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‘An Introduction to Inclusive Design of Audio Products’: summary and recording from the Audio Developer Conference workshop

Introduction

The last couple of years have seen a huge increase in the attention to the discourse surrounding inclusivity and accessibility in design of audio and music software. With recent efforts by companies such as JUCE, Muse Group and Ableton to make their software accessible, precedents are being set and the concepts of inclusivity and accessibility are reaching the mainstream. I’m sure I speak for all of us users of assistive technology when I say that this is really an exciting time to be in this field.

Seeing a workshop titled “An Introduction to Inclusive Design of Audio Products” announced in the lineup for ADC23 in London was a really pleasant surprise. The Audio Developer Conference is “an annual event celebrating all audio development technologies, from music applications and game audio to audio processing and embedded systems”. Curated and chaired by Jay Pocknell (Sound Without Sight / RNIB), workshop panelists included representatives from names as prominent as Native Instruments, Softube and Focusrite, as well as the companies mentioned above, so this workshop truly represents a big step in the right direction for inclusivity in audio software development.

I have picked out my highlights below, and you can catch up with the full workshop by following the link at the end of the article, video chapters included.

The workshop

ADC describe the workshop as follows:

“As the audio industry seeks to improve diversity within its workforce, and the music industry seeks to widen the diversity of artists creating music, it is essential that inclusion is woven into the design of the tools available to creatives.

But what do terms such as accessibility and inclusive design actually mean? How might you begin to adopt inclusive design practices so that your software becomes accessible to a wider audience? What are some of the big-name audio companies doing to support accessibility and how can you learn from their experience? How can companies take practical steps, together, to act on a shared desire for a more inclusive industry?

This session sought to answer these questions.”

Introductions and updates

The workshop kicked off with some introductions by the panelists, as well as some updates about their recent and planned work in the field of accessibility.

Harry Morley and Dan Clarke from Focusrite took the stage to introduce their recent updates to their Focusrite Control software, in both versions 1 and 2, which is now fully accessible and even reacts to touch on the hardware by reading the state of the controls. They also announced updates to Launchpad, their iOS beatmaking app, as well as a JUCE rewrite for their plug-in suite, which makes them fully accessible with screenreaders. Focusrite products have been a standard in audio production for many years, and their hardware is in constant use in studios across the world. Therefore, every advance Focusrite makes in accessibility is a huge step forward in inclusivity of visually-impaired musicians and producers, who are now beginning to be able to use practically the same setups as their peers with a comparable amount of feedback.

Tom Poole from JUCE was up next, restating JUCE’s commitment to accessibility and reminding developers that the standard GUI controls in JUCE are now fully accessible out of the box. He also revealed that the next version of JUCE will allow developers to build interfaces using web views, which offer a whole new set of well-understood accessibility features and standards. Given the ubiquity of JUCE’s plug-in framework, their efforts have already borne fruit, and I have no doubt that they will continue to in the future. However, JUCE will have to keep on encouraging developers to do specific accessibility work for web views, as their accessibility still depends on adherence to standards, which is most definitely not always a given for web applications.

Adil Ghanty from Native Instruments gave us a brief overview and history of the development of NKS and how it relates to accessibility, hinting at new features to be released for the newest S-series Mk3 lineup of keyboards. The iZotope plug-ins have also received significant accessibility-related updates, including the new Neoverb. Adil highlighted NI’s in-house approach to accessibility and their commitment to it, and reiterated the company’s plans to take inclusivity into consideration from the inception of their future products. NI has done a fantastic job with Komplete Kontrol and NKS so far, and I truly hope that this quality of work continues into future developments, as a great majority of their software is still not usable by blind users to the same standard as sighted ones.

Next came Martin Keary of Muse Group, who showed a video clip about the development of the accessibility features of MuseScore 4. There was also a brief demonstration of Live Braille, a brand new feature which allows blind users to read their scores on a Braille display as they edit them, as well as input Braille music with the computer keyboard. MuseScore has come incredibly far in a very short time and, to me, Live Braille is truly a game changer. As a classical music student myself, having a fully-accessible mainstream engraving software is an invaluable resource. Never before have we had access to a program that would allow us to so seamlessly exchange music with sighted teachers and other peers, without endless import/export dancing.

Arvid Johnsson from Softube updated us on the accessibility of the Console 1 lineup of channel strip controllers. Both the Mk2 and Mk3 models have full screenreader integration, and Arvid is putting a lot of emphasis on allowing users to customise the verbosity of readouts, which I very much appreciate. Personalisation options add a whole new level of possibilities that is missing from a surprising amount of accessible software these days, and I’m hoping that this sets a precedent for other developers.

