Audacity, the Open Source software that many hobbyist-level to multiple Grammy-nominated musicians use to learn about audio recording and editing, is getting a touch screen twin. Audacity’s user interface was originally designed around the mouse and keyboard for PCs, which creates it’s own set of challenges while playing and simultaneously overdubbing music. So, adding a second interface that runs on the popular touch-enabled PCs and Ultrabook 2 in 1s, which allows you to toggle between laptop and touch screen UIs, only enhances the Audacity experience.
The Audacity / Intel Connection
Intel first presented the idea to use a touch interface to Vaughan Johnson, a member of the Audacity Technical Leadership Council. Johnson was so receptive to this idea that he used his 12 years of experience with Audacity to create a prototype. However, it was the power and performance of Intel®-based 2 in 1 computers that ultimately helped Johnson decide that the Ultrabook would be his first touch platform.
Johnson trusts the 2 in 1 technology will support over 200 Audacity use-cases because it provides powerful processors (i.e. the “horsepower”) to do so. And the 2 in 1 technology provides Audacity with high quality audio on mobile devices without having to do a complete code rewrite, an additional requirement for other mobile OS platforms. For example, on 64-bit Windows 8 the minimum hardware requirement to run Audacity is 2GB of RAM with a 1 GHz processor.
Johnson’s primary goal in modifying the Audacity user interface is simplification. Any screen element, be it a button, control, or status indicator, must pass scrutiny. Does the element support a simpler user experience? When a grandchild records grandma’s family stories, she does so at her grandmother’s convenience. So what controls does a novice need to complete the capture successfully? In Johnson’s own words, “Simplification—provide a basic recording device with ability to label important points, comments, crescendos, etc. by touch.”
Remove the Unnecessary
To begin, Johnson removed the Windows title bar, which has unnecessary elements for touch mode, such as application pane resizing. Then he removed the menu bar with the usual File, Edit, View, and Help buttons. Audacity-specific control buttons Transport, Tracks, Generate, Effect, and Analyze are also gone.
The Audacity laptop UI is very specialized; the area just above and below the audio spectrum display has no fewer than 43 visual control elements by default with room for adding more via customization.
Audacity on Laptop
In the tablet UI, all but three controls from the top of the screen (microphone and speaker levels plus the Settings wrench) are removed and only 20 controls remain on the touch screen. Gone also are numerical displays, such as the scale of the spectrum display and the length of the selection on the bottom, as is the information for file/encoding type, for audio hardware currently active, and for the sampling rate of the project. However, these elements can still be accessed in the desktop UI.
Audacity on Touch UI
Check out the demo here.
Keep the Must-Haves
The Audacity tablet UI groups like actions together, with a focus on ease-of-use. For example:
- The audio spectrum graph is largely unchanged, while altering the anchor, left side of each graph to make it touch friendly.
- A smaller number of channels are displayed in the simplified tablet interface.
- To add a track, the user only has to touch the + sign icon under current tracks, replacing the menu-bar nesting or hot-key combination Ctrl-Shift-N.Icons, like a speaker instead of the mute button and headphone instead of the solo button, replace less efficient elements.
- Icons, like a speaker instead of the mute button and headphone instead of the solo button, replace less efficient elements.
Perhaps, the most drastic changes in the touch UI are seen on the edges of the display. The laptop UI has a top to bottom flow; whereas, the touch UI has focuses its main controls to left edge. Additional functions occupy space at the top and bottom of the screen to leave more screen real estate and a left to right display.
What’s behind the curtain?
Johnson primarily created the new UI by using Microsoft Visual C 2008 on Windows. He also relied heavily on the body of development work the Audacity team built over the last 14 years including many cross-platform libraries. Johnson is currently planning on porting the easy internal Windows standard controls as implemented by wxWidgets for touch UI. While the first of these descendant classes has been written, each subsequent layer is more complex and therefore needs to branch to simpler versions.
The task of adding a second UI to a popular, 14-year-old application like Audacity and its established user base will take time and effort. These features aren’t available for download today, but the work continues. If you would like to help or encourage the task, let your voice be heard at Audacity.
- Audacity Use Cases
- Audacity Special Interest Groups
- Audacity Wiki Page
- Audacity Awards
- Intel 2 in 1 information page
- Audacity 2-in-1 transition video demo