In the late 80s and early 90s I had a couple of cheap synths, a horrible little drum machine, a worse MIDI sequencer, a Microverb, and a 4-track cassette recorder. I found it really awkward. As it turns out, I just fundamentally do not like the process of recording parts separately in time and putting them together, and when you have to bounce them in that way it was even worse.
There was no way I was going to afford enough hardware to make music the way I wanted to, nor rent time in a studio (particularly with no guidance about what to expect or how to prepare).
So aside from a couple of cute experiments, basically I just jammed occasionally on a synth and didn’t create anything I was proud of; I didn’t learn new skills, or much push the ones I already had. In fact, mainly I shoved it all aside and played video games.
The DAW changed all that.
With the use of DAWs comes certain expectations about how they’re to be used, and the tacit acceptance of certain limitations in the design. A lot of people work completely in the box and don’t really think about alternative methods of composition, sequencing, performance, mixing, recording, and so on.
When I saw the phrase “The Hegemony of the DAW” the first thing I thought of was the particular limits inherent in the MIDI-centric design, and the sequencing choices most of them make for you. Very grid-oriented, based on discrete events and discrete pitches. Often there is a bias either toward a linear schedule of events, or toward cyclic repetition, or a hybrid where looping sections are arranged (often, with some restrictions/difficulty implementing polymeter/polyrhythms). There’s little room for algorithmic or generative composition. There’s little to no ability to combine streams of events or create permutations, or to dynamically assign a sequence to different instruments/voices.
Virtual instruments for DAWs also very much follow these design constraints, and are expected to respond in a piano- or organ-like manner: MIDI messages in, single audio stream out.
It seems to me that there are some common assumptions that using a DAW means:
- piano roll MIDI sequencing
- multitracking with multiple takes, if you’re going to record audio at all rather than work 100% in the box
- meticulous editing and rearranging of recorded parts
- record raw and apply effects after, so they can be tweaked
- mixing as a separate process after recording
You don’t have to use it that way, but sometimes it requires some awkward workarounds. For instance, in Bitwig to make a synth drone, a DC Offset and a Replacer can do the trick. In some less flexible DAWs, you’re pretty much stuck drawing a very long MIDI note in a piano roll.
For me, Bitwig acts as an extension of my Eurorack modular, a mixer, effects suite, and recorder, and then as a mastering suite later. I do little to no sequencing in the DAW (at most, a simple short loop running continuously, for a software synth).
I don’t multitrack; I record a live session, with mixing as a part of the performance, with effects baked in. I like to commit rather than wasting time second-guessing and tweaking or losing the spontaneity. I also appreciate the alternatives to “default” compositional styles that modular sequencing and a scattering of mini hardware sequencers and manual playing can achieve.
Sometimes when I talk about those things with people who primarily work in the box, they act as if I have three heads. For instance, there was a recent discussion about automatic polyphony in software modular, and some people refuse to see that the very idea of it imposes certain limitations, including making it dependent on MIDI.
Note that I don’t think there’s anything specifically wrong with MIDI or the way DAWs are designed, just that there are inherent limits which people don’t acknowledge, tend to forget exist, or assume nobody in their right mind would want to step away from.