If one went out onto a city sidewalk to do a set of “man on the street” interviews asking a single question, “Name as many famous blind people as you can,” I’d be willing to predict that the names you would hear most often would be: Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Ronnie Milsap, Jose Feliciano and Andrea Bocelli, all but one of whom are or were musicians. In fact, as blind people we often hear that we must be good at music because our auditory sense is enhanced due to our blindness (it’s not) and that we have inordinately good hearing (we don’t).
As with all stereotypes, however, there is a definite thread of truth regarding blind people and our collective interest in the musical arts. While sighted kids were sent out to play ball or find their way into some other sort of childhood mischief, blind youths, often overly protected by loving parents who didn’t care to see their kid get hurt, stayed at home, often playing music or enjoying audio work. The stereotype suggests that blind people are better at this stuff due to some super power developed when we lose our vision which, of course, is entirely false; if blind people are disproportionally successful as musicians, it’s because they spent many more hours practicing than do most others.
I do not describe myself using the word “musician,” instead, preferring, “not entirely awful amateur harmonica player” as a description of my musical efforts. I enjoy both acoustic and electric blues music and I really love listening to great harmonica players like Sonny Terry (coincidentally also blind), Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton and loads of others. I enjoy blues-rock, especially acts from England in the late sixties like Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin but, more often than not, I find my inspiration in the electrified blues we call “Chicago Style.”
We find ourselves at an interesting point in history, digital technology can make virtually any computational task accessible to people with vision impairment. An application, web site or web app can, by following published standards like the accessibility API of the OS for which they are developing, WCAG 2.0, Aria and other standards, guidelines and best practices, be fully usable by a blind person with a screen reader.
As, by stereotype, blind people tend to gravitate toward music and audio work, why is so much of the technology related to recording, editing, producing and delivering such inaccessible? This article will explore some of the products I use with success, some that I cannot use at all and others that I can use somewhat but that contain some inaccessible features. This piece is in no way comprehensive, there are literally thousands of products available for musicians on the market today and there’s no way I could possibly give all of them a try. Hell, as a harmonica player, very few of these technologies would have any value to me, I care mostly about the instrument itself, my microphone (for electric blues harp blowing, I use a Shaker Mad Dog) and the amp through which I’m playing so I’ve no personal use for most musical technology out there today. Please do write comments about your experience with different music and audio related technologies and their accessibility so readers in the future might find them using a search engine and either choose to try something or not based on your recommendations.
Accessible Versus Usable
Arguably, Garageband from Apple on both their Macintosh and iOS platforms is the most accessible large scale bit of software for making, recording and delivering music and other audio content (podcasts and such) on the market today. Garageband, as I wrote in an article called, “The Macintosh User Experience,” exposes all of its features to the VoiceOver screen reader and a blind user can access all of them but many commonly used features of the software are unbearably inefficient to use.
I truly enjoy using Garageband for a handful of things. In my most frequent use case, I either load backing tracks from MP3 into a track in GB or create a back-up band for myself using AppleLoops and then play along with my virtual band. I do this most often on my iPad Mini using a guitar amplifier app I’ll mention later. This provides me with a great way to practice my playing without needing to find a drummer, bass player, guitarist and maybe a piano player.
What I find most frustrating with Garageband, on both iOS and OS X, though, is that editing one’s recordings, while accessible, requires the user to perform in one of the least efficient systems I’ve ever encountered. Simply cutting out a person coughing on a podcast track requires dozens of keystrokes and a fair amount of time to accomplish. Editing out a quarter second long bit of noise can take many minutes of effort, making Garageband an accessible but not exactly usable tool.
Recently, a friend of mine suggested I might enjoy an iOS app called AmpKit. In brief, AmpKit is a collection of digital models of famous guitar amplifiers, speaker cabinets, stomp boxes and microphones from different eras and musical styles. As a harmonica player, I plug my microphone into a guitar amplifier so I can play with greater volume, some distortion, a bit of tremolo and some reverb effect. For my own playing, I like the sound of either a Fender Twin or a Vox AC30 with a bit of gain and some added reverb in my never ending attempt to sound as Little Walter did on his legendary recordings for Chess Records. I use a little box I bought for about $50 on Amazon that plugs into the headphone jack on my iPad with my harmonica mike plugged into it and the audio output running to the headphones covering my ears. With this set up, having spent the $20 or so for everything AmpKit has to offer in its in app store, I have a tremendous selection of gear that I can simulate and, if your playing is only as good as mine, you’ll sound terrific with this set up.
Inter App Audio
In iOS/7, Apple added a really interesting new feature called Inter App Audio that allows apps with such enabled to act as audio input devices for other audio related apps. For my purposes, this allows me to put a backing track into GB and play along with it using AmpKit to model my sound directly into Garageband. This permits me to both jam away practicing with my virtual band but it also allows me to record my own playing so I can listen to it (with or without backing tracks) later to gauge my progress as a player.
As AmpKit is entirely accessible and was the first Inter App Audio enabled bit of software I had installed, I was hoping that there might be a relationship between the accessibility API for iOS and that for mixing and matching apps in this way. Unfortunately, this turned out to be entirely false. The second app of this kind I installed is called “Amplitube” which also simulates famous vacuum tube based classic amplifiers of days gone by but, as it turns out, is almost entirely inaccessible. If you’re looking to model guitar amps and need to use VoiceOver, you will enjoy AmpKit but not be able to use Amplitube in any meaningful manner.
