Accessible/Inclusive Instrument Design

Hello lines friends. I haven’t been active here for a while because I’ve been busy with grad school, but I’ve been enjoying catching up on discussions this summer and hope that I can participate more going forward.

I have been designing a few Eurorack modules for fun recently. I consider myself a composer first and foremost, and I’m hoping this can be a way of putting some of my compositional into hardware form.

Eurorack is great, because it gives users so many options and is relatively beginner-friendly, but when you make the jump from just using modules to prototyping modules, you realize that it’s small. From a building perspective, this means that it favors SMD designs for complex modules, which isn’t too big of a hurdle, but the extra space afforded by 4U and 5U formats allows for more complex modules to be build using more accessible THT parts. For the user, however, this small size often means that builders often cram in many (too many) UI elements (buttons, knobs, jacks) in too small a space. After purchasing a couple “nano” Mutable clones early on, I swore off anything with tall trimmers/tiny pots because they simply aren’t fun or enjoyable to make music with (and I have very skinny fingers).

So, in this current DIY design endeavor, I’m spending a lot of time on the physical layout and design, and thinking about clarity of function and usability. I don’t want to make monstrous modules, but I’m also not making anything smaller just for the sake of being smaller.

Anyway, this is a long preamble to the discussion I hope to open up here. Can we chat about inclusive and accessible electronic instrument designs?

One specific point I’ve seen brought up in the Mutable Instruments forums is multicolor indicator LEDs. I haven’t been able to find any data (just online anecdotes), but it seems that red/green bicolor LEDs are problematic for colorblind individuals. Endorphin.es (another Eurorack builder) uses blue/red and claims that these LEDs are better.

Edit: I just want to clarify that this discussion is not about my designs, nor am I seeking help or feedback on my own projects. I included this backstory to explain why I’ve become interested in this topic. As I mentioned below, I think that such a discussion should not be limited to bought-and-sold “products” but should include (and would perhaps be more fruitful) if it included folks’ one-off and/or DIY solutions to particular accessibility issues.

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@papernoise has written extensively about the thinking behind their design work with Mutable Instruments.

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Just asking if it would help the discussion to define that question a bit more? (I don’t mean to be awkward. This is a great idea for a topic.) Is this about designing a product (Eurorack module?) focused on more specific areas (Motor? Vision? Learning?) to make it more accessible, or general approaches?

I’m not an expert in any of this at all, but just some thoughts:

  • Colour contrast of the front panel / LEDs?
  • Colour scheme takes colour blindness into consideration?
  • Size and readability of the fonts / icons used for labels?
  • Maybe provide alternative front panel designs on printed cards with cut out holes in them which slot over controls and cover up the original faceplate? Labelling controls with Braille? With QR codes which can be scanned and have a phone read out the name of the label? Use other fonts like OpenDyslexic? Or a template customers can adapt and print out themselves?
  • If you have an LCD / display, provide some way to show that display on a bigger screen? Expert Sleepers are working on connecting the Disting EX module to a bigger display.
  • Tabs which which can be stuck around cables to indicate where a cable starts and ends with big matching labels on them? e.g., A tab at one end of a cable staying “1 START” which has another tab at the other end saying “1 END”? Or something to help label cables? Braille / QR codes printed on those tabs?
  • Attenuvertors on everything so that settings on a module can be controlled by big physical controls / other interfaces, like the four big knobs on the Music Thing Modular Control? Or make an expansion module which has the attenuvertors on it? (Edit: Sorry, I meant CV inputs with attenuvertors.)
  • If your module is digital and has USB, provide a web app so that the some (all?) of the settings can be controlled through an accessible web browser based interface?
  • Documentation (at least a cheat sheet?) in languages other than English?
  • Designing the panel / controls to match the shape of people’s hands / be more ergonomic, not just locked to the horizontal / vertical layout grid “fixed” by design software? Would be cool to have a mixer module where the faders were split between left / right hands at 45 degree opposite angles, or similar.

(My apologies in advance if my lack of knowledge about disabilities and playing musical instruments makes any of the above condescending or just plain wrong. Not my intention and please forgive my ignorance.)

