Experiencing musical composition in the DAW: the software interface as mediator of the musical idea

This paper offers observations on the effect that the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is having upon musical creativity in the context of the Higher Education environment. My comments are based on findings obtained from a study of the working processes of six students that I supervised directly in a one-to-one tutorial situation between September 2008 and May 2010 at Leeds College of Music (Marrington, 2010). The students were selected for the project because of their interest in utilizing computer technology as a central part of their compositional process and hailed from a variety of musical backgrounds, enabling me to consider the effects of the medium in relation to a range of musical attitudes. To clarify: in using the acronym DAW I refer to the gamut of music production software packages which incorporate MIDI and audio editing features – namely Cubase, Logic Pro, Sonar, Live,  Pro-Tools and Propellerheads’ Reason and Record. However, I also include in this category score-writing programmes such as Sibelius and Finale which are moving closer to the standard DAW packages in their incorporation of elementary audio mixing and processing capabilities.  My central aim was to gain insight into the extent to which the students themselves understood the nature of the medium they were employing and the impact it has upon their approach to writing music. Ultimately this raises pertinent questions regarding the nature of composition teaching in the digital age and highlights the challenges that digital technologies are presenting to received ideas in this area.

From a theoretical perspective, the project is a response to the issues raised in recent books by Andrew Brown (Computers in Music Education (2007)) and Andrew Hugill (The Digital Musician (2008)) and also slightly older texts that have provided the foundations for philosophical discussions of music technology – such as Paul Theberge’s Any Sound You can Imagine (1997) and Timothy Taylor’s Strange Sounds (2001).

Brown’s book offers a useful model for understanding the effect of the computer upon musical thought, or, as he puts it, the “metaphorical perspectives that inform the use of the computer for music-making”, namely “the computer as a musical tool, the computer as musical medium and the computer as a musical instrument” (2007, p. 6). It is the second of these perspectives – “the computer as musical medium” – that was of particular interest to this investigation. Like much of the current theoretical writing on music technology, Brown’s theories incorporate the ideas of Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. In Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan posits the idea that any given medium functions as kind of prosthetic which ‘extends’ the individual, acting as a bridge between the him/her and the particular activity it is being used for. This underpins Brown’s understanding of the “computer as a musical tool” – a device which facilitates music-making in the practical sense, which one might most easily understand relative to the use of a musical instrument to produce sounds. A DAW in this context might  typically be used to simply speed up the composing or recording process, often in the service of realising music that has been already been conceived in the real world.

More interesting and pertinent to this investigation is McLuhan’s idea of the translational effect of the medium in question, from which Brown extracts the view that all digital media are essentially metaphorical and thereby have the potential to alter what they stand in for. According to Brown (2007, p. 9), the computer:

[…] like any other medium, effects the information (sound of music) that is stored in it or passes through it. The medium is not neutral; it has an effect on the music. When we are aware of this transforming nature of a medium, we can either compensate or utilize it. Only when we ignore it, or deny it, we risk the transformational change taking us by surprise or undermining our true intention.

Hugill, in The Digital Musician (2008, p. 3), makes a similar distinction between tool and translator:

A classical pianist giving a recital on a digital piano is not really a digital musician, nor is a composer using a notation software package to write a string quartet. These are musicians using digital tools to facilitate an outcome that is not conceived in digital terms. However, if that pianist or composer were to become intrigued by some possibility made available by the technology they are using, so much so that it starts to change the way they think about what they are doing, at that point they might start to move towards becoming a digital musician.

It is this question of the effect of the DAW medium, in terms of the kinds of musical awareness that are both prioritized and de-prioritized in its employment, and, more importantly, the student’s awareness of this, that is the concern of the project.  Of particular interest in this regard are the characteristics of the typical DAW interface, which in almost all cases is constructed with some reference to a ‘real-world’ musical medium.  Sibelius’s interface, for example, is designed as virtual manuscript paper – the user composes onto realistic looking pages of music (which can even be given a parchment like texture), and has an armoury of tools which relate to the conventions of printed music publication (indications for dynamics, articulation, expression etc). The program even has built in checks to remind the user when the rules of traditional notation are being contravened (for example, warnings which appear if you are writing outside the range of a particular instrument or using consecutive fifths). However, while the Sibelius interface was originally conceived as a typesetting tool for the ‘classical’ musician, it is important to remember that the pitches the user enters onto the virtual stave, as well as many of the performance indications – Italian terms for expression and tempo and dynamic markings for example – are really just MIDI information ‘under the hood’ and therefore much more readily manipulable than the interface would suggest. Users of the software vary widely in their capacity to recognize the ways in which the ‘classical’ characteristics of the medium affect their creative judgements, as exemplified by three of the students included in this investigation.

