Under The Microscope

The Design of SoundSource 4

At the end of March, we unveiled an all-new release of SoundSource, our powerful system-wide audio controller. SoundSource can help every Mac user who uses audio, whether you’re streaming music, participating in voice chat, or just watching videos.

Last month’s release was officially SoundSource version 4.0, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Despite its version number, SoundSource 4 is an entirely new app, with massive updates over what came before. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

Unlike some more linear updates, the design and conceptualisation of SoundSource 4 began from a nearly blank slate. This is a story of how we got to our eventual release.

Starting With Posture

Whether intended or not, every app has what design researcher Alan Cooper calls a ‘posture’. From Cooper’s essential interface design book “About Face”:

Most people have a predominant behavioral stance that fits their working role on the job. The soldier is wary and alert; the toll collector is bored and disinterested; the actor is flamboyant and larger than life; the service representative is upbeat and helpful. Products, too, have a predominant manner of presenting themselves to users.

A workhorse app like Photoshop or Sketch, for example, takes over most of the screen and has what Cooper would call a ‘sovereign’ posture. These are apps you spend hours upon hours in. They tend to have a lot of features, and a correspondingly sprawling interface.

SoundSource is very different, as it works for you in the background, nearly invisibly. It needs to stay out of the way, so the user can accomplish other things. Occasionally, SoundSource needs to be accessed for a quick tweak, then just as quickly hidden away. It has a ‘transient’ posture.

Understanding that transient posture was essential to the app’s design. With this in mind, the menu bar was the obvious home for SoundSource. Making everything we wanted fit into the tight constraints of a menu bar app proved to be an interesting design challenge. At times, it felt more like working on a mobile app than a traditional desktop app, because of the smaller surface area.

Setting Priorities

Once we’d determined that SoundSource would live in the menu bar, the next step in our design process was creating a list of the main functions we wanted the app to have:

  • Volume control

  • Muting

  • Audio metering

  • Output device selection

  • Magic boost

  • Equalization (EQ)

  • Audio Effects

From this list, we needed to determine which elements were primary and which were secondary. Because of the transient posture of the app, we didn’t have the luxury of a lot of space to easily show all the controls at once. The more important elements needed to be more visible, at the top level of the interface, while the secondary elements could be slightly more tucked away.

We considered several options for elegantly hiding certain features. These included an inspector, a separate palette-esque window, and even an Audio Hijack-like popover bubble. However, I wanted to keep everything contained in the same space, which led us to an expanding “Advanced” area. When compared against the shipping product, even the very first sketches might look familiar (though messy):


An early, but recognizable, sketch of SoundSource 4. Most of the main UI elements are here, like boost, volume, and mute.

This layout was refined over time, but the basic ideas were set early on. Each source would get a single horizontal line, and an expanding section would hide the less frequently used controls.

Branding Boost

One of SoundSource 4’s central features is its Boost ability. This real-time audio compression makes audio seem louder, and it’s a great way of getting more out of even the smallest MacBook speakers. Right from the earliest sketches, it used a magic wand icon, because, well, in all honesty it was the first thing I thought of.

I assumed that visual concept of the magic wand would eventually change. In fact, I worked through dozens of alternatives. Here is the page from my most productive session of brainstorming alternative ideas:


A gallery of the many, many alternate boost concepts

Some of these ideas weren’t bad, but most ended up being too cute. We wanted SoundSource to feel reliable, almost like part of MacOS, and these concepts just didn’t help create that. Ultimately, the magic wand stuck, along with the name “Magic Boost”.

The App Icon

Once our Magic Boost concept was more or less settled, other elements like the app icon began to take shape as well.

SoundSource has had several icons in its long life. The most recent icon was inspired by the icon Apple used for the audio input on older Macs which actually, you know, had separate audio inputs.


An iMac’s audio input icon, highlighted


SoundSource 3’s app icon.

