Touching design

As a design student, it was impressed upon me the importance of how users intimately interact with a product design. I have never forgotten the handshake, the contact points, and I still use it to decide which things to buy. It’s how I evaluate everything, a benchmark.

I remember how BMW made the interior light fade instead of just switching on or off, and how that made me feel it was somehow of superior quality. How my CD player grabbed my disc solidly and drew it into the slot – how the lid of my cassette player slowly slid open – the sound of a Jaguar car door shutting.

Similarly, I remember so many things that felt lightweight, plasticky and cheap.

I was chatting with a colleague at work about vinyl making a comeback. He said “Why? the sound is terrible, and you get scratches and hiss.” He was genuinely puzzled.

That was when I realised how much tactility we’ve lost – and how that might be something we feel lacking today.

A digital file might sound better, and be conjured up easily on a phone or laptop – but with vinyl there is handling. The design handshake. You get artwork, a card sleeve, the disc itself and the ritual of taking it out, putting it on, and turning it over when the side was played through.

This is common to all audio formats – cassette, CD or 8-Track. You got a “thing”.

Reading a Kindle book is great – cheap and very convenient. But it also lacks that handshake. A book feels, smells and looks better – and an expensive book – a hardback with a dust cover – is a prized possession to be cared for.

I worry about the future in this respect; driverless cars, voice activated audio and video and more besides. If you are not driving the car, how can it thrill?

At one time, people bought a daily newspaper – it  was used as a tablecloth, a napkin, to wrap chips, scrunched up to clean stainless steel and windows, rolled-up to swat flies, stuffed into damp shoes, cut into party decorations, used to draw a coal fire… it was read, the crossword was done, articles clipped out, ads circled, moustaches doodled onto the photographed luminaries. It was laid under carpets and used to fill gaps in window frames.

Today, we read our news online, listen to the radio or watch TV.

I’m no different; I stopped wearing a wristwatch in favour of the smartphone. I put away my cassettes, videos, CDs, DVDs, LPs, 45s, reels, books, magazines… I will ask Google before looking up a dictionary or pull a book from my shelves. I threw out my maps and atlases years ago in favour of my sat nav and google maps.

My TV is too thin to have a decent speaker, and I have lost all concept of quality, accepting whatever my phone or TV gives me. I put up with slow browsers, buffering, Freeview digital “Max Headroom” glitches. This is what I have become.

My pens have dried up, my watches stopped. Nothing ticks, nothing takes time to dry, nothing needs a tactility skill, fingers swipe screens and click mice.

I have playing cards, chess sets, wind-up toys and board games in a sealed box in the cellar. My children play with tech, and buy apps. Will they grow up with no understanding of what a new book feels and smells like? What it’s like to be given a designed product as a gift? Will they know or miss knowing that feeling you get  when you clean the capstan and recording heads, when a tape desk has been demagnetised, when a record has been brushed, when a guitar has been restrung and tuned, when a car was driven with joy and appreciation?

Will they care about design? Will they grow fond of a thing? Will they relate to the ghost in the machine?

I wonder if vinyl’s return reveals an innate need…

 

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Music Making Begins

Well now, my hobby has taken off, and I am very pleased.

It has all been rather too easy to be frank. I decided on what I wanted to do, and within a few days I had sourced software, got tips and sourced the hardware too.

The hardware was bought on-line and arrived rather before I was ready for it.

There was trepidation regarding the software DAW, but after I read page one of the user guide, and downloaded then installed the drivers, I was making virtual music within minutes.

The hardware needed drivers, too – and, again – it all suddenly came to life.

I can plug in my wee red box to the USB, plug in a mic, guitar, bass or keyboard, make and arm a track, and I’m recording. Easy as pie.

It’s then rinse and repeat to play along with the previous track, building up a song.

The audio graphic for each thing recorded can be trimmed, pushed through virtual effects, panned left or right, and more – I can loop it, mirror it, copy it to another track for adding an effect. Oh! The things that can so easily be done.

I could have done all this for under a hundred quid, and used my old stage mic, but I went for the fancy mic and headphones, new clean leads and the very latest model too. I’m really happy, and everything just works well together.

