I was introduced to Pro Tools while enrolled in the audio program at Five Towns College in Dix Hills, New York, during the mid ’90s. Most of my early training in college was on large format consoles and multitrack tape machines, which were de rigueur in the studios of the day. Computers had certainly found their way into the recording environment nearly a decade earlier, but more so in the role of MIDI sequencers.
During the years I was in school, however, the digital audio workstation (DAW) had gotten its foot in the door of the control room and the DAW that led the way was Pro Tools, which I began to work with in my senior year. I sat there in front of the monitor, staring at a graphic representation of a waveform, wondering whether the hours I spent learning how to splice quarter-inch tape with razors had been wasted…
Little did I know that 20 years later, I’d be so closely involved with Pro Tools and its accessibility for blind audio engineers and musicians.
I had the advantage of taking a one-on-one advanced digital audio class with my professor as a result of my need to use adaptive software known as inLARGE, a screen magnification program for the Macintosh. Several years earlier, I had been diagnosed with a retinal condition that impaired my vision. When I entered college, most of the gear I used was highly tactile: mixing consoles, outboard processors, tape machine remotes, etc. By the time I was preparing for graduation, things had already begun to change. Evidence of this glowed from a VGA before me—everything, all under one roof, one box. Little did I know that this was the paradigm of the future, and little did I know that 20 years later, I’d be so closely involved with Pro Tools and its accessibility for blind audio engineers and musicians.
After graduation I started a recording studio of my own, BeSharp, in New York City and for a number of years I kept one foot firmly planted in the analog multitrack world while occasionally using a computer for virtual tracks slaved to tape. As my vision gradually grew worse, however, it became more difficult or even impossible to perform certain tasks at the studio. LCD displays were dim, VU meters were a blur and tweaking outboard gear became tedious. All the while, I was experimenting with an LE version of Pro Tools, using the outSPOKEN speech synthesizer on my Mac to access it without having to look at the screen.
With the introduction of Pro Tools HD, I finally made the jump over to the digital world. For several years, everything went well. A small community of blind Pro Tools users emerged and shared tips and techniques. While the program was almost entirely accessible, the use of a control surface proved to be indispensable for efficiency and tactile feedback. To me, it felt not that much different from the old days, only now I didn’t have to deal with aligning my tape machines or worry about one of my console channel strips crapping out in the middle of a session.
Around the time that Pro Tools | HD was introduced, Apple was touting its new OS X operating system. Unfortunately, there was no screen reading software available for the new OS, but most blind Pro Tools users simply continued using their rigs under the old OS 9. Gradually, with Pro Tools’ support of OS X, blind users started missing out on newer plug-ins, new virtual instruments and Pro Tools features, not to mention all the benefits of OS X.
In 2005, Apple introduced OS X 10.4 Tiger with a built-in screen reader known as VoiceOver. This was revolutionary: now a blind user could walk up to any Mac running Tiger, press Command-f5 and have the computer start speaking. One of the first things I did was purchase an upgrade to Pro Tools HD 7.1 to use with Tiger. Unfortunately, when I launched the application, the only thing I could access was the menu bar. No other windows were readable. With the introduction of this built-in screen reader in the new operating system, the accessibility we enjoyed earlier was now broken.
In 2006, I was invited to visit members of the development team at Avid in Daly City, Calif. I demonstrated the level of accessibility afforded blind users with outSPOKEN under OS 9 versus VoiceOver under OS X. It was clear to everyone that Pro Tools was unusable with VoiceOver and something needed to be done. But it so happened that Pro Tools was about to undergo a major change in the way the graphic widgets were drawn to the screen. This meant that things would be changing anyway and we’d probably have to wait until the transition was complete before the accessibility issues could be addressed. I kept in touch with key members of the Pro Tools team, stopping in to visit at various conventions and trade shows or whenever I was in San Francisco.
An accessible Pro Tools empowered me to walk into any studio, fire up VoiceOver and operate Pro Tools, all the while amazing the young studio staff who probably never knew one could operate a DAW without looking at a computer screen.
