Interface Design: SynthX, and Traditional Keyboards

An article by David Brooks on March 9, 2011


For a long time our view of music production and performance has been based on the physical keyboard of a piano. And why shouldn’t it? It has been the standard for quite a long time. But one of my issues with using a synthesizer on a device like an iPhone, or even a small physical controller, is that the keys are closer together than a full-size piano keyboard. As you might expect, the level of mistakes quickly rises as the keys get smaller and closer together. So while it’s fun to play a synthesizer on an iPhone, it’s not as if you’re going to take it to the stage and play it in front of anyone.

The iPad, however, with its larger screen size, makes that a little bit more possible. But why would you want to leave behind a physical synthesizer for an iPad? Well, in some cases you may not have a lot of space to work with a keyboard on stage, and where you have one set of sounds on a physical synthesizer you can run multiple synth apps on an iPad.

But to be completely honest, I never felt like playing a keyboard on a screen made a ton of sense. Yes, it’s familiar, and it’s easy to understand, but it just almost never feels native to the screen. And that’s why we hook controllers up to our computers in the first place, to give us some sort of physical trigger to the keyboard on the screen.

This morning I watched the introduction video for the upcoming iPad synthesizer, SynthX by Way Out Ware, and I was pretty impressed by the interface. Sure, you have the option of playing the old standard keyboard interface, but there are other options. You can specify a key and play only within that set of notes, or you can play as a grid. Though I’m not sure how the grid layout works just yet, not having used it there’s an appearance that it could be harder to play than an on-screen keyboard, the two of them together seem a lot more native to a computer-based instrument. And providing a way to only play notes within a certain key, especially on a screen, seems so obvious that I’m not sure why we haven’t really seen that before.

While I don’t think I’ll ever play a show with an iPad as the focal point, I can see quite a few ways that the SynthX interface makes much more sense for music production than a lot of the interfaces we have seen. Although, admittedly a good portion of the SynthX UI only makes sense on a touch screen device.

Without being able to actually play around with SynthX, this is all guesswork on my part. But I have a feeling that we will see quite a few different ways of interacting with touch-screen synthesizers, both good and bad, before they are finally surpassed by the next logical step in interfaces, whatever that may be.

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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