Under The Microscope

The Evolution of Audio Hijack

We unveiled Audio Hijack 3 to the world last month, but it was almost six years earlier that I downloaded Audio Hijack Pro for the first time. I was doing contract work for Rogue Amoeba in September of 2009, hoping to get hired full-time (spoiler alert: I got the job!), so I wanted to familiarize myself with their full software lineup.

Awesome,” I thought. “I’m going to love this application, and I’ll really be able to use it to its full extent, thanks to those audio recording classes I took in college. See, Mom, Film Production was a sensible major!

That first launch was intimidating, though. I could tell immediately that Audio Hijack Pro was a sophisticated piece of software…but I had no idea where to begin. The manual was a huge help, of course, but I still felt like I was up against a steep learning curve. I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Audio Hijack had long provided users with an incredibly powerful, but often challenging, solution to their needs.

Co-founders Paul and Quentin knew there had to be a better way to present Audio Hijack’s wide range of capabilities, and they’d been kicking around ideas on how to improve the design and experience for quite some time before I joined the discussion. Visually designing a software application that revolves around something inherently non-visual—like sound—is daunting. The immediate impulse is to lean on idioms and affordances from existing audio hardware (as our charming and easy-to-use Piezo does). The more complex a task becomes, however, the less convenient it is to refer to these real-world devices, which themselves can have steep learning curves and be a chore to use.

Complex software based on analog devices

Software like Propellerheads’ powerful-but-complex Reason is based on analog devices
[Photo credit: possan]

Saying Yes to Nodes

Quentin was the first person to suggest a node-based design approach for Audio Hijack 3. He and Paul both liked the idea of starting with the audio source you wanted to capture, hooking it up to various effects, and ending with a recording file node.

My initial response was something along the lines of “absolutely not”. Having used the node-based applications Quartz Composer and Shake, I imagined Audio Hijack users dealing with a hairy web of randomly-placed, text-heavy rectangles connected by fiddly, intersecting lines and a general sense of chaos.

Quartz Composer's UI
The complex interface of Quartz Composer

Even if this style of interface made the application more flexible and powerful, this was not my idea of an improvement. Fortunately for all involved, my protests were ignored. “We’re doing nodes,” Paul said. “We’ll just have to make nodes easier to use.”

And so we worked our way through many different designs. We eventually settled on four basic types of blocks which would automatically snap together when dragged to a grid. The blocks themselves went through many iterations, with various methods for connecting and showing the flow of audio. We finally arrived at the idea of blocks auto-connecting via “pipes”, which would then show a live spectrogram as audio moved through the pipeline from left to right. Here are some early mock-ups showing that evolution. (I’m just as appalled by Past Christa’s design choices as you are, I assure you, but in her defense, these were closer to wireframes than true mock-ups.)

A very early wireframe of Audio Hijack 3, from 2010
A very early Audio Hijack concept design (Oof!)

We also spent quite a lot of time on the button which initiates audio capture. While Audio Hijack Pro had differentiated between capturing (“hijacking”) audio and recording it, we eventually settled on a single button for Audio Hijack 3 to activate the entire pipeline. Adjacent text in the LCD details what’s happening in the grid.

An iteration of Audio Hijack from 2013, with a rectangular Run button and zany colors
A later Audio Hijack design with a rectangular “Run” button
and 50% zanier color scheme

The blocks above are color-coded by block type. While this helped differentiate between various blocks at a glance, it was decided to be overwhelmingly colorful and a bit too whimsical, so we shelved the idea. Perhaps it will find its way back into a future version of the app, though!

After many more iterations, we got to our shipping design, seen below:

Audio Hijack 3.0, 2015
Audio Hijack 3.0, as she shipped

A Unified Home, A Stand-Alone Audio Grid

I originally wanted all of Audio Hijack to exist within one window, with tabs for Audio Capture, Schedule, and Recordings. I quickly realized that this was just too complex, cramming far too much into one place.

The former Audio Capture tab
A concept combining the audio grid with other sections of the app

Instead, we created a unified Home window, with tabs for Sessions, Recordings, and Schedules. The Home window provides a place to work on tasks related to all Sessions, while each individual Session opens in its own window for active use.

