The Design of SoundSource 5
Posted By Neale Van Fleet on August 31st, 2020
Not so long ago, I wrote about the design of SoundSource 4. That version marked SoundSource’s transition from a simple audio device selector into a much more powerful app. Recently, we released the new SoundSource 5, featuring many improvements, both technical and in terms of design.
Getting Better All the Time
When I think of the design process for SoundSource 5, a single word comes to mind: refinement. We revisited every part of the user interface, to deliver an update that goes well beyond the sum of its parts. The new interface both looks better and works better.
In this article, I’ll go over some of the refinements we implemented to make SoundSource 5 both useful and delightful.
SoundSource 4 started out very small and compact, but as features were added, the main window grew. While it wasn’t massively oversized, we knew we wanted to find ways to slim things down.
The most obvious way SoundSource 5 accomplishes this is with the new Compact view. As you can see below, when SoundSource is switched to its Compact view, many text labels are removed. This significantly reduces the width of the main window, which is particularly handy if you leave SoundSource pinned open. Clarity in the Compact view is somewhat reduced, but toggling back to the Standard view quickly restores it.
The Compact view also removes text from the device selector, cutting it down to a fraction of its standard length. The device icons which remain work particularly well if you have a small number of devices attached to your Mac, as most users do. To create consistency, we also added those icons to the Standard view, where they serve as a secondary visual cue.
SoundSource does most of its work while in the background, with its only visible part showing in the menu bar. When it is open, we wanted the app to feel snappy and vibrant. One of the ways we accomplished that was by adding subtle animations throughout. This is most noticeable in the toolbar at the top of the main window, where each icon subtly moves between states.
Here are two of the animations from the toolbar:
The size and pin toggle animations, enlarged and slowed to show details
All of these animations are native CoreAnimation assets, built with a tool called Kite Compositor. Kite builds pre-packaged animation archives, which allowed me to iterate super quickly on the animations. I could open, tweak, and re-export animations without much work from the developer.
Reducing Visual Clutter
Before starting work on SoundSource 5, I took some time away from version 4. When I came back with fresh eyes, I noticed a busier interface than I wanted. The bubbles within bubbles within bubbles were logical, but visually cluttered. The best example of this was the nesting that occurred with effects.
Effects were nested two levels in
We knew we could do better. In SoundSource 5, we cleaned this up significantly, and un-matryoshka’ed those nesting shapes. The selection indicator became full width, which rid us of the bubble around individual effects. We also moved the full version of our built-in 10-band equalizer into a popover, matching the way Audio Units are loaded. This enabled us to make the entire Effects area much more uniform. Moving the EQ’s advanced controls out of the main window also allowed it to fit better in the Compact view.
SoundSource 5, with fewer nested shapes
Overly-nested interface elements are harder to parse, so this new design is a big win for readability.
For many years, MacOS has made it possible to adjust the hue used for all kinds of standard controls, such as sliders, buttons, and checkboxes. Changing the accent colour setting in the General System Preference lets the OS color those controls in many applications.
Though Rogue Amoeba’s applications use many standard controls, some also use what we call a “key colour”, which overrides the system’s accent colour. For example, our soundboard app Farrago has a purple theme, and many of its controls are thus tinted purple.
Farrago’s purple key colour in action
In a similar fashion, SoundSource 4 used its green key colour on almost all the elements in the UI. For version 5, we toned this down quite a bit. SoundSource now uses neutral greys and blacks in many places, and its remaining green elements can all be re-coloured programmatically:
The default tint
This change allowed us to also provide a new appearance preference. When the “Follow System Accent Color” checkbox is turned on in SoundSource’s preferences, the interface will respect the system’s accent setting, adjusting controls to use the selected colour. Here’s a composite, showing all the system tints SoundSource can take on:
Sorry, this trippy rainbow mode is not available in the app.
These changes should make the app feel at home in almost any setup. And of course, all of these tints look great in both light and dark mode.
Big Sur’s Influence
At the virtual WWDC 2020, Apple announced MacOS 11 (Big Sur), which will bring a wholesale redesign of MacOS. Development of SoundSource 5 was nearly complete when Big Sur was first shown off, so these changes didn’t cause much in the way of updates. Fortunately, many of our design choices for SoundSource 5 already aligned quite well with Apple’s new design guidelines.
However, we did make one change specifically as a result of Big Sur. You may have seen that one of the most talked-about changes in the new OS is its updated style of app icon:
Big Sur’s updated icon style
We don’t plan to rush out updates to all of our app icons to match this style. However, SoundSource’s icon adapted rather easily, so we updated to the new, boxier style for SoundSource 5.
The impact on SoundSource’s icon
We’re hard at work on updates for Big Sur (watch our Status page and social media for more), so this new icon will fit in nicely on Big Sur soon.
The last big change I’ll touch on is how SoundSource handles configuring per-application audio control. In the previous version, controlling an application’s audio required you to manually add the app to SoundSource. We overhauled this rather dramatically with SoundSource 5. Now, when an app produces sound, it automatically appears in SoundSource’s main window. It’s then immediately ready for adjustment, with less setup required.
This improved behavior seems very natural now that it’s implemented, but it didn’t occur to us for SoundSource 4. Sometimes you arrive at a new solution to a problem, and it’s so obvious that other solutions no longer make sense. That was very much the case here.
Try It Yourself
One of the major areas we focused on for SoundSource 5 was doing existing things better. The update is faster, smarter, and takes up less space on your screen. Overall, it’s a tremendous leap forward in quality, and we couldn’t be more pleased.
If you’re new to SoundSource, learn more on the main SoundSource page. For existing users, we have a helpful “What’s New in SoundSource 5” page available. SoundSource has become an indispensable tool for controlling audio on our Macs, and we hope you’ll find it similarly useful.