not everyone wants a Steinway. Most will be happy with a Baldwin. You get what you pay for.
Update: Floppy Authorization and Opcode Rumors
Since completing last month’s article on the topic, I ordered a Newer Technology uDrive. The item in question was on back order, and it took over three weeks to arrive, but I’m happy to report that it works as advertised. If you decide to buy one, just be careful of extension conflicts. It took some juggling to get my computer to boot up with the drive connected. At least it didn’t clash with any of my other USB devices (an Aiwa tape backup drive and a Zoom Cam USB).
The situation at Opcode, meanwhile, shows no signs of improvement. Since they were bought by Gibson earlier this year, they have seemed too busy controlling rumors of layoffs, restructuring, and outright collapse to deal with the authorization issue. The latest word is as follows: Gibson and Digidesign (who make Pro Tools) have talked about making Vision the integrated sequencer in an upcoming version of Pro Tools. This move would shift development to Digidesign.
Some Opcode developers have left as a result and others have either left on their own account or were fired. None of the parties involved have said anything about this situation, and the Opcode Web site continues on as if nothing unusual has happened. This may put the future of Vision DSP as an independent product in jeopardy. Certainly, this is something to consider in either purchasing or upgrading software. Regarding Max, however, I did recently discover that if you purchase the Max/MSP package from Cycling ’74 (I recommend this, as you get substantial discount on both.) you can get a “Challenge—Response” authorization for both.
Next Month: A Musician’s life on the Web, more on Opcode, and whatever else I think of by then.
Also in This Series
- About My Particular Macintoshes · May 2012
- From the Darkest Hour · May 2012
- Shrinking Into an Expanding World · May 2012
- Growing Up With Apple · May 2012
- Recollections of ATPM by the Plucky Comic Relief · May 2012
- Making the Leap · March 2012
- Digital > Analog > Digital · February 2012
- An Achievable Dream · February 2012
- Smart Move? · February 2012
- Complete Archive