I want to have a conversation about the design of audiovisual instruments with regard to tactile, hands-on performance. I would like to hear some artists and designers’ thoughts about this. How important or desirable is the ability to move a control quickly, with a musical feel?
The entire reason for the resurgence of knobs and sliders in synth design is due to the lack of intuitive controls seen in late 20th century instruments exemplified by the notorious Yamaha DX-7. Moreover, many artists have embraced hardware audio and video synthesizers precisely because they want the responsive tactile interface of knobs and sliders that can be difficult to achieve via PC software.
And yet, so many synths and modules, both audio and video, are designed with potentiometers that literally introduce friction into the performance. The pots resist being moved. It is not possible to use these pots as real-time parameter controllers in the same way one would use a musical instrument. The pots are just too slow to be moved as quickly as one’s hands can move.
This goes against my entire working methodology. I learned synthesis on Sandin, E-mu, Buchla, ARP, and Sequential Circuits gear, all of which have frictionless pots. (The E-mu modular in particular was a joy to work with, all-metal modules and knobs that were perfect for real-time manipulation.) I’ve also used gear that had slow and sluggish pots, e.g. Hearne/EAB, Roland. While I loved the fucntionality of those instruments, I was not a fan of their performative characteristics.
My current rig has modules from ten different manufacturers. Almost all of them use pots that resist being moved. I do not fully understand this design choice. Why would anyone want to undermine one of the key functions of hardware synthesis – real-time tactile control?
Is it because the available OEM parts are all designed this way? No, because there are some pots that don’t introduce friction. In particular, the @brownshoesonly modules use pots that I can move quickly and easily in a staccato motion, or move slowly and evenly in a legato motion. I think Nick gets it. His experience with live bands has informed his module design with musical performance in mind. I love the oversized knobs, as well. Yes, I know the V.HS modules are going to be more compact, and I guess that means the end of the big, sexy knobs that are so great for musical performance.
Are most pots slow and sluggish to prevent accidental changes from bumping the knob or slider in a dense forest of controls and cables? This does make sense to me. Eurorack real estate is extremely dense in comparison to historical designs. (The E-mu modular was huge, with vast swaths of empty space. Great for performance, but absolutely not portable.)
Knobs and sliders that are difficult to move are great for “set it and forget it” applications. Is that the dominant paradigm? Is the assumption that artists are going to set up a patch and let it run with little or no real-time manipulation? There is merit to that, but it shouldn’t be the only option.
Finally, I want to bring up the FKG3. Not having an ESG3 yet, I can’t fully test the new keyer module. But I have seen video demos by Nick and Johnny Woods. The Threshold pot has a fixed slew function built into it. This assures a “smooth” transition between key thresholds. I humbly suggest that this design choice does not take all use cases into consideration. One of my most favorite things to do is “ride” the key threshold; to play it like a musical instrument. This slew factor makes that impossible. It’s like someone built a musical keyboard that had a fixed portamento that was always on and could not be disabled. Or an envelope generator that could only produce slow attacks.
I’m really, really not a fan of the visual effect of changing the FKG3 threshold. It’s got a very robotic feel to it. By analogy, it’s like a computer animation that uses the default slow-out, slow-in Bezier tangents. This is something that only beginner rookie animators ever do. The very first thing one learns is how to adjust those curves to make the animation natural, interesting, believable.
I’m assuming that the Threshold CV input of the FKG3 does not have a slew on it, otherwise it would be useless at any frequency above one Hertz. So I can use an external controller to get the effect I want for this parameter, or any parameter that has a CV input. (My favorite is my trusty JL Cooper CS-10^2, a MIDI controller from the early 90’s that has nearly frictionless 110mm sliders.) But in a perfect world, I could use the physical controls directly built into the modules, and not have to resort to external gear and the ensuing greater patch complexity.
In future LZX designs I would like to see the tyranny of enforced slew rates abolished. I would much rather have full manual tactile control over the parameter than have to live with “smooth transitions”.