Uses This

A collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.

A picture of Jesse Ditson

Jesse Ditson

Maker, musician, developer (Attic Labs)

Posted in developer, musician

Who are you, and what do you do?

I am Jesse Ditson - I grew up in Oregon and currently live in San Francisco.

I grew up in a creative family, and music was my first creative field. I was classically trained on cello starting at age 4, which made learning other instruments much easier.

Growing up my family had a 1984 Macintosh in the house, which was my first exposure to computers. There were 1 or 2 games on the floppies we had, and so once I got bored of them I realized I could program my own. This ended up being more fun than playing the games, and so I naturally drifted towards a career in tech.

In high school I got my first programming job through a work-study program, but had a bit of trouble and ended up leaving high school and mostly playing with punk bands and only writing code for fun until I was in my 20s, when I realized writing code paid a lot better and gave me much more flexibility than the jobs I was currently working. I eventually participated in an event called StartupBus, which put me in contact with folks in Silicon Valley, and a few weeks after the event (in 2011), I moved to SF.

I now spend my days writing code for Attic Labs, and try to be as creative as possible with my evenings and weekends. I love learning things, which leads me down creative paths that include molding/casting, sewing, making music, DIY electronics, painting, and really anything else that helps me move things out of my head and in to the world.

What hardware do you use?

For computer work, I have a Jarvis standing desk at home with an LG 27MU88-W 27 inch monitor mounted to the desk with an arm, and a laptop stand on another arm. The USB-C port handles power, display, and acts as a USB hub, so when I'm using my work laptop (a 15" 2017 MacBook Pro), I just plug in one cord and everything works. When I'm working on music or side projects, I use my home laptop, which is a 2015 15" MacBook Pro.

At work, I use a 24" LG UltraFine 5K display, attached similarly via USB to my MacBook which sits on a Rain stand. I can't say I can tell the difference in quality between the two monitors, and I prefer the home setup slightly despite them being nearly identical.

I do a lot of mobile dev, so I keep a small stack of devices to test things on, and I usually carry two phones so I can dog-food both android and iOS apps. I currently use a Pixel for my Android and an iPhone 7+ for iOS.

Sometimes when I'm drawing or writing the MacBook is way too much of a tool (and illustrating on it is impossible), so I have a 2015 9.7" iPad Pro with the keyboard case and Pencil. It's really nice to be able to be creative without needing a whole computer-sized rig, and the Pencil is my favorite Apple product to come out in recent years. I've been using Wacom tablets and capacitive styluses for pretty much my whole life, and the latency and accuracy of the Pencil is only rivaled by crazy expensive rigs like the Cintiq.

Music is a big part of my work day, and to avoid plugging and unplugging (and because I do recording both at home and work), I have dedicated audio interfaces at home and work. At work I use a Behringer U-PHORIA UM2, which is a really compact 2x2 interface with just the basics. It feels cheap (and it is), but it does a great job. At home I use an Akai EIE Pro, which is a 4x4 and mostly just looks fantastic. I can't say it does anything special.

I leave a pair of open-back Sennheiser HD 598s at work - I've had them for 6 years and they are still incredibly comfortable (even with glasses on, wearing for 8-10 hours at a time) and sound amazing. The open back helps me not feel trapped in my headphones, and lets folks talk to me without shouting or waving. If I need alone time, I stay home.

At home, I don't use headphones, and instead use a pair of KRK ROKIT-5 studio monitors. I'm not sure they'll last much longer, which is unfortunate - but they were a floor model and they sound great, so I would consider re-buying the same model when they die.

If I need to isolate, I have a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones that pretty much block everything out. They're amazing for the $80 price tag, but I pretty much use them exclusively for tracking vocals, as they aren't super comfy to wear for long periods.

Since moving to SF have tried to avoid buying nice instruments since I so rarely have a chance to play them. My stripped down setup is:

  • Audio-Technica AT2035 condensor with a desk mount and pop filter.
  • An old MS-20 MIDI controller that they stopped making in the 90s.
  • An Akai MAX25.
  • An Ableton Push (v1).
  • An old 44-key Edirol for bigger keyboard parts.
  • A Teal Fender Squier Jaguar.
  • A pawn-shop bass that I bought when I lived in Philly and keep repairing for some reason.
  • A Yamaha APXT2 3/4 size acoustic/electric guitar - I love these tiny bodied acoustic guitars, they have kind of a dobro-like quality to them which is fun.
  • A Casio SK-5, which is hands down the best keyboard ever created.

