More and more producers are ditching the computer. Is this a response to an increasingly digitised life?
The Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, is far and away the most prevalent tool used to produce electronic music, and its use is ubiquitous across almost all genres and sub-genres. The way an artist makes use of a DAW is a matter of personal preference, but the majority use it for everything. Composition, arrangement, sampling, mixing or mastering, any and all of these processes can be handled effortlessly by the tools and features offered by current music production software.
The results of this power and accessibility have been well documented, some of the most significant and influential records from the past decade and beyond have been made in a bedroom with little more than a computer, mouse and keyboard. Why is it then, faced with such potential and efficiency, have some artists decided to put the computer to one side and embrace the finicky, often frustrating and costly pursuit of making electronic music with physical equipment?
Life Through A Screen
Recent studies have estimated that the average person spends around 13 hours a day looking at some kind of screen, and with lockdowns keeping large swathes of the population indoors and working from home, our usage has only increased.
Modern-day life is increasingly filtered through glass. We work on computers, much of our social interactions are conducted through phones and to unwind we binge Netflix or play video games.
This is a remarkable change in human behaviour that has occurred rapidly over a relatively short time, and despite all the benefits of convenience and efficiency that our digital lives offer, the relentless exposure to screens can leave some people feeling burnt out. While laptops and phones may seem essential for professional and social purposes, some artists find them detrimental to their creative pursuits and have discovered that by limiting their use of DAWs, using them as glorified tape recorders or ditching them entirely, they find themselves more inspired and more satisfied with their creative process.
On a personal level, I definitely experience screen fatigue. I do not like looking at screens for too long. My eyes hurt and I get headaches. Even though I’m a hardcore gamer, it still gets to me. So I like to separate music making from that.
Devices can also be very distracting. When I’m jamming on my hardware, I close all windows on my PC except the DAW, and put my phone somewhere where I can’t see it. I prefer to be free of distraction and let the music flow.Blush Response
Music technology is at a point that was inconceivable 20 years ago. Powerful computers and access to equally powerful software mean that it’s now even easier for electronic musicians today to practice their craft. Why then, are some artists forgoing modern technology, and stripping back their processes to something more rudimentary and arguably archaic?
One answer that we hear time and time again is that modern DAWs, with all their bells and whistles, are almost too powerful. A near-limitless supply of sounds, samples, effects and synths can be overwhelming, add the potential for endless tweaking and editing and you’ve got a music production workflow that some find unmanageable. Gone are the days when music was written, practised and then committed to tape in a recording process that brought with it a sense of finality.
In response to this, some producers are resisting the allures of modern software, and embracing more traditional methods of making electronic music with hardware. Surgeon and Karenn were among a handful of artists who helped popularise hardware-only live sets, with their rough-around-the-edges performances working to influence a generation of younger artists to embrace the imperfections of live electronic performance. It can be an expensive and at times discouraging route to take, and committing to it, just as with the virtual alternative, takes dedication and a willingness to learn.
For some, the results can be game-changing. Freed from the endless options of the computer, DAW-less artists find themselves faced with only the limitations of the equipment at hand.
Yes, having too many options is overwhelming, and having an extremely limited palette of perhaps just one hardware synth and a DAW is very inspiring as you have the sense you can master it, push it, and you have to think creatively.
When you have access to infinite sounds, I do find I end up gravitating towards familiar ones after a while. But the reality is even if I sit down in front of Ableton live with a million plugins inside it, it’s not like I don’t make music – I do. So it can’t be that off putting. You pick a few virtual tools for that session and you get on with it.Mylar Melodies
Limitations can be liberating, and while using equipment can be an immediate way to reduce the options available, there’s no reason why limitations can’t be applied to DAWs themselves. This method requires self-control, as it can be easy to be tempted by the features DAWs offer, but it has the bonus of allowing artists to exploit the benefits of limiting their creative tools while eschewing the financial commitment of hardware set-ups. That being said, gear is considerably more affordable today compared to previous generations, and the wealth of tutorials and guidance online means there has never been a better time to explore electronic instruments.
Music in Cycles
They say trends are cyclical, and music is certainly no exception. We can see clear, repeating patterns in genre form and popularity, movements that ascend rapidly, disappear for a time then come around again. It’s not simply musical genres that this applies to, but specific developments within individual genres as well.
Early techno records from the likes of Juan Atkins in the late 80s and early 90s were relatively slow, dripping in funk and with unmistakable electro flavours. However, as the second wave of Detroit techno producers such as Jeff Mills and Robert Hood began breaking through, the BPMs started to climb. The music became more hectic and more extreme, and this evolution of the Detroit sound was echoed in Europe by a host of hard techno labels and collectives.
Just as this new style of ferocious techno was reaching it’s crescendo, the BPMs started falling again, with groups like Minus riding the crest of what was soon to be a much-maligned period of slower, plodding techno that seemed a far cry from what came before. And today, we see the same thing happening all over again. The speed of current techno has been rising for some time, and continues to do so, this time around featuring massive influence from gabber and early hardcore.
While these eddying trends may provide evidence for the cyclical nature of electronic music, what do they have to do with music production? More specifically, what do they have to do with producing music without a DAW?
Maybe these cycles do not only apply to genres and sub-genres, but also to the way in which music itself is produced. Perhaps this return to old school production techniques is just another manifestation of the cyclical nature of dance music, or maybe it is emblematic of another, technological and culturally reactive issue. As our lives become ever more entwined with our devices, and with the increase in screen-time brought about by the pandemic, perhaps it’s inevitable that some artists may feel compelled to distance themselves from the screen, and look for alternative ways to produce music.
The Best of Both Worlds
Music, and the methods through which it’s created, are subjects that have long been hotly contested battlegrounds of clashing viewpoints and unshakeable opinions. Recording and production methods, techniques and idiosyncrasies are observed with religious fervour, and many an internet forum has descended into petty squabbling over resolutely held beliefs.
It can be easy to get lost in the technical debate, and sometimes it’s possible to lose sight of the most important thing, actually making the music itself. While examination of the craft can prove an interesting exercise, for most producers and a vast majority of listeners, the process matters less than the end result. There will always be purists on either end of the spectrum, those who swear by purely hardware or software based set-ups, both of which are perfectly valid.
There will be gear, there will be computers, honestly… it all sounds the same. It’s just what works for the person and what helps them get their message across as effectively as possible.Kai van Dongen
For most producers, a hybrid set-up with a mix of software and physical equipment is the ideal way to bridge the gap. Combining the two offers artists the benefits of both worlds, and allows them to avoid the potential dogmatic pitfalls of purism that can stunt creativity in the pursuit to enrich it.
Roberto Facchini is a music writer based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter.