The Hegemony of the DAW

Hi all

I wanted to give a gentle plug to an essay I wrote about the politics of DAWs, in which I describe them as a technology that has deregulated music labour and atomised music culture.

https://disclaimer.org.au/contents/where-and-how-to-gather/the-hegemony-of-the-daw

I’m a monome user from a long time ago and I’ve enjoyed the gentle quality of this forum in the weekly summary email I get. I’ve spent a few years thinking through what DAW-based music practice means and how that meaning has changed. And whether DAW-based music practice can be reclaimed from the ugly picture I portray in the essay. Especially as the music tech industry doubles down on DAW-less music production gear.

I’d really like to hear how you understand DAWs in your practice. If they’re just a necessary, un-romantic tool, or if they’re energising instruments unto themselves, and why. I hope this is taken as a prompt for discussion in good faith.

Warm good wishes. x

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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. :wink: 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.

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Thanks for the thought provoking essay. Your important point about the way in which DAWs can encourage an individualistic approach to music making reminds me of a recent talk from a composer friend, Zosha Di Castri — link below.

In some ways it plays into your point: the paradigm of academic composition is a strong example of individualism in music creation. On the other hand, a major part of what Zosha is doing by with DAWs in her composition practice is to make the composition process more collaborative: upstream of the composition, by helping make group improvisation an integral part of composing; and downstream, by helping make group improvisation a more seamless and intuitive part of music performance.

As with the example strategies @Starthief is highlighting, I find it really inspiring to sit with the tension between the typical, customary ways of using DAWs and their frustrating downsides, and the vast range of surprising ways DAWs can be bent out of these limitations. I guess that goes to show how multifaceted these tools can be.

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Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on that.

I find that if I am playing “real” instruments (like say guitar in a band) the DAW feels clumsy and uncomfortable, except when someone else is taking the task of doing all the “technical” work and I only have to play.
But if I am composing (generally musique concrète), the blank page of the DAW becomes this empty space where time stops, where I can explore what sound is made of, make it alive, watch it become something I had not thought before, and then take from that and go somewhere else with it.

This thing that allows you to “see” the whole composition, play it as many times as you want, try things, come back, go an other direction… I mean it is magical for me, it is the place where I feel music is the more free, because there I can let it develop only with sound, be free of notes and rhythm, be just organized sound. And I still get a chance to take it exactly where I want to, which is not the case when I try the same kind of composition on hardware stuff (which I also like obviously, but it is different, less “composed” for me anyway).

To me really it is that, the DAW gives me the opportunity to stop time, without which no music is possible, indeed, but also makes it possible to do the “same” thing over and over again until it is exactly what you feel like it should be. To write time with sound. And I think it complements perfectly other ways of doing music to me, it is only one step, but I wouldn’t get rid of it !
I feel like it is almost what makes the difference between “sound art” and “music” (don’t be mad please) : taking the time to organize those sounds so they tell a story. The DAW represents the opportunity to do that, for me.

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Zosha is a wonderful person and composer and it’s great to see her mentioned here! It’s interesting to see her DAW use in this context because I think within classical circles, using a DAW/actual sound as part of the process rather than composing with notation is still unusual.

I enjoyed reading the essay, thanks for linking it here @michaelterren ! Personally, I really appreciate the timbral possibilities of DAWs when compared to pianos or traditional notation – it’s hard to describe timbre in a score (and pianos are timbrally inflexible) and so timbre has been neglected in notated music. I’m thinking of DAW timbre to be in contrast to notation though, whereas you’re considering it in contrast to consensus, which is also great.

I really appreciate your criticism of keyboard-centric framings. I grew up as a piano player and it’s a wonderful instrument but for the last few years I’ve been trying to get away from it. I find it disturbing how pianos, notation, and now DAWs and some synthesizers push composers to work on a pitch-time grid that deemphasizes many of the timbral, dynamic, harmonic, and technical possibilities available on most instruments. Gurpreet Chana has done some work to connect MIDI/Ableton with Indian instruments with the idea that it will help musicians around the world to speak to electronics in their own instrumental language.

To answer your question of how I understand DAW in my practice: I don’t find it the most inspiring tool/instrument to work with, but it has its own set of interesting possibilities and limitations. Most of my frustrations are linked to the focus on MIDI and its limitations. Though you mention Mark Fell’s description of linear time, like @TanaBarbier I actually find the most enjoyable part of DAWs to be the ease with which I can work outside of time – there’s more of a sense of building something then letting it unfold.

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Yes! There’s a quiet radicalism to her way of putting the needs of creative musicianship and theatricality before the prestige of the tools — by going for DAW over both conventional notation and custom software.