What About Hardware?
The Roland Micro Cube
While I enjoy practicing and recording using my iPad Mini, Garageband and AmpKit, I also need to play without headphones sometimes so others might hear me along with the guys with whom I’m jamming. For this, I use a Roland Micro Cube DSP based modeling amp that I picked up for $50 used at GuitarCenter. This little guy is terrific for practicing as it’s small and light but, at only 2 watts, it produces little in terms of volume. My harmonica playing purist friends scream when they hear me say I like this amp because it’s a digital system that models vacuum tubes instead of being an actual tube based amplifier. I’m not an audio purist, I’m happy with the sound I get from this amp when in its Fender Twin or Vox AC30 modes with a little reverb and tremolo turned on, features built into this amp and, if I need more volume, I can run the Micro Cube’s line out directly into a PA system without losing any of the audio clarity.
From an accessibility perspective, the Micro Cube and Roland’s entire line of DSP based amplifiers are a dream to operate. There is no LED display of any sort, all controls are hardware knobs and virtually anyone can figure out how to use them in little or no time.
The Behringer V-Amp 3
In my continuous quest to find the right sound for my harp blowing, I acquired a V-Amp 3 from Behringer. For all intents and purposes, the V-Amp is identical to the Micro Cube with the exception that it has no speaker at all. The V-Amp has a number of extra features that the Roland product does not but that one would find in AmpKit including the ability to change speaker cabinet simulations. Quite unfortunately, the V-Amp is only accessible in its “live” mode, a user can select an amplifier to model, adjust gain, reverb and set levels for bass, midrange and treble but cannot change speaker cabinets, use more than one stomp box effect at a time or use a lot of other features of the V-Amp as they all require one being able to see an LED screen on the device that is otherwise inaccessible.
Behringer allows any registered user of the V-Amp and a number of its other products to download software for controlling the device, recording and performing all sorts of other activities. As far as I can tell, having tried but not thoroughly tested the software on both Macintosh and Windows, it is not accessible and can not be used along with a screen reader.
Blindness Related Tutorials
In preparation for this article, I spent some time googling around searching on terms related to blindness, playing music, working with audio and making recordings. Some of these, especially one on using Amadeus Pro with Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader have been very useful for me and I’m grateful to those who spend the time to make YouTube videos, podcasts and write blog articles explaining how blind people can use this class of application.
What I find disturbing, though, is that virtually all of these tutorials spend a lot of time and words explaining how a screen reader user can work around accessibility problems in the different hardware and software they are describing. The sad thing is that the state of musical and audio accessibility is very poor. What’s worse is that it seems to be getting worse. While a harmonica player like me can find solutions, my friends who play keyboard based instruments are faced daily with an increasingly large number of features that are either impossible or very difficult to access on their instruments as virtually all have some kind of LED display that one needs to read to perform some actions. It’s certainly true that a blind musician can spend hours on end learning and memorizing exactly which operations need to occur in precisely which order to execute them without any feedback. It’s also true that at least one blind person could climb Mount Everest. I will contend that the majority of blind people who want to play around with musical technology do so in order to have some fun and not to earn a living. Or, at least, that’s why I use musical and audio technologies.
Rereading this article leaves me with the impression that the landscape regarding music and accessibility isn’t too bad. This is because I used as examples the technology products I actually use on a daily basis which, almost by definition, means that it’s going to be at least usably accessible. The unfortunate truth is that I often download musical related applications with some frequency that are impossible to use with any screen reader on any OS. Sadly, as with a lot of accessibility problems, a lot of these could be remedied pretty easily if the application is designed for a single platform. Most unfortunately, though, is that the engineers who write the musical software we might enjoy using often do so using cross platform user interface libraries that, although the underlying OS has an accessibility API, the library they are using so as to write the code once and run it on Windows, Macintosh, iOS, Android and maybe GNU/Linux too, does not support said API. I’m working on a long and detailed set of articles called “The Fundamental Failure Of Frameworks” that will dive into this issue in a broad manner but, for musicians in particular, these cross platform UI systems are at the core of the accessibility problems.
So, please write comments about your experience with different musical and audio technologies. This article ignores software that runs on Windows mostly because I’ve only recently got myself a Windows computer and, excepting Audacity, I haven’t had the chance to give any software in this class more than a cursory look. If you use such programs on Windows, please do tell the rest of us what you use and how many workarounds you need to deal with to get the job done using such. I also mentioned no Android programs as I no longer have an Android device in my house and cannot test software on that platform so, if you are using such successfully, please do tell us about it.
To conclude, the entire world seems to believe that blind people make terrific musicians with the exception of the companies that make technology related to music who seem to ignore our needs as a matter of course. Some companies, certainly Apple and the people who bring us AmpKit do a terrific job with accessibility but have some distance to come to improve actual usability and efficiency. Others, like those who bring us Amplitube ignore accessibility entirely. I’ve no way of knowing which technologies will or will not be accessible until I’ve actually tried to work with them myself and, as I’ve a limited amount of time and dollars to devote to my music (it’s just a hobby after all), I will never be able to write a fully comprehensive survey of the accessibility landscape regarding music and hope you readers help by writing comments.