2021 Jun 11

We need copyleft audio interfaces

In the last post, I explained the reasons I believe copyleft synthesizers should be the future. Copyleft puts communities in control of the technology they use, and ensures that nobody can take it for their exclusive benefit. Of course, the arguments are easily extended to almost any technology, including audio interfaces.

A surge in demand for audio interfaces due to the podcasting boom and perhaps Covid-19 has caused virtually every company with a presence in prosumer audio to submit their own entries to the market. Amid the vexing glut of dual-channel, sub-$200 interfaces, many of the higher-tiered products offer features—such as hardware mixing and digital signal processing (DSP)—that require proprietary drivers. In most cases, these drivers are released only for operating systems from Microsoft and Apple. While some of the products still work with generic drivers, their full featureset will not be available.

Many audio interfaces are not built to last, and the typical lack of published repair documentation hurts users and promotes e-waste. Absent any accountability to the environment, increased production only exacerbates this problem.

I have a Presonus AudioBox USB which appears to have been manufactured in 2010. Recently, the channel 2 gain control stopped working. When I inspected the device, I found that each of the three leads of the gain pot had snapped off. And it wasn’t surprising that this would have happened, as those leads were actually used to couple the front panel to the main circuit board. The two other pots serving this role all had six leads, as they were stereo controls, so this gain pot was the weakest link.

To fix the device, I’d have to replace the pot. But it has no markings; finding an exact replacement would be difficult, and given the component’s role in the mechanical design, I probably can’t replace it with anything else. My best bet is probably to get precise measurements using a digital caliper and search for products based on dimensions. If I’m lucky, I’ll find the original part, and it will be in stock.

Had the AudioBox USB come with an open hardware design, I’d consult its bill of materials (BOM) and find the exact part needed for the replacement. Had it been designed more carefully, the front panel would not have relied on that pot for mechanical support.

Companies often have an incentive to solve short-term problems by creating long-term problems.

Haxbli is a project to put communities in control of their audio technology. It takes inspiration, in part, from the repairability and aftermarket software communities which are flourishing in the realm of mobile devices; nothing like that quite exists in audio, yet. Despite the success of these communities, they are hampered by a flood of unsuitably designed products. Some mobile devices are more repairable and portable to alternative software than others. To control the technology we use, we need to design it for ourselves and ensure that it cannot be appropriated by those who would twist it for their exclusive benefit.

If you’ve read this far, you may be the type of person who’ll eventually contribute to Haxbli. You probably have ideas for products or features, or perhaps ideas about the big picture. You’re invited to share them on the Haxbli mailing list.

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