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Sounding Off: Abandoning Skeuomorphism

Tom Fleming By Tom Fleming
Published December 2013

Do Bakelite knobs have a place in the virtual world?

Like many people, I had never heard the term skeuomorphism until a few months ago, when Apple announced their intention to abandon it. In software, skeuomorphism is the tendency to design interfaces that mimic physical objects. In the past 10 years or so, we have become used to virtual renderings of wood, leather and brushed metal in our daily lives. We're supposed to think 'I'm happy using this software calendar because it's got a nice bit of beige leather across the top. Just like a 'real' desk diary. How comforting.'

I've always found this tendency a bit patronising, even if I didn't have a name for it until recently. The whole point of a software calendar is that it's much better than a physical diary, Filofax or calendar. It's all of these things, yet it takes up no space. Searching for an entry takes a matter of seconds. I can keep a constantly updated backup copy in the 'cloud' (another somewhat skeuomorphic term, as this so-called cloud is in actuality made of servers, cables and satellites, not fluffy water vapour). It will wake me up and tell me what I'm supposed to be doing today. Does the leather effect help it do that? Not a bit.

The point of technology is — or should be — to push the boundaries of what human beings can do. As a technology-obsessed child in the 1980s, I was immensely excited by the possibilities I glimpsed in computers and software. If a time traveller from 2013 had told me, while I waited for the tape to rewind on the four-track cassette Portastudio I'd managed to borrow for the weekend, that I'd eventually have more recording and processing horsepower than all the major London studios of the time combined, all in a computer that I could casually carry around in a shoulder bag, I'd have been pretty impressed. Had he then said 'But wait, there's more! You'll also have pictures of old tape machines, Bakelite knobs and old-school VU meters to look at while you work,' I like to think I would have asked 'What for?'

Confirmation bias is the term for our tendency to believe what we already want to believe, regardless of evidence. I suspect that many sacred cows in the recording world are sustained by confirmation bias: we see a reel-to-reel tape machine, analogue desk or glowing valve (physical or virtual) and prime ourselves to experience a 'warm' sound. In the early days of digital recording, the vehemently anti-digital proprietor of a famous 'high-end' hi-fi turntable manufacturer bravely agreed to participate in a double-blind test. Audiophile classical records were played on one of his turntables, and 14-bit digital conversion (a quarter of the bit depth of CD) was patched in and out at random. He was unable to tell the difference. In another experiment, wine experts were asked to describe two glasses of wine: one white, one red. They all did so using completely different, predictable, language for each glass, all failing to spot that the two were in fact from the same bottle of white wine, the 'red' having been coloured with a flavourless dye.

However professional and discerning we think we are, we're only human. It seems likely, though I doubt that there has ever been any serious research, that decisions made every day in studios across the world are influenced by exactly this kind of confirmation bias. You reach for the compressor plug-in with the funky 'analogue' VU meter, slap it on the drum bus and bask in that analogue warmth you think you can hear. Maybe you can, but in that case what's the point of the graphics?

This kind of thing is fine for mass-market consumer-grade software. Why not, if it's all part of an enjoyable experience you are selling your customers? DAWs and their plug-ins, however, are sold as professional tools. They are supposed to help us produce better results. Surely then, there should be as little as possible getting in the way of the process? How can a pixelated image of vintage hardware really help you make a musical or sonic decision?

Few would deny that Apple have been ahead of the curve in both hardware and software since their rebirth in the late '90s. Let's hope they take the lead in ridding our screens of virtual Bakelite knobs. The quality of our work can only improve as a result.

About The Author

Tom Fleming is a guitarist, arranger and producer. Recent work includes recording Steve Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint' on the Moog guitar.