They say necessity is the mother of invention, but what is the mother of creativity? As music tech continues to develop and evolve, so has the UI (User Interface) behind it. From effects racks in fancy studios lined to the walls with sleek, nearly identical gray boxes of colorful effects, to plugins made by a programmer in his bedroom, User Interface is vital to the musician’s workflow. The design philosophy behind most electronic music devices and plugins has remained  fairly unchanged: Either copy the existing design of a more traditional instrument (Think a Piano Roll on your favorite VST synth!) or visualize the complex parameters of a program or patch with pragmatic dials and numbers. Only the artist needs to see the machines behind the music, why would we bother to focus on the design of the product past the sounds themselves? 

The more modern music tech world would beg to differ. We’re entering a world chock full of Weird Gear and it’s beautiful. As musical traditions continue to blend and develop in interesting, creative ways, so have the minds behind the electronic instruments the artist uses to craft their work. Sure, The color of a Stratocaster doesn’t change the sound, but that mint green one just feels right for the vibe of the track today!

 Plugins and synths are starting to take note. While the days of pragmatic design are far from behind us (It would make sense that a device used to make something as abstract as sound and music at large would usually want to demystify the process.) Some companies and musicians have taken an alternative approach to design to try and capture the wonder and spark of inspiration that comes from unique, intuitive, and more out-of-the box design.

A prime example to start our journey into unique UI is the fan favorite company of music gear geeks: Teenage Engineering. This Small Swedish Company has been cranking out musical powerhouses in small packages since 2005. Their aesthetic takes cues from everything from The Game & Watch series of LCD Handheld video games to Apple’s design philosophy.  Take for instance their Pocket Operator series of miniature synthesizers, samplers and drum machines. With mighty sound inside of a package smaller than a calculator, there’s very little visual feedback from the body of the synth itself (Even with the borderline necessary Protective Cases on, that further make the machines look like something you’d use to work on math homework in elementary school.) It’s nothing more than rigid black buttons on an exposed microchip. 

But the magic happens in the little LCD Screen: A sewing machine buzzes and whirrs uniquely for each drum added in the sequence of the PO-12 Rhythm, Energy Tanks fill and deplete as you set the parameters of the effects and LFO on the Capcom Collaborated PO-128 Megaman. The designs are playful and tactile feedback is important as Teenage Engineering is able to fit 16 unique sounds with 4 track sequencing into a package smaller than the palm of your hand. Making use of the side buttons and holding button presses to change functionalities of the two knobs and buttons, as LED lights show the position of notes in a sequence. The design rewards not only your creativity, but the portability of great sounds for jam sessions and recordings on-the-go alike.

Of course, you can’t bring up Teenage Engineering without mentioning their MoMA Approved masterpiece of a synth: the OP-1. Putting a twist on the aforementioned “Grey Block” design of other effects racks and instruments, this insanely portable device is able to fit dozens of sequencers, effects, synth engines, radio-sampling capabilities, and a 4 track recorder into something smaller than your forearm. 

Once again all of the magic comes from the UI-display. A Tape Reel spins and glides smoothly from point to point on the recording tracks. Synth engines range from Abstract patterns that shift and warble like a kaleidoscope as you tweak their otherwise cryptic parameters, to an almost constellation-like design where a set of dots and lines shift with the sound design. It might seem off-putting to see your effects be so abstract, like running a bass line through a Cow. But every synth is color coded to the knobs on the OP-1, allowing you to creatively tweak and work with the UI without ever seeing a number on a dial or quite knowing where you’ll wind up. It’s organized chaos. Artists from Diplo, Bon Iver to Childish Gambino alongside thousands of others have sworn by it’s playful UI masking a musical powerhouse that encourages the artist to think outside the box, by using the box!

Maybe you’ve already dug into thousands of samples and plugins with unique UI and are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sounds you already have. Perhaps something to supplement your workflow in a unique and exciting way could do wonders for you! If you’re looking for something to organize your hard drive with in a single click,  XLN Audio’s crowing achievement: XO, is here to help! By using AI-assisted algorithms, XO provides a new way to look at the thousands of 808’s, piano stabs, and Vocal Chops cluttering your hard drive. Instead of guessing what sound you have behind the funky filenames, XO groups all of your sounds into a colorful cloud of dots based on qualities it finds in the sounds themselves. You can browse around seamlessly through your personal and unique collage of sounds based on parameters the plugin or you yourself set, and find that perfect snare with ease. Hearing the sounds as they pass by your mouse in this sonic field is extremely satisfying too! It even comes with a search bar that can highlight sounds that are “Punchy” or “Futuristic.” It’s like a search engine for sound! 

Not only so, but the little blip you decide on in the cloud of audio snippets will then branch out lines in a web-like fashion to suggest related sounds. You can finally build out the perfect drum kit for your track in seconds. The flow of organizing your instruments is vital in keeping your creativity alive, and XO Not only creates efficiency, but doubles down and supplements your workflow by offering in-plugin sequencing, embellishing on rhythms, and even exporting MIDI, WAV stems, and effects straight from the plugin into your DAW. It’s one part organizational tool, one part creative drum machine, and all parts unique in it’s colorful and efficient UI!

Small companies aren’t the only ones pushing the boundaries of unique UI nowadays. With the long-awaited release of Ableton Live 11 finally out to the public, there’s a whole lot to talk about in terms of the new capabilities in the already insanely powerful production suite. But one of the lesser noticed features of Live 11 were some of the new instrument engines being provided such as the incredible Inspired by Nature collection for Max for Live. These are 6 new synths and effects designed by Digital Audio Device Developer Dillon Bastan that have made their UI especially out of the box with incredible audible results for Ableton. It’s surprising to see this type of abstract UI in a DAW designed to be about as utilitarian as possible! 

These instruments include such highlights as the Tree Tone, A “growable” fractal pattern generator that can be used as a resonator for incoming audio or plugin-generated noise based on root structures and branches of plant life. Tweaking the parameters causes the fractal to grow in unique and interesting ways, providing feedback for the musician to develop the effect on a sound in real time. Bouncy Notes,  a note sequencer based on real gravity as the mass of each “Ball” of sound and gravitational pull on them shows how the delay will decay and bounce around a piano roll according to the simulated laws of physics. While still keeping the minimalist aesthetics, Thinking about how the laws of nature could affect the sounds you put through them is just another example of how UI can generate creativity in ways you would never think possible!

The possibilities for UI are truly endless, and now that more and more powerful tech is in the hands of artists every day, the revolution to make these tools not only capable, but inspiring and natural to use for the artist is continuing to develop constantly. Good design is leading musicians to better ideas, and to want to have their tools in front of them more and more as they grow alongside them! The discovery and beauty in a well-crafted and designed user experience is helping musicians push the art form forward every day. So while it will still be some time before the dull and drab plugins of yesteryear leave us behind, we can have faith that great products will continue to develop their interfaces to allow artists to tap into their powers in ways they never thought possible before. But behind every great device is an even better creator! to continue to grow yourself as an artist and develop the skills necessary to unlock the potential in your softwares and synths, Electronic Music Collective is the place to be! Speaking of Ableton 11, we’re offering incredible private lessons and Accelerated courses in Ableton Live 11 , Logic Pro and Serato Play to help you get a lay of the land in your favorite software, and start making the music you’ve always wanted to make today! Our next Online Accelerated Courses for June are starting soon, so be sure Click the links and continue to check out our website for more information!