Archive for August, 2008

Cool Mopis screencast

Grymmjack made a nifty screencast demoing Mopis alongside Pif Vokoder.  (NSFW language)

If the name seems familiar, you may have seen his GUI work on dozens of popular plug-ins.

More modular madness

Aaron strikes again.

Vocabulary word of the day

Prosody, the use of tone and timbre to convey meaning in speech.  E.g., rising pitch at the end of sentence is a prosodic cue indicating that the speaker is either asking a question or a valley girl.

This is one of many interesting tidbits I picked up from This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin.  On this more later.

“A” for creativity; “D” for estimating supply curves

Major League Soccer are auctioning off the opportunity to provide pre-game entertainment or to sing the national anthem.  Curiously, no one has bid.

Isn’t it traditional for the host to pay the band?  Exactly what kind of act are they seeking that a) has $1000 to spare and b) is wowed by the prestige of performing before the Kansas City Wizards?  (In case you are not familiar with American soccer, KC was 13th out of 13 teams in attendance last year.)

(HT: Freakonomics)

A better first impression

So I screwed up Mopis— in short, many users tried and abandoned the synth without ever noticing its most interesting features.  My next synth, Pondular, went much better.  I built Pondular for the 2006 KVR Audio Developer Challenge, so I knew users would get a pile of 30+ plug-ins at the same time.  I also knew that my raw DSP skills paled in comparison to, let’s say, Urs, so I aimed to build something that every user would remember, whether positively or negatively.

Picture the first interaction.  The user opens up the GUI and sees an unfamiliar colored grid.  After pressing a couple notes, the user will quickly make the connection that notes make the pond ripple.  The significance of the rippling may not be immediately obvious, but the user will instantly discover the most interesting aspect of Pondular: its ripply nature.

In addition, there are only four visible controls.  Curious users will quickly discover how they affect the pond through experimentation and then try to figure out the relationship between the pond and the sound.  Of course many users just won’t care, but this time they knew exactly what they were not caring about.

Although Pondular had a good first interaction, it’s not even the best first interaction from the contest.  That distinction belongs to Bram Bos‘ Lunchbox Battles.

You start up Lunchbox and you’re instantly presented with nine giant buttons with letters on them.  Hit one of the featured letters and you get drum sounds.  Dead simple and wildly entertaining.  Any user can figure out the point of Lunchbox in about 10 seconds.

How to fail at marketing audio software

I spent a good chunk of 2005 working on Mopis, a granular soft synth.  Commercially, Mopis was a minor failure.  Fewer than 100 copies have sold, and at current rates it seems unlikely to crack the century mark.  I would have put 200 copies as a sort of “break-even” point and the goal was around 500.  I have no idea how many people are using pirated copies (which are easily available– I’m not totally clueless) or content with the free version (which is not too badly crippled), but many thousands of people downloaded the trial.

Mopis lets you easily manipulate samples in many complex and interesting ways.  That sentence sums up everything interesting about the plug-in.  There are also some VA capabilities, but they are nothing new.

Here are some examples:

Drum manipulation by Aaron:

[audio:http://www.ofrecordings.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/mopis_tambour_tordus_demo.mp3]

Ambient sounds by Wakax of Makunouchi Bento:

[audio:http://www.ofrecordings.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/wakax_mopis_demo_1.mp3]

An incredibly silly, yet catchy, tune by me:

[audio:http://www.ofrecordings.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/mopis_yes_monkeys.mp3]

It’s somewhat limited in scope, but it does provide useful and unique features.  So what did I do wrong?

The presets are crap. I was obsessed with reaching 128 presets without really thinking why.  Perhaps I was worried the MIDI Fairy would not bring me a quarter.  I ended up including piles of generic VA sounds to make count.  So typical users download the plug-in, skim through the presets, and say, “gee, another decent, yet generic, VA.  I’ll file this away for later.”  But what they mean is, “I’ll file this away for never.”  Mopis was never intended to be a preset machine anyhow; the whole point is to load up your own samples and mutilate them.  I should have included maybe a few dozen presets to demonstrate the range of the machine, then encouraged users to explore on their own.

The GUI is awkward. This is by no means a slam at Roland, the excellent graphic designer I worked with.  In fact, it’s an indictment on myself for not relying on him more.  I sketched an interface on paper, mocked it up with monochrome controls, and then asked Roland to skin it.  The result looks like it was designed by a software programmer.  I allocated space poorly.  On the one hand, the interface is so big it takes up three panels, requiring a fair amount of switching back and forth; on the other hand, the fonts and labels are awkwardly small.  I should have worked with Roland all through the development of the interface.

Presets + GUI won’t make your plug-in, but they can break it. With so many free and free-trial VSTs, you have to grab users quickly before they move on to the next one.  The first thing a user sees is the GUI, and the first things a user hears are the presets.  Oops.

So that’s the bottom line.  If I started a new commercial audio project, I would avoid these mistakes.  But it seems unlikely to happen given how busy I am these days.

You wanna dance? Make no mistake.

Ronny Pries has a pretty kick-ass retro/disco mix up.  You can skip it if you’re too hip to move your butt.

Helping your creativity flow

Waveformless share some nice tips on overcoming writer’s block.  I can personally vouch for one:

1.) Restrict Yourself
Back when my studio set-up consisted of nothing but a single sampler, I dreamt of the days when I would be able to afford more gear. Surely that would solve all my creative blocks! What I found out was just the opposite…. So impose some restrictions on yourself. Try making an entire song with nothing but a single synth. Make the drums and everything from scratch. Not only will you improve your sound programming abilities, but you’ll likely end up with a track that sounds utterly unlike anything else you’ve done.

Replace “single sampler” with “Impulse Tracker” and that story is eerily familiar.  Imposing limitations on yourself is a great way to prime your pump: puzzling over how to get around your restrictions gives your brain a starting point.

But another tip from Waveformless seemed to be directed at me personally:

5.) Be Productive
My motto in the studio is ‘always be working on something’.

Definitely an attitude I need to acquire.

I’ll throw in an extra tip of my own:

6.) Remove all barriers to productivity.

Keep your instruments out in the open, plugged in, tuned up, or what have you.  Make sure you can reach them easily.  If you use a computer, leave it on.  Even if it takes just ten seconds to get ready to play, try to knock that down to one.  It’s amazing how even the tiniest barriers to picking up your instruments can completely stymie your creativity.

How will you celebrate 808 day?

Happy 8.08.08.  How are you planning to celebrate?  What’s that?  You haven’t made plans?  Never fear, Tom from Music Thing has many tips to get you started.

Personally, I will be shaking butt along to one of my all-time favorite techno songs:

And why don’t you kick back with this 808-flavored tune I wrote a couple years ago?

[audio:http://www.ofrecordings.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/of001_05_kevin_ferguson_bonus_track_1.mp3]

OK, my work here is done.  See you in a year + a month + a day.

Changes brewing

Perhaps you have noticed that half the music on the site disappeared overnight.  Aaron is no longer part of Of.  He did not elaborate on the reasons, but as far as I know the departure is not acrimonious.  So, um, there’s that.