The Abacusynth: a more tactile interface for audio synthesizers

Like CAD programs, audio synthesizers have complicated interfaces that can be intimidating to the uninitiated.

Software engineer and musician Elias Jarzombek explains the UI-based problem with audio synthesizers:

“Synthesizers generate timbre electronically, which means control is not limited by any physical barrier. Many controls allow granular control over timbre, but the complexity can often be prohibitively expensive for beginners (and even tedious for musicians The kind of timbre control that synthesizers provide is arguably as “musical” as melody or rhythm, but that’s not often emphasized for someone learning music.

“That’s because most synths are aimed at the creator of ‘Big C’, the professional or virtuoso who needs granular control to achieve his goal, and who is either willing or compelled to learn from complex interfaces to do this.”

To make it easier for novices to learn the principles of using a synthesizer, Jarzombek prototyped this Abacusynth, which borrows the form factor of the abacus to create an easy-to-analyze physical user interface.

“The Abacusynth interface organizes the timbral building blocks – oscillator waveforms, harmonics, filters, and time-based modulations (or LFOs) – into a visual and spatial interface that prioritizes interaction and invites experimentation.”

Here’s how each control works, and you can see that it is indeed much easier to understand each input due to the physicality of the interface:

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“My target user is a ‘low C’ creator, someone who is creative just for fun, and who is more interested in feeling good while creating, instead of focusing on the outcome. This type of engagement is just as creative as ‘Big C’, but isn’t as studied or considered as much when it comes to design.”

(Jarzombek credits PhD student Kate Compton, who researches “new ways to connect computers and creativity,” with the inspiration.)

“This idea is summarized in an article by Kate Compton, in which she introduces the term Casual Creator to define the class of systems that supports creativity for creativity’s sake. I used the principles laid out in Compton’s research to guide my design and my development.”