home  previous   next 
The Ninth Annual Interactive Music Conference
brainstorming graphic

Group Report: The Stroke-a-phone: A New Digital Instrument for Troubled Times

Participants: A.K.A. "Stroke-a-phone" Pat Gleeson; composer
Alain Georges; MadWaves Scott Snyder; Electronic Arts
Julian Colbeck (played with “Yes”);
    KEYFAX NewMedia
Geoff Kirk; Atari
Alistair Hirst; Omni Interactive Audio Robert Hooper; Atomic Games
Guy Whitmore; Microsoft Jack Buser; Dolby Labs Licensing
Len Layton; C-Media Electronics Rob Rampley; Line 6
Kris Carter; Gibson Technologies Facilitator: Spencer Critchley; composer

It is the considered opinion of group participants that the instruments and programs for making digital music universally suck.1 The objective of the group then, was to explore what it is about so many of these “instruments” that makes them so painful and frustrating to use, as well as to explore what it is about those few instruments that rise above this morass to become the standards for usability, musicality and fun.

Based on analysis of these bad and good examples, we then set out to define core principles of good digital instrument design. The core principle, from which the others emanate, is the principle of “Flow”. Based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the principle of Flow states that all digital instruments should assist their users in achieving a state of creative Flow where logical, left-brain thinking is limited to the bare essentials and creative, right-brain thinking abounds.

Traditional Instruments as Guide
Before looking at good and bad examples of digital instruments, the group felt it was important to consider what it is about traditional instruments that makes them compelling. Why have the core traditional instruments that we have today (guitar, piano, drums, horns, stringed instruments, etc.) developed the way they have? Why have these particular instruments survived the process of hundreds or even thousands of years of evolution to become the standards for music creation? What about these instruments is lacking in our digital instruments?

While there are many answers to the above questions, one of the key features noted was the feedback these instruments provide. Their feedback is immediate . . . you strum it, bang it, or blow it and a compelling sound is produced. Also, their feedback is often physical . . . you can feel the vibration of the instrument as it resonates, etc. In short, traditional instruments have expressiveness and subtlety that digital instruments have not yet achieved.

Human limitations need to be taken into account when making instruments. One of the first instruments designed at the beginning of the industrial/machinery age was the hurdy gurdy. Turning a crank isn’t a natural motion of the human body however, and this contributed to the instruments lack of popularity. Playing a keyboard synth shaped like a guitar was cool for a while but forces the hand into an uncomfortable and unfamiliar playing position. The accordion allows the player to perform standing up and with the hands in more comfortable positions and has been used in a variety of different musics all around the world.

Of course, it may be a tall order for digital instruments (at most 40 years old) to achieve similar levels of expressiveness and subtlety as instruments that have benefited from hundreds of years of refinement, but the lessons of traditional instruments should be applied nonetheless. One stated goal for this would be to create digital instruments that are worthy of virtuosity. Musicians dedicate years of their lives to becoming a virtuoso on traditional instruments, yet we rarely see the same devotion shown toward digital instruments.

Digital Instruments – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The group discussed the history of digital instrument products and analyzed examples of the rare good ones and the plethora of bad ones. Interestingly, some instruments actually made the list as both good and bad examples due to particularly well-designed features living alongside poorly designed ones.

Bad Examples
The criticisms below are meant only as examples for shortcomings in specific areas, and may actually be very good-sounding and popular products.

Roland D-50

  • Non-standard terminology
  • No buttons
  • Buried parameter settings

Logic Audio

  • First-time usage is overly complex. Takes too much knowledge to get started.
  • No layering of controls -- parameters distributed across windows, menus etc in confusing ways.

Eventide Harmonizer

  • Small screen
  • Many pages deep of menus
  • Illogical menu structure.


  • Complexity exposed to the surface of the interface (too many little fiddly knobs and millions of lights all shown at once).

