You're majoring in control surfaces‽

First things first: yes, that is an interrobang.

Last week I worked tech for a student-produced (MUSKET) musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman — quite a good show, I might add — at the Power Center. It was really great to be back in theatre, and especially great to be back behind a board. The fact that, as a sound guy, it was the “wrong” board, the light board, was irrelevant; it was a lot of fun.

With just a few quick stints in between, it was really the first time I’d done any theatre tech work since high school, and this time I looked at everything with a very different eye: the eye of an HCI student.

mixerTrying to explain what studying “information” means to the uninitiated has always proved challenging, and explaining it to my fellow theatre techs was no different. What I ended up saying that I study user interface design. Overhearing this from across the empty auditorium, one of the lighting guys made an obvious, but not-so-obvious, jump, shouting, “You’re majoring in control surfaces‽”

“Well,” I thought, “from his perspective, yes.” So much of what we study in school is limited to on-screen interactions, be they in traditional software, web applications, or mobile applications, that input devices have been relegated to a single day’s worth of discussion in one class. This pushes more complex input devices, like control surfaces, way out into the periphery. But there it was: I’m majoring in control surfaces. Brilliant.

This realization got me started thinking about the control surface with which I am most familiar: the analog mixing console. This is truly an elegant device, with one channel strip for each input channel, and each channel strip laid out as the signal flows: preamp gain at the top, then processing, routing, and finally level. These are then mixed together and sent to the outputs.

Then along came digital. Sure, they can have a much higher input density, and the power to run dozens of mixes from one board is very cool, but it comes at a significant cost to usability. Wikipedia agrees:

Analog consoles remain popular due to their continuing to have one knob, fader or button per function, a reassuring feature for the user. This takes up more physical space but allows more rapid response to changing performance conditions. Most digital mixers take advantage of the technology to reduce the physical space requirements of their product, entailing compromises in user interface such as a single shared channel adjustment area that is selectable for only one channel at a time. Additionally, most digital mixers have virtual pages or layers which change the fader banks into separate controls for additional inputs or for adjusting equalization or aux send levels. This layering can be confusing for operators.

The reason, I believe, for many of these usability problems is that much as computers rely on a nested-folder analogy to manage files and have only recently begun to take advantage of their digital nature by using tags (think Gmail’s Labels), digital mixing consoles are using the analog mixing console as an analogy for digital signals.

This point was really driven home when the lighting designer explained to me that the market leader in moving light consoles has been uncontested for ten years because its designers gave serious thought to what makes moving lights different from conventional lights, and what designers and operators need to do to accomplish their goals; in other words, user-centered design.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe that some fundamentally different way of handling large volumes (pun intended) of audio channels in a reasonably sized board is lurking just out of reach.