Working from that, I experimented with various ideas, starting with the previous app icon and eventually working in the magic wand:


Some early SoundSource 4 icon brainstorming

This was the first high fidelity version I made:


A mix of the old SoundSource 3 and the eventual SoundSource 4 icons

From here, the icon evolved slowly, eventually taking on a speaker background to help reinforce the audio aspect of the app, and losing the input icon altogether.


The final icon for SoundSource 4.

The SoundSource 4 icon also continues a bit of a retreat from flat design. The wand and speaker background are geometric, but still containing shadow and depth. The colours are bright and visually inline with the rest of flatter icons on the Mac these days, but overall I find the icon feels like a good combination of the two aesthetics.

The colour scheme of the icon was rooted partially in the green from the previous SoundSource, but then faded in a gradient to a new blue. This gave us a palette to use for the marketing, manual, and the website.

The Menu Bar Icon

We expect most users to set SoundSource as a login item, so it will run whenever their Mac is on. As a result, the menu bar icon will be seen far more than the app icon.

This icon took more time to get right. We wanted a design that captured the feeling of the main icon, while also feeling properly at home in the menu bar.

The above image shows a progression of menu bar icons (enlarged to better show details) made throughout the development process, with the oldest on the left and the final product on the right. Leading up to the final version, you can see a gradual simplifying of the wand to better fit in with the existing system menu bar icons.

Adding Life Through Animation

We took some time in a few places to liven up the UI with some animation. The first place we used animation was on our Magic Boost button. Early alpha builds used what was basically a check box, with just two states, on or off. We knew we could do something better though. I started by doing a mockup in Keynote, whose Magic Move transition is a great way to prototype ultra-basic animations. Then we built the final assets in PaintCode.

Magic Boost’s animation up close:

A second, and more subtle, animation can be found in our equalizer. When you change presets, the sliders all smoothly move to their new values, and the sparkline indicator in the menu updates as well.

These small details might be easily overlooked, but they do a good job of making the app feel livelier.

Iterating To Our Shipping App

Good design of any product takes many revisions. SoundSource 4’s interface is ultimately quite small, but it still required a great deal of design thinking. What’s described above provides a brief look into a process which spanned several months.

After many iterations, we succeeded in our aims to design something both compact and powerful. With SoundSource 4, we’ve made a useful sound control that’s simple enough for even novice Mac users, while also packing enough punch to be indispensable for the pickiest audio pros.

Guy Serle’s Video Overviews of Loopback 2

Veteran Mac user/journalist/podcaster Guy Serle, of MyMac.com, recently posted a couple of great videos to help folks with the new version of our audio routing tool Loopback.

Guy’s first video gives a great overview of using Loopback in general, including how to route multiple sources into a VoIP app like Skype and how to configure a recording app like GarageBand. In the second video, Guy adds Audio Hijack to the mix, to do some impressive multi-track recording.

It’s great to see our tools put through their paces this way, and very helpful for users to have walkthroughs like this to guide their own setups. Check out Guy’s videos to help you get the most from Loopback!

SoundSource 4 Is Our Brand-New, Incredibly Powerful, System-Wide Audio Control

Today, we’re pleased to introduce a brand-new product: SoundSource 4. You wouldn’t think a version 4 could be labeled as “brand-new”, but the massive new functionality and fully redesigned interface mean SoundSource 4 is effectively a whole new product.

SoundSource originated as a very basic tool to speed up access to your Mac’s speakers and mics. With SoundSource 4, it’s grown into a powerful system-wide audio utility which offers functionality to help every Mac user.


SoundSource in Action

Whether you’re listening to podcasts, streaming music, or watching videos, audio is a big part of using your Mac. With SoundSource, you gain superior control over all that sound.

Control Audio on a Per-Application Basis

SoundSource’s capabilities start with per-application audio control. As soon as you add an app to SoundSource, you can begin controlling its audio.

