The Skinny on Skinning

Hardware modifications, sure . . . but what about software? Although it’s difficult to get in there and hack code, some programs offer the option to create custom “skins” that change the overall graphic look.

This is possible if the programs’ graphic resources are bit-mapped graphics files. They’re usually collected together in a folder called Resources, Skins, Default, or something similar; when you load the program, it loads the various resources, locating them by file name. So you can pretty much change the graphics however you want, as long as you keep the same pixel size and don’t change the file name.


So why would you want to do this, anyway? Part of it is the “hot-rodding” mentality and the desire to put our own stamp on things, but there are other reasons as well, such as increased legibility or functionality. For example, Figure 1 shows the original skin for Cakewalk’s Session Drummer 2. The contrast is relatively low, and while it has a suitably muted look, I have too many instruments with a muted look and wanted something brighter.

Figure 2 shows the same screen after re-skinning. Not only is the overall look brighter and colorized, but there are some other details as well. Note that each pad now includes the MIDI numbers to which it responds — now I don’t have to look this up in the online help each time I want to know this information. Furthermore, each drum pad actually has three different graphics: No drum loaded, no MIDI note being received, and MIDI note being received. I added the note numbers only on the “no MIDI note being received graphic” as it seemed that would be the only time I’d really care about the note numbers. If there was no drum loaded, it didn’t matter; and if it was receiving MIDI notes, I must have figured it out already!

Also, check out the red MIDI note: This is the icon you drag to bring MIDI files into a track. As that’s a pretty important function to me, I wanted it to stand out more.

These are fairly conservative modifications, of course. There are other, more involved skins for various products that seem more like a labor of love; redoing skins is not easy if the set of graphics is complex. For example, there have been several skins done for E-mu’s PatchMix DSP. Many people feel the original look is hard to read (Figure 3), and have come up with new versions. You can find a bunch of skins to try out at, an unofficial E-mu forum on modifications and skinning.

However, my favorite is the skin that’s downloadable from Check out Figure 4: To my eyes at least, this is a much “cleaner” and more readable skin, and it’s now my default skin for PatchMix DSP.

Another program that allows some degree of re-skinning is Reason, as you can make your own Combinator panels. The only requirement is that the graphic be 754 x 138 pixels. Once you have your background, just choose “Select Backdrop” from the Combinator’s Edit menu, navigate to a suitable graphic, and it will load. Figure 5 shows a custom Combinator backdrop on the top, and the default one on the bottom.

Again, although the issue of looks comes into play, so does functionality. If you have multiple Combinators in a Reason rack, giving them distinctive looks makes them much easier to parse.


Once you’ve located the folder with graphic resources that you want to modify, begin by copying the entire folder. Suppose it’s called “Resources.” Change the name of the copy to “Resources_original;” now you have a backup folder in case your experiments don’t pan out, so you can work on the files in the “Resources” folder as much as you want. If you ever want to revert to the original files, just change “Resources_original” back to “Resources,” and rename “Resources” to something like “Resources_modified.”

Just about any decent graphics program can do simple tweaks like altering the brightness and contrast, changing saturation (increasing saturation makes colors “pop” more), and adding colorization (e.g., change a blue tint to a red one). And sometimes you might want to go in the other direction, converting something overly colorful to a sedate gray scale. You can even redo labels so that they’re a different typeface or point size to increase readability, add your logo to the graphic, or go nuts with a pseudo-grafitti kind of vibe. It’s your call.

Do realize, however, that all your work may be for naught when a new version comes out. If a screen gets moved around, or parameter fields get changed around, you’ll probably have to redo at least some of the graphics.

But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If you’re ready to get started, in addition to the software mentioned so far Cakewalk’s Rapture, Dimension Pro, and Pentagon are all easy to re-skin. So get out that paint program, and get creative!