Athan Billias from the MIDI Association introduced their Music Accessibility Standard Special Interest Group, whose main goal is to improve hardware and software accessibility for people with disabilities. MIDI 2.0’s profile negotiation capabilities will allow compatible devices to adapt to the specific individual needs of disabled users. It’s practically unnecessary to explain why it’s so vital for the MIDI Association to take part in the discussion, and I very much look forward to experimenting with MIDI 2.0 soon.

Adi Dickens from Ableton talked about Note, their new musical idea sketching app for iOS, which now offers a fully-fledged VoiceOver user experience and is being actively developed. They also announced the public beta of the now released Live 12, their flagship DAW, which now offers comprehensive keyboard navigation options as well as screenreader accessibility. Ableton’s work with Live has been phenomenal so far, and I am aware that the team are still actively improving the software day by day. Rated as #1 best DAW for electronic music in 2024 by musicRadar, Live has amassed a tremendous user and developer base, and their work on accessibility means that a great deal of new content is becoming available to visually impaired musicians all over.

Finally, Scott Chesworth, producer and independent accessibility consultant, talked about the history of accessible music-making and the challenges we face as blind musicians. Scott runs and helps administer many community-sourced initiatives and resources for accessibility in music technology, including OSARA, the screenreader accessibility and keyboard navigation layer for Reaper. He is now planning to spend more time working with developers on the acquisition and first-run process for users.

Accessibility highlights

Following on from the introductions, we watched a few short clips from other companies working in the field of accessibility in audio software and hardware.

  • Jim Rand from Synervoz, a software development company focused on projects with complex audio requirements, including accessibility devices that translate between senses.
  • Pierre from Arturia, a renowned plug-in development company who are slowly making their whole ecosystem accessible.
  • Andre Louis, a blind musician, consultant and content creator, who runs the Inspired by Sound channel. His video illustrated the usefulness and speed of keyboard shortcuts, vital to visually-impaired musicians.
  • Tim Yates from Drake Music, a national charity in England and Wales working at the intersection of music, tech and disability. Tim talked about his work with musicians and companies building accessible instruments, and gave a few very useful guidelines for anyone wishing to get into the field.
  • Barry from Open Up Music, makers of the Clarion, a musical instrument which can be controlled in whichever way works best for the user.
  • Audio Modeling, a plug-in developer leveraging JUCE’s accessible GUI framework to make their SWAM lineup completely accessible.
  • Robin Spinks from RNIB with an encouragement message about inclusive design in the audio industry.
  • Jay Pocknell and Zenny Jabeera from Sound Without Sight spoke about the project’s community-driven knowledge hub, and the importance of a resource to document accessibility solutions.

An overview of accessible GUI design in JUCE

Harry Morley from Focusrite took the stage again to give a brief but comprehensive demonstration of some of the features of JUCE’s accessibility APIs. Using the example of a channel strip controller app, he went through several iterations of the code and gave a few specific tips for developers wanting to use the APIs to improve their own software.

Earlier in the workshop, Scott Chesworth expressed his opinion that JUCE’s work on accessibility is “the big leap forward in the last few years” in the accessible audio industry. As a user of many of these tools myself, I wholeheartedly share this view. For a long time, we screenreader users have been limited to accessing plug-ins through flat lists of their automatable parameters. This method has always been unreliable and inefficient for several reasons, including the lack of hierarchy or grouping of parameters and the general unpredictability of what is mapped to these controls. By being able to use the same interface that sighted users have access to, these issues are largely mitigated.

JUCE is quite ubiquitous as a development framework, so this is already a massive step forward in making lots of music software accessible. I’m hopeful that their work helps drive other plug-in framework developers to implement similar features in the future.

Panel discussion

The panelists proceeded into a discussion of the topics discussed so far. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Arvid Johnsson reiterated the importance of allowing user customisability of verbosity parameters, such as whether the name of a control or the value should be announced first.
  • Responding to Jay Pocknell’s question of what developers could do to collaborate in creating design guidelines for accessibility, Athan Billias once again encouraged people to participate in the MIDI Association’s special interest group to document what has already been done and work together to create standards.
  • Adi Dickens replied to this, stating that they were unsure if it was the right time to come up with a standard. They believed that there isn’t an exact consensus of the definitions of many concepts in accessibility just yet, and that a specific taxonomy of terms has to be established before a standard can be conceived.
  • Scott Chesworth proposed the creation of a development blog as a central resource for music software accessibility information.
  • Adil Ghanty encouraged product managers to actively listen to accessibility-related discussion forums and mailing lists about their products to gain insight into how users interact with them, as well as to hire accessibility consultants and experts as an investment.
  • Adi talked about the importance of individuals effectively passing on the information they learn onto the rest of their team and the business as a whole, so as not to have matters of accessibility depend on a single developer.