With the volume slider, you can make an app louder or softer than others, or even mute it entirely. The output device selector lets you control exactly where audio plays, so you can play music from iTunes or Spotify to your best speakers, while routing everything else to your Mac’s built-in output.

Sweeten Any Sound With Audio Effects

With the power of SoundSource’s audio effects, it’s a snap to get great-sounding audio. Apply effects to a specific application, or to all the audio playing on your Mac.

Anyone wanting more from their MacBook speakers can hit the Magic Boost button to instantly get richer, fuller sound. Our renowned 10-band Lagutin equalizer can do even more, and requires minimal setup with nearly two dozen presets to boost bass, enhance vocals, or even perfect what’s heard through AirPods. True audiophiles will welcome SoundSource’s support for Audio Units, which allow for complex and precise adjustments.

Whether you want to add an equalizer to Spotify, crank up the volume through small laptop speakers, or make precise adjustments to all your audio, SoundSource has you covered.

Get Fast Access to System Audio Devices

SoundSource hasn’t forgotten its roots, and it now provides fast access to all the settings your Mac’s Output, Input, and Sound Effects audio devices offer, right from the menu bar.

Using SoundSource, you can adjust volume and input levels, tweak the balance, and even switch sample rates. You may never need to open the Sound System Preference again!

So Many More Great Features

SoundSource has much more to offer, from great support for Apple’s popular AirPods to “Super Volume Keys” that allow keyboard volume controls to work with HDMI devices, DisplayPort monitors, and other digital hardware that MacOS doesn’t support by default. Global keyboard access and robust keyboard control make it a breeze to adjust your audio settings without ever even touching your mouse.

Everything SoundSource does is aimed at giving you control over the audio on your Mac. Experience the magic of SoundSource, and see why we say this is sound control so good, it ought to be built in to MacOS.

Try SoundSource Now

If you’re on MacOS 10.11 or higher, you can explore all that SoundSource offers by downloading our free, fully-featured trial. When you’re ready, you can purchase through our online store for just $29.


Get Started With SoundSource


Notes for Owners of SoundSource 3

SoundSource 4 is a major update that changes a lot, so be sure to check out “What’s New in SoundSource 4”.

If you own SoundSource 3, you can move to version 4 at a discount. Try it out, then purchase your discounted upgrade for just $19.

Finally, folks who purchased SoundSource on or after February 1st, 2019 will receive a complimentary upgrade to SoundSource 4. Full details have been sent via email, so be sure to check your inbox.

Mac Sound Sorcery

Update (March 26th, 2019): The wait is over, with the release of SoundSource 4, a brand-new (?!) audio control utility for MacOS.


In the very near future, we’ll be unveiling a brand-new product. While some of our audio tools are aimed at niche markets, this app is built for wide appeal. If you use audio on your Mac in any way at all, you’re going to want to hear all about this.

Stay Tuned

We’ll have more news next week, but for now, we’re just encouraging you to stay in touch via:

It’s going to be magical!

Tutorials for Our Entire Ultimate Podcast Bundle

Hot on the heels of our recent post about videos from Chris Enns, another useful set of helpful videos about Rogue Amoeba’s apps is now available on YouTube. Mike Russell runs Music Radio Creative, an international audio production company, and he’s recently posted videos on:

Loopback

How to Play Music and System Audio Through Skype (Loopback 2 Tutorial)

Audio Hijack

How to Use Audio Hijack to Record Skype (Tutorial)

Farrago

A Podcast Soundboard App for Mac (Introducing Farrago)

Fission

Adding Podcast Metadata and Making Lossless mp3 Edits (Fission Tutorial)

These videos are an excellent way to get started with our apps, and it’s great that Mike is sharing his knowledge and skills. If you’re looking to begin podcasting, folks like Mike and Chris even offer online training to help you get started. And of course, you can save big on the tools mentioned above, by purchasing our Ultimate Podcast Bundle. Happy podcasting!

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