Yamaha DX-7

  • Complex terminology
  • Lack of physical controls
  • Tedious programming system

Good Examples


  • Interface drew on existing analog synthesizer designs, but implemented FM synthesis for the first time.
  • Beautifully constructed with matching ergonomic furniture.
  • Great support and a collegial atmosphere among users.

Yamaha DX-7

  • Great new sound -- was the basis for a whole generation of music.
  • Instant gratification -- single button access to patches.
  • Got new hairstyle just by touching it.

Garage Band

  • Immediate feedback. Can learn it in 2-3 minutes and create good sounding music almost instantaneously.
  • Provides an entry to music production technology for non-experts.
  • Plays well with other applications.
  • Makes you feel good about yourself seeing your name against a song alongside famous artists in iTunes and on your iPod (“I’m famous” experience).

Roland TR-series

  • Matrix/Grid visualization of sequence/pattern -- very fast to program.
  • Great sound, editing parameters intuitive and fast.

Principles of Good Digital Instrument Design
Based on the analysis of both traditional instruments and the good and bad examples of digital instruments, the group developed the following set of core principles of good digital instrument design. Of course, there will certainly be rare cases where one or more of these principles could or even should be ignored, but the digital instrument designer must remember that ignoring these principles is dangerous and is done so at his peril.

Principle 1 – Flow
The core principle of good digital instrument design is that they should be designed to allow the user to achieve a state of “flow” as defined by psychologies and philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his groundbreaking theories on creativity and quality work.

The group’s summary of the principle of Flow in the context of interaction with digital music instruments is that such instruments should assist their users in achieving a state of creative Flow where logical, left-brain thinking is limited to the bare essentials and creative, right-brain thinking abounds. To be more accurate, however, let us consider Csikszentmihalyi’s own words:

Over and over again, as people describe how it feels when they thoroughly enjoy themselves, they mention eight distinct dimensions of experience. These same aspects are reported by Hindu yogis and Japanese teenagers who race motorcycles, by American surgeons and basketball players, by Australian sailors and Navajo shepherds, by champion figure skaters and by chess masters. These are the characteristic dimensions of the flow experience:

1. Clear goals: an objective is distinctly defined; immediate feedback: one knows instantly how well one is doing.

2. The opportunities for acting decisively are relatively high, and they are matched by one's perceived ability to act. In other words, personal skills are well suited to given challenges.

3. Action and awareness merge; one-pointedness of mind.

4. Concentration on the task at hand; irrelevant stimuli disappear from consciousness; worries and concerns are temporarily suspended.

5. A sense of potential control.

6. Loss of self-consciousness, transcendence of ego boundaries, a sense of growth and of being part of some greater entity.

7. Altered sense of time, which usually seems to pass faster.

8. Experience becomes autotelic: If several of the previous conditions are present, what one does becomes autotelic, or worth doing for its own sake.

The Evolving Self - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 178-179

Principle 2 – Progressive Sophistication
One of the more interesting principles developed by the group was the concept of progressive sophistication, or progressive complexity. According to this principle, the design should invite the novice, but reward the sophisticated user by progressively revealing more and more advanced functionality. The initial experience of the instrument should not be intimidating, but it should allow the user to grow into deeper and more complex uses and encourage the user to move to ever-higher levels of skill.

It was noted that many traditional instruments have such progressive complexity built in, such as the ability to bend notes on a harmonica or horn, or the ability to pick rather than just strum a guitar. You don’t need to know how to do these things from the beginning in order to make music, but they become important parts of the music creation experience as the musician becomes more sophisticated.

By way of comparison, digital instruments have a nasty habit of presenting all of the complexity at first. In software, for example, this is often an attempt to make all possibilities visible at once, but the net result is often just an overwhelming number of choices that do not help the novice or intermediate user achieve the specific activity they desire.