Final thoughts

As I stated in the introduction, I really am ecstatic to be a part of the movement for accessibility in audio software and hardware at this time. Big names in the industry are taking massive leaps forward, and loads of possibilities are opening up for more and more people. I hope that workshops like this one serve to inspire developers big and small to follow in the footsteps of the panelists, and to think about the importance of inclusivity and accessibility. This workshop wasn’t just a tour of what’s already been done so far for the benefit of assistive technology users. It was a platform for developers who have already had some exposure to accessibility to share their achievements with others, to find ways to work together in paving the way for other companies to make their products more inclusive.

Like Adil and Athan, I’m a big fan of the idea of user research and focus groups. Accessibility is all about adapting to the individual needs of users, and listening to customers or potential customers is essentially the only way to find out what those are. Bidirectional communication is important, though, and I hope that developers remain aware of the significance of talking to their users apart from listening to them. I’ll definitely be joining the MIDI Association’s Music Accessibility Standards Special Interest Group, and I encourage you to as well!

It will be interesting to see how companies like those in the workshop, who have already begun to implement accessibility into their products, continue to move forward in this field. Although Native Instruments was one of the first to make a significant advancement in accessibility with their Komplete Kontrol software and hardware, it perhaps feels as if their progress has been comparatively slower from that point on. While I understand that large companies deal with equally large and complex codebases, several issues that have been present since the inception of the Komplete Kontrol accessibility layer remain unaddressed to this day. Similarly, I’m looking forward to a time when all of NI’s product lines can be considered accessible to visually impaired musicians. The recently launched accessibility landing page on NI’s website is a great sign for the future, and I hope that the swift pace at which other developers are advancing will motivate NI to continue developing their so far excellent and commendable work.

I’d like to give a personal shoutout to Martin Keary and his team at Muse Group for their work on MuseScore. I grew up studying classical music at my hometown’s conservatory, and notation was always a problem. I started out with a Perkins brailler, handing out my work to a specialist for transcription, which would usually take at least a couple of days. I then switched to a programme specifically written for braille music which would (when it was in a good mood) export to a format that certain mainstream engraving software could import. During my bachelor’s degree, I fought with a somewhat new piece of software which would finally try to show both print and live Braille at the same time. This came with numerous drawbacks, including its insistence on forcing users to utilise a certain commercial screenreader, a general aptitude for crashing every few minutes and losing unsaved work, and a very hefty price tag. Knowing that a future generation will be able to grow up on a free mainstream notation software such as MuseScore, with a rich set of features and a massive user base, makes me very thankful to people like Martin. Being on equal footing with sighted peers is something I’ve always valued, and notation software is a whole different animal from a DAW.

It really is heartening and encouraging to see accessibility truly becoming a larger part of events such as ADC, and I sincerely hope that this conversation will continue to develop across the industry!

Watch the full recording

Get involved with the next ADC

Mentorship program

Applications are now open for the 2024 ADC Mentorship Program: https://audio.dev/mentorship/

The ADC Mentorship Program is centered around the Audio Developer Conference (ADC) to help encourage interaction between experienced members of the audio software community, and those who are just coming into it.

ADC Mentorship Program goals include fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment, encouraging communication in the audio developer community, and promoting diversity among members. Mentors have the opportunity to give back to the community that they’ve been involved in for years and make valuable contributions to people’s development within it. Mentees will be able to get guidance and advice for navigating a career in the audio industry.

However, you’ll need to be quick – applications close on June 1st!

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We invite anyone from the audio developer community – from students to industry experts – to contribute to the Audio Developer Conference by submitting a talk proposal.

About the author

Guillem León is a Spanish classical pianist currently studying for a MA at the Royal Academy of Music, London. His performance career has taken him to venues such as the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington, IN and St James’ Piccadilly in London. He often participates in collaborative music projects, and is currently preparing a multidisciplinary concert series combining Spanish music and literature.

In his own time he composes and produces music for independent videogame developers and content creators, using accessible software such as Reaper and Komplete Kontrol. Being blind himself, Guillem has been involved with several initiatives for accessibility advocacy, such as his presentation for the OSARA Reaper extension at NVDACon 2020.

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