Thursday, December 11, 2008

Designing Interactions with Music

In late October I wrote a post about an article on Wired that noted how the iPhone, Wii and Guitar Hero helped bring to physical computing computing interfaces into the mainstream. My first prolonged experience with such an interface was through the DJ software Final Scratch that was release back in 2004. Through this experience I learned a lot about the meaning embodied through physical objects that support and guide our interactions with them. I also become present to the difficulties of trying to digitize your life (especially before there were millions of MP3 music sites online).

Sidenote: Music is one area where physical computing interafaces have been adopted earlier than in the mainstream. Over the next couple of weeks I will explore some interesting designs for interaction with music. However, now back to my own experience with digital DJing.

At the time that I started using Final Scratch I was a DJ who relied mostly on vinyl records, backed up by a small collection of CDs and an effects unit and sampler. I had reached the point where it was hard to organize of all my music, especially since my place was overflowing with records. I decided that digitizing my expansive electronic music collection was the best way to organize my music and make it findable; not to mention that this solution was going to address the space issue that would soon become exacerbated by the fact that I was moving in with my girlfriend, who is now my wife.

Final Scratch was designed to enable DJs to use vinyl records on any turntable to control the tempo and pitch of MP3 files playing from the computer, and it also supported the use of almost any 2 channel mixer as an output device. This hardware/software application enabled DJs to interact with music files on the computer by using the same physical instruments and gestures that they use when mixing vinyl records. Best of all it allowed DJs to carry a much larger amount of music and easily switch back and forth between tracks from the computer and vinyl records.

Though this type of interface does afford a lot of new possibilities to DJs, is also lacks some of the attributes embodied in vinyl DJing. First of all it took a few years before the reaction speed of the software was able to accurately mimic the feel of vinyl. Currently Serato Scratch Live is considered the market leader mainly due to their system's natural feel.

Next, the surface of records have natural, and sometime artificial, visible markers that serve as visual cues for DJs. Modern DJ applications have evolved to enable the DJ to add markers to visual displays of a track's soundwave to mimic this capability.

Lastly, the physical location of the record in your record bag/stack and the look and tactile feel of the cover had meaning that enabled you to easily locate tracks. It is harder to find tracks on a list where each entry lacks unique visual or tactile features. Now finding a record requires either text-based searches or a well thoughout playlist-based organization.

All pros and cons aside I decided to make the conversion. The next step in my grand plan was to digitize a large selection of records so that I could: (a) have the music available on FinalScratch on my computer; (b) sell the records on ebay to make sure that me and my wife could fit into our new 1-bedroom rental. It took me about a thousand hours over the span of a year and a quarter to digitize one thousand records. This experience helped me understand the amount of work it takes to convert analogue media into digital data (I can only imagine the costs of digitizing records for large older companies).

There were two main challenges that considerably lengthened the process. The first is caused by a physical feature of analogue media - it can only be recorded in real time. The second is due to the nature of digital media - music files are not searcheable, therefore, to make them easy to find you need to leverage metadata to properly categorize the files using some type of taxonomy (which, of course, I had to create on the fly).

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