An Interview with Andrew Spitz
It’s always fascinating, as most here can attest, when a single event, class or teacher has a profound impact on one’s path in life. When film student, Andrew Spitz attended a graduate school in Film Sound Design, his path seemed set. He even started the popular media sound forum Social Sound Design, to open up discussions between media sound professionals and students. Then he was introduced to Max. Absorbing its inherent philosophy, opened him up to a new world of non-linear approach and interactivity. This actualization, and subsequent love affair, prompted Spitz to change gears and enter a graduate program in Interactive Design in his pursuit of ‘experience design.’ I look forward to hearing more from him in the future.
I feel like Max is such a good tool for the people that don’t know programming and yet still want to feel like they have control over the code for their project. It’s such a great tool to place your ideas into reality while keeping that designer approach.
I see from your timeline that you seem to have had quite the international upbringing.
I grew up in France, well in Monaco to be more precise. My parents are South African, so I moved to South Africa when I was 17. I’m half French, half South African but my identity is a confused mishmash from living in many different countries.
So, you started off in sound design but more recently have migrated to designing interactive pieces?
I did my undergrad at a film school in South Africa. I was learning traditional sound design for film. My major was in sound, even though we got to dabble in scriptwriting, editing, and all the other disciplines that make up a film department.
For me, sound design was always linear, and mostly operated in the emotional and sub-textual level. It was always about sound to picture, working with the director and for the story, while always keeping the audience in mind.
When I finished studying, I decided to travel so I went to South Korea and lived there for a few years.
After that, I felt like I needed to study again, so I looked at sound design courses. The one that appealed to me the most was at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where they have a Masters in Sound Design. It’s a one-year master program that is semi-practical and semi-thesis based. In my mind, I was just going to be learning more focused sound design — sound for film, sound art, and that kind of stuff. Little did I know.
I hadn’t yet even thought about interactivity or non-linearity up to that point. I was only introduced to Max/MSP when I entered the course with Martin Parker, who runs the program.
What were your thoughts about Max/MSP when you were introduced it?
I have never fallen quite so hard in love with anything! I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but I had zero programming background and I was presented with a tool where all of a sudden I could do anything I wanted. At least that’s the feeling I got at the time. I was totally obsessed with it. [Laughs]
Was it a Max specific course?
The course went through so many aspects of sound where we learned many tools and disciplines. Max/MSP was very much a featured part of the course but it was far from being the main focus. But I didn’t care! I catered all my modules so that I could just use Max/MSP. Every single morning, I went through a tutorial while having my coffee. I really, really loved it.
Project after project, I started seeing what I did as less about the sound in itself, and more about the systems that I could build to play with sound. I became less interested in the acoustic side of sound and more interested in how to get people to interact and play with sound.
I did this project, a desktop app I built in Max called Tweet A Sound, where you could tweet the parameters from a sound you designed. It’s quite an old project now, but it was my first taste at building software with users in mind.
You Tweet just the parameters?
Yes. Well, it’s basically a synthesizer. It allows you to tweak the sound, and then it converts all the parameters that make up that sound into a string of numbers that fits into 140 characters or less, the Twitter limit.
Then, accessing the API, it sends that character string to Twitter with a hashtag called #TAS, for Tweet A Sound. People could search for #TAS, and then copy the string of numbers into their Tweet A Sound app and listen to other peoples’ sounds. The idea was to add a casual social element to sound design. I wasn’t really that interested in the sound itself, but more in how you could give a social aspect to sound.
Your Social Sound Design forum is a fantastic site. It forwards your idea of making sound more social.
Thanks! Yeah, back then one of my mantras was just to make sound more social. I thought there was a need for a Q&A space focusing on all the wonderful disciplines of sound, while being presented in a more welcoming way than the other forums at the time. I don’t have credit for the software, I just got the community together. I think it turned out great because of the sheer amount of fantastic people on it.
