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The Scrubber Tool: Analog Antecedents in the DAW

Steve Savage

San Francisco State University

Ernst Nathorst-Böös, one of the founders of Propellerhead Software and the chief designer of their new "Record" program responded to my question about why they called their new software a "recording studio" rather than a Digital Audio Workstation or DAW as follows:
I certainly think that "recording studio" is more understandable than DAW. I hate the word DAW. Who cares if it's digital or nano or analog or magic or whatever? And we're not into audio, we're about music. And "workstation" - don't get me started :-). "Hi, my name is Bruce Springsteen and I wrote this song I'd like to try to record". "Yes, sir, what you need then is a Digital Audio Workstation". "No thanks". We prefer to say "Well, would you like the experience of going into a really cool recording studio on the computer you already own"?

For the purposes of this paper, and please forgive me Ernst, I am going to continue to use DAW to describe the computer-based recording studios that dominate the world of audio production.  Nonetheless, his comments resonate with my current project, which is exploring the ways technologies either feed renewal or foster stagnation in popular music production. At the same time his comments undermine the premise that was implicit in my abstract for this paper.   This paper began as an investigation into the analog antecedents of DAWs-things like the mixer and transport graphics that are used as primary interface models for recording. The underlying assumption in my abstract was that the analog models act as a restraining influence, that they are inhibiting the explosive capabilities of digital production.  My research has proven otherwise, in a classic example of how one's presumptions may be upended by ones findings.
One of the peer reviews of my abstract suggested both behavioral psychology and the history and semiotics of interface design as appropriate paths to deepen my research into this topic- these were both very helpful suggestions.  I'll return to behavioral psychology at the end of the paper, but I start with the semiotics of interface design. 

SEMIOTICS AND USER INTERFACE

A paper on the "Semiotics for User Interface Design" by Malcolm and Goguen compares command line interface design with menu driven design-rather an easy target, even in 1999 when this paper was written.  Who really would chose DOS over Windows?  But it does orient us to the relevant work from Saussure: "signs come in systems, and it is only through differences between elements of systems, rather than through inherent properties of signs themselves, that meaning can be conveyed."1  The authors go on to note "Command-line operating systems, such as Unix or DOS are relatively poor in signs presented to users."
This notion, that the signs within systems should reflect the inherent nature of the system seemed to reinforce my sense that analog modeling is inappropriate to the digital environment. Why would the "tape recorder" system of analog audio be the best interface in the computer?  A DAW really doesn't function like a tape recorder: it has no inherent linearity, it doesn't have an erase head, you don't cut tape to make edits and it doesn't even really punch-in when doing over-dubs, it just pretends to.  So why make a DAW pretend to be a tape recorder?  Couldn't there be a more advanced interface in which the signs used to create recordings were more closely aligned to the way a DAW actually functions?  My intuition told me "yes there could" but, as we shall see, my intuition seems to have proven to be wrong.  It isn't the DAW or its digital nature that is dictating the activity, it is recording; and recording does require linearity, and it has need for the operational procedures such as erasing, cut and construct editing, and auto-switching for punch-in whether or not it is bound to those working models by the underlying technology.  The computer dictates the needs for computer operating systems, from DOS to Windows, but recording is not inherently a computer function, it is a continuation of tape recorder function.
    In a more recent paper "The Semiotics of User Interface Redesign" the authors examine the redesign of Microsoft's word processor Word and its "move from a symbolic sign (menus) to iconic signs (iconic representations of bold, italic and underlined text) for a functionality that modifies a quality of the text."2  Here the cascading menus have been replaced with a slider function that is considered to be more user friendly-that is, it does a better job of signposting its function.
    And this again brings me to DAW design and the analog antecedents of digital recording software.  One might think (as I had) that the analog model could easily be outdone by the much more flexible capabilities of computer graphics.  For example, wouldn't there be a better graphical representation of tape recorder functions than the arcane transport button controls? Perhaps, but the ever-present floating transport in Pro Tools disappeared from widespread use some time ago.  The operational reality is that keyboard shortcuts completely eliminate the need to use graphical signposting for transport functions anyway, so it has little relevancy to operation.
      The evolution of computer interface models such as command line operation or cascading menus are part of the evolution of computer user interfaces.  These systems didn't have an evolved technological base such as audio recording.  Analog recording had developed a semiotic design that, when adopted by DAWs, allowed them to bypass the need to invent a new semiotics of user interface for the computer.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE DAW

