A Report on the Accessibility of Digital Audio Production Systems

(published June 2002, Opening Stages)

By Rick Boggs

The greatest barrier preventing blind musicians from using digital technology to produce audio recordings is not primarily the lack of accessibility but rather the lack of awareness about what is accessible.

Ever since the development of the Apple 2 GS, back in the computer paleolithic era, humans have sought to make music with their machines. The ensuing centuries, in computer time, produced a plethora of musical applications with ever-increasing power and performance standards. The first type of popular programs were MIDI sequencing applications. MIDI has little or nothing to do with sound, but instead records key stroke information, such as "play keyboard key number 32 and hold it for two seconds, then release," much like a paper roll for a player piano. Eventually, software was developed for the IBM and Apple platforms that would record MIDI as well as sound.

At every stage of development creative blind individuals found accessibility solutions. The late Nelson Hinman, a blind musician/composer, achieved total accessibility for MIDI applications on the DOS platform. When the Apple platform became the entertainment industry standard, Stevie Wonder wanted to access the programming features of his synthesizers. He enlisted the expertise of Glen Workman to develop a specific program that would cause the Macintosh computer to act as a speech output device for a synthesizer. Mr. Workman together with Mark Bryan, a blind musician/engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma developed and distributed a small application that provides access to the K2000 series Kurzweil keyboards. The program, "K2000 Tools" can be obtained by request at, the same website that tells the story of how the screen reader software outSPOKEN for the Macintosh became usable with DigiDesign's famous ProTools software. Other talented developers like Peter Elsea continue to create accessibility tools for equipment including adats, which he offers at

What Is Available and Accessible? From those modest beginnings, persistent advocacy and savvy business tactics have been used to influence music software developers to produce state-of-the-art MIDI and digital audio recording and editing tools that are quite accessible in most respects. Development has continued on both platforms. The Windows platform now offers a variety of accessible music programs, including CakeWalk, Sound Forge and Cool Edit Pro. The Apple Macintosh platform offers access to the world's most renowned professional multi-track digital audio recording/editing software, ProTools, which now also offers useful MIDI operations. The Apple platform also supports Digital Performer and Logic Audio, which are both usable by blind engineers.

Making the Decision
So, what should a blind musician use? You would do well to approach the question in much the same way that any sighted musician would. What are the best programs on the market to do what you wish to do? What type of work are you most likely going to be doing and for what purpose? Is this a hobby? A profession? Are your productions for broadcast or commercial CD releases? How many tracks will you need? How much effects (dsp) processing power will you need? Will you need to listen to some tracks while recording simultaneously? Will you need automated mixing features? Will you need sophisticated MIDI functions, or will the basics suffice? What type of equipment do you currently own, or will you be starting from scratch? Oh, and of course, everybody's favorite, what is your budget? Beginners with low budgets and existing Windows based systems ought to look into Cool Edit Pro, which is a multi-track digital audio program that does not require a separate control surface to move on screen faders. They might also check out Sound Forge for user friendly digital audio editing and light mastering, if multi-track recording is not a priority. For the more sophisticated PC user, CakeWalk or the new Sonar system is about as good as it gets. A blind producer in New York by the name of Mike Mandel has music on broadcast television, which he created with such a system. While Windows based PCs have made some small progress in the professional recording industry, the Apple Macintosh still dominates the market. The more affordable, entry-level systems that are accessible include Digital Performer, Logic Audio, and the ProTools LE 001 package. These are all host-based systems, which rely entirely on the computer's processor chip to do all of the audio work. The pro systems involve PCI expansion cards which host additional computer processor chips to handle the intense workload. The ProTools TDM systems are by far the most popular in this genre and are the only accessible system of that caliber. Music software is generally not simple to use or to understand without some basic education in audio production. Every music program has its accessibility glitches as well, so blind users must be persistent and patient at times. Certain software is not known to be accessible, such as programs from Steinberger, including QBase, as well as the second most popular professional production tool called "fairlight," which runs on a Windows platform. Recent versions of E-Magic's Logic Audio program have increasing numbers of accessibility problems.

The Accessible Audio Production Work Station
An accessible audio production work station usually has certain basic components: a fast computer with an extra hard drive where audio can be recorded; screen reader software; a MIDI control surface which acts like a remote control for certain on screen functions like track volume; a MIDI interface where devices like synthesizers are connected to the computer; and a box where audio signals can be patched into the computer such as an analog-to-digital converter.

Career Opportunities in Audio Production
While it is truly wonderful that more people with visual impairments can now make creating music a fulfilling part of their lives, it is the potential for gainful employment that might be the greatest benefit of accessible audio production software. The website attempts to offer a comprehensive guide for starting a career as a blind audio production engineer. The Back to Articles | | We See TV
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