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Rethinking Audio Production Tools

By John Matthew Simon

Bryan Pardo, an associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science here at Northwestern, wanted to tackle a fascinating question, ‘Why have designers digitally replicated technological interfaces exactly as they are in the real world and can we make them more intuitive for novice users?’

Why would he ask such a question? Well, it turns out that Pardo is a classically trained jazz musician who was perplexed by the complex interfaces in audio production tools, as he explained during faculty talk for MSLCE students on Feb. 11.

He couldn’t quite understand why the rigid forms of the analog production world had to be transferred to the digital realm. Too him, wholly a musician at heart, it made more sense if the knobs, dials, and industry lexicon of old were abandoned for a more interactive and user friendly interface buttressed by a folksonomy of descriptors.

Pardo’s research led him to create two interactive websites to illustrate the data they collected and uncovered, Social Reverb and Audealize. The latter allows users utilizing a “semantic interface” to “describe the type of sound (they’re) looking for” by interacting with the word map. While on Social Reverb they collected the user-solicited descriptors by asking those very same users to describe audio samples played over the Internet.

Pardo and his team found that “unique descriptors” for tones and the reverb effect on those tones can be an asset for both musicians and engineers, whether novices or experts.

In other words, there are many advantages for creative industries to create accessible tools that are designed simply and intuitively, as they can attract a wide spectrum of users and possibly lead to a further proliferation of ideas.