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Design Clipboard – Gizmos


Design Clipboard is a new series of articles I plan to write here on Horizontalpitch. As you can guess from the name, these articles will focus on design-related themes. Sometimes they will come in the form of longer, more in-depth writings, with a focus on a specific topic, but more often they will just be collections of loosely-related thoughts.

The Great Gizmo

I’ve just red the article “The Great Gizmo” by Reyner Banham, originally published in 1965 and it feels like a wonderful introduction for this series. It sparks many interesting questions related to electronic music instruments and their design.

Here’s a short quote which sums up one of the central points of the article quite well:

This is what makes Ole Evinrude’s invention of the outboard motor so triumphantly American an event. To fit an inboard motor to an existing boat requires craft skills and mathematical aptitudes of a sort normally found only in places with a long tradition of boat-craft, as in the maritime cities of Europe or New England, where boatyards, ship­wrights and the encrusted wisdom of ancient mariners was freely available. […] But you can order a stock outboard from the catalogue with the right propeller for its own power and your size of boat, fix it with two clamps, add fuel and pull the starter. So ideal, and so American is this solution, that other one-shot aids to the back-porch technologist have proliferated – to cite only one, the adapters that make it possible for any hot-rod-crazy to fit any engine to almost any gearbox and transmission.

If we look at it from the “gizmo perspective”, certain apps (as in phone and tablet apps) are the perfect gizmo. User experience design seems to be all about making things quick and easy, lowering the barrier as much as possible, so everybody can take a good looking photo, manage their-work life balance or recognize any type of flower. Admittedly this is an oversimplification. Apps like Audulus or Sunvox – just to make some examples – definitely require knowledge, practice and learning.

What about electronic instruments like synthesizers and drum machines? Are they the gizmos of the music world? Simple to use devices that enable everybody – even the most musically unskilled – to make some music? Again, it’s not that simple, although, if we look at features like auto-accompaignment and the “AI-powered”, assistive tools, there is a lot of “gizmo elements” to be found.

The Gizmo-ness of Marketing Copy

“Quick and easy” are recurring keywords in the advertising copy most music tech companies use to promote and sell their products. For some reason, it seems like electronic musicians don’t enjoy making music, and just want to be done with it as quickly as possible (I’m just teasing you here!).

One thing I noticed is that all-in-one-devices like grooveboxes seem to have a more pronounced focus on it than synthesizers, but this would definitely need some closer investigation. In the meantime, here’s a couple of quotes from various companies’ advertising copy:

Generate soul-stirring song ideas in seconds, and experiment with styles and variations to coax dancing lines and rhythmic patterns from your chords.


Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find your sound fast. Don’t worry if you’re lacking inspiration […]


Just select the music style/sound category you want and pick a sound!


Fast, intuitive, and fun way to create and perform tracks and beats


Create instinctively. Perform immediately.


This gets even more pronounced once so called “AI” enters the picture. One could say that “AI” algorithms are the ultimate, perfect gizmo.

[…] whether you’re a beginner or a pro, this tool makes things quick, intuitive, and fun. 


The Arpeggio module is an instant easy-to-use module, providing cool arpeggios to give you instant satisfaction


The app then adapts to your own style and it generates personalized patterns to achieve the perfect user experience


Of course this is likely just scratching the surface of a pretty complex topic. Also the instrument’s design and the copy used to sell it might have very different goals.

The Ciat-Lonbarde Cocoquantus

Underground Instruments

Interestingly, the more you move away from the mainstream, the less gizmo-like instruments become.

Modular synths – at least in their original incarnation – require an assortment of skills, sound theory knowledge and even mathematical aptitude to be used to their full potential. Imaginative boutique instruments, like for example Ciat-Lonbarde’s, require both practice and learning to be played. Open-canvas devices like norns or Organelle are less about giving people a ready-made solution and more about empowering them to create their own.

Quick gratification and shallow learning curves are partially sacrificed in exchange for a long-term engagement with the instrument.

It should be noted at this point that instruments being “easy” and more widely accessible isn’t a bad thing at all. A lot of gatekeeping has been done by making things artificially complex and hard to learn. As always there is a subtle balance, which is difficult to attain, but which should be actively sought. A balance between things being approachable and rewarding early on, but at the same time allowing for personal, creative expression and long term engagement. Great instrument design is all about finding this balance.


Graphic designer, illustrator and soundmangler. He makes music as kurodama and as part of the electronic music duo kvsu. Together with his wife Elizabeth he runs Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.

Comments 4
  • John Pallister
    Posted on

    John Pallister John Pallister

    Reply Author

    Interesting stuff Hannes! Growing up with early microcomputers and working as a software developer I’ve seen the transition from “here’s an interface to access bits of the internal hardware according to the designer’s logic” to “here’s an app to address a lifestyle need you hadn’t realised you had yet”. That is, the earliest interfaces were entirely constrained by the design (or indeed physics) of the underlying hardware, which you as the user had to have some grasp of.

    So by comparison early modular gear required more of an appreciation of the limitations of the underlying devices, whereas modern modules can do pretty much anything and can present any interface they like.

    The things I like most about Buchla and Serge designs vs. Moog is the sense that they grokked the underlying device physics and made instruments/modules/functions that leveraged that “physical computation”.

    Of course I could be entirely wrong. It’s fun to think about though!

  • Hannes
    Posted on

    Hannes Hannes

    Reply Author

    I think this is an interesting point of view. There definitely is also a functionality vs. lifestyle thing going on in interface design. It’s not by chance that silicon valley decided to call “digital product design” “user experience design”.
    Of course modern modules are often digital, which gives you a lot more freedom in terms of user interface. My experience though is that the best interfaces for digital modules are designed according to the same principles that you would follow for an analogue module.
    I think your points open a whole new discussion, one about if interface design should reflect what the circuit does on a more basic, technical level, or if it should reflect how it affects the sound. I’m clearly in favour of the second one.
    Last but not least, I have to partially disagree regarding your view Buchla’s UI design. Buchla is famous for having always designed the modules starting from the panel.

  • John Pallister
    Posted on

    John Pallister John Pallister

    Reply Author

    > silicon valley decided to call “digital product design” “user experience design”
    And thus arguably it becomes more marketing than engineering – another example of “capitalism subsuming everything”? 🙂
    > the same principles that you would follow for an analogue module
    Yes, my point is probably better made in regards to software plug-ins… “One function per knob” is very tough to beat in the physical realm.
    > I’m clearly in favour of the second one.
    Me too! 🙂
    I wonder if the long-awaited Buchla film will shed any light on his design philosophy/methodology specifically?

  • Hannes
    Posted on

    Hannes Hannes

    Reply Author

    Yes that I am very curious about as well! Let’s hope it does go into those details a bit.

    And regarding the whole “design UIs for digital stuff as if they were analog” topic. That might actually be a cool topic for an article.

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