What You Hear is What You Get

The history of word processing repeats itself in the digital audio workstation

One of the defining properties of contemporary music-making is the possibility for it all to be done “in” the computer, or more specifically, in the digital audio workstation. “In the box” music-making implies that no additional hardware is mandatory to make music, only an able-bodied user and some mechanism for listening. Not even a keyboard, that bastion of MIDI-based sequencing, is necessary, because many DAWs have a feature called “Musical Typing” or a variation thereof, converting the computer keyboard into a piano keyboard, with a range of just over an octave. Pressing the letters A, D, and G will play a C major chord; W, F, and Y will play a C# chord. Z and X let you change the octave higher or lower, and C and V let you change the velocity, a measure of how hard a piano key is hit, of every note played. On Logic or GarageBand, the Tab key acts as a sustain pedal.

A “Musical Typing” cheat-sheet

This appropriation of the computer keyboard into a piano keyboard is an apt metaphor for my proposition here, that digital music production practices are preceded by the emergence of digital literature production practices. By looking at the history of the word processor, we can see close parallels with music production’s movement into the box, and in doing so, outline a politics of the DAW, investigating its role in shifting labour norms, and its status as an omnipresent and seldom-acknowledged mediator of sound and music today.

I’m indebted to the 2016 book “Track Changes” by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, which advocates the importance of interrogating these creative tools. “Word processing,” writes Kirschenbaum, “hovers uneasily between the comfortably familiar and the encroachingly alien. Rather than a reimplentation or remediation of typewriting, I prefer to think of it as an ongoing negotiation of what the act of writing means.” If that is the case, then what does the act of music-making mean in the age of the DAW? The comparison is not new—trade magazines in the 90s frequently described the DAW to unknowing readers as “a word processor for sound”—but there is little that examines that comparison further. Here, I offer some first provisions for a cultural-historical account of the DAW and its emergence, with the intention of eventually laying groundwork for a Track Changes of recorded music—a compositional-productional history of the DAW—that is essentially the thrust of my PhD project due to be publicised in 2019.

I focus here on two cultural movements central to the ideology of techno-liberalism that persist through the emergence of the word processor and the DAW: the atomisation of labour, and the pursuit of perfection.

I work the black seam

Kirschenbaum begins his book as I begin here, with Conan O’Brien’s interview with George R.R. Martin, architect of the Game of Thrones universe, describing his word processor of choice. Martin uses a DOS computer with WordStar 4.0, released in 1987, because he hates “these modern systems where you type a lower-case letter and it becomes a capital,” and their spell-checking algorithms that do not comprehend the exoticised names of his universe’s characters. The crowd applauds in approval of his baroque solution to emancipate himself from the straitjacket that is Microsoft Word. Martin doesn’t want to delegate any tasks that he deems to be his tasks to other entities, even tasks like copy editing. It’s tempting to say this simply demonstrates his unwillingness to break from habit and ritual, but given his enthusiasm on the subject—his love of gear talk—it is clear that he stakes a degree of authorial identity on the software he uses and the intensity with which he uses it. “I don’t want any help,” he says, advocating for the one computer that can provide the non-help he needs, a less opaque window into the fictional landscape unfolding at his keyboard.

Martin’s WordStar disclosure reveals a particular relationship with word processing that authors, particularly male authors whose dominion over their tools is paramount¹, experienced as the word processor developed and attained widespread use. Isaac Asimov, a prolific sci-fi writer who became a word processing convert late in life, documented in detail his discoveries in a widely-read technology magazine column. “The more he works with the word processor,” Kirschenbaum writes, “the more he finds himself compelled to proofread and correct his own typos and errors. . . What’s happening here is the redistribution of labor. Asimov, as author, is performing work that he would have previously and cheerfully left to his copy editor”. Presenting a clean document and minimising mistakes here also becomes a matter of authorial identity, if not to his audience then to his copy editor, and a harbinger for creative work of greater autonomy and individualism. He cleans up his manuscript because he can, easily, which reduces the labour-value of a copy editor.

