Exploring the world of skeuomorphism


Illustration: Benedikt Rugar

Whether you’re familiar with the term or not, most music producers are well acquainted with the world of skeuomorphism.

The popularity of skeuomorphism may have declined in certain areas of tech in favor of more minimalistic aesthetics, but in the world of digital music production, it continues to live on perhaps more strongly than ever. In this article, let’s talk about what skeuomorphism is, how the principle is applied in audio plugins, and why it still matters in 2021 and beyond.

What is skeuomorphism?

Skeuomorphism is a term used in digital design that describes user interfaces that mimic objects we’re already familiar with in the physical world, often in both their appearance and how we interact with them.

A popularly referenced example of skeuomorphic design is the trash bin icon found on computer docks and desktops. Especially in the early days of personal computers, this visualization for ‘throwing away’ files (paired with the sound of crumpling paper) gave uninitiated users an intuitive sense of the purpose the feature was intended to serve.

If you explore even just the native offerings in a DAW, you’ll see various instances of both skeuomorphic and non-skeuomorphic designs. For example, the built-in compressor plugin in Logic Pro X is highly skeuomorphic, with rotary knobs, ‘analog’ meters, color palettes, and a general layout that are all intended to resemble a piece of physical outboard gear.


The Vintage FET compressor in Logic Pro X

By contrast, the Space Designer reverb takes a much different approach—it still employs knobs but they look far less like ‘the real thing,’ and the interface otherwise relies on waveforms and stripped-down text boxes where you can directly input your desired values.


The Space Designer reverb in Logic Pro X

The benefits of skeuomorphism

While the function-minded layout of the Space Designer may feel more sleek and modern (and there are countless amazing plugins that lean into this approach), skeuomorphic plugin designs are far from obsolete or inefficient. Below, we explore some of the pros to skeuomorphism that may be worth keeping in mind, whether you’re a plugin designer or an end user.

1. Skeuomorphism prepares us to navigate analog equipment

Today, very few of us begin our music production journeys with a suite of physical hardware or outboard gear; rather, we start off with a free or low-cost DAW and free plugins, and slowly build our collection of both software and analog equipment as we progress.

Skeuomorphic plugins provide us an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the workflow (and often the sonic characteristics) of ‘the real deal’ before we encounter it. For example, the 1973-Pre in Arutria’s FX Collection 2 allows us to emulate the experience of using a Neve 1073 for a fraction of the price.


Thanks to Arturia, the inimitable Neve 1073 is no longer inimitable

If you ever have a session at a studio that has a Neve 1073 or a similar pre-amp at a later time (or decide to shell out the cash for your own purchase), you’ll likely be much more confident about what you need to do to get the sound you’re looking for. On the contrary, older engineers who grew up on physical gear may also have an easier time transitioning to on-the-go and DAW-centric workflows with the visual aid of skeuomorphic tools.

2. Skeuomorphism preserves a tactile joy in music creation

Playing music is a physical experience at its core: we feel our vocal cords vibrate, our fingers slide across strings, and our bones resonate to the pulse of a kick. Making music—even in the DAW—should hopefully reflect some of these exciting sensations, and skeuomorphic plugins tend to naturally facilitate that experience. There’s something that’s undeniably more instinctive and immediate to pushing faders and dialing rotary knobs than tinkering with numbers or drawing rigid curves with a cursor. There’s certainly a time and place for both, but in ways skeuomorphism helps us preserve the analog joy of music, even when we’re operating exclusively in-the-box.


The Phaser BI-TRON in FX Collection 2 even features a pedal that can be moved up and down

3. Skeuomorphism plays into our love for nostalgia

Let’s be honest with ourselves: how much of your music continues to be shaped in one way or another by artists and bands you first discovered as a kid? Throwback genres, the resurgence of ‘the analog sound,’ vintage instruments, tracking on tape—a significant part of our experience of music today is fueled by nostalgia.

Skeuomorphism in audio plugins plays into our fond memories of the days now behind us, when things were simpler and sweeter. While this aspect might feel sappy and intangible, it can actually provide some pretty concrete creative value. For example, being restricted to just a few knobs like we were ‘back in the day’ can often allow us to make quick and higher quality musical decisions, whereas a fully digitized UI that bombards us with every decimal point and parameter under the sun may potentially leave us paralyzed and fatigued.


Arturia’s Delay MEMORY BRIGADE shows us the exact features that we actually care about when coming up with a quality delay sound (and nothing else)

Don’t let your eyes deceive you

In music production, we’re in theory more focused on what we hear rather than what we see—but that’s not to say that the latter doesn’t impact our experience of the former. While skeuomorphic designs do offer the many benefits we mentioned above, sometimes their visuals can trick us into believing that they’re achieving a more refined or vintage sound than their non-skeuomorphic counterparts.

At times, this is actually the case because they’re meticulously emulating tubes, harmonic saturation, etc. under the hood; the plugins we’ve been showcasing from Arturia in this article are an example of this. However, in some other instances, skeuomorphic plugins are really no different on a technical level from other alternatives apart from their aesthetic (or worse—we accidentally left them on bypass, and ‘the classic analog sound’ is all in our minds).

This goes with anything related to music production, but whether you’re using native plugins or high-end gear, make sure you’re using your ears first and foremost to make decisions, rather than your eyes or knowledge about something’s price tag.

The best of both worlds

If used with intention, skeuomorphic plugins can give us the best of analog and digital workflows. You can preserve the tactile joy of music while also benefiting from features like presets, focus on the big picture while having extreme precision available if it’s needed, and enjoy the workflow and sonic footprint of classic gear without breaking the bank. For these reasons and more, it seems like skeuomorphism is here to stay, at least in the world of music production.

What are your favorite skeuomorphic plugins and analog emulations? Let us know in the comments below.

Explore more skeuomorphic designs and faithful recreations of timeless effects in Arturia’s FX Collection 2:

June 14, 2021

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and produces vocaloid music as Namaboku.