Adam, whose background is in jazz and rock bass playing was introduced to Sibelius at school in the ‘classical’ music context where it was employed as a vehicle for the learning of conventions of notation via copying and arranging exercises. He became so used to using Sibelius at school that it became in his words, “my ideal way of doing anything” and when it came to musical composition, he used it consistently as a vehicle for conceiving a piece in its entirety. Adam never developed an interest in ‘classical’ style composition however – in fact the pieces he ultimately produces have a strong affinity with contemporary dance music and 1980s electro-pop and he has learned not to pay heed to the restrictions of the Sibelius interface where its ‘traditional’ notational constructs are concerned:

The instruments don’t actually matter ‘cause I’ll put a patch on them….The sound in Sibelius doesn’t matter and the limitations in Sibelius don’t matter ‘cause MIDI and synths have infinite limits.

Adam’s approach after completing a piece in Sibelius was to export the material as MIDI information to Sonar or Logic, at which point it would then be processed (using traditional compression, EQ, effects etc)  for the purposes of its realisation as a recording. He effectively sees Sonar as the environment in which he can clothe his ‘neutral’ compositional material so that it conforms timbrally to an electro-pop aesthetic – but he has to go through the Sibelius process first to get the raw data.

Dan’s background by contrast was in writing and performing pop songs on the piano and guitar, which one might assume would have led him towards a recording-oriented DAW such as Cubase, which he encountered at school. During his second year however he actually gravitated towards Sibelius, initially as a means of improving the score-based presentation of his work, before recognizing that it had other creative possibilities. At the beginning of Dan’s third year our one-to-one discussions had become increasingly focused around his strongly expressed desire to break away from his popular music leanings. The Sibelius platform, which Dan adopted wholeheartedly as a compositional tool at this point, seemed to offer a viable solution to this problem because it presented him with an interface that was almost completely detached from the kinds of working methods he had been used to on the piano and guitar. Ultimately (and unexpectedly) the software engendered a rigorously ‘classical’ attitude to composition which led Dan away from the popular song idiom he had been immersed in for the first two years of his degree, and towards the works of contemporary classical composers. For Dan the Sibelius interface provided both a means of re-structuring his working methods and a gateway to another world of compositional practice. It effectively intellectualized his approach to composition –  moving it away from tactile instrument-based writing – with the restrictions of interface being readily admitted to condition the final musical result.

My third student, Alfie, found the Sibelius interface ultimately rather stifling. He had previously employed Sibelius for both GCSE and A Level work as a medium for the presentation of pop songs he had conceived on the guitar or piano. He enjoyed dabbling with these instruments, which he confesses he had never learned formally, but the Sibelius interface represented a curb on these inclinations:

I’d write a pop song and then I’d have to score it out on Sibelius […] which isn’t always appropriate to what I was writing. It would spit something out that I just wouldn’t consider relevant to what I’d written.

During the course of Alfie’s first year at LCM it was clear that he was becoming frustrated by his inability to reconcile the Sibelius interface with the more fluid compositional ideas he was developing as a result of his experimentation with vocal techniques. He was effectively trying to make his ideas conform to the medium, which was acting as an endgame from the compositional point of view, rather than a jumping off point for creative experimentation. A solution presented itself when Alfie acquired a Mac running Garageband halfway through the year which I encouraged him to incorporate into his composing armoury in combination with his Sibelius and instrument-based composing habits. The result was a new piece, sketched in outline in Sibelius but developed mainly in Garageband, which enabled him to for the first time to experiment directly with recorded audio. Alfie was by these means able to break away from the perceived tyranny of the Sibelius interface and access the more exploratory way of working that he had developed through ‘tinkering’ on the guitar and piano. In our discussions towards the end of the process Alfie commented that his musical ideas when expressed in Sibelius are “always contained ideas, whereas in Garageband… I can put my ideas in but they can be anything – I could scream into the microphone or whatever […] I think I’m represented better in Garageband than what I am in Sibelius.”

