Determinism & Skeuomorphs
A reductionist perspective states that society and its creations are shaped by the technology that is available to us, but to what effect is this having on music today?
Since the introduction of at the graphical user interface based computer we’ve been growing ever more used to adapting to screens instead of hardware. We’re slowly but surely creating a world in which we identify more with semantic images on a monitor than that with the objects around us, and this is increasingly visible when looking at music technology. Many of the commonplace DAWs that we now use to create music are employing a skeuomorphic approach whereby they aim to associate themselves with the hardware they are attempting to imitate – by adopting it’s aesthetic. But this software is potentially creating an attractive environment whereby we are drawn in by its familiarity to the real world, then restricted to only working with one piece of hardware – the computer.
It’s arguable that these developments are an economic reaction to the expenses involved in purchasing and maintaining studio equipment, such as analogue synthesizers like the Moog range or expensive tube consoles. Software offers us a cheaper alternative into the world of audio production and in doing so establishes a whole new creative medium which is open to a whole new demographic. An artist can now create an entire production with only the use of a laptop and a keyboard, and even the latter isn’t essential. For instance, take a look at one of Future Music’s features with the producer Jakwob whereby he demonstrates his remix of Sigma’s ‘Somebody to love’ which has been created entirely in the DAW Reason. Jakwob goes on to tell us in relation to a plugin called ‘Dr Octo Rex Loop Player’ Propellerhead;
‘That’s another cool thing about the Rex, you don’t need to ever do anything outside of it, the Rex Player’s got everything on it you need’
This is an example of how not only are we becoming more accustomed to working only with a computer or with one DAW, but in fact doing all our edits in just one plugin. Propellerhead themselves state in regards to Dr Octo Rex; ‘this makes arranging a breeze, just load the drums into one player’ Propellerhead – capitalizing on it’s ability to preform every required task in one. Previously, new inventions and equivalents to the aforementioned software would have a major effect on the music industry, just take a look at some of the synths or drum machines like the Roland TR-808.
This hardware would lead to the creation of entire genres and production styles through our deterministic nature – for example, the introduction of Acid House with the Roland TB-303. The music that is created this way is also subject to the restrictions of the technology in place, but with such a plethora of devices to one’s disposal there’s an infinite possibility of sounds attainable. Obviously this is still the case with hardware constantly available, but surely it’s applicable to the large range of software available to us? In the case of Jakwob, he continues;
‘I’ve used heavily actually, it has some wicked presets’
‘Which is again, another preset’
He shows us how even with a near-endless sound library available to him, he still chooses the inbuilt presets that are bundled with his software. This is a prime example of how the technology that’s been made available to us to extend our musical depth has, in some cases, done the reverse. Drawing on my own experience with DAW plugins, I can easily say that I’ve been drawn to use the default sounds played out before me – because they sound great already. A key way of looking at the effect working with computers is having is to take a quote from Andrew R. Brown, whereby he states;
‘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 for it or utilize it’
I believe that this is applicable to the major effect DAWs have on structuring and arrangements as a whole. So it’s not only the tone and timbre of sounds that are being affected by our dependence on computers for musical production, the way we’re arranging our recordings has changed drastically too. Since the introduction of the first DAWs such as DECK and Pro Tools (Avid, 2015), we’ve been working in a ‘timeline’ editing panel with options to add visual markers etc. you’ll also notice that the workflow of popular software like this hasn’t changed since around 2003 with introduction of Ableton. The software typically works in a block format for ease of use, with the exception of using ‘slip’ mode on some DAWs – and this is noticeably shaping how music producers and composers are tackling song structure, as an effect of the medium. Take for example Morgan Page, who in another of Future Music’s Youtube series takes us through his songwriting process. After showing us his markers neatly laid out from one of his session templates he says;
‘So everything’s split here into 8 bar chunks’
‘I’ve used this method for about 10 years, just having everything marked in there’
Working with blocks or ‘chunks’ is seen to have become the preferred production style amongst a large proportion of DAW users, but mostly with electronic musicians. By adopting these methods, many artists like Page are using set out templates before they’ve even begun the songwriting process, which is in itself a self-imposed restriction, burgeoned by it’s ease within software. But what does this mean on a macro scale? Many of whom wish to begin creating music will know nothing other than this process of compiling, then moving blocks around on a screen. For instance several drummers I’ve recorded myself have struggled to understand the process of recording without a click track, and one without any recording experience presumed each segment was to be recorded separately. This elicits how ingrained block production is within the new generation of producers. To put this into perspective, scientists at the Spanish National Research Council found that after analyzing 464,411 musical recordings;
‘Diversity of note combinations has consistently diminished in the last 50 years’
In other words, the structuring and development of music seems to be becoming more rigid just as more technology becomes available to producers and musicians.