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Thanks for this thoughtful response. It’s interesting how Bitwig fills a gray area between classic DAW design (Pro Tools) and performance instrument in a way that Ableton doesn’t.

I’d argue that common DAW assumption doesn’t treat mixing as a separate process after recording. That the same software can be used for composition/songwriting, recording, synthesis, mixing, mastering etc has created a condition where all of these once distinct disciplines have folded in to a single practice. ‘Producer’, ‘composer’, ‘sound designer,’ whatever. I’ve taught music production to beginners at university for a few years and the students are doing as much wacky, creative stuff with EQ and gating as much as with software synths.

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Both but generally i embrace daws and what they are capable of fully…with enthusiasm and none of the negative baggage that many people carry while using em

My first recording tools were cheap micro-cassette players (that i didn’t take seriously) and later a Fostex mr8. Having little skill/patience, and small storage capacity, the Fostex felt too tedious and restrictive for my imagination. I then tried Cool Edit Pro and Garage Band which both felt good when used like tape multi-trackers w/ visual feedback for editing arrangements.

As I migrated to newer DAWs I gradually learned to embrace more unique features…moving beyond basic recording to use of dsp fx, mixing tools, and instrument plugins to generate and process sounds.


note: at this point i paused before continuing to actually read your essay…it’s interesting but i’m quite curious about certain parts and completely disagree with others

can you explain this passage?

“Music’s means of production is a complex web of practice and reference, and the DAW has hitherto resisted this kind of inquiry.”

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same here…i’ve actually never used the piano roll to sequence melody

  • 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

i do recording of external instruments or computer audio and mixing in the same session

also tend to favor fx on recorded parts, resampling, and destructive edits

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For the sake of the argument and to have the concepts right, what do we consider a DAW?

Is an Octatrack, Deluge, MPC Live a DAW?
Is a tracker software, or Polyend hardware a DAW?
Is any compact multitracking/multiusage/midi and audio tool that allows for the conscious organization of sound in a delimited time a DAW?

I feel so many things are a DAW now more or less, since so many things are just computers with a music dedicated interface, that for this conversation to make sense, it should first adress the issue developped in the “single purpose music computers” topic.

And in a sense, I can’t help but think that any modern sampling device that adresses complex sequencing is… Basically a DAW.

So is that the hegemony we’re criticizing? Or is it just piano roll / tape recorders softwares for computer?

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Sure. I’m referring there to how little writing is out there that puts DAWs in social, historical, cultural, political contexts. I’ve looked at a few ‘history of the DAW’ type pieces and they usually just name what DAWs came out when, as if the history were a linear progression of technology getting ‘better’. DAWs are a “complex web of practice and reference” in that their design is taken from not only multitrack recorders, mixing consoles, synths, MIDI, even word processors, but also cultural norms such as the producer-performer binary, an artistic milieu that privileges individual artistry over collaborative composition, the drive across disciplines to use digital tools to make it more efficient/accurate, the idea that time is linear and ‘now’ is an infinitely narrow point along that line, and so on.

To be clear, there is *some fantastic writing out there about DAWs as cultural artefacts. David Milner’s book “Perfecting Sound Forever” is great, as is Ryan Diduck’s “Mad Tracks: MIDI and Music Technology in the XX Century.” Can provide a better reading list if you like.

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I suspect that for a lot of people this is what makes and/or breaks using a DAW, at least when it comes to composition.

I tend to play everything in by hand and only use the piano roll after the fact for cleanup, or maybe to take an idea a bit further than my hands/playing will allow. I love using a DAW for this kind of thing. It’s magic.

But using a piano roll to actually write music with? That doesn’t appeal to me in any way. I’ve watched other people do it and have to admire their patience and dedication. I’d much rather use some (any) other kind of sequencer I can interact with.

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This is a lovely talk. Students often tell me something along the lines of what Di Castri says in that talk, that despite Max’s power, they prefer DAWs because they are already familiar and reliable. Any attempts to take DAWs out of their individualistic norms is a step in the right direction. There’s a great paper by Paul Théberge called “The Network Studio: Historical and Technological Paths to a New Ideal in Music Making” that discusses why early attempts to make DAWs more collaborative flopped. People tended to prefer working in isolation. One quote from the paper:

Interestingly, for some amateurs, the possibilities offered by online collaboration were regarded as a technological solution to the ‘problem’ of isolation - a problem that had previously been such a favoured technical and social characteristic of more professional recording studios: Craig Latta, coordinator of ‘Netjam’ (an Internet MIDI group), was quoted as saying, ‘My biggest hope … is that networks will reverse the trend of people accumulating vast amounts of hardware, hiding in their studios, and not feeling particularly inspired.’