There are several Sound Design groups that are great, content-wise, but there’s no real hierarchy of what content is valuable and trustworthy. There’s no easy way to distill what’s a good answer from a bad answer. So I was on this mission to find a way to create something that made sound feel more welcoming and wasn’t intimidating with people on it that make you feel like they are Sound Gods, and you’re just a beginner. I wanted something that felt a bit warmer and a bit more modern. You get a really good feeling of reward when people up-vote your question and your reputation points go up. I think the system is just amazing, it gives value or street cred to your digital identity.
I feel like there’s a really high level of professionalism and respect on the site.
I think it really comes down to whomever you get onboard early on in the process. That sort of sets the tone for the rest of the people that come in. So, I put quite a bit of effort into getting the right kind of people from the sound community onboard.
I think also by default, the moment there’s a voting system where reputation is the currency, you’ll want to give valuable questions and answers and get up-voted.
So, you were telling us about your experience at the University of Edinburgh…
After I finished studying this course and having this appetite for interactivity, I saw all these possibilities in other mediums. I could do installations with Arduino. I could work with video, or anything I wanted. I just started stepping further and further outside the world of sound and into whatever interested me.
Slowly, over time, I started seeing that there was an official label for that, which was interaction design. I tried to work in that world, doing a few jobs in South Africa, such as the BMW Tunnel Experience and the SAB Wonder Wall, but it was much slower than I would have liked.
I could get my ideas realized with a tiny little bit of knowledge and that kept me motivated to want to keep learning.
Then I found a school, the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design that had exactly what I was after. They were doing the kinds of projects that really got me excited.
So I’m now there, working on a user-centered approach to design, which involves finding intuitive solutions for products, software, services using mostly technology as our medium. What this means in reality, is that we spend a lot of time playing, hacking, prototyping, basically building interactive things and experiences of some sort, whether it’s generative design, data visualization, graphical or tangible user interfaces, installations, products, services, etc.
It seems your experience with Max would be beneficial in that arena.
I’m not a hardcore Max buff, I’m still learning, but I’ve managed to become pretty comfortable using it. I feel like I can always turn my ideas into a reality. Even when I was starting out, I felt like with enough time I could figure any problem out. It‘s been extremely frustrating at times, for sure, but at the same time the kind of things that I could do with it, even during the early stages was simply mind-blowing. I could get my ideas realized with a tiny little bit of knowledge and that kept me motivated to want to keep learning.
So it comes fairly naturally for you?
I don’t know if it does, or if it just feels that way because I’m so eager to learn it. For a programming language, the learning curve isn’t that bad at all. I have since then tried to learn other programming languages and have felt nothing but frustration.
What I really love about Max, is that I’m able to keep the big picture in focus. I can keep an eye on the final thing I’m trying to do. I don’t feel like I get too lost or have to go too much into the zone to be able to get what I’m after done. The more focused and the deeper that I get when programming, the harder it can be for me to keep that intuitive kind of feel for the interaction.
What’s your patching style? Your user interfaces look very clean and neat. When you work in Max, are you doing things quickly just to see the result?
It’s often hard for me to know in advance how to do what I want to get done, and what the best way is, which means that I’m very much a trial-and-error kind of guy. You can see my messy patching in this project called Me, doing this.
I’ll spend hours between the forum and trial-and-error. It’s an incremental process of going from problem to solution and in the process, it’s everything but clean! It can get really messy and then I get scared to clean it up in case it stops working. Plus it takes long to clean up, and I like to move on. That said, I feel like lately I have become much tidier. I think it’s because at my school we’re all in the same room working and I don’t want to freak people out. I’m the Max advocate there, so it needs to look friendly and clean, not like a puppet thrown out of an airplane.
Once the logic is built, I try put myself into the shoes of the user. I’ll spend a big amount of effort into figuring out how someone will use the software, and trying to create a flow and an interface that is intuitive – I still got a long way to go though.
Is there a Max object that has become your favorite, or that you find particularly useful in your prototyping?