Audio Hijack 3's unified Home window, showing the Recordings tab
The Home window’s Recordings tab


Another huge component of the design was the use of subtle animation throughout the application. Audio Hijack 3 feels responsive and alive, thanks to the way the blocks pop and grow as you drag them from the Library, how they slide and snap together, and even the way they jump off the grid when deleted. Lead developer Grant was able to breathe life into every interaction within Audio Hijack, and the overall effect is delightful.

Deleting and un-deleting audio blocks on the grid
Deleting and un-deleting audio blocks in the grid

Streamlining Common Tasks with the Template Chooser

Even after all our work on the node-based design, we knew that jumping into a completely overhauled Audio Hijack interface might be confusing for veteran and new users alike. Thus, Templates were a key feature of the app from the outset, with the aim of making it as simple as possible for users to get to their task. As a bonus, Templates also serve to suggest additional uses for Audio Hijack.

The first concept for Templates and the Template window as it appears in Audio Hijack 3
Left: An early concept for Templates; Right: Templates in Audio Hijack 3

Capturing Sound in an Icon

A wholly re-imagined application, Audio Hijack needed a re-imagined icon, too. I tried to conjure ideas that would illustrate the concept of “capturing audio”, and even returned to an old Piezo idea of catching a sound wave in a net (which several people have said looks like a ham at first glance).

Icon sketches
A few sketches of icon ideas

We settled on a “jar of sound” concept, like something from a sci-fi laboratory. We still had more work to do, though.

Some variations on the jar-of-sound theme
Some versions of the “jar of sound” idea

We worked through many variations, starting with a sound wave and landing on representing sound as a sort of glowing ether in a stoppered glass jar. Of course, a glowing ether isn’t immediately recognizable as sound, so the jar needed a label. After a few iterations, we arrived at the bar-type spectrogram:

The final app icon
Audio Hijack’s final icon design

The Long and Winding Road

Because Rogue Amoeba is a small team, we’re continuously working on all of our applications. This massive update to Audio Hijack has been literally years in the making. In 2014, we made a major push to finally finish it and send it out into the world. Just a couple of weeks into the new year, we finally accomplished our goal.

The reception for Audio Hijack 3 has been the most positive I’ve experienced in over five years of making software with Rogue Amoeba. It’s been incredibly gratifying to hear from satisfied users. The path to Audio Hijack 3 was long, and at times it resembled a nest of interconnected Quartz Composer nodes. Ultimately though, it was a fantastic journey to make our flagship product visually intuitive and, with any luck, fun!

An animated Audio Hijack Icon

18 Responses to “The Evolution of Audio Hijack”

  1. Dantron says:

    It’s so much fun to see this kind of thing. The progress is so fast and easy here but takes much longer in practice no doubt! Great job to all the Amoebas! I LOVE Hijack 3!!

  2. Andy Peters says:

    So, what’s the sound represented by the waveform in the second-from-the-left bottle mockup?

  3. Forrest Snyder says:

    I’ve tried the new Audio Hijack and actually HATE it! Hard to believe, I know; I’m sure the underpining technology is just awesome, but for me it comes down to usability. In this day and age of single windows with tabs within that window (think your browser of choice), I just can’t fathom the gazillion windows tha AH wants to generate. Why? Why? Why? If, like in a browser, I had the choice between a new window or a new tab, I’d be happy.

  4. Dmitri Baughman says:

    I have to agree with Forrest: the new layout takes up way too much screen real estate. If I could use the grid to construct a single “block” with a record button and maybe a small meter on it, that’d be fantastic. As it works now, I’ve got the huge grid window with a floating record window that shows too much detail and information I don’t need while recording. It all just gets in the way.

  5. David Flores says:

    As previous comments said AH3 is not perfect and I agree, but it’s one of the best software products I’ve seen in a long time. You should be very proud of what you did, congratulations Amoebas.

  6. Paul Kafasis says:

    Dantron: Thanks for the kind words!

    Andy Peters: Now there’s a great question! I believe that’s a waveform from the song “Yeti Is the New Robot”, a favorite of Christa’s featured in many Fission screenshots. I do know that if we’d kept it, it was going to be a hidden message like “This says Audio Hijack!”.