For other projects, I keep around:

  • A tackle box full of breadboards, transistors, servos and arduino boards for when I need to build small electronics, along with a nice soldering rig and dremel.
  • Clay, 2-part expanding foam, liquid latex, hydrocal, cheese cloth, and silicon for casting and molding (usually just for masks around halloween). In SF I can pick up all this stuff at Douglas and Sturgess, along with any resins, buckets, and other accessories.
  • Various power tools and enough hex wrenches, tiny screwdrivers and ratchet sets to take pretty much anything apart and put it back together.
  • A giant collection of rattle cans, acrylics, paint brushes, and adhesives for work that usually involves paper.

And what software?

For code I mostly use iTerm2 and VS Code (recently moved to this from Atom, which I'm not regretting at all) - these modern Javascript IDEs are pretty incredible once you have them configured correctly, and I've even been finding myself using XCode a lot less for Objective-C and Swift unless I'm spinning up a new project.

Here are some productivity tools I use do as much for my code productivity as my IDEs do:

  • Alfred - especially when combined with Dash, this has all but replaced Finder for me. The clipboard history is also MVP for me.
  • CloudApp - I capture a lot of screen shots, mainly to share work with co-workers and to attach interaction demos to pull requests. This makes that whole process much much easier - I can make GIFs of anything on my screen with a hotkey.
  • 1Password - also combines incredibly well with Alfred, and helps me avoid password entropy or looking up and insecurely storing work-related passwords.

When I write, I use Medium, which is one of the better web apps ever created IMO.

For communication, I use Slack and Messages for conversations, and Astro for email. I can't say Astro is remarkably better than any other email client I've used, but it checks my boxes, which are: unified inbox, snooze, mobile client, and good hotkeys.

For video work, I mostly use After Effects. I don't usually work with any footage, so I rarely need to do much editing. When I do, I either do it on the command line with ffmpeg or with After Effects, but occasionally open up iMovie for dumb/simple projects.

When designing, I pretty much exclusively use Sketch, but sometimes I draw on my iPad with SketchBook Pro. I eventually vectorize pretty much everything. Lately some tools have emerged (Sketch2AE, bodymovin and Lottie) that have let me move back and forth between Sketch and AE easily, and then to export AE animations back to mobile & SVG/Canvas formats. This is a game changer for me, so I've lately been spending much more time than usual animating rather than writing code.

When making technical diagrams or wireframes, I usually use Google Drawings on desktop and Grafio on iPad. Sometimes before that I'll sketch stuff out with Paper by 53 (also on iPad), which feels like a whiteboard with quantization. It's really really good for rapidly getting ideas down.

For music, I mostly stay inside of Ableton Live and try to avoid using the computer as an input device as much as possible when composing. I used to use Reason a lot, which I liked because it felt much more like a physical device. Lately I've been trying to do my own sampling and sample design, which I'd say I'm still working on. Mainly this means I'm fucking around in Simpler until I give up and pull something from Splice.

The Push is a really great tool for avoiding using a mouse, and can for the most part replace your screen as well. When doing simpler tracking stuff I sometimes just use GarageBand, which is a really excellent tool that gets out of the way. I find that 90% of the time, that's all I'm looking for software to do.

What would be your dream setup?

For the most part, I think I already have it. If I lived in a different city I'd probably do a lot more work on the music setup and dedicate a lot more time to it. Most places I've lived in my life had drum kits in them, and lots of space for collecting and storing weird instruments. Not having that has made it difficult for me to record as much as I used to, which is still something I struggle with.

The obvious missing piece is a cello, which is also really painful not to have around. I'll likely buy one soon, but they are one of the most difficult objects to purchase, and every electric cello sounds like absolute garbage so it's hard to find something that isn't insanely expensive and fragile but also isn't terrible to listen to.

I've always fantasized about having an analog synth rig, and still may explore building out a rack and investing in some of the older synths that really shaped my views on music. I understand the amount of time it would take me to learn a rig like that though, and right now it's not something I can fit in. Maybe when I'm old.