Regexp. It’s my nemesis. I always use it when I’m working with APIs or patches that require formatting of text or parsing in some way — which is very often. I don’t understand it but I’m aware of it’s power. That’s a great example of trial-and-error, Googling, and begging people to help me.
The Max dance! [Laughs]
The Regexp + Sprintf + Coll combo make my programming look so hardcore, but the truth is that it takes me quite some time to get it working the way I need. It makes me feel truly powerful, but at the same time out of control. Although, I have become more comfortable using it lately.
Can you give us an example of how you use it?
One example is when I get an XML or JSON file back from an API. Usually, I extract what I need right there and then using Regexp. Then I re-format using Sprintf to store in a Coll. Or maybe instead of going into a Coll, I go directly to the Shell external to trigger the Terminal to, lets say, play a track in Spotify.
Have you found the Max community to be useful? Do you turn to the Max community for help?
Absolutely! This is an incredibly appealing part of being involved in the Max family/culture. Most of the time, I’ll find what I need already there. But if I don’t, it will take me endless trying and experimenting until I’ve either got a deadline creeping way to close, or I just cannot think anymore before I even consider posting. I have to be sure that it’s not too obvious or embarrassing of a question. Most the time I get fantastic answers. Thank you all!
When I’m programming something, I really don’t want to get too lost in the details. I’m not so interested in trying to figure out my own math formula or crazy algorithm. I’m much happier just finding a solution that fits my needs in the forum, slapping it into my patch, and moving on — this way I can keep the birds eye view of the interaction.
Basically, I’m a hacker. I just get things to work for me, without necessarily understanding fully how they work. And I’m happy with that, as it’s the final outcome that drives me, not how I got there. Max allows me to do that really well.
And that’s so important for any designer or artist.
Exactly! For instance, where I’m studying now, we’re put into this situation where there are some people who are industrial designers, there are people who are from a liberal arts background, there are people that are experienced coders, and there are people that are metalsmiths. So as a group, we come in with this wide range of skills, and we all have to learn programming. I feel like Max is such a good tool for the people that don’t know programming and yet still want to feel like they have control over the code for their project. It’s such a great tool to place your ideas into reality while keeping that designer approach.
Without getting so wrapped up in the technical, the numbers, the coding…
I’m amazed at how many people from this world see me use Max, and they automatically think of either sound or academia. It’s a real pity, because they think, “Oh, you come from a sound background, so you’re using that tool.” I always feel that I have to defend Max outside of audio circles. But it’s not just for sound. It’s a tool to build systems and interactions, whether that’s an installation, desktop software, a proof-of-concept, or a product. It allows you to combine things that weren’t necessarily designed to be put together, to create something interactive. This is my experience at least.
Do you think you will go back to working in film?
It’s funny, since I’ve moved to the world of interaction design, I have made a ton of little films as we have to communicate our projects online, and this is usually done most efficiently through a short movie. For the first time though, I’m doing it through the lens of writing, directing, camera, acting, everything and not just as a sound designer.
So, to answer your question, no, I don’t think so. I love recording sound effects and designing sound and I also really enjoy traveling and recording sound on documentaries, but I’m really into interaction design. It’s now my main focus.
The field of interaction design is so broad and it is quite tricky to pin point and label what within this field of design am I really doing. Finding a clear definition is part of why I’m studying. This last year, I have become super interested in using technology in the context of marketing and advertising. Maybe this can be called experience design?
I like that: Experience Design. You’re talking about it in a commercial context?
I like the constraints of working in a commercial context with a brand, or a cause and communicate their message in an interesting way. More specifically, I love creating experiences or marketing campaigns that get people talking by hopefully coming up with fun and viral campaigns that use technology in some way or another.
Generally, I like the lighter “feel-good” kind of interactive stuff. If you fancy checking out some examples, one that I adore is the Blu Dot Real Good Experiment, by Tellart. And a recent very successful campaign is the Old Spice Muscle Music interactive Vimeo music sequencer.