Less is More: Pay More, Get Less

‘What can we design that makes our life better, not just “more”‘ – Treehugger.com

I recently read Treehugger’s debate on Nikon’s decision to stop making film cameras. I think it summed up a lot of things I’ve been dealing with lately, so I decided to do some blogging about it.

If you live in the developed world in the 21st century, as I do, you probably know all about “more”. More megapixels, gigabytes and gigahertz every couple of years. Cell phones that can surf the net, whether you actually want to or not: I’ve covered this issue before.

But there’s another kind of more that I find even more insidious: More features on our software and consumer gadgets. Once a designer puts a microprocessor into a gadget, he can add extra features by just adding more computer code. These features add practically no manufacturing cost to the end product, while they can still be used as selling points by the advertising guys, so the result is a kind of feature arms race.

The downside of this is that buttons, knobs and large displays do add manufacturing cost, so if the designer wants to maximize features per unit cost, he ends up using a very deep and complicated menu system to control his features. Operating an instrument like this can feel like flying a Jumbo jet when your only access to the flight deck is a letterbox-sized hole and a pool cue. More might be better for the sales guys, but it’s definitely not better for the poor end user.

This is possibly the thing I hate most about the information age. Back in the good old days, instruments had one button per function. To listen to music, you grabbed a vinyl record, put it on a turntable, and lowered a stylus onto the track you wanted. The record deck did not suddenly turn into an address book because you accidentally double-clicked the 33rpm button, and make you spend 10 minutes figuring out how to transform it back. In short, each function had a real, material cost in terms of hardware. The result was that designers had to think hard about what functions to implement, and make sure they were really worthwhile.

I’ve never felt this more than in my dealings with electronic music. Synthesizers, samplers and recording software are powered by microprocessors, made for gearheads by gearheads, but a good musical performance needs an intuitive, gut-level connection between the musician and the instrument. There is very little time for double-clicks or multi-level menus, unless you’re Kraftwerk.

I’m “lucky” enough to own some of the worst excesses of the 90s, like the Yamaha A4000 sampler. It has the jumbo jet syndrome in spades: it took me a good six months to get comfortable working my way round the user interface, in so far as you could get comfortable at all. It bombed, to the extent that fully loaded examples can be found on Ebay for about $250. (I’m keeping mine.)

The polar opposite of this would be a “classic synth” that does one thing and does it very well. Sometimes this isn’t even what the designer intended it to do, as in the case of the legendary TB-303. Its built-in pattern sequencer was so awful that very few people had the patience to program more than a few two-bar loops. The tone generator only had five knobs to change the sound – six if you count the tuning – but those few adjustments were carefully chosen and delightfully tweakable.

These built-in limitations led to the birth of acid house music, and the 303 has kept its resale value a lot better than the A4000 🙂

7 Replies to “Less is More: Pay More, Get Less”

  1. Excellent points. I teach a class in sound synthesis, and we sort of touched on this point in the last class. Basically, we covered synths from the late 70s to the early MIDI days (85,86). The big selling synth in 1975 was the minimoog. In 1985 it was the DX7. Both are fine machines, but controlling a sound in DX7 was nearly impossible, as the interface was for shite. Then the M1 came out and it was completely worthless. Why? Because it had centred around the notion of the synth as a keyboard instrument – basically an organ that makes funny noises. There was a long history of that going back to the Clavioline and earlier.

    In the early 80s, Sequential Circuits did a report on Prophet 5 returns, and found that 85% of the users NEVER CHANGED THE PRESETS. Now, the Prophet 5 was covered with knobs and saving a preset was dead easy. Therefore, there was no other reason except: people don’t care about synthesis. They just want an organ that makes funny sounds. This memo leaked and similar studies were done. The result? 1983: Prophet5 and knobs. 1987: M1 – no knobs no nothing. Knobs are expensive to install and test. Buttons and software are dirt cheap.

    It was economics and an unadventurous, uninformed and uneducated public that spun the synthesizer industry into the hellhole it is in now. And NOW, it’s all being replaced by software. Who Needs a Synth keyboard? I can buy a laptop and MIDI controller for very little money, and load it up with VST replicas of almost every synth and Mellotron ever known, and at a fraction of the cost in original dollars (An ARP 2600 in todays $ would be over $5k).

    So the Modernist synth met the post modern sampler, and both were eaten by the Hypermodernist gesture of software simulation. It’s a sad state of affairs, not made any better by the very points you make in your post.



  2. “They don’t make them like they used to
    In this cold and plastic time
    progress ain’t been progressive
    but it makes no sense to chaser our behinds
    No, They don’t make them like they used to
    Things going by so fast
    I like it slow and groovy
    And I like it built to last”

    Stubborn Allstars – Tin Spam

    Oh, and I love the distortion of your TC 😀
    Sounds awesome.

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