    Forrest Snyder: Well, we’re certainly sorry to hear it. As far as a “gazillion windows”, however, I can’t say I follow you there. Audio Hijack has a Home window, with three tabs. It then has individual windows, one per Session. That’s really it. The Blocks all use popovers, specifically to reduce the number of windows and quantity of content seen on-screen. If you have a gazillion windows, it has to mean you have a slew of Sessions open, which certainly seems odd.

    Dmitri Baughman: A mini-window, for active use without adjusting the pipeline, is very much on our list of things to consider for the future. For now, you can always hide the application in the background if you don’t need to see it.

    David Flores: Thanks for the kind words! We are of course always striving for perfection, and working to get closer.

  7. Forrest Snyder says:

    I may well be in the minority. I don’t want to use AH to record anything. I’d like to use AH as a means to enhance sound quality from different sources – web browsers, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora, et cetera. Each require, to my ears at least, individual settings (sessions) to obtain the optimal audio via AU plugins. The idea that the user should open and close a new sessions window to tweak the settings with each application switch seems really crazy to me. This could well be true of recording from different sources, too, I imagine. Why have all that window opening and closing non-sense?

  8. Paul Kafasis says:

    Forrest Snyder: Ah ha! Well, the short answer here is, you’re using the app for something it wasn’t designed to handle. Audio Hijack can certainly be used that way, and of course we’re glad to have it used in new or different ways. The design, however, is aimed at what is definitely the majority: folks who are recording audio. This is generally done from a small handful of applications, and requires a handful of sessions, with only one open at a time.

    For adjusting all audio from many different apps, a tool that didn’t even have a persistent UI (but rather, allowed configuration and then closing) would seem to be ideal. I’m afraid that’s not what Audio Hijack is made for though.

  9. Johan says:

    I love the new UI. It’s really the best interface design I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve been posting screenshots of the different parts in our companies’ chat channel. This blog post details the nodes but the design of the equalizers etc. is great as well. Thanks for sharing the story on how it got made.

  10. Forrest Snyder says:

    Hmmm. So, I’m using the app in a way you didn’t imagine? I can see that, now. That’s too bad; I don’t think there’s an audio enhancement app available that can use AU plugins the way Audio Hijack can. I’ve looked at Hear and Boom2. Even if I am “abusing” (heh!) AH, I don’t think my main point should go un-noted: give the user the option to keep all AH operations within one window. It seems like others agree that some sort of solution should be available. As a sometimes amature sound artist, I’d like multiple sources available to switch between and record as quickly and easily as possible. And, of course, I’d like to be able to route them through AU plugins. Thanks for your comments and attention.

  11. Jeff says:

    AH3 is beautiful, and I think the interface is functionally superior to AHP as well. The one thing I can’t fathom is why such a helpful feature as using Silence Monitor to auto-split tracks was dropped? I’ve been in touch with tech support to confirm this is in fact the case, but I’d love to hear the explanation from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

  12. Paul Kafasis says:

    Johan: Thanks for the kind words!

    Forrest Snyder: It’s less “didn’t imagine it would be used that way” and more “didn’t design it to be used that way”, but the end result is the same. It’s somewhat akin to using a flathead screwdriver to turn a Phillips head screw – it may work, but it’s not what the tool was made to do, and it won’t be a great experience.

    Now, as far as making a tool with this type of use in mind, or modifying Audio Hijack to better accomodate that use case, that’s certainly something we’ll consider for the future. As to the main point of keeping everything in one window, it’s certainly noted, though we don’t agree that that’s the best design.

    Jeff: Thanks for the kind words. As for Silence Monitor, this was a feature that many found confusing, which ultimately led us to remove it when we simplified many things in version 3. We’ve since heard from plenty of passionate users who loved it, warts and all. It’s likely you’ll see it return in the future, so keep an eye out for updates.

  13. Buddy says:

    I really wish you all would make a Windows version as well. I love this on my Mac, but I have to do most of my work on a Windows box and there are no good audio hijack apps out there for Windows that cover the source range that AHP covers.

