Criminal Studios’ workstation desk has had a usability problem.

Ardour, my digital audio workstation (DAW) software, has an editor view and a mixer view. Both are really useful for different things, and Ardour will happily display both at once. But both want lots of screen space, making you toggle between them, which is a pain in the ass. Avoiding that requires huge tracts of land, and those big monitors are spendy.

Last week, I realised I could cheat. First, Linux, Windows, and OS X all support multimonitor/multicard displays. Second, for the last year or so, everybody’s been dumping 4:3-ratio LCDs, even newish ones in good shape; nobody wants them. Pretty good ones go for $20ish; I spent $16. Third, old-school 4:3 ATI Rage cards are $15, new in box.

Combine these facts, and $31 buys you:

Huge Tracts of Land

The blue field on the left display is part of the background graphic, made by modifying a standard Ubuntu Studio desktop. There’s no actual special functionality; it’s organisational notation. “Files left here need sorted.”

2560×1024, aw yeah

(Click on either to enlarge.)

By themselves, neither display is good, by any modern definition. I mean, lol 17″ 4:3 LCDs. Would you want to play games on this? Hell to the no. FPS would be wretched, you have this screen divisor bar where the monitors meet…

…but that’s totally irrelevant.

All you need for a DAW is to match screen resolutions and have enough oomph to draw sound level metres moving. That’s about the same graphics power as you need for something like, oh, Word. Getting that functionality cost, I repeat, thirty-one dollars.

It’d’ve been $16 if the old graphics card sitting in the parts box hadn’t been the wrong slot type. Do you have an old PCI graphics card sitting around? Thought so.

After all of two days in this configuration, the usability difference is tremendous and obvious. Being able to have all this extra data in view at the same time is really useful when recording other people, and there’s actually a lot less mousing even as I do more things, because I’m not having to change views and move windows around to get to tools.

It’s so useful, I’ve decided to shell out another $44 for a cheap dual-monitor bracket. But you don’t need that; you can just sit the monitors on boxes to get them to the right height. But I need screen mobility.

See, the studio desk is double-sided. I set things up on the outer side when I’m recording myself or rehearsing. It’s for best access to the DAW controls from the recording floor:

Note location of chair and keyboard; recording floor is to the right.

When recording others, I set up on the opposite, further side, so I’m out of the way, and can see everything they’re doing:

Flipped about

Needing to move the monitors every couple of days? That’s worth a pair of monitor arms. If you don’t have that, don’t bother.

This situation won’t be last forever, because all the good old 4:3 monitors will go away, or get old, or become rare enough to be more expensive. But for the time being, it’s pretty cool. And dirt cheap, so you can spend your money on things that matter.

Like microphones.