    I had the good fortune to interview two of the most influential designers of audio interfaces in the digital age.  One from the dawn of the DAW era and one who has the splashiest new release into the recording software market.  Evan Brooks was one of the two partners that began Digidesign and he was the lead designer for the first versions of Pro Tools, as well as for the Sound Designer program that was the 2-channel forerunner to Pro Tools. Ernst Nathorst-Böös is one of the co-founders of Propellerhead.  He was instrumental in the design of the companies popular soft synth program Reason as well as the aforementioned new release called Record.  
    In email interviews I asked both Brooks and Nathorst-Böös about how they dealt with the analog model for recording in developing their products, where they saw the analog model as an impediment to computer based audio interfaces, and whether they saw the various holdovers from the analog world as ultimately a limiting factor.  Both of them provided a strong rationale for using the analog model, along with other interesting insights into DAW design considerations.  
Both Brooks and Nathorst-Böös acknowledged that part of the motivation for using the analog model was, to quote Brooks, "a familiar interface was key to the broad acceptance of the product."  However, they both also emphasized the fact that the analog model "solves a lot of [user interface] UI problems. There is an existing straightforward solution for almost any problem, to draw from.  For example, using cables actually let us make a routing system that is much easier for our users to understand than the design in other programs that use computer widgets for patching signals."  That's Nathorst-Böös partly referencing Propellerheads signature software product, Reason.  Here's Brooks saying almost the same thing: "The analog models had evolved over the years to become a very efficient, familiar user interface that was well-tuned to accomplish the task at hand: recording... audio.  There was no need to reinvent them just for the sake of reinvention."  So yes, the analog model was seen as a necessary enticement to pull people into the digital world, but these designers never viewed the analog model as an unfortunate necessity, but more as the most efficient model to handle the task.
Both Brooks and Nathorst-Böös added that where needed and appropriate their computer programs simply abandoned the analog model.  As Brooks commented: "there was no point to emulating the analog model of editing magnetic tape.  We could have come up with a mouse-based procedure for marking an edit point with a digital 'grease pencil', and then cutting the 'tape' with a digital razor blade, and then re-splicing the tape with some digital adhesive tape, and then finally disallowing the undo of this operation."  Interestingly, in the new Record software from Propellerhead they do use a graphic of a razor blade as the edit tool for separating regions (but the program really edits in typical digital fashion-no virtual adhesive tape).   Again, referencing the Reason program, Nathorst-Böös notes that "the rack is analog and everything is else 'computer'."
Nathorst-Böös appends that last comment with the observation that "I'm not sure I would use the term digital in this context."  Instead he uses the term "computer".  And from there he attacked the use of the word DAW - as I quoted at the beginning of this paper.  Nathorst-Böös is insisting on removing the overlay of digital terminology where it doesn't reflect anything essential about the process.  Certainly he does not see a slavish reliance on analog modeling feeding stagnation in creativity.  Brooks as well notes:

For users that stick entirely to the DAW functions that mimic the analog systems, their potential is somewhat limited by their inability to access some new features and techniques.  What we see is that the user base has matured along with the product, and these days most users are very familiar and comfortable with the new tools, interfaces, concepts and technologies.  Their uses and demands drive the development of new features.

And he adds:
There is not much of the original "analog working model" left - perhaps VU meters, transport controls, a sense of linearity of time, and a new appreciation for classic recording gear (now in digital plug-in form).  I don't think these things are imposing any limitations on what the technology can do.  DAW technology has matured to the point where the only limitations are a user's time, skill and budget.  And that's the way it should be.

Neither Brooks nor Nathorst-Böös sees any conflict in the ways that music creation in the computer has drawn from its analog past, and they have me convinced.

THE SCRUBBER TOOL

    The final nail in my coffin goes as follows:  I chose, for this paper, the "scrubber" tool in Pro Tools as emblematic of a nostalgia for analog technologies that had no true application purpose in the new world of computer-based recording.  The scrubber is the tool that emulates the "scrubbing" or manually moving tape back and forth over the playback head to find and mark edit points for splicing.  It is a prominently displayed edit tool in Pro Tools and I have never used it, seen it used, or been able to imagine a use for it.  I assumed it was put there simply to appease analog operators.  And while I still think that is true, I discovered this posting on a Pro Tools discussion group website:

There are times when there is a tiny "snit" in the audio (often on a vocal track), and scrubbing is the ONLY way I can find it. There's no practical way to zoom way in and go looking for it (I've tried!) but scrubbing gets me within a millisecond and once zoomed in I can quickly remove it. The advantage of scrubbing for me is that I can go as fast or as slow as necessary to hear the glitch - too slow and I can't "hear" it, too fast and I can't narrow down the location.3

So, whether on not there is a better way to accomplish locating such a glitch- lesson learned.  Be careful of how you work backwards from your thesis.  Even the scrubber tool finds a roll for some in the world of digital audio construction.  I continue to argue that the DAW capabilities-which have moved audio so far beyond the constraints of analog technology-do provide great impetus for the renewal of creativity in popular music.  I cannot argue that the analog antecedents are a drag on this process of renewal. 

CONCLUSIONS

Nathorst-Böös is most certainly interested in behavioral psychology as a critical part of both interface design and marketing.  The behavior he wishes to elicit is an attraction to and comfort level with recording technology and for this reason he adopts many of the analog paradigms in both language and practice.  He assiduously avoids referencing technologies such as "digital" when he thinks the word "computer" carries less baggage and he bristles at the gobbledygook that he perceives in such categorizations as Digital Audio Workstation. I'm sorry Ernst but I think the term DAW is here to stay.  But I don't wish to discard the idea that I work in a recording studio and I certainly don't want my artists to get distracted or intimidated by technical jargon.
I recognize the fact that technologies do not replace one another.  The tidy theory of techno-evolution that sees technological advance as coming in stages-one replacing the other-doesn't hold up: television didn't replace radio and the Kindle is not going to replace books.  On the other hand we can't simply hold to the dogma that "the more things change, the more they remain the same."  Technologies play a roll in changing the way we do things, sometimes a dramatic roll, even though they do not wholly eclipse the earlier paradigms.  This is the case with computer-based audio construction.  The recording studio paradigm from the analog era will remain with us, lingering as an essential model for elements within the new recording studio-the DAW.
 

1 Malcolm, Grant and Joseph A. Goguen, "Signs and Representations: Semiotics for User Interface Design" http://cseweb.ucsd.edu/~goguen/pps/sigreps.ps.  Accessed 11/1/09

2 Ferreira, Jennifer; Pippin Barr and James Noble "The Semiotics of User Interface Redesign" http://crpit.com/confpapers/CRPITV40Ferreira.pdf. Accessed 11/1/09

3 Posted by: "Giles Reaves"  Tue Sep 1, 2009 8:44 am (PDT) http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/daw-mac/message/91924 Accessed 11/1/09