Insofar as copy editing is comparable to audio engineering, similar currents were underway in music from the late 60s onwards, tasks that were normally happily delegated outwards. Glenn Gould, Les Paul, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Brian Eno, and Scott Walker became what Duncan Hammons called “phonographic auteurs”, appropriating technical functions of the studio for creative purposes. Fast forward to about 1986: for the first 30 seconds of this video, Sting is seen working on his new toy, the Synclavier II—which Greg Milner calls the first DAW—dramatising the composition of his song “We Work the Black Seam Together”:

It’s obviously staged, but shows some features and practices that are expected of the DAW today. A musician should be able to jam with it, play samples and synthesise sound, making music spontaneously with interesting timbres, and build those sounds into a sequence, all with the apparent effortlessness and immanence of an improviser. The Synclavier II also enabled one to print scores if necessary, a feature that is waning amongst today’s DAWs. Consider how these tasks would’ve been done a few years earlier. Sting would’ve required a synth technician to wire up the synth to work the way he’d wanted, a mixing engineer, an orchestrator, a truckload of sound equipment, a band, instruments, patience, managerial acumen, tape, and studio booking fees. Of course, Sting could probably afford all this; he could certainly afford the Synclavier II, which retailed for £120,000 (about £330000 in today’s money). There is a vague irony in the fact that this computer that Sting was using to write a song about solidarity with coal miners in Margaret Thatcher’s UK, was at the vanguard of the atomisation of the music industry.

Just as George R.R. Martin took pride in doing all the labours of writing himself, so too have some musicians gravitated to doing all the synthesising, sampling, sequencing, and mixing by themselves, modern phonographic auteurs as it were. This position is increasingly normalised at the amateur level, and is often denoted as “bedroom producer,” musicians who use little or no external hardware, making their music “in the box,” in whichever room has their desk.

This normalisation of bedroom production has given electronic music composition a reputation for being a jack of all trades and master of none when it comes to sound production. A bedroom producer may be expected to have basic competency in synthesis, sampling, and mixing, not to mention composition and songwriting. For many, especially those starting out, this is a daunting prospect, a vertiginous learning curve. In response to this, several companies now sell presets, pre-made settings for well-known software synthesisers, audio effects and other plugins used in the DAW. Presets may even be integral to the success of the plugin itself, such as Omnisphere, a well-known software synthesiser, which is marketed as coming with 12,000 presets. For some musicians, for the George R.R. Martins of the electronic music world, using presets is a copout, and smacks of inauthenticity. Stefan Goldmann argues that this is a privileged position. “For the first time in the history of music,” he writes, “we might be looking at a situation in which individuals can decide how to allocate their efforts. Work not as a prerequisite, but as a creative choice. . . . Presets [are] tools for managing complexity.” Although the dilemma of where to allocate creative labour is by no means new, he is right to point to shifting priorities for where it is allocated, and means for how it is delegated.

The atomisation of labour is even more pronounced in other styles of composition. In film scoring, it is increasingly standard practice for composers to not record live orchestras, but rather to use sample libraries, huge databases of recordings of individual orchestral instruments, which can be arranged, sequenced and mixed in the DAW. Instead of a film studio spending $50,000 or more on an orchestra and a large recording studio, you could pay $5,000 or less to some dude on his computer and his sample libraries, and get a pretty decent facsimile. Naturally, orchestral musicians, which have a strong tradition of unionisation, have been quick to pounce on instances where sample libraries have effectively pulled the rug out from under them. In 2014, orchestral musician unions sent threatening letters to the cast of a planned staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle, in which the orchestra was to be replaced with a virtual orchestra made with sample libraries. It exhibited what The New York Times’ Michael Cooper called “a deep-seated fear among professional musicians for their livelihoods — a reflection of the disruption that the digital revolution has already wrought.”

This is a fascinating example of music technology as a microcosm of Silicon Valley neoliberal ideology, and should be regarded as a model for resistive action. The DAW and the word processor are to some extent complicit in the individualisation of previously collective labours, but for the many electronic musicians and authors, this is how they’d prefer it to be, to be isolated by their own tools. In a time in which delegating labour is an aesthetic act, these decisions should form a fundamental part of the aesthetic evaluation of their work and practice.

Sound does not know its [edit] history

Typewritten and handwritten documents tangibly and materially carry the history of their making. If a mistake is made, correction fluid will mask the original mistake but still make the fact of its re-typing apparent, and notes might be made by hand in the margins — these are important artefacts for the literary historian. Word processing erased these erasures. “The ideal of perfection,” says Kirschenbaum, “thus becomes closely tied to the supposed dematerialization of the written act: a perfect document is one that bears no visible trace of its prior history; indeed, it is as though the document did not have a history, but rather emerged, fully formed in its first and final iteration, from the mind of the author.”