One day I received a call from Avid informing me that some work had been done to make Pro Tools compatible with VoiceOver. I flew to the West Coast to get a sneak peek and offer some feedback before the next release of Pro Tools. It was extraordinary to suddenly have access to Pro Tools version 8 when the previous accessible version was 5.3. I was once again back in step with my sighted colleagues, using the latest tools of our trade. An accessible Pro Tools empowered me to walk into any studio, fire up VoiceOver and operate Pro Tools, all the while amazing the young studio staff who probably never knew one could operate a DAW without looking at a computer screen.
Things were really looking up—for a while. Then came the big change from Pro Tools 10 to 11. Accessibility didn’t entirely break but we did begin to lose a few key features, which raised some serious concerns.
I attended another meeting in Daly City where a few ideas were tossed around. The issue was that the initial work of making Pro Tools accessible had been approached as a skunkworks project, using whatever extra resources were available at the time. Since that project hadn’t been part of the normal workflow, some UI elements in Pro Tools 11 were changed without regard for there connection to the accessibility API (application program interface). Rich Holmes, director of product management for Pro Tools, had a brilliant idea. He pointed out that Avid had pushed for international language support in Pro Tools version 11 and accessing the program through VoiceOver was essentially the same as accessing it in another language. Taking matters through official channels, we got the OK from the top to make VoiceOver support part of the normal process of development and quality control. Rich appointed Ed Gray, director of Partnering Programs (who happens to be legally blind himself), to coordinate accessibility-related efforts at Avid.
With a user interface as feature-rich as Pro Tools, the work of making it accessible is a long-term project. We’re continuing to address a few areas that still need attention. One of our current challenges is to get third-party developers to make sure their plug-in controls are labeled properly. Some proprietary controls in many plug-ins remain invisible to VoiceOver. Avid and Apple are prepared to offer guidance in the process, but the first step is simply to raise awareness of the issue. At this year’s Avid Developer Conference, part of Ed’s presentation was devoted to the issue of plug-in accessibility. This is the kind of visibility the blind Pro Tools user community had hoped for. Avid has led the way, making all of its new AAX plug-ins accessible. Hopefully, others will follow Avid’s example.
With the release of Pro Tools 11.1, we’ve seen a huge improvement in accessibility. Not only were things fixed that had been inadvertently broken in the transition from version 10 to 11, but blind users can now access features that were previously inaccessible.
With each accessibility improvement, Avid is handing us blind Pro Tools users the tools of our trade which has a direct impact on our livelihood and truly makes all the difference in the world.
Students and other first-time Pro Tools users often approach me looking for guidance, and they’re amazed at how accessible it is. I’m always happy to share the good news and assure newcomers about Avid’s commitment to making Pro Tools fully accessible. This has prompted the newest members of our community to invest in Pro Tools systems and encouraged veteran users to upgrade their hardware and software.
Users like Rick Boggs, who blazed a trail early on by helping make early versions of Pro Tools accessible, has rebooted his video description work with Audio Eyes, a company that trains and employs blind engineers using Pro Tools to produce audio-described movies and television programs. I See Music, a company started by Byron Harden in Chicago, is setting up students with new Pro Tools systems and offering training as part of a state-funded rehabilitation program for aspiring blind audio professionals. Colleges that held on to older Macs running older systems for their blind students in audio courses have now begun to upgrade those rigs to newer hardware and Pro Tools 11. At my own studio, we’re in the process of migrating over to a new control surface and a Pro Tools | HDX system.
All in all, it appears that access to Pro Tools is back on track. That track may have resembled a roller coaster ride at times, but I have a good feeling about the future. A group of blind Pro Tools users I had assembled as beta testers a few years ago continues to contribute to accessibility testing and feedback. There’s a public forum at Google Groups with an email list where members exchange tips and techniques. The blind Pro Tools user base continues to grow steadily and I’m happy to see the next generation of users helping each other.
In the grand scheme of things, the blind community may be a small portion of the Pro Tools user base, but the issues we raise are not trivial. It comes down to being able to use Pro Tools or not. The personal interest that the folks at Avid have taken is particularly meaningful because they genuinely understand the magnitude of the work they’re doing. With each accessibility improvement, Avid is handing us blind Pro Tools users the tools of our trade, which has a direct impact on our livelihood and truly makes all the difference in the world.