After years of bitmap-based graphics and tiny knobs, making interfaces scalable could be the next challenge for music software, regardless of platform. Today, it’s the iPad; tomorrow, it could be a new generation of touch-equipped devices, or greater sensitivity to people with aging eyes and vision problems. Musicians, translating invisible sound to the metaphors of music notation, acoustic instrument designs, visuals, and the abstraction of hardware knobs and faders, have a unique perspective. (Steve Jobs used to regularly brag that the original Mac team was composed of people like musicians and artists, not simply technology specialists.)

I got into a conversation with David Wallin, the developer of the elegantly-designed bleep!BOX, about his new iPad app. I’ve long been a fan of his iPhone and iPod touch designs, but I was curious about the iPad work. For one thing, I noticed some empty space on the layout, save for some (non-functional) background graphics.

David turns out to have a number of interesting things to say, not least talking about how he decided to support both landscape and portrait orientations. (Again, this could be an issue with other current and upcoming platforms, not just iPad. See the portrait view at the end of the story – it’s, so far, one of the only such uses of that orientation I’ve seen in upcoming music apps.)

Here’s his whole response, unedited:

I spent a couple days thinking about how I would have designed bleep!BOX differently to take advantage of the extra space. The first priority was adding better navigation than the app currently has. The corner sliders work fine on the iPhone and they don’t take up much space, but being able to see all the options and click right on the one you want is definately ideal. This change I did end up doing. The second biggest thing I wanted to do would be to expand the sequencer page so that you could see and put notes in for more than just one part at a time – so probably some kind of 10 part by 16 step grid. I think Nanoloop does a good job with this, and it might be something that I borrow from. Some other ideas I had for improvements – combining multiple pages together (though then the question becomes which pages make sense to be on the same screen, and is the UI becoming too cluttered?) and also providing a better ‘global’ view of the song with some more of the stuff that is cool for live performances – such as the mute buttons and maybe also the loop controller or song-pattern picker. There is also the possibility to turn the existing note-picker into a more traditional ‘piano keyboard’, adding a ‘mixing board’, etc..

Deciding what changes to make wasn’t easy. I realized that having a larger screen really does make a huge difference and I probably would have made some very different design choices if I had designed for the iPad to start out. I also have the issue that if I’m going to maintain one binary for both platforms, it’s going to be fairly difficult to make drastic changes to the interface flow without hacking my code to pieces. And also, as you mentioned there is the desire to keep some consistency between both platforms so that someone who is used to the iPhone version can hit the ground running with the iPad version. Plus I only had 60 days from the announcement of the iPad to make any changes I wanted to make. Since this is something I do in my spare time (not a full time job), I knew that I would have to be realistic about what I could accomplish in that timeframe. So, I settled on keeping the same page structure. I made extensive modifications so that the pages could resize to fill more space if necessary. I also added a ‘global area’ with an overview of the full song (that doubles as a navigation tool, since it lets you pick the current part and bar). Finally, I decided to leave the sequencer page as is, at least for now. I played with a couple interface possibilities for this, but none of them quite satisfied me. Once I get my hands on a real iPad and I have time to play with it, I might decide to make some more extensive modifications there (it is probably the most ’empty’ looking page on the iPad..).

So basically my goal was to expand on some of the elements that were a little cramped on the iPhone and give them space to breathe and also to provide a nicer experience without really adding any new features that can’t be accessed on the iPhone. Design wise, there are definately some areas that I think can be better/prettier on the iPad, and I hope to address those in my next few updates. It’s gonna be another busy month or two. 🙂

More info: bleep!BOX update submitted