These Motorized Synthesizer Knobs Show Just How Amazing a User Interface Can Be

It's the opposite of 'set it and forget it'

  • Melbourne Instruments' Nina synth uses motorized knobs to always mirror changes in presets. 
  • Knobs give tactile feedback but not always visual feedback. 
  • LEDs, motors, and UI tracks all strive to match knobs' physical status with software status.
Closeup on the Nina synthesizer from Melbourne Instruments.

Melbourne Instruments

Look at Melbourne Instruments' new Nina synthesizer and tell me it's not super hot, but its looks are nothing compared to what's going on with its knobs. 

The Nina is a hybrid analog-digital synthesizer, and that hybrid aspect runs through the entire design. For example, of its three oscillators (the bits that generate the base sound, ready to be modulated and modified by the rest of the circuitry), two are analog, and one is a digital wavetable, the latest in digital oscillator ideas. But we're not here to talk about the sound (although, as you'll see in the video below, it sounds totally rad). We're here to talk about its knobs, each of which has a motor inside so that it can rotate to the correct position, even when controlled by a computer. This is the holy grail for musicians, who almost universally prefer hands-on control. 

"Knobs that always show their state are important for a good UI because they provide a tangible way to interact with the interface. This is especially important when the user is in a creative setting, such as music production, as it allows them to quickly adjust settings without having to look at a screen," tech writer Timothy Mcknight told Lifewire via email.

Feedback Loop

Knobs are a great way to fine-tune all kinds of parameters, but not all knobs are equal. Knobs let you adjust by feel without having to line up a mouse pointer with an on-screen circle. But knobs also offer valuable visual feedback. You can tell at a glance how they are set. You can see if the volume knob on an amplifier is set to max even before you switch anything on. 

"It's kind of annoying when you touch a knob on a preset, and there's a big jump between the programmed position and the actual position," Emilio Guarino, engineer and music producer at GlitchMagic, told Lifewire via email.

When knobs are used to control software, things can get out of sync. If you make an adjustment on the screen, the knob no longer shows the current setting. There are ways around this. Pickup mode doesn't make any change until the knob passes through the currently-set value, but this can cause confusion when nothing happens. Another option is to have a ring of LEDs around an endlessly-rotating knob to show its state. 

And another, used by the Nina is to put motors in the knobs. 

Fine Motor Control

Nina's knobs not only look cool but can perform some extremely useful jobs. One is something that eludes most analog synths: presets. With Nina, when you load a preset, the knobs immediately shift to reflect the settings. 

Knobs that always show their state are important for a good UI because they provide a tangible way to interact with the interface.

"Visual cues are important to convey clear and immediate feedback, as well as crucial information about the current settings. Knowing the current state is absolutely important for achieving the desired sound quality and preventing unintended changes," audio engineer and music production blogger Talal Khan told Lifewire via email. 

And if you use a modulation to change a setting over time, then the knob wiggles to show the changes, the kind of visual feedback usually reserved for computer screens. 

"In addition, knobs that always show their state can be beneficial for users who are visually impaired. For example, a knob with a tactile indicator can help a user to quickly identify the current setting without having to rely on visual cues," says Mcknight

Finally, there's another reason to love knobs and the clackety, mechanical-keyboard-style switches used on the Nina: they feel amazing. For one, it makes you want to switch the machine on and use it, something that's not always the case with Excel spreadsheet-like music apps. 

The Nina synthesizer from Melbourne Instruments.

Melbourne Instruments

But those motors aren't all good. One downside is that they push up the price. The Nina goes for $3,599. And the motors may be more likely to fail than non-moving LEDs.

"I think I'd actually prefer a design with endless encoders and a LED indicator for a few reasons. The motors are a lot of literal moving parts that will eventually wear out and probably will be expensive to maintain over time. And they also will add a layer of cost to an otherwise good-sounding synth that isn't necessary," says Guarino.

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