On DAW-based compositional practice

This talk was pre-recorded for a symposium on creativity on September 1 2016, for undergraduates at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

I’ll be talking today about technology and creativity, and using the critique of technology to start new compositional processes.

It’s fairly common for people to take the view that technology is, by and large, neutral — it isn’t good or bad, it’s just how one uses the tools that matter. This is most epitomised by that famous line by the National Rifle Association: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This position is totally untenable, as Australians like to point out — gun control works because taking away guns means it’s harder for people to shoot and kill people. Although this an extreme example, it just as easily applies to more topical technologies like social media. For example, why is trolling a more systemic problem on Twitter than it is on Facebook?

I prescribe to what’s called the “determinist” view, the idea that technology determines human action. It resists “anti-determinism,” the NRA view, that humans exercise total autonomy and agency over the technology they use, that only bad people do bad things with technology.

Artistic practice complicates the determinist line of thought. If technology determines human action, then how can the DAW, the software used to create and compose most recorded music today, lead to so many genres, subgenres, and microgenres? Humans mustbring something to the technologies they use. Humans are good at finding new, novel, and alternative uses for technology — this is the very foundation of creativity, and as Henri-Louis Bergson said, it’s also the fundamental principle of evolution and biodiversity. This kind of engagement is essentially what artists are trained to do. We question what we’re told we should be doing, we suggest other modes of engagement, and we do so in order to offer possible futures for the medium.

Every medium, material and technology has traditions and histories, ethics and politics. Materials are developed by people with agendas and worldviews, and then utilised by people with other agendas and worldviews. There is no such thing as a “neutral” technology, because there is no such thing as a neutral person, and there is no such thing as a person completely divorced from technology’s influence.

The DAW doesn’t normally get this kind of critique levelled at it. In fact, there’s very little written about how people have used the DAW and the history of its invention. But there are several prevalent ideas associated with the DAW that informs how we use it to compose music.

One of the most common observations of the DAW is that its possibilities are effectively limitless. That you can do whatever you could possibly want with it. This isn’t described as a particularly good thing, because having so much choice, so much possibility at your fingertips, is paralysing. Where do I start? How do I choose? What’s scarier than a blank canvas? This is one reason why we’re seeing a renaissance in analogue synthesisers, drum machines and hardware samplers — the process of making music on these instruments is already well historicised, codified and limited. The DAW is seen to be un-historical, unlimited. This isn’t the case.

The DAW was invented in order to do away with the logistical problems of sound recording on tape — the hiss, the inability to “undo” actions, the time-consuming process of splicing. Basically, it was meant to be a “tape machine on steroids,” a way to boost the productivity of recording engineers, to maximise the profitability of the studio. This is a fairly conservative idea of what the DAW can be, especially because now the main user base of DAWs are composers and electronic musicians, not recording engineers.

Musicians deal with this apparently limitless potential of the DAW in different ways, often through imposing limitations on their work. A common example of this practice, one that I’ve been doing for years, is to frequently export your session to a single audio file, close the DAW, and listen intently to this audio file, taking notes of what exactly to improve. This temporarily takes away the possibility of editing and tweaking in the DAW, and forces you to critique your work from an acousmatic perspective. It also conveniently gives you a simple checklist of how to improve the track. Repeat this process until you can comfortably and happily say that the track is finished. For some composers this process could iterate over a hundred times, as evidenced by producers like Objekt.

Objekt’s work in progress. https://twitter.com/keinobjekt/status/757312407647744000

Composers working in the DAW are often very careful and precious when dealing with software instruments and audio tracks. Many export their software instruments to audio so they don’t feel tempted to endlessly tweak it. In my process I often aim to refine the number of tracks in a piece to 8 or less, and in order to do this I combine several instruments into one track, as a way to keep the momentum of composition going and as a way to conceptualise each track as its own instrument, culminating in a small ensemble. This inevitably creates imperfections in the mix, but these tend to have character, you get used to them.

We can say that one way to historicise DAW-based compositional practice is the history of coming to terms with the notion of limitlessness. Of course, there are many limitations to the DAW. We are forced to put all our sounds into tracks, random generation is difficult, mixing is a long and tedious process, sound design is exhaustive, automation is limited, plug-ins maintain a very linear and hierarchical structure, it obstinately insists that your composition has a tempo and a time signature. And that’s just the technical aspect. The societal aspect of the DAW is limiting for women, for example, who still make up a disproportionately small minority of DAW composers. So the idea of limitlessness is fallacious, and this applies to every medium. Every medium has its traditions and histories, ethics and politics.

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