The impact of technology on music

Firstly, apologies if this belongs elsewhere - there’s a case to be made for it living in Equipment, Tech and Process, one might argue & therefore Open seemed like the only valid option.

Are there any books or articles which trace the development of the tools we use to make music and the effect they have upon the music we make?

Having come from a hip-hop perspective, the tools there are quite standard and well known: turntables & mixer; myriad hardware samplers; computers. Drum & bass classically had the rack sampler and Atari ST combination and I’m sure that was key to various other genres too, but what about the more intricate forms of electronic production?

In the late 90s and early 00s there were things I was aware of that I simply had no concept of how to do. I understood the micro-edit approach of Guillermo Scot Herren & could fathom doing that on my MPC, but I had no idea how, for example, edIT worked. I discovered that o9 used trackers which, having tried them myself, I found mind blowing, but I knew others weren’t all doing that. I saw Richard Devine at Elektrowerks with the rest of the Schematic crew and simply didn’t understand how what I was hearing was being made. Are there any places where things like this are chronicled?


Speaking of trackers…when I found out Dabrye usually uses trackers for his music (regardless of genre) i was blown away

To manipulate drums and samples the way he does seems impossible to grasp within a tracker since i didn’t grow up using em


trackers and pause tapes. trackers and pause tapes. oh lord, how glad I am I never had to make music using trackers and pause tapes!


Not a direct answer on what you are looking for and also not about specific music creation/production technology but a good start on the dialectics between music/culture and technique/technology:

  • Walter Benjamin - The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction [monoskope]
  • Friedrich Kittler - Gramophone, Film, Typewriter [monoskope]
  • Emily Thompson - The Soundscape of Modernity. Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933
  • Lev Manovich - The language of New Media [monoskope]

but this is more tool-specific:

  • Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco - Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer

Exactly my thoughts! The first track I appeared on that went to vinyl was made on an Amiga running Octamed. All I did on it was some cuts that we recorded at the university studio. I used to watch the rows of alphanumeric characters scrolling up the screen thinking “there has to be another way of doing this”


I’ve done pause tapes …but I never did them for long!

Thanks - they look excellent! I have theTrevor Pinch book and my library of synth-related tomes is quite well stocked, but Im definitely being found wanting in the area of more modern approaches (particularly in terms of sequencing)

Ah, sorry, I was miss-guided by the title of the topic…
If you are interested in the practice of sequencing, probably this is more relavant to what you are looking for?

Mark Fell - Works in sound and pattern synthesis

Hope this helps…


This is great! I’ve only got as far as p16 and have just encountered the phrase “the dictatorship of the software” - fantastic, thanks immensely!

tb 303 immediately comes to mind… great topic, i would also love to read something that tracks more recent music technology history and how it influenced music. was there anything that approached this systematically?

(as a side note, i <3 trackers and find them easier to use than typical DAWs in some ways)

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Can’t remember where I read the article. But I remember that the PlayStation (poss v1) had some rudimentary music making software on it that Sizes Rascal learned on. Not sure if there’s more of a link than that though.


I know that there have been numerous other instances of hardware being used in ways the original designers didn’t envisage but it’s hard to think of anything more iconic than the 303! I absolutely love the idea that somebody once thought “yeah, this sounds like a bass guitar - nailed it!”

One of the main things that caused me to think about this sort of thing now in particular was a reexamination of the IDM I was listening to in the early 00s (and still do). There are tracks which sound - for want of a better phrase - really “modular” to me now, although I appreciate that it’s unlikely they were made on modular rigs and what I think of as a “modular sound” is more of a “DSP sound” - not the tones of complex oscillator shapes, but the incredibly intricate sequencing and fragmented shards of sound clustered together in ways which would have taken me an eternity to do by hand on an MPC or by mouse on Sonic Foundry Acid!


Ha - definitely! The dude, Scatterbrain, made a track on Big Juss & Orko’s first album using MTV Music Generator on a Playstation. I absolutely love stories like that!

I’d say deliberate use of guitar distortion from Link Wray onward was another landmark in the history of widespread musical misuse of technology.

It’s a very short article, and a bit dated, but I still like Kim Cascone’s “The aesthetics of failure” as a read in music tech use history. ( PM me if you have trouble getting access.


Well, around that time is when laptop music started. I am surprised that it doesn’t get much mention here. For me around that time is when I first discovered electronic music that I actually liked. Like the introspective, weird, glitchy stuff on Mille Plateau, Mego, Scape and all that. The cut and paste aesthetic taken to the extreme and music made entirely by abusing virtual samplers. To me this is when a new era started. I know it’s probably not a cool thing to say but a lot of it was made possible by laptops because of their portability aspect and their endless editing and processing possibilities, no?


Assuming “Sizes” is your phone autocorrecting Dizzee, he’s said in interviews that wasn’t true, e.g. in Pitchfork.

Aw, that’s disappointing.

Yes, I’m sure you’re right and that’s an excellent point. The fact that the timing coincides with Max/MSP & Pure Data ('96/'97) is probably far from coincidental, too.

Hopefully this is the right place to put this but I’m still fascinated by the constant reinvention of skeumorphic interfaces for digital systems that has been central to computer music from the very start. Max Matthews’ unit generator paradigm brought a signal flow interface to the otherwise discrete world of digital computers as a friendly way for musicians to compose data as familiar signal systems. Systems like Max in the 90s carried this interface paradigm further with a very graphically modular approach to signal composition, and popular software like the various products created by propellorheads took the skeumorph interfaces of familiar tools like drum machines in other directions… alongside you have DAW interfaces masquerading as tape-splicing consoles, the ongoing development of more unit generator / signal flow / patch-based systems like reaktor et al…

And now here we are in 2019 and I’m still hearing how revolutionary these interfaces are with systems like VCV rack and most recently the modular interfaces being developed in bitwig.

The unit generator paradigm in computer music is fantastically useful but I’ve given up trying to understand why it’s constantly touted as both novel and universally ideal. Not to mention the increasingly silly divisions between “analog” and “digital” systems or “software” vs “hardware” systems in a world where electronic music instruments have taken a hybrid approach from at least the days of GROOVE’s computer-controlled analog oscillator approach… heck, the DAC itself as a technology is a hybrid system, it can be eye-opening to read about Xenakis’s quest to build one for his projects and remember that these systems are not the binary opposites they still seem made out to be… (I was hopeful for a while that on the tail of the explosion of popularity of analog modular systems and the popular rejection of computers & laptops that we’d reached a point where these divisions weren’t being drawn as arbitrarily anymore…)

When the first versions of ableton live hit the scene it felt like a novel attempt at making use of affordances unique to graphical user interfaces in software with its hybrid use of vertical-style “scenes” mixed with the classic tape-splicing emulation of DAW timelines… but then I look to other current systems that I would consider far more novel in their exploration of possible interfaces beyond an attempt at skeumorphic emulation like Kjetil Matheussen’s Radium or Akira Rabelais’ Argeiphontes Lyre, or Ryan Francesconi’s spongefork instrument, or Hiroki Nishino’s LC language (not to mention text-based programming interfaces in general that don’t conform simply to a unit generator paradigm) and they seem increasingly marginal…

Hat tip to Hiroki Nishino for the (probably partly tongue-in-cheek) calling out of unit generator interfaces as not the universal panacea they are touted to be in this paper, too… you could make similar observations about tape-splicing interfaces like traditional DAWs…



Maybe not at the marketing desks, but I think many if not most musicians are just getting on with making music.

Thanks for the links at the end of your post, all new to me, and very relevant to my interests!