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Accessibility of Motif Karma and Native Instruments Products

April 19, 2011

hennie de Wet wrote to ask about the accessibility of the new Karma software for the Yamaha Motif.

For those that haven’t heard about Karma, it is software that creates music in real-time that is influenced by the performance of a single player. It is something like an arpeggiator, and something like an automatic backing band. Karma-Labs recently announced a version of the Karma software for Windows that is compatible with the Yamaha Motif XS and XF keyboard workstations. There aren’t many good video demos yet, but here is one recorded at Winter NAMM. This is a significant development, as, previously, Karma has largely been available as a built-in technology for Korg workstations.

Of course, since you perform with Karma from the Motif, all of the performance controls will be accessible. However, access to the software through a screen reader would be required to create your own Karma performances. As far as I know, no one with a screen reader has tried the software yet. In fact, the software isn’t generally available yet to try. I’ll end up buying it, as I do with most everything else Motif-related, and will post about my experiences.

Karma-Labs is an extremely small software company. If small changes are needed to improve screen reader compatibility, they should be able to help without needing to spend months on a development study. However, if the changes are large, then they may not have the resources to make significant changes in order to support a few screen reader users.

Anyway, it is all guess work until someone actually is able to try the software with a screen reader. Hopefully, that should happen in the next month or so.

Hennie also asked about the support for custom user interfaces in Native Instruments products, such as Kontakt, and wondered if this capability could be used to improve screen reader compatibility.

Unfortunately, the answer is no. The custom interface/skinning support will allow you to replace some of the graphics used in the products, as well as perform some other small appearance tweaks, but those tweaks will not change the fact that all visual information that is produce by the plug ins is placed on the screen in ways that prevents a screen reader from being able to recognize it.

Native Instruments produces many different plug ins, and they must work in many recording environments. On Windows, each product must work with DAWs that support VST format for Cubase and other popular DAWs, RTAS format for Pro Tools, and even DXI format, in some cases, for Sonar. On the Mac, they must support VST format, AU format for DAWs like Logic and GarageBand, and RTAS for the Mac version of Pro Tools. Beyond that, some plug ins also support Rewire. That means that, for each product, they must produce over half a dozen versions that run on two entirely different operating systems.

One way that they are able to produce this many versions without requiring massive amounts of work is that they rarely use any of the built-in capabilities of an operating system for displaying a user interface. Instead, they directly draw their own interface to the screen. Each version only needs to know how to display graphics in the plug in window of the host that will use that version. In the future, when Native Instruments updates a product, and needs to change its interface, they can change it once, without having to change it for each version. Working this way saves them lots of time and expense, but it means that any software, such as a screen reader, that needs their software to work through proper operating system approaches for displaying a user interface, will only see their windows as a blank area of the screen.

Without changing the way that their user interfaces are fundamentally displayed, a Windows screen reader will never be able to read anything that is placed on the screen by a Native Instruments product. Many high-profile blind musicians, recording professionals, and even organizations have contacted Native Instruments over the years with offers of technical assistance and money in the hopes that some sort of technical solution could be created that would make it possible for a screen reader to operate their products. Most all of the proposed solutions involve changes to how their interface is displayed. This isn’t an acceptable situation for them, as it would disrupt their ability to edit an interface once, and have it display correctly in each version of the product that is created for a different plug in format.

On the Mac, screen reader compatibility is a completely separate technical matter from how information is displayed on the screen. Even software with custom graphical components can still work with a screen reader without any compromise to its appearance. Even programs that don’t use the Mac’s user interface facilities at all can still expose a hidden interface that is only visible to a screen reader. As a great example, the hidden interface approach was recently used by Avid to make most all of the Pro Tools interface accessible without requiring any changes to the appearance of the software.

However, native Instruments has long-sense stopped responding to any queries regarding the accessibility of their products. Perhaps they still believe that no technical solutions to the problem are possible, that any such solutions would cost more to create than they could earn back in sales, or are just tired of talking about the issue. Regardless, they are now completely unresponsive, and have been this way for years.

I know that Kontakt is popular. There are lots of libraries available for it, and many 3rd-party synths use it as an engine. However, my advice to anyone that is desperately searching for access to a Native Instruments product is to forget it, and to spend your money with their competitors. If you use Sonar, then there are thousands of additional voices for Dimension Pro that are available through expansion packs. Spectrasonics Omnisphere is an incredible and massive set of instrument voices, and is accessible through HotSpotClicker. If you’re recording on a Mac and using Pro Tools, then Avid’s Pro Tools Instrument Expansion Pack adds a large set of sounds through accessible instrument plug ins. For GarageBand users, there are thousands of high quality presets and gigs of samples available through Jam Packs. These are just some of the options. There isn’t a need to become stuck on a single vendor’s products. No one touched millions of people, won a Grammy, or made a fortune due to a specific preset.

