The Joy of Small Musical Device Displays

Having grown up as a nerd in the 80s, I’ve long had a fascination with computers of the time, which existed in a world before IBM PC led standardization took over. The oddball electronics my father used to bring home between repairs also captivated me. The limitations of these devices were what made them interesting and fun.

Which is why I’ve been fascinated with many modern electronic music devices. What they’re trying to offer is insane, from controlling clip sequences to parameters on exotic synthesizers to full musical composition and file handling.

At some threshold, the devices can make do with a 7-inch or larger touch screen, which is likely a quite affordable option due to the popularity of low-cost phone and tablet components. This makes sense. If you can put a decent processor and display like you would in an Android tablet, you can build your device atop Android (or Linux, at a lower level) and work with the same toolchain you would when building for a tablet. Akai does this, Denon DJ does this… heck, even Peloton does this.

The 7" touch display on the modern Akai MPC is hideous and absurd. Inevitably, you need to touch this screen quite a bit to use all the features. And where did that font even come from? The only font on the hardware is Helvetica!

But they are ugly. They often use default Android fonts, or render visual information in a sloppy way that belies their origin as a budget smartphone OS. And because you have a large touchscreen, it’s tempting to add a ton of features and bury them in the menus, so that in the end you feel as though you might as well just be using a tablet device. That’s exactly the awkward experience Akai’s new MPC devices give you, and I hate it.

What interests me are the devices with much weirder constraints that have driven their designers to come up with something from scratch. If the constraints are too great, you end up with something too small to be interesting, such as an LED display that can only show a line or two of text. But in the middle, creativity flourishes.

Let’s look at a few of these crazy devices on the market today.

It’s a shockingly low-res display, but Electron makes it work.

Elektron is a Swedish maker of professional musical devices. These devices are capable of many features, so that even their basic drum computer includes sampling and sequencing. Their hardware is robust and highly-regarded, and runs a custom OS developed in-house.

Every piece of pro Elektron kit has a 128x64 monochrome (1-bit) display. The technology used in the display does vary from device to device, but the interface is largely the same. That is a shockingly low resolution display.

And it’s a quirky one. Because they have to fit so much into such a small display, almost every screen of the interface is custom, with information tucked into every corner. They use a number of pixel fonts, which reminds me of 90s era Flash web design a lot.

The display is very early 80s IBM PC, but I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun.

Poland’s Polyend currently makes the only hardware “tracker” on the market, which is a device that lets you arrange your music in an unusual way. This method of making music was fairly common 30 years ago, but is rare today.

The device has a 480x360 color 3.5" IPS screen, and its interface reminds me a lot of old DOS displays, including the typography. It is oriented around the character grid, yet uses visuals as necessary. The simplicity of the layout gives it a nice vintage feel, but also has the pleasant side-effect of being extremely responsive.

Roland doing their level best to fit a DAW into that tiny display.

Roland is an interesting case. They have a ton of different devices, in many classes, and they often use a different style of display. In fact, they sell a smaller battery-powered version of this device that uses an entirely different style of two-line LCD!

The MC-707 has a 256x80 display, though it can show different levels of brightness, which helps out a bit with the UI design. A lot of effort has gone into showing as much information as possible in this space, including a full Ableton Live style layout of the clips of a song, and diagrams of how the synth channels are structured.

The display on the OP-1 certainly looks like something Apple would make.

Teenage Engineering is a Swedish electronics maker founded in 2005. Their first device was the quirky OP-1, and it remains their core product.

The display on the OP-1 is a huge part of this oddball device’s charm. Most small displays make every effort to convey information as clearly as possible, whereas this display makes every effort to be entertaining. Some effects involve cartoon characters, or detailed illustrations of the effect itself.

The OP-1 has a 320x160 color AMOLED display, and it shines. This is the same type of display on an Apple Watch or nice iPhone, meaning that the black on the screen isn’t visible, and the contrast ratio is astounding. Because the screen is so small, it would be considered a “retina” display.

The Push 2 display is stunning, and certainly photographs well.

Berlin-based Ableton is best known for its Ableton Live DAW software, but they make one (and only one!) hardware device that’s been custom designed and built to work perfectly with their software. While not a standalone device — the Push requires a computer running Ableton Live — the visualizations on the hardware are very different from the software, and it’s a clever contrast.

The Push 2 has a 960x160 color display, designed to align perfectly with the 8 columns of knobs and pads on the hardware. Devices have a variety of visualizations, while leaving room for labels along the top and bottom to correspond to the columns.

As a designer, I also love that Ableton designed their own typeface, which they use for the software, the hardware, and the hardware display. Even though what you see on the Push display is different from what you see in the software itself, the similarity in design makes it work. Such a level of consistency is rare and noteworthy.

It’s not super obvious from this photo, but many Native Instrument products, such as the Machine+ shown here, have two side-by-side displays.

Also based in Berlin, Native Instruments have a long history of devices with two displays. These devices include keyboard controllers, DJ gear, and the Maschine beat controllers.

All of these products use two 480x272 color displays. It’s an awkward arrangement to my mind, as the buttons and knobs above and below never line up quite right, but they have adapted. For example, if you’re looking at a waveform on one display, the other can be used for the zoom.

There are tons more examples, I’m really just focusing on one area of the small-device-for-music-making market. And they’re fun! I’m hopeful their charm will translate into future devices in other areas, like Panic’s much-anticipated Playdate, designed in collaboration with Teenage Engineering.

Just so long as the 7-inch Android-style touchscreen display future I fear doesn’t take over the world, I’ll be happy.

Yep, that’s what I’m afraid of!

Designer in Portland, Oregon. Wife Kandace, daughters Zoë and Greta. Partner at Needmore Designs, and eternal optimist.