This is the technological ideology of perfection in full flight, perpetuating the idea that technology can, eventually, produce a frictionless conduit between thought and action. It promotes belief in a “seamless” experience, one in which the tools and technologies disappear in their usage, where machines do all the work and people do all the thinking, which is in fact the line IBM used to sell its word processors to the public in this mindboggling short film directed by Jim Henson and soundtracked by Raymond Scott.

For many creative professionals in the 80s, the word processor and all its pretensions towards maximum efficiency evoked a certain inauthenticity. A writer who could afford a word processor, presumably, needed to hide the subpar quality of their writing behind the immaculacy of their manuscript. Word processors thus tried to retain the look and feel of the typewritten page. Bonnie MacBird, a young screenwriter and word processing enthusiast who would achieve fame for screenwriting the science fiction film Tron, insisted on using the typewriter font Courier, despite word processors being able to produce a wide array of fonts. “Why?” she asks, “Because only something that looked like it was hot off a writer’s typewriter would be received with interest by the studios. I know that from my years as a development exec at Universal prior to becoming a writer.”

This might be called a kind of skeuomorphism, taking the design aesthetics of older technologies and applying them to newer technology so as to make them more familiar. Skeuomorphic aesthetics have emerged in DAW practice in interesting ways. The DAW, like the word processor, was received warmly by tech-savvy experts at its outset, but perceived as cold and laborious by most sound/text professionals. This reception may have led designers to incorporate skeuomorphic design elements into the DAW, encouraging the view that the DAW isn’t all that different to multitrack tape console. Apple’s GarageBand, although not catered to advanced users, still retains a wooden veneer aesthetic akin to desktop synthesiser modules. Reason by Propellerhead displays a mixing desk very similar to that of an analogue mixing console. It also has a feature that lets you go behind the console, so to speak, and route processors to other processors as if they were cables in a patch bay, the cables jiggling a little as a connection is made.

But these skeuomorphs were only visual—the DAWs sonic cleanliness, synonymous with coldness, alienated many musicians. This perception may have contributed to the emergence of lo-fi aesthetics, in which cheap and presumably obsolete technology was used to record music. A market emerged for lo-fi sound without the inconvenience of actually using lo-fi equipment, so many companies devoted considerable resources to making digital emulations of the sonic characteristics of tape or vinyl. I’m calling this “faux-fi.” Skeuomorphisms abound in the visual design of software emulations, such as the Waves MPX plugin that emulates tape saturation, while also visualising the tape reels, rollers and tape head in the user interface. That’s not to say that all faux-fi emulations are skeuomorphic — Ableton Live comes with a slick-looking audio effect called Vinyl Distortion, which injects random pops and clicks akin to those found on a dirty vinyl record. The market for what Andy Stuhl called “analog fetishism” in digital form is a million-dollar industry, and companies advertise their emulations for how authentically — that is, how perfectly — they imitate the analogue original. As Jonathan Sterne writes, “the sound of sound reproduction has become just one more musical colour.”

In conclusion, we can talk about DAWs and word processors and how they “impacted” music or literature, but this wouldn’t do justice to the complexity of artists and art-making. As Kirschenbaum writes:

“[The word processor’s] impact was still more diffuse than we might first think. For every writer who switched over, another one did not; for every writer who composed on the screen, another one continued to work long-hand, or worked from printed hard copies, or both; for every writer who became obsessed with the mysteries of the [word processor], another was content to subsist within the doldrums of their system’s every default; for every writer who wrote more, another rewrote more; for every writer who finished a book with their word processor, another did not; and so on.”

While the DAW may have changed so much about the practice, access, community, labours, spaces, and value of recorded music, it can’t be said to have changed music itself, at least not uniformly, despite its near-universal usage in recorded music today. That is not to say that musics made with the DAW cannot be understood vis-a-vis its roots at the heart of Silicon Valley ideology, and this musicological project will be coming soon (my essay on Negative Space (1981–2014) is a first step in this direction).

I’ll finish with a two-tweet anecdote courtesy of Marcin Wichary, that underscores the synchronicity of digital audio production and literary word processing I described at the outset:

  1. Fran Lebowitz said in 1993 that if men didn’t exist, word processors wouldn’t exist. Similar sentiments around the misogyny surrounding DAW practice are described in this article by Art Tavana, and this paper by Adam Patrick Bell, which critiques the notion that the DAW “democratised” music production.

This essay is adapted from a presentation given at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, April 21 2017.

Like what you read? Give Michael Terren a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.