Mixing By Ear: Audio Accessibility For the Visually Impaired

This is a guest post by engineer, sound designer and producer, Gavin Skal.

As an engineer who has grown up in the DAW age, I’m accustomed to hearing the sage advice to “Mix with your ears, not your eyes.” It’s a good rule to work by, but in the world of Pro Tools, many audio tasks are more visual than ever, and it often seems there’s little we can do about it.

Enter Rich Gaglia, an engineer who works out of a home studio in Flushing, Queens. Like many, Rich got his start in audio as a musician, playing in bands throughout his teens. Dissatisfied with the sounds they were getting from studio recordings, Rich took it upon himself to record the band’s demos. From these 4-track recordings, he found work at a small Manhattan project studio, where he continued to learn the craft and hone his skills. But what separates Rich’s story from so many similar ones is that Rich is blind, the result of complications from radiation therapy used to treat cranial tumors when he was only eighteen months old.

In some ways, audio engineering was a logical path for Rich. While it’s never been quantified in any way, Rich claims to possess an enhanced aural awareness that sighted people do not. He doesn’t use a cane to walk around, and instead navigates his surroundings using sound to judge the distance between himself and objects. In the analog domain, Rich’s workflow was much like any other engineer’s, with one minor exception:

“I would edit with a razor, set up mics, amps, drums, and work big 48-channel boards,” he says. “The one thing I had trouble with was the VU meters. I had a tech build me a box that would be fed from the output of each track and beep when the level approached red, which meant I was getting too hot.”

Now that the industry has largely moved on and Rich works exclusively in Pro Tools, he has come to rely on sound to navigate around his DAW as well. Unable to view a computer screen, Rich, along with a significant number of visually impaired audio professionals, uses screen reader software to navigate the platform.

It’s a transition that hasn’t always been made easy. In the late 1980s, Alva Access Group developed and released a program called OutSPOKEN for the Mac. By the early 1990s, it was adapted to Windows, and stood as the first program to provide speech accessibility in Pro Tools.

”It was great and really worked as well as me getting around the screen as fast, sometimes faster than a sighted user,” Rich says.

Unfortunately, Alva went out of business around the time Mac OSX was released, and although their assets were acquired by Optelec in 2005, Mac users like Rich were left without voice support for new versions of the OS:

Rich Gaglia

Rich Gaglia

“That means I had to stay with OS 9.2,” he says, “and couldn’t do as much in terms of all of the new programs and updates. Eventually I got frustrated to the point where I broke down and built a PC by myself from scratch. I never put any lights in and never connected any visuals on the motherboard, so [to a sighted person] it would look like the machine was never on.”

“PCs had great voice support by a few different companies, but nothing was compatible with Pro Tools. I ended up keeping my version of Pro Tools (5.0) on the old Mac and turning to Sonar on the PC. I used them both together, Pro Tools for the audio editing and Sonar for the softsynths.”

Apple finally introduced its proprietary screen reader, VoiceOver, in 2011 with OS Tiger, partially resolving the Pro Tools accessibility issue for Mac. At first, it offered limited performance when compared to the old OutSPOKEN system, and it wasn’t until the release of Pro Tools 9 that VoiceOver was integrated well enough to allow Rich to upgrade his system. He found himself jumping from Pro Tools 5 all the way up to version 9 overnight.

When I first saw Rich at work, I was surprised to find that his use of the VoiceOver system was not as disruptive to his workflow as one might first imagine. It serves more as a navigation aid than a replacement for the Pro Tools screen, and on Rich’s system, VoiceOver is routed independently to a small pair of desktop speakers on top of his Allen & Heath console.

He keeps the level of these speakers very low, just loud enough to hear when seated in front of the board, but barely audible in the rest of the control room, so as not to interfere with playback. Rich’s intimate familiarity with Pro Tools’ layout allows him to scroll though the many menus with surprising speed, much faster than VoiceOver can actually read them aloud.

When it comes to interfacing with Pro Tools, Rich utilizes a keyboard and control surface in combination. Being sans mouse, blind engineers use an array of obscure shortcuts to navigate Pro Tools, including some that aren’t even listed in the Pro Tools manual, but are disseminated among the blind engineering community through online message boards, such as the Google Group PT Access.

I first met Rich when I took a job helping him become familiar with the Control 24, and as with the Pro Tools menus, Rich has now fully internalized the layout of the C24, using muscle memory and the relative positions of the buttons to operate it.

However, there are a number of technical limitations that prevent the C24 from being as useful as it could be to a blind user. First and foremost are the visual LED displays, for which the blind have no substitute. Rotary encoders, lacking tactile feedback, are also of extremely limited use, and because of this, Rich is forced to reach for the “Flip Faders”button any time he wants to change a parameter like pan settings or aux sends. Compounding the problem, the C24 controls Pro Tools independently of the mouse, meaning VoiceOver, which only provides readouts of what is beneath the mouse cursor, does not provide any help in navigating the C24’s menus.

The only work around for this issue is for Rich to severely limit his plug-in selection and memorize the exact fader positions of each menu and sub-menu required to reach them. In some cases, being just a millimeter off when scrolling through menus can mean getting lost down the proverbial rabbit-hole. Even once the plug-in has been successfully inserted, exiting menus and returning to the basic edit window from the C24 can be an ordeal. And because plug-in parameters are laid-out differently for every plug-in, Rich must memorize each plug-in’s layout individually.

One trick Rich uses to accomplish this is to use the parameters with only an in and out option as reference points, as these will always have their corresponding fader either fully up or down. This proves particularly useful with EQs, as the bands tend to be separated in this manner.

Rich is not alone with these challenges, and a small but active online community of blind engineers has developed, offering online forums, blogs, and Podcasts with accessibility information on numerous DAWs. In 2006, an online petition was issued to Digidesign, seeking an official commitment to compatibility between VoiceOver and Pro Tools (The petition and its response history is available at http://www.protoolspetition.org/).

But a few things that I expected to be a real challenge for Rich, didn’t seem to cause him any trouble at all. Perhaps the aspect of his workflow that I’m most fascinated with is his editing method, which utilizes the C24’s scrub wheel, a feature I’d previously written off as a long dead relic of the tape editing days.

On the selected track, Rich scrubs to the beginning of the edit, drops his in-point, scrubs to the next location, drops his out-point, and makes his edit. While certainly more involved than visual editing, and perhaps not quite as fast, it’s a remarkably precise method.

Working with Rich and observing his process has given me a new perspective on engineering. It’s a reminder that we discover new approaches by closing off the familiar ones. And helping Rich learn to navigate the C24 has also pulled me far deeper into its functionality than I would have ever gone alone.

While you do not have to blindfold yourself while mixing, as Rich likes to mention Frank Zappa had one of his engineers do, it can never hurt to get into the head of someone whose only connection to music is through his ears.

The switch to computer-based audio is a challenge Rich Gaglia has proven he can overcome. But if the industry works harder to make life easier for people like Rich, some day, all of us may find a new luxury in the ability to separate ourselves from our screens so that we can just listen — and navigate ourselves through new worlds of sound.

Gavin Skal is a freelance audio engineer, sound designer, and producer based in Long Island City, Queens.

This entry was posted in December 2012, Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Technology. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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