An Apology of Sorts or, DAWs are Instruments

Where ya been?

Working. That normal day-to-day job that I enjoy, and that pays the proverbial bills has been very workful lately. Too workful. We’ve been on a big project for over a year now and it’s finally in the final stages of being done, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to spend less of my “free time” doing that, and get back to the stuff I love–music. So let’s do that!

The topic at hand

I used to have a very elitist, shitty view of electronic musicians. I still have a very elitist, shitty view of some musicians, but it’s not because of the style of music or instrumentation they choose anymore. Every genre has its goods and its bads. There are lots of bads, but that’s not anything new–it certainly was never better back in my day! At least I’ve yet to suffer that particular shitty viewpoint in terms of music.

Aaaaaanyway…the thought process (flawed as it was) went like this…electronic musicians never learned how to play an instrument–it’s all just pressing buttons and clicking mousethings, etcetera, etcetera. Surely there’s no talent involved in that! You’ve got to learn how to play a physical thing made out of wood or metal or hair or whatthefuckever in order to be a REAL MUSICIAN.

So obviously I was wrong. I mean, not about the instrument part, or the button part, the talent part, or even the hair…about all of it. Because any DAW of any kind, whether it’s a groovebox, a recording program you use on your PC, a scoring program…anything…they’re all instruments. They’re all creative tools you use to make music. Yes, it often involves pressing buttons, but when you get right down to it, that’s like 80% of “real” instruments, isn’t it? A piano is just a giant box of long-ass buttons for you to press. A saxophone? You blow through it, but, buttons. Guitar? Violin? Not really buttons, but if you don’t want to be too pedantic about it…sorta buttons.

The point is, as another tool for making music, software is really no different than any other instrument. It takes time and effort to GIT GUD at using a DAW, regardless of any genre you might be producing. So I say to my former self: wow, what an asshole. And I’m sorry for those that had to listen to me spout off on that self-righteous little attitude.

Y tho?

So why did I change my mind?

It took finding a mainly-electronic group that made music that actually spoke to me, to finally flip the switch for me. The group that did it was Fischerspooner. The first time I’d ever heard them was a late night music video for Emerge–my eyes were assaulted, and the music wasn’t far behind. I’d never seen or heard anything like it at that point, so I went out and bought my first electronic music album; #1. The whole thing–sound and aesthetic–was all about excess, but one of my favorite bands of all time is The Mars Volta, which is about as excessive as it gets musically, so of course it was a goddamn perfect fit.

The song that finally got me to appreciate electronic music–and that lip syncing is pretty alright in the right context.

That’s one answer, but the more important part is that I started using these things. It’s one thing to think about using a piece of software in an abstract way, as something someone else does, without ever touching the software yourself, but anyone who’s ever actually sat down and tried writing a piece of music in a DAW knows full well, it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to get to the point where you can start making fully-fledged songs…especially good songs with them. That whole 4-bar loop syndrome or whatever…that’s easy. Learn some very basics, load up a couple of instruments and lay some stuff down, and you’ve got a loop. But…

You’ve got to string some shit together to make a song. You’ve got to put some thought into it, and often that means making some hard decisions along the way. How long should this verse be? Does it need a bridge? How do I connect this part to that part? This bit seems too long, but I like the first 3/4 of it…what should I do?

Those are all considerations we have when writing music with any instrument. Those are all definitely considerations when writing music in a DAW. DAWs are all about stringing aforementioned shit together. It’s what they live for. Metaphorically.

Being a musician is about so much more than just physically manipulating a sound-making doohickey. Like all art, at its most fundamental level, being a musician is more about making choices than anything else. And you don’t need a sound-making doohickey for that. Sorta.

In fact, in many ways, if a DAW is your main instrument, it’s actually more difficult an instrument to pick up and get good at than a traditional instrument. There are many more things you need to consider if you’re doing everything inside the box, especially if you’re programming everything with a mouse and keyboard.

People who score and sequence their own orchestral music only using sample-based VST plugins, for example–I’m in awe of that shit. You have to be METICULOUS AS FUCK about everything. Which articulations do you choose, and when? Velocities? Yeah, gotta manage those. Automating parameters to make the performance of a sample sound authentic? Yeesh. That’s an enormous amount of work, and shows superhuman dedication to pull off.

That’s not to say programming a real EDM banger (I don’t know what that phrase means, but maybe it makes sense somehow?) is any less impressive. Getting a song to come to life using a keyboard and mouse is no small task. Timing is a critical piece of crafting a beat that gets your foot tapping, let alone gets you up and out of your seat to wiggle that ass a little. Yeah, I said that. You can fuck around with note velocities all day, but if you don’t get those drums a little off the grid in a human way, your beat will still almost always fall flat (I will die on this particular hill).

Picking up the guitar (my main instrument) by comparison, was free from the need to fret (pun absolutely intended) over such minutiae. Sure, I still have to worry about how hard I’m strumming, or what kinds of shit I’m doing to make all those cool WEE-OOO-WOWW-OOO sounds like Tom Morello does, but that’s a lot more immediate than having to essentially carve all that stuff out of marble by hand-editing stuff in a DAW.

So what does it all mean?

It’s a big endeavor to write music seriously, and nobody should ever disparage anyone else for doing so, because of their choice of genre or the tools they leverage, and I’m sorry I ever did. They’re all just different approaches to what I believe is the most creative and evocative artform out there.

Just make stuff, however you like. But work hard to make it good, no matter what instrument(s) you use. Work hard to make it interesting, and not like everything else out there (that part is actually really easy–but that’s for a later post). Make stuff, and don’t listen to idiots like myself in my youth.

Take good care of yourselves, and your pets.

SR 🤖

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