This idea is furthered into the mainstream when articles about ‘Music sounding the same’ can be found on The Guardian. One titled; ‘Worst ideas of 2012: making all pop sound the same’ Petridis features a quote from the producer constantly in the charts, David Guetta, who goes on to say ‘Currently, a lot of pop does sound the same. You just have to listen to the top 40.’ Although this may not be due to all of popular music today being produced on for example, Pro Tools and a MacBook Pro (as I don’t believe that’s the case) it does however show that due to the technology available, popular songs are featuring very similar structures. It would appear that there is a positive correlation between an increase in the availability of sophisticated music hardware/software and structure similarities – an example of this being a video uploaded by YouTube The LAD Bible showing 4 tracks by the producer Martin Garrix layered over the top of one another. The narrator goes on to say;
‘Certain artists follow a formulae, they do the same thing every single track – An intro, a build up, another build up and a drop’
When played back, they still retain their individual elements and blend well. This is most certainly a result of technological determinism, but as you might be soon to point out just as the narrator does – the simple structuring of artists like Martin Garrix is intentional and a feature of the style. The point here though being that this style is a product of the self-imposing restrictions that software has brought forward. So determinism isn’t essentially a negative element, it can sometimes make us work in different ways towards an alternative creative outcome. An easy way to see take this further is to make use of the loops present in Apple’s Logic Pro X, whereby layering multiple loops of different styles atop one another you’ll still be left with an audio file of good clarity, and these are industry standard files commonly heard in popular songs. Thanks to companies like Apple who describe their own software as ‘Powerfully Flexible’ (Apple Inc. 2015), we’re now locked into a certain way of making and editing music – but why is this the method that most people choose, with it’s restrictions? Most audio software companies have adopted the same workflow interface without considering it’s implications as a whole, in a cargo-cult fashion – with the exception of those like Ableton, though with a heavy focus on loops and chunks.
So why do most modern producers and musicians still choose to use software like this? Originally, DAWs and plugins were created to emulate existing recording methods with lower costs and smaller space needed. A skeuomorphic approach is used; take for instance a guitar emulator like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig Native Instruments GmbH.
The modules available in this VST are given a massively similar aesthetic feel to those of existing guitar effects and amplifiers – even so far as to include faux tweed, metal grates and different woods to the GUI. By doing so, Native Instruments are able to create a semiotic bond with those who are used to working with these kinds of physical interfaces.
But there’s a shift happening, especially in terms of guitar amplification and emulation with software integrated hardware like the Fractal Audio ‘Axe FX’ (Fractal Audio) or the ‘Kemper profiling amp’ Kemper GmbH. The result of this back-and-forth relationship with hardware and software has lead to create new genres in a similar way that the restrictions of software-based interfaces have done for modern electronic music. Musicians such as ‘Animals As Leaders’ or ‘Periphery’ have taken this hardware and used to create their own individual, technical genre in a spin of double-determinism. The tones these musicians are attempting to emulate and create are intentionally ‘digital’ sounding; to reference the sounds achievable when using software based guitar emulation in a DAW.
Here determinism has created it’s own sound, and in the case of the aforementioned bands, to make one called Djent. Another example focusing more on electronic production is found in the DAW, Reason, in which a user can reverse the virtual modular equipment to manipulate cables – just as would be the case using real hardware. Using Google’s ‘Trends’ (Google, 2015) we can plot the global search index for hardware against software, or more specifically, articles relating to analogue synthesis against synth plugins and VSTIs. In doing so you can see the decrease of interest in hardware synths since 2007 with a massive increase to queries regarding software where at the present day it stands at double that of the latter. Though only looking at a demographic of Google users, it’s clear to see the interest has switched to software based synthesis over the past 8 years.
Looking back at the development of early DAWs, there’s a noticeable lack of colour and imagery used within the GUI. Even as recently as the transition from Logic 9 to Logic X, the interface was turned from a mostly grey window to one featuring much darker colours with an increased focus on aesthetic. The most recent additions to the DAW family have also been very colour heavy, and nearly all feature shadowed windows with faux etched metal controls. Eye candy has become the new selling point of these software applications as their respective companies attempt to appeal to a generation used to this style. There are almost hints of video game-esque design in places. As time has progressed, the deterministic nature of our interpretation of new technology has led us to create needs for nearly every invention – Reverbs units, compressors, delay boxes etc.
The number of new pieces of technology is cumulative, as there’s always still need created for old technology due to a combination of nostalgia and that inherent determinism. As we progress further in time, we’re able to combine and route hardware together, leading to a near-endless span of possible effects in our arsenal as music producers. Why might there be so many different genres and sub-genres of music currently you ask? Because we’re able to have that many thanks to near limitless hardware and our drive to create certain sounds with technology, (i.e. determinism). It’s a cause and effect relationship. This logic applies to the world of software also, where the cumulative number of plugins and VSTs allows us to achieve nearly any sound (Given the compatibility of such programs). Not only that, but we are also able to combine the word of hardware with software, such as using midi devices paired with a DAW.
By creating all these technologies we’ve essentially restricted ourselves to preforming the entire workings of a recording studio within an aluminium box. It’s often been said that necessity is the mother of invention, necessity in this case being the need to create original sounds within a restricted environment. This is where I believe the benefits of modern recording methods exists, though often never heard due to the sheer saturation of the industry that encompasses it. But that’s another matter entirely.