Sorry to be harsh, but it seems like I read one query or another on the lists about the accessibility of Native Instruments products every few days. The posts are: what if this hack were tried, or if we used HotSpotClicker in this way, or if this person or organization got involved? It won’t work due to fundamental technical limitations, people with influence and money have attempted to assist in the past with no success, and Native Instruments doesn’t desire to take any action at any foreseeable point in the future. I wish that everyone would let this Native Instruments quest die. They don’t want our business, and there are lots of alternatives, so why beg for the privilege of supporting their work?

From → Ask Bryan

5 Comments
  1. Hennie de Wet permalink

    Hi Brian, thanks for the reply.

    I think the reason many of us pester you about NI Kontakt is because of the quality of the instruments which use this format. As far as I’m aware, Garitan and DSF (through Dymension Pro) are the only accessible orchestral instruments and, even though they are good instruments, they simply cannot compete with the sound quality of orchestral libraries useing the Kontakt format. Do you know of any options out there which could compete on an equal footing?

    Thanks for pointing me to Omnisphere – exactly how accessible is it? I would like to buy it, but not if I can’t use it.

    thanks again

    Hennie

    • Hi Hennie.

      Omnisphere works on Windows via HotSpotClicker for Jaws. By works, I mean that you can pick presets, but not edit them.

      There are other orchestral sample collections.

      Vienna is available in Giga Studio format, and there are lots of accessible sample players that will oad Giga instruments:
      http://www.vsl.co.at/en/65/71/84/1349.vsl

      Edirol produced a softsynth around 10 years ago with most of the Roland hardware orchestral sounds. Those aren’t the same as the big libraries, in terms of size or number of articulations, but they are pretty damn good for what they are. Roland has traditionally had the best orchestral expansions of the hardware-based synths.

      There are a few different orchestral packs for Dimension Pro, but you might know of all of those.

      There is, of course, a huge amount of material available for EXS24, but, while that is entirely accessible, it only works inside Logic, and Logic is largely inaccessible at the moment.

      What is your position? Are you working on this stuff for a living, and so prepared to spend money to get what you want, or are you a cash starved hobbiest?

      If you have a good bit of cash to spend, then you should be using hardware. The hardware stuff, in most cases, is better than the software that is accessible. Get a Yamaha Motif XF with 2 1GB flash memory boards, and purchase the Symphonic Suite expansion. Yamaha has very modern and clean orchestral sounds built in to the XF, and the expansion adds a really good pallet. Also get a Roland Fantom XR and install Roland’s Orchestral expansion SRX card. Between those two, you’ll have a very good set of sounds. You’ll need about
      $5,000 to make it happen.

      If you are in a position to spend about $10,000 to $15,000, then you can go the route of most professional composers, with a blindness variation. You buy your large orchestral libraries, and install them on slave DAWs. The slave DAWs simply run a synth host with the softsynth always loaded. The slave DAWs become something like really high-end MIDI modules, and you control them from the master DAW, where you run your sequencer. Since the synths that you want are inaccessible, then you’ll need a sighted DAW tech to set them up for you, and it is quite a bit of work. They’ll also need a detailed specification regarding how to set the system up, but I’d be willing to create such a spec for about $300. That would include consultation time with you to make sure that all of your needs are addressed, as well as time spent working with your sighted DAW tech to troubleshoot any problems. This assumes, though, that your DAW tech can normally handel master/slave setups. If I need to assist with that, then I’d need $50 per hour to talk them through it.

      When complete, you’d have strictly a MIDI sequencing setup on the master DAW, with a MIDI track/channel representing each instrument and articulation in a full orchestra. When composing, you wouldn’t need to control the synths. Instead, you’d only need to locate the MIDI track that is already handling that instrument and articulation.

      If you’re a hobbiest, then the soft synths (Dim Pro stuff, Garitan, Edirol, and Vienna) are probably the best that you can do.

      In any case, Native Instruments is out. I wouldn’t be so blunt in a public blog post, but they don’t give a damn about what we need or want, and actively avoid the issue now. As someone that has worked this situation with them for 8 or 10 years, the outlook is that there products will never be accessible. What ever you use, it won’t be Native Instruments.

      Bryan

  2. Hennie de Wet permalink

    Hi Brian

    Thanks a bunsh for the reply. I am studying a degree in music at Bangor Univercity in North Wales, and I’m specialising in composition. I recently baught the Motif XF (with 2x 1 gig boards and firewire board), Sonar (dymension pro) and a dedicated audio PC (win 7 64 bit-12 gig ram-6 core intel i7 extreme running at aprox 3.2 gig. I agree that the Motif has some nice sounds built in, but I need “EWQL” standard sounds. My composition tutor is the resident composer for BBC Wales, which means that I have an opertunity to have my compositions “heard”. The problem I have is that the sounds I have does not sound “real” enough.

    Do you know where I could find some music composed with some of the Motif orchestral expansions? I’m struggleing to listen to the demos on Motifator; JAWS doesn’t seem to see the buttons which play the demos. I found 1 composition on youtube, but the guy used an electric guitar with the orchestra …

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