this space intentionally left blank

June 28, 2006

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Don't Blame Me

An old thread on the Lowdown surfaced today via e-mail: we had been discussing the problems of usability for effects units, and it got me thinking about how we use technology. Perhaps an overview for non-musicians might help first.

You can split bass and guitar effects a lot of ways--by function, or by architecture, or by quality--but a big philosophical issue for musicians is single- versus multi-function boxes. The traditional FX pedal is a single function. It does one thing only, and hopefully does it well. Individual effects boxes can be digital or analog inside, but they tend to have manually-set knobs--they're not programmable, but they are very tweakable onstage. Musicians, being tactile (and sometimes not very bright) people, often like these standalone effects because they're simple and direct.

The other side is multi-fx pedals, which are capable of doing many things, often at once. For example, I have a Digitech RP-50 guitar pedal for experiments, which can add EQ, distortion, delay, and one other kind of effect (chorus, envelope, pitch-shift, etc.) all at once. Multi-function effects are almost always digital, because putting so many kinds of analog circuitry in one space would take up too much room and be incredibly expensive. Cheap sound processing chips can do credible imitations of the analog original, and it can be nice to have so many options available. So a lot of people start out with a multi-function pedal until they figure out where they want to spend a lot of money.

But if you're going to build what amounts to a sound-pedal-emulator, it's nice to have a save/recall function for settings, because now you're not just tweaking one pedal at a time, you're modeling several. Lo and behold, that's exactly the way it works: you set up everything the way you want it, and then the pedal typically saves all those settings into a "patch." This is cool, because it allows musicians to jump from one sound to another very quicly. You might have one patch that's lots of stereo delays and light distortion to sound like U2, and then another with very heavy distortion and a sub-octave to sound like Cheap Trick.

Naturally, there's a tradeoff for that much power and flexibility. Switching between patches tends to take time as the pedals--which are running on as little power and memory as they can possible get away with--unload one chunk of code from RAM and load the new patch to start processing. It's not a lot of time, maybe 20 milliseconds or so, but for that 1/5 of a second you are muted--effectively dropped out of the song. That's one reason why I quit using multi-FX and went back to individual analog pedals. I just couldn't stand having to pre-trigger my sounds to keep from missing a beat.

Zoom recently released the B2.1U, a multiFX pedal with only 8ms of switching time. Obviously, a few of us were interested in anything that would give us more power without the delay. However, one board member, well known for his vocal advocacy of a particularly flexible (but equally expensive and elaborate) effects unit, went the other direction. It doesn't matter how fast the switching time is, he said, because you shouldn't be using more than one patch anyway. Just set that up so you can change it a little, and you should be good to go. And he dropped this flame into the thread:

If one needs more than a single preset during a song performance there is something wronmg with either the device design, the user, or their conception of the song materials.

In other words: if you can't make it work with one patch, it's your fault. Even though the pedal organizes itself in presets and that is the primary mode of user interaction, it is not a design flaw that it can't do so quickly. It is your fault that you didn't plan around the huge gaping silence when you wanted to make a different noise.

I hate it when people make that kind of argument. It is a huge problem with technology. Blame the victim, not the crappy machinery. Sound familiar?

I am so tired of being told that it's my fault when things are hard to use. You used to hear this a lot from the Slashdot variety of Linux afficianado: the computer isn't hard, you just have to learn how to use it! Well, yeah. Maybe if it's that hard to learn, there's a flaw somewhere in the design, not in the people. If a game controller is intimidating to people, it's not that they're unintelligent or uninterested, it's that they're not willing to geek out for years in order to learn the muscle memory required. There's the infamous "blinking twelves" on an average VCR. All kinds of machines have this problem.

It's not that technology should all be simpler, because there is a time and a place for power and depth. But the tech community has been really good at shifting the blame from the designers, where it belongs, to the users, where it probably doesn't. What I've noticed is an inferiority complex by anyone who's not a self-defined geek. People are afraid of technology. They're convinced that they're not smart enough to use it. So they won't. And if the communications revolution of networking has shown us anything, it's that we don't benefit from people who just opt out of the web.

If you're reading this, you're likely to be a go-to tech person in your office or family. You can do something about the blame. Sure, you can't redesign someone's effects, or re-build their operating system. But (and I'm trying this myself, it's not easy) you can be more patient and friendly when explaining technology to someone. Make it clear that it's not their fault--and they're more likely to learn more, until they won't have to ask for help so much.

See? From effects pedal to broad societal doom-and-gloom in one post! Now that's value-added.

Future - Present - Past