Oof!

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In terms of scope I’m only talking about DAWs as PC/Mac-based software: Ableton, Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, Reaper, Bitwig, Studio One, Digital Performer, Reason, GarageBand, etc… The kind of software where you can create a track from start to finish without leaving its environment. Trackers are relevant here but I haven’t thought too hard about them.

I’m not suggesting that piano roll composition is problematic in itself—you do you!—just that since DAWs are so ubiquitous in today’s music landscape, some music practices are being made more difficult by them. Making the piano roll central to the DAW’s operation works against people brought up outside the Western 12-tone scale. I liked this breakdown of the situation a lot: Decolonizing Electronic Music Starts With Its Software | Pitchfork

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this is my first blush reaction for a piece that is really making me define for myself some of my past prejudices and preferences around methods for making music, so they may change as I continue to wrestle with them.

two things ring very false to me in this and feel like they might be being wedged into a helpful shape for the argument you’re trying to make at the cost of credulity.

(1) DAWs led to timbre-focused music

(2) “DAW-based music practice” is a primary form of gatekeeping/insiderism, relative to what it replaced (big studios/necessitated collaboration/etc.)

I wasn’t making music in the 90’s and I learned music production in a DAW world, but I know enough about music history to question whether either of these statements are even slightly factual.

if these aren’t reliable statements, then I think you’re making a much subtler point rather than drawing some kind of clean historical/psychological through-line, and it makes the piece a little confusing.

I think I might agree with your essential point, but I kinda can’t tell.

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Please elaborate on this. I’m a happy Ableton user for 15+ years, and I keep hearing that Bitwig is better… How? I’m not looking to change but am curious what might be missing that I might actually care about…

Thanks!

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Thanks for linking the article you wrote on DAW-hegemonies. I’m very glad to see that “I’m not alone” in having such trains of thought about DAWs come to mind, and appreciate your take on the question.

I hesitate to post, since I’d rather that the topic focuses on Michael’s article, but in case anyone reading is seeking out complementary works that explore related questions, a few come to mind. Re how DAW-related problems play out in specific national contexts, I’ve written quite a bit of ethnographic work about DAWs and production/recording in Turkey (my book Digital Tradition: Arrangement and Labor in Istanbul’s Recording Studio Culture is largely about that, there’s also some journal articles) and Amandine Pras’ recent work on production in Bamako, Mali is interesting. Adam Patrick Bell’s book is useful for critically exploring DAWs within educational contexts, too.

Back to Michael’s article, I’m so happy to see that you’re challenging the “democratization” concept—spot on! There are so many reasons why we need to push back on these claims, which are always generated by what you term “disruptive” companies and then subsequently championed by the fans of those companies. As you note, the isolation/loneliness of DAW work and production of hyper-individualism would seem to be at odds with something that democratizes.

Many, many other thoughts about this topic, but I’ll just leave it at this for the moment and will look forward to seeing where the conversation wanders to.

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I really like this component of your way of thinking about the issue. Everything from our expectations around what how to ‘properly’ use our tools, to their design and features contributes to making some things easier (if the tools are helpful), and others more difficult. And naming the trajectory of those nudges in the way you attempt is a really powerful step in identifying how to do what we want, as opposed to what we default to doing.

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the idea that time is linear and ‘now’ is an infinitely narrow point along that line

Could you please expand on this idea of linear time in DAWs? I don’t really follow and it seems to me that DAWs are less linear than most forms of sound, and especially most forms of recorded sound. They allow for easy movement of ideas in time and direction, allow for construction of ideas outside of time, and some allow for multiple simultaneous playheads.
edit: and they can also be used performatively in non-linear ways, I’m thinking of things like andrew cs’s work on fallen log bridge island mentioned here.

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i actually lied, upon reflection, because the max standalone app “2020” which i’ve occasionally used for sample sequencing is built around a flexible grid (similar to daw style piano roll)

which reminds me of this point:

new mpc software as employed in live, one etc is 100% a daw…it’s taken me a while to grok that and accept that the tool i wished was more like hardware is basically a dedicated & well integrated controller for deeply customizable software

not sure whether it’s a good thing but no question in my mind that newer mpc’s are daws masquerading as hardware

OK thanks for more context because my initial read of your quote gave the impression that DAW users are somehow missing out on complexity possible by traditional older methods of producing & recording music

yes i have a track coming out friday that made no usage of ableton’s main playhead or bpm…instead i controlled several sampler plugins playing asynchronous patterns, each w/ independent tempo and direction

my daw was then used to record and mix the output of those samplers

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