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ATPM 5.11
November 1999



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Segments: Slices From the Macintosh Life

by David Ozab,

The Interface is the Instrument

As a computer musician, I think of my computer as my instrument. That may seem strange to some of you, but ask yourself, “What exactly is an instrument?” I could answer by describing a complex mechanism consisting of eighty-eight switches, each of which transfers energy through a separate series of levers to a hammer, which in turn strikes a suspended string, or set of strings. This action produces a complex collection of vibrations which resonate through a large acoustical chamber and interact with complex signals produced by other strings. Or I could just respond “a piano.”

My point is that all instruments are mechanisms. Some are simple—a membrane stretched across a circular frame (a drum) or a hollow tube with holes at regular intervals (a recorder); others are complex, like the piano, or an even more complex instrument where the switches activate bellows that push air through long metal tubes (a pipe organ). What makes a successful instrument? The sound it produces? A piano would sound the same if you struck the strings directly with hammers, and an organ would sound the same if you blew really hard through the pipes, but they would be incredibly difficult to play in this fashion. No, the success of an instrument depends on the ease with which one can play it, and ultimately become fluent, perhaps even a virtuoso. The success of an instrument depends on its interface.

Why are piano keys the size that they are? Because of the length of our fingers and the size of our hands. Why do some wind and brass instruments have tubes that bend in on themselves, sometimes in elaborate coils? Because of how long our arms are and how far we can reach. Why don’t we make guitars with eighty-eight strings or pianos with six keys? It’s all about the interface.

The same is true for computers. Different manufactures use different hardware, some chips are faster than others, and some hard drives are bigger. When we talk about computers, though, and specifically when we brag about the ease of use of a Mac, we’re talking interfaces. Software design is the key to a successful interface. When the OS and the applications are awkward, getting in the way of what we want to accomplish, the interface needs improvement.

This is what originally drew me to the Macintosh interface when I began working in computer music. My first class in 1987 used a Mac, as has every class I have taken or taught ever since. It was, and still is, the simplest, most elegant, and most transparent operating system in production. This is the reason for both the incomparable loyalty of Mac users and the strong connection Macintosh has with creative artists. We know a good interface. This is also why Apple survived through the mid-1990s despite itself. The interface was too good to give up, and the alternative was, and still is, unacceptable.

In summary, not everyone wants a Steinway. Most will be happy with a Baldwin. You get what you pay for.

Update: Floppy Authorization and Opcode Rumors

Since completing last month’s article on the topic, I ordered a Newer Technology uDrive. The item in question was on back order, and it took over three weeks to arrive, but I’m happy to report that it works as advertised. If you decide to buy one, just be careful of extension conflicts. It took some juggling to get my computer to boot up with the drive connected. At least it didn’t clash with any of my other USB devices (an Aiwa tape backup drive and a Zoom Cam USB).

The situation at Opcode, meanwhile, shows no signs of improvement. Since they were bought by Gibson earlier this year, they have seemed too busy controlling rumors of layoffs, restructuring, and outright collapse to deal with the authorization issue. The latest word is as follows: Gibson and Digidesign (who make Pro Tools) have talked about making Vision the integrated sequencer in an upcoming version of Pro Tools. This move would shift development to Digidesign.

Some Opcode developers have left as a result and others have either left on their own account or were fired. None of the parties involved have said anything about this situation, and the Opcode Web site continues on as if nothing unusual has happened. This may put the future of Vision DSP as an independent product in jeopardy. Certainly, this is something to consider in either purchasing or upgrading software. Regarding Max, however, I did recently discover that if you purchase the Max/MSP package from Cycling ’74 (I recommend this, as you get substantial discount on both.) you can get a “Challenge—Response” authorization for both.

Next Month: A Musician’s life on the Web, more on Opcode, and whatever else I think of by then.

apple Copyright © 1999 David Ozab. David Ozab is a Ph.D student at the University of Oregon, where he teaches electronic music courses and assists in the day to day operation of The Future Music Oregon Studios. You can visit his Web page at

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Reader Comments (1)

Herwig Rogler · January 27, 2004 - 09:37 EST #1
I am studying Multimedia Art at University for Applied Sciences and Technologies in Salzburg, Austria (EU). My major is "Audio" and I am looking forward to write my diploma about computer interfaces this spring (2004); especially concerning the computer as a musical instrument.

At the moment I am just doing some research about this topic. That's why I found this page.

I think basically you're right: the computer IS a musical instrument - better: it has the potential of being a musical instrument. Just as you said, what makes an instrument is the interface. But in my opinion, the interface is not just the power of chips or the size of a memory. The interface is the mouse, the keyboard and the monitor as well as the software. That's not enough!

On a piano you can use ten fingers and two feet. On a guitar you can use nine fingers and every little movement of each of them makes the guitar sound different. And in fact there are many more factors influencing the sound.
And what can you do on a computer? The keyboard is a good interface for writing texts an pressing short-cuts for very specific tasks or processes. But can you use it in a comfortable way to play notes? Not really! The mouse is a relict of "ancient" times. It is like you play a piano with only one finger. And still the piano sounds different depending on how hard you press the key - the computer doesn't.

Yes, of course: there are many more interfaces for computers than just the mouse and the keyboard. MIDI-keyboards and hardwarecontrollers make music productions on a computer much more comfortable. But still I think that this is not everything. These interfaces enable an emulation of real instruments or the playing of so called "virtual instruments" (like synthesizers). But in fact a computer is a much more powerful instrument! Why not designing an interface which "transforms" the computer to a real instrument?

Said with ease - but hard done. But that's exactly what the topic of my diploma shall be about.

All in all: what I want to say is, that a computer definitly has the potential of being an instrument. But without the right interface it's "just" a computer...


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