The skeuomorphic hell of music-making apps

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Fallout fans be like, “Whatever”


Inertia, presumably. In the first generation anyone using the plugins will have been more adapted to the physical interface and so, that’s how it got made. Nowadays, they get made like that because they were always made like that.

It helps that a big ugly skeumorphic lump is actually a lot easier to make than a proper bit of consistent interface design.


I dunno - there are standard interface widget libraries you can draw from, if you want a slider that actually moves in the direction of the mouse movement that controls it, etc. It’s when you want a brushed aluminum knob with a little dot to show where it’s pointing except you turn it by moving an invisible vertical slider, that someone has to do a bunch of extra work.


Did those standard interface widget libraries exist when the software was originally designed? I mean, what year are we talking about here? Late 80s?

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I think inertia is part of it, but I also think that a lot of it comes from a desire to mimic classic analog gear. More than most fields, audio engineering is full of electronic holy grails; such-and-such famous studio or musician used THIS amp from THIS year with THIS specific set of modifications, and if you want that sound you need that gear (which often costs tens of thousands of dollars). For a lot of these plugins it’s not just a question of mimicking the look of analog hardware in general, it’s about mimicking the look of a specific piece of hardware or a specific manufacturer. The psychology being, of course, that it it looks more like the original gear, it’s perceived to sound more like the original gear.


I agree with you: it’s not just an analog look designed to appeal to lazy amateurs with no imagination; it’s also an analog look designed to appeal to professional gear fetishists.


You’d think so, wouldn’t you, but getting those standard interface elements to actually work is incredibly difficult. For instance, the cable simulation in one of the screenshots would have to be replaced by an entire node-based editor (presumably) which entails a whole mess of features, any of which if handled improperly would lead to something frustrating to use.

With skeumorphism you can just offload the design work to reality, and when making interfaces most of the effort goes into deciding which central metaphor for the interface you are using, how to decompose the tasks into independent sub-groups, how to present system state to the user, &c &c &c. Hardly any goes into actually plopping the buttons and sliders and things onto a window.

That’s a very good point. That just might be the tipping point that explains why audio generation gear still looks like that and audio players no longer do.




Throw your mind back to the computer interfaces of the late 80s. There was no way you could have brushed aluminum knobs on your software back then, unless you shipped it with hardware with actual aluminum knobs.

This stuff only became possible as computer graphics got way more advanced - by which time standards of computer GUI design were already well established.


Absolutely! There’s also some serious value to having a customer see something that looks cool and expensive when they look over your shoulder in the studio.

So it’s like sticking an SGI cube over the Dell logo on my display I’m using for an Octane.


It makes sense, when replicating a hardware model in plug in form, you want to keep the knobs and switches. If a prized hardware equalizer is only able to modify three bands with a limited interface, then that’s part of its charm, the limitations it imposes are very likely to be part of the reason why it is desired in the first place.

Having said that, I really do prefer to use plugins with modern interfaces that at least let you type in a value right next to the knob. Hardware fetishists are hard to convince so I don’t even try anymore.

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Complain, complain. I think they’re cute.


I don’t know, this looks like a commercial airliner

This looks like a space ship (And it’s animated)


I remember back in the day, it was probably in the late 90’s, and I got my hands on a copy of Reason – the skeuomorphic stuff was actually a HUGE selling point – and the devs, both the mutants at Propellerhead and the third party module writers, did such a beautiful job with it.

We just gawked at that thing – the patch cables jiggled realistically when you moved the mouse over them. That attention to detail was incredible!

That said, the damned thing was near unusable, and incomprehensible.

The closest thing I can think of are the flight simulator apps: third party devs lovingly hand craft the cockpit interiors and model the aircraft surfaces down to the rivet, it’s insane.


Oh absolutely, and I much prefer the latter. But if you were a novice who was paying for studio time, you’d be way more impressed with someone who could coax the sound you want out of the former than the latter. In the “impress the customer” sense, it may actually work against you if your gear is TOO intuitive.

(note: I’m not saying this is smart or reasonable, just that it’s a real phenomenon)

That’s the problem: You don’t want a slider, you want 32 of them to fit into a 640x480 window. THAT’S why these apps are obsessed with knobs: you just can’t fit enough UI elements without them.

EDIT: Plus the people who are really using these are going to have those knobs and sliders controlled by…the knobs and sliders on their hardware.


This is why I find the article to be pretty disingenuous. He’s been using Logic for 8 years, yet he claims

“modern music software is designed to work completely “in-the-box”; everything gets made inside the computer without any external hardware”

There are chain stores that are devoted to specifically to selling midi controllers etc, and all music stores generally have a department devoted to them. There is no way in hell he doesn’t realise that people aren’t controlling their software with a mouse.

If his workflow’s that incompatible with skeuomorphic design, he should be using Ableton (which, again, he deliberately avoids mentioning in the article) which lacks any of the visual shenanigans that he’s railing against.


Generally this is because the equipment’s internals themselves are being mimicked, right down to whether the transistors are germanium vs silicon, often with the assistance of the original hardware manufacturer. It makes sense to copy the look of the shell/interface from both a familiarity and cross-branding perspective.

Plus, it just looks hella cool.

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