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Thanks for throwing out so many great ideas, Alan.

I brought up Eurorack because that’s what’s on my mind right now, but I was hoping this could be a discussion space about inclusive and accessible design for electronic musical hardware in general. And I don’t want to limit the discussion to “products” (instruments that are bought and sold) necessarily—I would love to see and hear about folks’ one-off and/or DIY solutions.

I think it’s best not to pre-impose too many boundaries on what areas are or aren’t pertinent to such a discussion. Physical motility, vision, hearing, language, and learning seem like potential issues to be explored, as well as social factors like gender and race, but there could very well be other areas that I haven’t thought of yet.

Lawton

P.S. Since Lines is a safe space, I thought I should provide a little more info about my interest and position on this topic. I’m a white male, like a lot of other hardware and software makers. I’m a music researcher in addition to composer, and much of my research has to do with how whiteness and maleness (and lack of physical impairments) has been coded into music technology. Up until a year or so ago, I never had to deal with any sort of physical or learning handicap but I’ve since developed a migraine and vertigo disorder that has impacted my ability to make music (in my case, it’s all or nothing—I either can work or I have to lay in a dark room and do nothing). Dealing with this disorder has made me much more sensitive and aware of the limitations that others face in day-to-day life as well as music-making.

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I think a lot about learnability as a dimension of accessibility. Can I comprehend the range and scope a tool affords me? Can I see a path to improvement of my technique? Does my learning build on itself over time? Does it take advantage of muscle memory and other forms of learning beyond the merely cerebral? Can it be understood by people of varying ages? How much training is required to get acceptable initial results? How much more to gain proficiency? Mastery? Can I use it in various states of mind? Does it still work when I am tired or sick or distracted? How much of my attention and dedication do I need to give to this thing? What does the tradeoff offer me in return? How will I balance this with other demands on my time and attention?

I’m using “me” words heavily here because it’s all so intensely personal, and it’s also temporal (tidal, if you will). What works for me today might not work for you tomorrow.

So accessibility demands flexibility. It requires fallbacks and workarounds and customization and extension. Some tools anticipate this better than others.

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I think a lot about this, although what I work on is always in English. I do lots of documentation professionally for both end users and technical maintainers (for non euro, non musical technical products). As someone who thrives under “good” documentation, I’ve found modules from MakeNoise and Mannequins/WR to be incredibly difficult for me to learn, but extremely rewarding and even more intuitively natural for me to incorporate in a patch once I do fully understand them.

One thing that I wasn’t expecting to be helpful in refining my technical documentation skills was trying to explain what I was doing to my 3 year old. Or just trying to answer his questions in general. How do you explain momentum to a 3 year old? What is sound? What is a volt? What is an integer?

This helps me cross some technical language barriers while explaining complex systems to non-native English speakers, to the point that general human intuition can build from. This has been immensely helpful in my experience. And because of that, most of my documentation gets “the kid test”.

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I have a close friend with color blindness, he loses the red spectrum in his specific case. I have been interested in this for the reasons related to his spectrum shift. Have been thinking about some possible work arounds depending on certain applications, indicator warnings etc. Focusing on different filters for outputs to change the chromatic scale, light and hue shift, overlays. A hex color scrambler set to a range in a different color blind spectrum to shift some multi colored leds and panels/displays etc. may be a future project.

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For a while I was dreaming up some modules and also thinking a lot about accessibility by people with different sensory experiences. I found a bunch of resources by googling, including this:

It’s about web design but I think many of the principles still apply (avoid certain color combos, use symbols/positions and lights in tandem, etc).
I think also about being sighted/having vision loss/being blind and ergonomics, particularly tactile feedback. When I’m making music, particularly improvising, I like to be able to look at my rig and be able to assess its state as quickly as possible. Is there a way to be able to do that without sight, and also without risking an undesirable change to the status of the rig (ex feeling a knob’s position and accidentally changing it)? I have been really interested in what ergonomics and control mechanisms allow for these kinds of things, because I think it would benefit not only blind people but really anyone who wants to create.
A cursory google also brought up some articles and abstracts from papers in the design field for accomodating vision loss and blindness in product design.
I am neither blind nor colorblind though, so I can’t speak to these experiences first-hand. I’d probably want to hire a consultant to help me through preliminary design concepts (as opposed to asking someone for their help without compensation) if the development advice is particularly intensive.
I’m seeing more about this in general, and also curious about the possibilities of haptic feedback. Pauline Oliveros I believe (co?)taught a class at RPI about accessibility and electronic music, I wish I could have taken it.