    Cheer and thanks for the great product!

  14. rob c says:

    so, the one thing that i wish i could determine with certainty is: exactly what feature set does v3 offer that v2 fails to offer? from what i can tell, it’s just a UI (and, ok, a backend) redesign. but it looks like it provides the same (er, perhaps less?) functionality than previous versions.

    also, this nonsense where you’re requiring 10.9? that feels like a horrible mistake. i’ve used AH for around 8 or 9 years now.. but the machine that i run it on is 10.7, and i’m quite satisfied with that arrangement. the wish to get all existing users bumped up to the latest version falls a little flat given the OS requirements. actually kinda bummed about that.

  15. Robbie says:

    I *mostly* use AHP *exactly* the same way Forrest Snyder does: That is, I use it to boost the audio quality of iTunes and Spotify in particular.

    That being said I have successfully used it to mix audio effects channels when running live interactive games using Skype and Quicktime etc.

    It really is a VERY fine bit of audio kit that I recommend to EVERYONE.

    However, I can’t see any great advantage — for me — in this new app. I HATE with a passion the flat, bland colour scheme used in Yosemite and happily await the day when colour is no longer considered an insult. I say this as a visually impaired user and as someone who works in disability where colour and shape offer the user tremendous advantages. But this is not the place to rant about Apple’s design choices. :-)

    As mentioned above I use AHP to enhance audio, and I use the VU meter — which you can place anywhere on your desktop(s) — and the In RMS to gauge what’s going on. The new VU meter is pretty horrible and, I note, stuck in the UI.

    I’ve also got to say I’m not keen on the multiple windows. AHP was a one window shop and that worked quite well for me.

    You guys will probably get an upgrade payment from me, just so I can stay in the loop for AH4, but I will be using good old Audio Hijack Pro for as long as I can run it on my Apple OSes.

  16. Dunga says:

    I really wish the silence monitor comes back as soon as possible. For my use it was one of the most important features of audio hijack pro and i’m very sad it’s one with audio hijack 3.

  17. Paul Kafasis says:

    Buddy: Ah, thank you. I can’t say it’s likely we’ll ever have a Windows Audio Hijack, but who knows? It sounds like you ought to have a Mac at work though!

    rob c: The best way to see what’s new is to use the free trial, and check it out for yourself. Audio Hijack 3 doesn’t have a litany of new checklist features, no – Audio Hijack Pro 2 already offers a whole lot, and cramming more in was not going to be an improvement. To think that “just a UI redesign” isn’t a massive improvement, however, is definitely not accurate.

    But on top of that, we’ve added recording formats like FLAC and bulletproof AAC and ALAC, noise reduction plugins like Declick, Dehum, and Denoise, Session templates for fast setup, full-screen mode, Presets for all complex Blocks, and much more.

    As for Mac OS X 10.9 or higher, we’re simply coping with the unfortunate reality of Apple’s accelerated OS releases. As a business, it’s not feasible for us to develop new software and support older OSes. If I could snap my fingers and support 10.8, 10.7, etc., we absolutely would. But Apple’s tools and updates make that insanely difficult.

    We do still work to help customers on older OSes. Your current Audio Hijack Pro 2 didn’t suddenly stop working, of course. It still works just fine on Mac OS X 10.7, and you can use it there as long as you like. Further, we always offer legacy downloads, for users on older OSes.

    The bottom line is that if you want the very latest updates to software, you need to have at least a fairly new OS. Fighting to hold on to older OSes with major updates like Audio Hijack 3 is a losing battle, particularly since every day, fewer and fewer people are using those older OSes. We don’t have to like it, but it’s the reality of the situation Apple creates and dictates.

    Robbie: Thanks for spreading the good word. As far as meters go, adding new and improved meters is definitely something on our list to consider for the future. And as for using the app for audio enhancement, as noted above, we’ll see what happens in terms of improving that experience.

    Dunga: As mentioned, keep an eye on updates.

  18. BillT says:

    Yow! I love this new look and some people are whining? Makes no sense to me! I think you all nailed it with this new version and I’m sure many others agree!! Thank you for Hijack3

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