We all want our music-making tools to be intuitive. But what does that actually mean?
We're not born with an instinctive ability to EQ kick drums or program synths. But we do have an innate ability to learn things, and we could say that tools are intuitive if they make it easy to apply this ability. All else being equal, we find it easier to learn clean interfaces that don't overwhelm us with choice, and controls that behave consistently and logically.
But all else usually isn't equal, and as soon as we stop being beginners, our preferences are shaped by another powerful force: familiarity. Having used music software for several decades, I struggle to get my head around non-linear video editing packages, because they employ conventions that aren't used in the audio world. I don't think that means those programs aren't intuitive; it just means that what comes naturally is, above all, what we already know. Learning new things is doubly difficult if we first have to 'un-learn' existing things.
It's easier to stick to what's familiar, but all too often that's the path to mediocrity. To properly master a musical instrument, we have put the effort in to learn multiple techniques, even if some of them don't build on what we already do. Shouldn't we be doing the same with music production?
I'm sure I'm not the only 'in the box' producer who's watched someone else's fingers flying over an MPC or other grid-based device and marvelled at the speed with which great tracks emerge. And I'm sure I'm not the only producer who's then sat down behind one hoping to be able to do the same, only to give up in bewilderment because it wasn't, well, 'intuitive'. The value of the MPC concept has been proven over many years, and has delivered countless hits — but if you're used to another way of working, you might still need something to kickstart your journey with it.
It's easier to stick to what's familiar, but all too often that's the path to mediocrity.
The trouble is that things we do find 'intuitive' are often also things we struggle to explain to others. When a device becomes so familiar as to be second nature, it can be difficult for the user to articulate what he or she is actually doing and why. Those decisions aren't made on a conscious level any more; they are what is sometimes called 'tacit knowledge'. So we can watch an expert in action, and perhaps even ask them questions, without getting to the bottom of it.
And that's where Sound On Sound can help. Our authors aren't just good at using this stuff. They're also passionate about communicating and sharing their skills, and you won't find a better example than Simon Sherbourne's MPC Basics article in this issue. If, like me, you've spent a lifetime working 'in the box' and you want to explore other perspectives on production, it's the perfect introduction. I came away from it inspired — now the only question is, which MPC should I get? I wonder if there's a music technology magazine that carries authoritative reviews of such products...
Sam Inglis Editor In Chief