Digital Audio Workstations are Upside Down | How a UI Error Hides in Plain Sight!

It’s common in music mixing to build a mix from the kick drum up. Start with the lowest frequency components, so that the bass is treated after the kick, and then keep working your way up the frequency spectrum. Generally your mix balance starts to take shape as you set the levels for the synths and guitars, then vocals, other percussion, the effects and all the high end shimmer and sparkle etc.

In a perfect DAW UI world, then, you’d want your tracks to scroll in the opposite direction, with Track #1 at the bottom of the main editing window, and you’d scroll upwards rather than downwards as the track count increases. This way, you can work with a user interface that mirrors better your experience of mixing the track. After all, we say that low frequencies are LOW as in spatially low, and ditto for the spatial metaphor of HIGH frequencies. But this common auditory-spatial sense of high and low pitched sounds doesn’t make its way into the visualized track structure. Instead, if you want to build your mix from the kick up, you’d be placing it at the top and working your way down the interface!

Instead of following mix logic, all DAWs follow spreadsheet logic. Accounting and general data organization practices are mapped directly into DAW UIs, without consideration for the low and high spatial metaphors that are part of our understanding of sonic material and the practices that shape it.

The splash image at the top of this blog from one of my projects more or less captures this state of affairs. In my own practice I deviate a bit from a strict low-to-high editing scheme in that I like to place the beats at the top followed by the main chord progressions, but in the main the tracks increase in pitch space as they descend in the track layout. Chord progressions establish the general pitch space of a composition and the beats establish the timing, so I like to start the mix build with setting up the general space/time bounds of the piece. The beats, of course, will contain the kick so the overall low-to-high concept is still implemented.

Ideally, DAW developers would offer a new View option for the main editing window. This new view would allow audio engineers to build their mixes from the bottom up, with Track #1 set at the bottom of the main edit window, and the track numbers increasing as they ascend. Even if the numbers are deleted as the tracks take on more descriptive names, it would be great if the UI could better convey this sense of building a mix from bottom element upwards.

In FL Studio, for example, the playlist (edit) window goes down to 500 tracks by default. One could, as a workaround, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the window at each work session start and work one’s way up, but that’s a bit tedious. It’d be a better user experience to have the option of presenting the tracks in an opposite flow from the current state of affairs, and let the screen display with only an upward direction allowed, so that the bottom can truly be the baseline from which the whole mix is constructed.

In film soundtrack postproduction practices, it’s similarly common to build a mix from the ambience upward. In this domain, the ambient sound acts as a baseline of the world which all the other sounds takes as a reference for how their levels should be set. Thus, the ‘bottom’ of a film mix isn’t necessarily low frequencies but rather the background world against which the more foregrounded elements are constructed. In both cases, a kind of architectural metaphor is at work since there is general idea conveyed of building something from the ground upwards, since structures when they are built don’t start in the sky and make their way gradually down to their foundations.

The Mixer window is usually the place where one can reestablish a sense of auditory hierarchy, since the left-to-right orientation can be manipulated to create this sense of a spectrum sequence based on these general metaphors of lived experience.

Bottom up mixing from left to right is more easily done in the mixer UI.

The horizontality of mixers prevents them from suffering the same upside down effects of the vertically stacked edit/playlist tracks.

Granted, this is perhaps a ‘first world problem’ and likely not high on the scrum sprint priority list of DAW developers. But, if you think about it, simply reversing the scroll flow of the main edit window shouldn’t be rocket science, and implementing this feature would be a great little piece of cognitive engineering that could prove rather transformative for how we work with our material. Such a UI design would be a better match of system design features to human cognition characteristics.

Cognitive engineering is a method of study using cognitive psychology to design and develop engineering systems to support the cognitive processes of users.(source)