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I think physical mobility is an unexplored space in instrument design. I purchased a big chunk of my modular from someone who had to give it up due to arthritis and I think about that a lot when I play.

http://bardable.com/ is one small company trying to come up with controllers useable by people with limited band mobility, thinking about design in this way seems like a great way to get creative, expressive instruments for anyone.

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I had the pleasure of working with Pauline Oliveros many years ago and edited two of her books. I remember the accessibility and electronic music initiative at RPI that you mentioned. One system in particular struck me as particularly creative – it was for players/performers who were paralyzed from the neck down and it used motion tracking from a camera to map the players’ eye movements to different synth parameters. If I remember right, it was a flexible system that could take different kinds of sensor input if, for example, a player was able to move individual fingers, etc. I’ll see if I can find the essay in which she wrote about it and link to it here.

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The Up-Goer Five Text Editor is a fun tool to use when you want to explain complex things in simple terms, as it limits you to only the ten hundred most used (English) words.

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yeah! this! I interviewed her for a paper on pedagogy in grad school and she mentioned this class was one that she found particularly inspiring. It would be great to get a hold of some kind of syllabus…

Im currently working for a disabled musician, its als, and since its a condition that is not getting better but worse this really interests me.
Could you provide a link? Id really appreciate!

Adaptive Use Instruments Project (AUMI)

Pauline Oliveros has a brief essay about this project in her book Sounding the Margins. It also looks like there is a forthcoming book called Improvising Across Abilities in the works according to the AUMI website.

There are a number of publications linked on the AUMI website, this one is a good overview.

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Great thread! Thanks for starting it @_greathorned .

I’m also an academic who researches, writes, and teaches about disability and technology as one of my areas. I also have some disabilities (they’re like chips—why have just one?).

My sense is you can’t design a universally accessible musical instrument, and what’s accessible to one person will not be to another, even if they have identical disabilities. Moreover, musicians often want some recalcitrance from their instruments, but what that means depends on person and the context. AUMI is a great example of this: amazing as a participatory instrument, very adjustable, but also very tied to Pauline Oliveros’ aesthetics and politics. Which are great! But not what every musician wants to accomplish. Also, tied to a computer and visual surveillance of gesture. Again, not what every musician wants. To be fair, the AUMI people all know this and don’t claim otherwise, and they do great work.

You can design with a group of users in mind, or for you, or for a resonant purpose (see Pullin below).

For Eurorack, definitely think in terms of bigger modules with more space between the controls. There was an offshoot of the Euro thread that got folded back in with a link to military specs for instrument panels. What impressed me reading that was that Eurorack is often designed in ways that don’t even meet usability standards for nondisabled people.

Here are some authors who have influenced me:

Sara Hendren What Can a Body Do?
Graham Pullin Design Meets Disability
Sasha Costanza-Chock Design Justice
And a couple good histories:
Aimi Hamraie Building Access
Bess Williamson Accessible America

Feel free to message me if you want syllabi or more reading or whatever, if that’s helpful.

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So frustrating. I don’t have anything else to say, except that using standards that prioritize accessibility for people experiencing disability also usually helps people who are not. And part of the reason I avoid so many Eurorack modules in general is that the designs rarely prioritize either accessibility or playability (maybe a different discussion but feels important).
Thank you for sharing your reading recommendations!

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@JES do you have a link to that discussion about Euro and military specs for instrument panels? Thanks for the awesome reading list!

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Standard 1472F. I don’t normally endorse the military as my go-for thinking about technology, but they want their people to be able to use their equipment.

Here is where I learned about it.

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