Minimalism in algorithm design

In our last blog post, I discussed the role of minimalism in the GUI philosophy of Valhalla plugins. The minimalist GUI style has been present since the first Valhalla plugin, ValhallaFreqEcho, was released in the spring of 2010.

The more that we work on plugins, the more I have come to appreciate a deeper minimalism. This minimalism isn’t limited to the GUI style. Instead, it is reflected in the foundational design of the plugin itself. We have long appreciated this quote, commonly attributed to Mark Twain:* “If I had more time, I’d write you a shorter letter.” Honestly, this is one of the guiding principles of Valhalla DSP.

From a technical perspective, we’ve also been inspired by the intellectual rigor Steve Jobs practiced (demanded?) during his reign at Apple. He taught us that a limited number of excellent options increases usability and quality.

The Valhalla plugins are designed to work with a smaller number of parameters. This allows the plugin GUI to be simplified. More importantly, it allows the plugin to be easier to use for creative purposes.

 ValhallaPlate – Minimal Algorithm Design

ValhallaPlate is a good example of minimal algorithm design in action. When designing ValhallaPlate, the goal was to include as many parameters as necessary to get a good plate reverb, but no more.

The plugin ended up having more parameters than a physical plate reverb (which usually has 2 parameters, damping and a low cut filter), but it had what we decided was the right number of parameters to allow for pre-delay, tone control, and modulation. The result was a plugin that has 11 knobs + a mode control, and a reverb that people were able to download and start making music with right away.

ValhallaÜberMod – The Swiss Army knife

Not all algorithms lend themselves to minimalist designs. When we were designing ValhallaÜberMod, I wanted to explore the outer reaches of delay modulation effects (and I was drinking WAY too much coffee so I went kind of mad scientist).

The algorithms in ÜberMod probe intersections of Dimension-D style chorusing, diffusion, and extended multitap delays. The resulting plugin can be viewed as a sonic Swiss Army knife. It can be configured to obtain a huge number of effects: chorus, flanging, standard reverbs, gated reverbs, distorted delays. There are also a bunch of sounds that defy categorization.

However, a Swiss Army knife isn’t always what you are looking for. Sometimes you just need a hammer.

ValhallaSpaceModulator – The Hammer

ValhallaSpaceModulator can be viewed as a different, more minimal approach to delay modulation effects. SpaceModulator only has 5 knobs, as well as a selector to switch between 11 different modulation modes. The resulting sounds explore all sorts of flanging and detuning sound. They can even move into sparse reverb territory. Throughout the entire experience, the algorithms are easy to use.

We’ve removed the complexity from the GUI, and put into the different modulation modes. The results are a plugin that is super simple to use. You get all sorts of cool sounds, ranging from “meat and potatoes” to outer space. ValhallaSpaceModulator is a hammer.

Minimalism Allows Us To Say Yes

As I work on new plugins, I find myself saying “no” just as often as I find myself saying “yes.” New plugins are designed from the ground up to be as simple to use as possible. By saying “no” to extraneous options during the design phase, we are left with choices that are easier for the end user to say “yes.” Which makes it easier to get the mix done, to make your music, to finish your job. Our goal is to fill our plugins full of YES.

Upcoming plugins will only have as many parameters as needed to get the job done. Sometimes this is a simple task (ValhallaSpaceModulator basically wrote itself), and sometimes this is painful and brutal (i.e. the next plugin in the queue). The tricky part is how to create a minimal interface for a plugin, while still allowing for sonic complexity and extended creative possibilities.

* The original quote is from Blaise Pascal, and dates back to 1651: “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” This translates to “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

About the author:

Sean Costello is the "algorithmic reverb plugin wizard" [citation needed] at Valhalla DSP.

Comments (3)

  1. Hi Sean,
    I agree that also algorithms design should be as minimalist as possible, in fact some great ideas are very very simple but so effective. For example this new reverb pedal
    is so simple in the idea that I can’t tell why anybody make it first. It was founded on a kickstarter campaign with great success in 2013. Maybe also plugins could be re-thinked with a stomp box philosophy and design. I have had pedals, beautiful but nothing come close to the elasticity of the digital world. One more thing a little bit off topic: I love Valhalla Room. It’s beauty. Thanks Sean

  2. I have to confess that I needed some time to find all parameters… I didn’t saw the “type” arrows at first in Valhalla Room and Space Modulator… Not minimal enough ?! This was like an extra surprise for me as I was already so happy with all the other controls. Then I had so much joy when hearing different types.

    I am a HUGE fan, thanks so much for what you’re doing, I totally say YES each time I use your plug ins.
    Cheers from France

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