Music production-oriented DAW platforms like Garageband, Cubase, Logic and Sonar, while possessing traditional notation facilities, tend to represent musical information on the screen in a way which produces a different kind of visual response.  At the macro level the composer deals with rectangular blocks of varying sizes, implying a visual environment more akin to the canvas of an artist rather than a composer. This propensity towards the visual is exaggerated by the ability which all DAW packages possess to allow the user to add colour to these objects, as well as the numerous tools for cutting, moving, muting, deleting and re-assembling of these shapes into limitless configurations within the screen space.

Perhaps the most powerful facility for visualisation that all DAW packages possess is the means of compressing the musical material using the ‘zoom out’ control so that the entire composition can appear as a single entity on the screen. This presents an interesting deconstruction of the established notion of the composition as a design made apparent through unfolding in time and further emphasizes the composition as object in visual space. Even Sibelius, as well as offering similar word processor-like cut and paste facilities, has recently incorporated alternative modes of visualisation like this, including scrapbook style fragmentation and a scrolling linear display, called ‘panorama’, which enable the user to bypass the traditional page layout.

Opening up a particular rectangular block reveals further modes of representation in the form of the MIDI piano roll and the audio waveform, which are conceptualized and edited in different ways. Students who move constantly between MIDI and audio environments do make a clear distinction between these areas. For example, Adam sees the audio in Sonar as “ ‘unchangeable’ sound. […]It’s not, ‘Are you going to write music with that’ ”. In other words, for Adam MIDI is where the job of composing takes place and audio is the outcome. Other students can see beyond this audio endgame however to the limitless possibilities offered by such platforms to sculpt sound itself – an aspect of the compositional process which is becoming increasingly prioritized by students using the DAW medium.

The visual properties of the DAW interface I’ve just described had a particular impact upon one of my students – Andrew – whose primary medium for composition had been the guitar until his final year, at which point he had fallen in with a group of Music Production students and been switched on to Logic. During the period of his studies with me Andrew became gradually conditioned by the aforementioned ‘cut and paste’ facilities of the Logic interface, resulting an increasingly loop-based approach to composing. Andrew sums up his approach as follows:

I used it [Logic] as a…like a sketchboard…And so basically I’d come up with a load of ideas [on the guitar]…and they’d be put in as like, blocks of like ‘this is an idea’, ‘this is an idea’ and so it would be used as a virtual sketchboard and then I’d kind of move all of the stuff to the other end of the page and then cut bits out of it and it would be ‘Well I like that bit, and that bit can go into that bit’ and then sort of piece it together.

The aforementioned facility to zoom a composition to a single screen overview and repeat material on cycle mode seemed to present particular issues for Andrew because he was used to developing his material more teleologically in the manner of a traditional songwriter. Instead, zooming and looping the material seemed to produce an obsessive focus on minutiae. Andrew commented that:

Sometimes you get to the point where you’ve heard what you’ve done so many times that feels like it’s finished…and then sort of to try and go again ‘I need to get this to transform into something else’, you can’t really do it because you already see that, and you’ve heard it so many times, as ‘a finished piece’. It’s hard to alter things once you’ve heard them too many times.

Resolving this required Andrew to be convinced that the static, repetitive material produced within the Logic screenspace could constitute an aesthetic in itself, peculiar to the that environment, which did not necessarily require the kind of teleological development he seemed to be imposing upon himself. To demonstrate this I introduced him to the minimalists and the ambient works of Brian Eno, as well as more recent electronic artists who had produced similar things, and encouraged him to focus on texture and timbre rather than harmonic and melodic development. This approach proved useful in resolving Andrew’s compositional ‘block’ because it encouraged him recognize the nature of his musical material as conceived in the DAW context and play to its strengths.

Of all the students who participated in the project Liam was the most comfortable with the loop aesthetic, having used Reason and Garageband for a number of years to write dance music and record his own songs. He did not therefore perceive any inconsistency between these media and the musical objectives they were being used to achieve. It is also significant that Liam had encountered Sibelius and disliked it intensely! He particularly enjoyed the facility that Reason offered to create pieces quickly through building up loop patterns in the ReDrum environment while being cautious to point out that he would not allow such devices to dictate the final musical result.

