Playing An Instrument, Playing A DAW, Omnimusicality

I’ve been thinking about how playing an acoustic musical instrument can be a model for producing music in DAW software. As I hear it, producers who approach their DAWs as instruments develop novel and idiosyncratic ways of creatively playing the technology rather than merely using it. This post compares the experiences of playing an instrument with playing a DAW to explain the unique, omnimusical demands DAWs make on musicians.

Playing An Acoustic Musical Instrument
Musicians get immediate feedback from their instruments. As a percussionist, I get responses from my instruments as I play them: striking creates sound vibrations. Gong playing offers a simple example. When I play a gong there are many variables besides the gong itself that shape its sound production. There’s the mallet I’m using (soft or hard, yarn-wrapped or rubber), the contact point where I’m striking (center, off-center, or at the outside edge), my stroke type (single hit or continuous roll), and the intensity of the strokes (soft or forceful). Changing any, or several, of these variables changes the sound the gong makes. If I want to shift from say, a thin/brighter sound to a thicker/darker sound I change how and where I strike the instrument. My gestures connect to sound-moods—or at least it feels that way, such is the close connection I feel with the instrument as I’m playing it. From a player’s perspective, a gong can conjure a drone, or a coming storm, depending on how it’s approached, and depending on your imagination.

The most important aspect of playing an acoustic instrument is the tight coupling between touch and time. At any moment musicians are their own conductors: they can change course on an whim–accelerating or slowing the tempo, playing louder or softer, choosing different pitches, or conjuring different timbres using unorthodox techniques–and their instruments respond instantly. Consider another example. When you watch a violinist playing a melody, notice when they dig in with the bow and apply more pressure and vibrato to the strings with their fingers and the melody sings, as if the instrument itself is doing the emoting. When we play an acoustic instrument we’re in full control and feel as one with our gongs or violins, but there’s no hiding: you sound as you can make sound, you sound as you are.

Playing A DAW
When I play DAW software, I have control over its sound generation but the process of making sounds and receiving feedback from my playing is greatly slowed down. As with playing a gong, there are many variables that can shape the DAW’s sound, but these variables are not immediately at hand the way they are with an acoustic instrument. Instead, they have to be set up one by one (and often laboriously, by mouse-clicking, selecting etc.) before I can play with them. For example, let’s say I want to work with a pad sound, a quintessentially electronic timbre halfway between strings and keys. I’ll begin with a pad that’s in the ballpark of what I want, knowing that at some point during the production process I might alter its sound by altering some of its parameters. Unlike a gong whose material presence mostly determines its sound and provides me with immediate feedback, my pad sound is not readymade, and certainly not stable. I’ve had to find or design the pad whilst keeping in mind that I might edit it later. In a DAW, one’s sounds are potentially always open-ended–like questions ready for answers.

This finding, designing, and manipulating takes time…time away from making music with the pad sound! (This is why producers sometimes separate sound design work from composing work–because each demands a different kind of focus.) The most important aspect of playing a DAW then, is not the tight coupling of touch and time, but rather trusting a process of interacting with the software–trusting that we may accidentally discover something interesting whilst playing with a sound, or what the producer Huerco S. calls “tinkering away, conducting experiments, & discovering artefacts deep deep below.” Producers’ discoveries most often emerge as a by-product of sound relationships they’ve put into motion to steer the music forward. The production goal is always, to quote Brian Eno, to ride on the dynamics of a musical system.

This brings us to the questions of what makes a DAW a unique musical instrument, and what’s involved in playing it. The DAW’s uniqueness comes from that fact that, unlike a gong or a violin, it offers more than a one-to-one, this gesture creates that sound relationship. Instead, the DAW offers the musician the possibility of a one-to-many, one gesture can create many sounds relationship. The DAW then, is not a single, bounded instrument, but a thousand unbounded instruments always in flux. Playing a DAW involves crafting musical experiences both in the moment and over longer spans of time, from micro edits to macro organizing, from recording a part right now to shaping many parts into a piece over weeks or months of cumulative, touch-decoupled-from-time work.

In sum, the experience of playing an acoustic instrument is a helpful model for how to approach a DAW, yet playing the software goes beyond the acoustic. Playing a DAW is improvising, composing, sound designing, arranging, orchestrating, recording, and engineering. This fact makes music production a unique omnimusical experience, by which I mean composing that engages sound from many angles and by many means. The omnimusical producer designs a soundscape, plays with multiple sounds simultaneously, shapes tones, timbres and rhythms, and builds tensegrity through feedbacking interactions of parameter controls, all in a Quest to create a dynamic music that feels alive at many levels at once.

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