Some user experience information streams I’ve subscribed to today

Today I’ve spent some time reviewing which RSS feeds I subscribe to. I’ve decided that I’m missing out on user experience material. So I’ve been hunting out some streams of UX inspiration and ideas.

I’ve added the following feeds to my RSS subscriptions, and will be reviewing their usefulness over the next couple of months:

  • Smashing Magazine UX design category
    Feed address: http://rss1.smashingmagazine.com/feed/?f=uxdesign-std
     
  • UX Magazine
    Feed address: feed://feeds.uxmag.com/uxm
    I’m slightly wary of this one – will the content just be stripped down teasers for paid material? Will the focus be too long-form and specific for my needs?
     
  • Gizmodo’s user experience tag
    Feed address: http://gizmodo.com/tag/user-experience/rss
    This one was a little harder to find the RSS feed for. I didn’t have to do any filtering like I’ve done with other RSS feeds, but I did need to manually work out the URL. I followed this guidance to generate the URL I needed – you just need to put /rss at the end of the tag’s URL.
     
  • UI Patterns
    Feed address: http://feeds.feedburner.com/UI-patterns-com
    UI design patterns are standard solutions to common design problems. This site discusses them and also collates examples.
     
  • Elements of design
    Feed address: http://feeds.feedburner.com/ElementsOfDesign
    A showcase of different design patterns. The RSS feed itself shows latest additions to the example gallery.
     

Play with Your Music – Module 3: Reverse Engineering a Multitrack Mix

The third module of “Play with your Music” is about the mixing process: taking individual tracks of recorded instruments and vocals, and arranging them together into a cohesive whole.

The first part of this week’s assignment was to reproduce Clara Berry & Wooldog’s “Air traffic”, by setting the volume and pan (left-right) for each track. This reproduction is to create a “convergent” mix. The task was to make a static mix, so we’d just have to find a single setting for each track, rather than adjusting things over the course of the track.

There was a video on multi-track mixing and a useful interview with the musicians, producer and engineer involved in the creation of “Air traffic”. Alex Ruthmann has a good interview technique, and challenged the interviewees to unpack things that were obvious to them but not to mixing novices.

We were doing our mixing in-browser in a tool made for the occasion. It basically loads an 128kbps mp3 file for each track, and then uses javascript to handle the volume and panning of each track. The mix information gets stored as a string at the end of the URL generated by the web page. This is how we can share our mixes with each other. Listen to my convergent mix of “Air Traffic”. The string at the end of the URL is pretty neat: a dictionary with global information identifying the song and its length, followed by a list of dictionaries for each track. I actually just used the soundcloud version of the track, rather than the left and right channels in the mix deck, as I found this a bit easier to navigate. Hopefully the versions aren’t too different!

The most fun part of this week was being given the chance to come up with a different version of the mix.

This is the type of “playing with my music” that I’d been waiting for, and having listened to this track a couple of dozen times I had an idea of how I wanted to refashion it: I wanted to focus the track around the lovely vocals and driving bass. While I love multi-layering complexity, I also love uncluttered, focused soundscapes. That’s what I’m aiming for with my mix. Here’s what I did:

  • I removed the piano
  • I moved background vocals to the left channel, and lead vocals to the right channel, so that they could have more of a duet feel.
  • Initially I made the background vocals louder than the lead vocals, to see what that would sound like. But this sounded a bit too strong, so I turned the volume of these down, so that left and right vocals were now equal.
  • I love the drum entrance, but keeping the drums at the same level for the whole mix, as we’re doing in this static mix exercise, made things feel too abrupt when certain elements appeared. And I didn’t want them vaguely-present, but not loud enough to listen to closely. So I stripped the drums out entirely.
  • Without the piano there’s actually nothing to listen to for the first few bars, so I changed the min time in the URL to 6, to trim the silence
  • I then tried to focus in on the timpani, which I’d set to about half of max volume and forgotten about while I worked on the more important elements. I couldn’t hear it very clearly, so I maxed out its volume and listened to its contribution to the mix. It only makes a few appearances – in a way, it’s a frame for the drums – and sounded a bit disjointed without some of the other embellishments that I’d removed, so I got rid of it too.
  • I gave the mix another few spins, and decided that the bass was set a bit loud. So I turned the bass down a bit.
  •  

    Have a listen to my divergent mix of “Air Traffic”.

    divergent mix of air traffic, by martin lugton

Play with Your Music – Module 2: Learning to Listen for Musical Structure

In the second module of the “Play with your Music” open online course, we’ve been thinking about musical structure. We were encouraged to analyse the same song we’d examined in the previous module, so here’s my representation of the structure of Alcest’s Sur l’océan couleur de fer.

Play with Your Music – Module 1: Analyse your favourite tune and share it

I’m currently taking a 6-week open online course in mixing and remixing music, called Play With Your Music. The first’s week assignment is to describe the sonic landscape of a track I like.

Why I’ve chosen this track: Alcest is one of my favourite bands, if not my favourite. Alcest’s music sounds graceful, elegiac and transcendent. It feels like it’s coming from a context beyond every-day worries, concerns and feelings.

I’ve chosen a track from Alcest’s second album, Écailles de lune, called Sur l’océan couleur de fer. I particularly like its sorrowful and slightly mysterious lyrics (they work better in French, but I’ve pasted a translation below). I think the track is about 30% longer than it needs to be, but I still really like it.

Lyrics:

On The Iron-Coloured Ocean

On the iron-coloured ocean
Cried an immense choir
And those long screams whose insanity
Seem to pierce through Hell

And then death and silence,
Rising just like a black wall
…Sometimes, in the distance, could be seen
A swaying fire

Translation from lyrics translate.

The instruments and their location in the mix:

The main instrument is a slightly shimmering, mellow clean, electric guitar, played gently.

Just behind it in the mix sit the distant, tranquil, male vocals; wavering slightly but with some lovely sustain and slight vibrato on these longer notes.

There are other instruments too – a smooth, firm and unobtrusive bass guitar part in the centre of the mix, additional guitar and vocal parts in left and right channels, vocal harmonies, an acoustic guitar, backing vocals later and a symbol – but the track is defined by this interplay of vocal and guitar over the bass. The parts where the guitar climbs up one channel, and the vocals climb up another, and the two intertwine, are particularly pretty.

I enjoyed this exercise, and it’s helped me to be more attentive to what I’m listening to. I hadn’t noticed the acoustic guitar that is used towards the end of the track, for example.