I quite liked how quickly you could get the basics down. The drum programming thing where you kind of switch things on and off…the notes kind of on and off when they play…whereas now I’d probably see that as…kind of…limiting.[…] If you kind of go into it without, er, a clear idea of what you’re going to programme in, if you’re experimenting with it instead of going ‘I want it to do this’ then the way it works affects the outcome.

This demonstrates insight into the effect of the medium and also reflects a common attitude among DAW users which has particular implications for authorship and authenticity – that one strives to avoid any kinds of norms dictated by the software, for example by resisting using pre-sets in plugins, or generic samples libraries. By his third year at LCM Liam had begun to explore the creative potential of the audio processing devices in Logic to influence the sonic environment of his conventionally composed songs. This included the exploratory use of EQ, Delay and Reverb as well as working directly with wave forms in the construction of found sounds from scratch (rather in the manner of a musique concrete artist) designed to function as compositional material in themselves. Here then the possibilities presented by the software to ‘compose’ with timbre, in addition to the traditional musical parameters such as harmony and melody, became to a certain degree prioritized in Liam’s work as an essential aspect of his idiom.  What was particularly interesting about Liam’s case was that he was almost entirely unaware of the broader context of his composition work, which had strong affinities with experimental electronic and Dubstep. He had initially approached the DAW from the perspective of a recording songwriter, but had intuitively shifted the focus to sonic experimentation, which was taking his songs into unimagined territory.

Of the six students considered in the investigation, Alex perhaps exhibited the most ‘workaday’ assimilation of the computer into his musical awareness, as reflected in a facility to move easily back and forth between Sibelius, Cubase, Ableton and Logic, and the diversity of his musical output ranging from classically conceived composition to experimental electronica. Alex’s main focus has been on songwriting and for him all the software platforms he employs have functioned as facilities for the realisation of ideas that he tends to conceive in a more traditional real-world instrumental context (usually on the guitar and piano), with only occasional experimentation in the manner I had identified with Liam.  This in other words is Andrew Brown’s “computer as a musical tool” perspective, where the computer simply enables efficient creation of music on practical scale that would not have been possible before the era of the ‘studio in the box’. In this sense he was perhaps the least interesting to observe as he had established clear ideas of the appropriateness of particular media to particular kinds of musical composition.

Computer music has been such a big part of composition process from so early on that I feel it allows me to record things that were probably beyond my capability and understanding at the time […].  For example using different time signatures is made a lot easier and you can stretch parts of audio to make them fit if you can’t physically play it in time.  The most obvious example of music software helping me to achieve beyond my ability is that I can create a professional and in time percussion track without having any real world experience of playing the drums.

In conclusion, the examples discussed here have served to highlight some of the issues that typical DAW interfaces are presenting to the notion of musical literacy. The DAW’s impact, whether it constrains or liberates creativity, is entirely dependent upon the specific nature of the literacy that the student brings to it, whether gleaned from educational experience or the musical practices that he or she gravitates towards in the context of ‘informal learning’. In addition, the role of other ‘traditional’ musical media – namely musical instruments – should not be overlooked when considering the nature of the raw material that the DAW is working upon. Given that many of us are now teaching composition to a body of students whose musical backgrounds are increasingly difficult to predict, the problems of relating to students whose medium of musical communication is substantially different to our own are becoming increasingly apparent.  For example, one may verbally discuss chord structures and progressions with a student, yet these may be visualized by the teacher as a group of notes on a stave with attendant strategies for development in that environment, by the student as a ‘guitar frame’ implying contrasting strategies for development in that environment, or as an audio waveform with equally contrasting strategies for development in that context. Reconciling these problems requires work on the part of the teacher to learn to speak the right language, but what is particularly important is to help students understand the ways in which the media they use can either liberate or constrain their thinking. The attitudes to the DAW discussed above draw attention to such concerns as the potential ‘visual’ effect of the interface in particular, highlighting the distinction to be made between what one perceives as a template on which to base compositional thought and what may be perceivable beyond the graphical surface if the invisible restraints of the medium can be recognized and bypassed at will. It is also important however to find ways of enabling the student to investigate for him/herself the means by which the DAW can stimulate creativity, which may not necessarily be in terms of any pre-conceived ideas he/she might possess about its interface and design characteristics.

About the Author

Mark Marrington
Leeds College of Music


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