Simple: Anything But Easy
The challenges of designing Focusrite’s simple but complex FAST plug-ins.
What makes software easy to learn and use? How is it that some programs seem to anticipate everything we want to do in advance, while others fight us at every step? And why do some plug-ins need to be set up with minute care, when others just sound good whatever we do with them?
As computers become more powerful, and software more complex, one factor has become increasingly important, yet increasingly hard to achieve: simplicity. Simplicity is especially crucial in software that’s targeted towards people who are just starting out, and it’s at the core of the Focusrite FAST range of plug-ins, developed in partnership with Sonible.
From the top down
There’s no separation between form and function in good software design. What the FAST plug-ins do, and how the user interacts with them, are fundamentally linked. As Focusrite’s Dan Clarke explains, “We typically start by asking the question ‘How can we help musicians in making great music? How can we remove barriers to their creativity?’ We’ll normally focus that down in some way, to a topic such as compression.
Lessons from history
Compressors and equalisers existed in the hardware world long before there were plug-ins. There’s lots of hardware that can sound great in the right hands: what makes the Pultecs and LA-2As and other long-standing recording mainstays special is that they sound great in pretty much anyone’s hands. It’s a quality that wasn’t lost on Focusrite’s development team. The goal of the FAST plug-ins is to offer the same foolproof simplicity in a processor that’s applicable to every style of music and every source.
As Dan says, “With the technology we’re using, we have a tool that adapts to the user’s material and configures the plug-in in a way that will work best for that sound. It takes the guessing out of which plug-in should be used.”
What does it all do?
There’s a lot of jargon in the world of recording. The controls on compressors and equalisers are classic examples. Understanding terms like threshold, ratio and bandwidth involves getting to grips with the inner workings of the processor. The FAST plug-ins short-circuit this learning process through a combination of machine learning and innovative user-interface design. “From the outset we knew we wanted to make these plug-ins for musicians earlier on in their journey,” says Dan.
Simplicity is a quality that can carry negative as well as positive associations. Processors that use a fully data-driven or ‘black box’ approach can deliver amazing results, but even their developers don’t fully understand how they arrive at those results.
By contrast, the FAST plug-ins are not inscrutable ‘black boxes’. AI is not replacing traditional compression and EQ parameters, instead it optimises those parameters and helps the user relate them to what we actually hear.
“For me,” says Dan Clarke, “there are two key elements that the FAST plug-ins offer. They’re a tool that works with you by listening to your music and your goals, to help you achieve a great sound; and they’re a tool that is honest and transparent.”
Find out more about how FAST plug-ins can make your music creation simple here.