Today I went for a DAC so that my finished work (as well as all my other computer-played music and videos) will sound stunning. Yeah, I blew another £60 I didn’t need to. But that is definitely THAT. Really. I had been meaning to get a DAC for ages and ages ever since I heard the difference at a pal’s.

I’m excited to be back in music, and I am looking forward to hearing good audio again. My plan is to dig out and set up my old turntable, CD, cassette player, and my Wharfedales – and also rig things so that sound will always be sweeeet.

If this is a wee hobby that you think might also interest you, the links you need are:

I bought the bundle:

The DAC that I just bought today (it’s not here yet):

The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) or music making software:

If you want to be (or have to be) really cheap, you can pick up the 1st generation Scarlett 2i2 for £80, use your own headphones and stuff, and Reaper is fully functioning as a trial. You’ll be good to go.

 

Studio Equipment Arrived

After a bit of review-reading and netsearching, I decided to buy studio gear as a starter bundle.

For under £190, I got the Second Generation, just out, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB 2.0 audio interface, a studio-quality CM25 condenser microphone with stand adaptor, XLR cable and a pair of HP60 monitoring headphones.

scarlett

I picked the two inputs because I am not a band. I can jam with my wife, or I can do guitar and vocal, or double mic a combo. It’s perfect for my needs.

It came really quickly, and to be honest, I am not ready yet as Reaper still isn’t operational.

The Scarlett comes with free software – a free version of Pro Tools that doesn’t interface with the professional edition nor that makes mp3s. It does have plug-ins – and that’s not usually included with the free edition.

According to the reviews and forums, it’s a palava even downloading it all, registering and getting it operational.

I tested the headphones on my smartphone. They work great.

The Scarlett lights up when plugged into the USB of the laptop. However, I plugged in headphones and then the mic -twiddled the knobs. Not a peep.  I tried plugging a guitar in – same: nothing.

If I can get things working, I can begin my hobby and it would only cost me the bundle plus the licence for Reaper – all-in-all, about £200 – which is not bad at all.

However, at this stage I have some kit and some software, and nothing is working! I have spend a lot of time and effort getting nowhere fast!

So it’s back to the forums and user guide for a while.

Sad Song Torture

The news today that Joni Mitchell is unable to speak due to an aneurysm started me thinking about sad songs.

Joni certainly sang a lot of sad songs – wistful ballads, filled with regret or longing, perfect songs for sad times and depression.

This is what made me wonder.

You see, a great many years ago I was in a band, and one night we were poised to be signed by a big label. We’d enjoyed playing, we enjoyed the gigs around Glasgow, we had great fun writing and rehearsing. We were having a blast – local success, people saying hello. Lovely stuff – but this was a watershed moment – we’d have to write good songs to a deadline, we’d have to tour far away from home. We would have to play the same set over and over – perhaps for the rest of our lives. Scary stuff. The band imploded. This was not the life we wanted.

I saw the Rolling Stones 20 years apart – and it occurred to me that they have had to play those songs over and over – over the whole 20 years and more, over the whole world.

What other art form makes you do this? Comedians tour and then bin their material for new stuff. Painters and photographers are not obliged to repeat themselves, authors write different books. It’s only musicians who have this nightmare to face.

Sad music

It’s bad enough that the mechanisms remain the same, more or less, writing a book – even though it is a different book, is still the product of the writing process. That’s unavoidable. Bricklayers build all sorts of properties, but it’s still brick-laying.

But to build the same thing over and over? That is inhumane. I pity the Rolling Stones – I couldn’t even listed to those songs every day, let alone play them on stage in some foreign arena.

It would drive me mad. What could be worse?

Well, that’s an interesting question – would it be worse if your hits were sad? Like Joni’s?

I can imagine that Uptown Funk may lose its sheen after a few years of constant performance, but at least it is upbeat. Maybe that is the same with the Stones – their stuff is not exactly mournful and depressing in the main. Could it be that Lemmy, The Stones, Status Quo and others have managed to push through because the were not bleeding heart balladeers?

I know that Joni Mitchell has suffered depression, is her music the cause or the effect of her depression? Would playing these songs over so many decades take it’s toll?

Whatever happened to R.E.M.? Automatic for the People has to be one of the most depressing albums ever recorded. Are they all in asylums? I would be.