Principle 3 – Activity-Centered Design
A close correlation to the principle of progressive sophistication is the principle of activity-centered design. By presenting a simpler interface initially, a problem is created that only certain functionality is available. This problem, however, can be overcome by activity-centered design, which presents only those features required to achieve a particular activity. The interface should be based around the completion of activities as opposed to accessing specific functions. For example instead of setting a series of parameters and answer questions to record a track of music, the interface should collect common sequential activities under a single activity-centered control.

Starting with what the end user of the instrument will be doing and working backwards is a great practice. This leads to commonly performed actions being very simple to figure out, but less commonly used actions should be able to be structured via user-defined short cuts. For example, if you were interested in non-Western tunings being able to set up alternate scales easily would be very useful. If you perform on dark stages lights or glow in the dark writing would be helpful.

Principle 4 – Responsiveness
Like traditional instruments, digital instruments should provide the user immediate, and possibly even physical feedback. Such feedback should be consistent and non-arbitrary so that cause and effect is always maintained.

The benefits of a new interface must be cost-effective and reproducible. A therimin or the Air Fx/Air Synth offer a different and expressive way of changing notes or parameters. The skill required to do so in a way that can be repeated though is cumbersome and not transferable to other instruments. In a performance situation the fact that the user is standing still and making strange hand movements doesn’t allow for audience to performer interaction. Plus it looks silly.

Principle 5 – Noodle-worthiness
The instrument should be capable of just being played without the intrusion of any technology. It should invite exploration and “noodling”.

Principle 6 – Ergonomicalicious
Traditional instruments have developed their ergonomics over centuries through trial and error. Digital instruments should apply this knowledge as well as the modern knowledge of human-factors engineering to develop ergonomically appropriate digital instruments. Whenever possible name things the same and put things in the same place. Everyone calls patches, ‘patches’ except Roland, which called them ‘partials’ which is also a musical term. Headphone jacks, midi plugs should be in familiar places and in familiar orientations.

Principle 7 – Capture Everything
Digital instruments should attempt to capture and record as wide an array of human performance parameters and inputs as possible. With physical instrument interfaces, finger pressure, body tapping, torsion, licking, slapping, scraping, banging and blowing should all be captured digitally for later editing and prosecution. With digital recording instruments, a TiVo-like continuous recording buffer should be implemented to ensure that activities are captures and you don’t have to all-too-common experience of playing the perfect lick without having pressed the record button.

Principle 8 – Positive Emotional Response
The instrument should evoke an immediate positive emotional response and continue to gratify throughout its useful life. Physical instruments should take industrial design seriously and software instruments should be designed both usability and beauty in mind. As Keats said, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth; that is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.”

Of course, there are instruments that the performer or user looks stupid while playing , or that have interfaces that cause much teeth gnashing and stress….and yet if the instrument is loved enough all these flaws will be overlooked or seen as friendly quirks. We called this the Volvo factor and it’s readily apparent in the way users relate to Apple computers -- new operating systems usually require the complete updating of applications; disk drives and card slots come and go, but the love remains.

Principle 9 – Performance Sex Appeal
Digital instruments need to look cool and be capable of usage on stage where the audience can see and appreciate the connection between the performer’s actions and the musical result. By way of comparison to traditional instruments, the guitar is the obvious example of performance sex appeal. It provides physical freedom of movement and presents the actual musical performance (fingers on a fretboard) directly in front of the audience. Digital instruments, where possible, should learn from this so that somebody besides the lead guitar player can get laid.

1For purposes of this paper, software programs will be grouped under the moniker “instruments” along with physical instruments such as keyboards, controllers, drum machines, etc.

section 6

next section

select a section:
1. Introduction  2. Speakers  3. Executive Summary  
4. Mobile Phone Audio - Lessons Learned from Games and the Web
5. A Whole-system Testing Framework for PC Audio
6. The Stroke-a-phone: A New Digital Instrument for Troubled Times
7. MIFFED (Music Industry Foundation for Educational Development)
8. PRAGMA (Pet Rocks and Game Music Alliance)
9. Schedule & Sponsors