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Courtesy of The New York Times

April 7, 2016

MEISEL | Pulling the Wires from the Wall

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The past 20 years or so have witnessed a significant increase in the proliferation of technologies that transform the ways we make, distribute, listen to and think about music. Dangerous combinations of file-sharing and MP3s destabilized the industry. CD players sunk into obsolescence. We lamented the loss of vinyl only to take part in a resurgence of interest in physical media. A lot has changed.

What we don’t often hear about, though, are innovations in the writing and producing of music. The shifts in this area of audio technology have proven just as important as some of the more widely known adjustments to music’s consumption. If anything, their effect on music has become so strong that we could argue their place in its history deserves a second look, beyond the role of a behind-the-scenes alteration. The primary technology I’m referencing here are Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs for short. For clarity’s sake, I’m talking solely about the software element.

Anyone who has tried to make music or even record audio on their computers in any kind of viable fashion will already have loosely familiarized themselves with at least one DAW. Audacity is a common example. But for the layman a short introduction might be helpful.

Around the time that digital audio’s popularity and accessibility grew, a parallel movement in our ability to shape, layer, mold, and sequence this audio also occurred. In 1996, two years before the surge of MP3s on the Internet, the German music software company Steinberg released the program Cubase VST 3.0. This application enabled the recording and simultaneous playback of 24 separate audio tracks on an Apple Macintosh (Windows came shortly after). Its interface mimicked the traditional studio environment — mixing-console and everything — and it also became the first software to make use of an Arrangement page in which the flow of audio proceeds horizontally while its layers stack vertically. Another revolutionary element to this program was its price. Even before version 3.0, Cubase’s initial prices aimed at budget-oriented professionals. Mix this aspect with the power Cubase offered, and you have an affordable tool with unprecedented strength. This development marked the start of an intense democratization in music-making, the reach of which we’re still trying to understand properly. Accessible, software-based DAWs liberated the ability to produce and record music from the technical knowledge of audio engineers and the often pricey services of studios. While we did have devices like eight-tracks beforehand, that type of equipment was only suited for a specific type of recording. They didn’t include, as your average DAW might today, synthesizers, audio effects, samplers, etc. Nor were they able to integrate software produced by third parties, often referred to as plug-ins, plenty of which is given completely free.

Barring software piracy (although in the long run we shouldn’t, as I do support people obtaining these tools however they can), these days you can find a copy of FL Studio online for the same price as a Fender Squire Stratocaster. Comparatively, this equates to the difference between being a band-member and being the entire band, the audio engineer and the songwriter, all for the same amount of money. And even looking past the ensemble set-up, the newfound populism of DAWs introduces a diversity of possible approaches to the process of music creation. The composition of music can now happen without any prior musical training required. It can even happen without physical instruments. Anything from hip-hop beats to film scores could essentially be made by anyone proficient in the programs.

Although a degree of technical knowledge does become useful, ultimately no monopoly on this knowledge exists. Individuals willing to put in the time and effort can acquaint themselves easily with these pieces of technology. This capability sidesteps the idea that musical and technical education are necessities. With the addition of the Internet, know-how and commonplace practices for DAWs are made available to everyone, and there is certainly no shortage of free, quality online instruction.A cursory glance across the web reveals a vast and varied literature on the subject, definitely an amount and range adequate enough to obtain as good a teaching as any tuition could provide.

I don’t want to sound like I’m selling you something. I’m not really. Still, I think we should consider the fact that the production of music often limits itself via class, race and gender. Music and its making are economically stratified. It’s why historians of hip-hop insist that the New York City blackouts provided opportunities for expensive music production gear such as turntables and mixers to be looted, thus igniting a widespread interest in hip-hop production. This truth is also a key facet in the ethical concerns of DIY and Punk movements. Their arguments are that the expressive quality of music transcends whatever equipment you might use to make it. On some level, that idea is valid. But what this philosophy ignores is that music production requires equipment, software or instrument or APC, whatever it might be. This equipment (obviously) costs money, miring our idealistic notions with a harsh and difficult reality.

For the time being, DAWs provide us with the best counter to these issues. They don’t solve them of course, as many DAWs cost money too, but they work towards giving a larger number of people the means necessary to make music. This is ultimately what the goal should be: the power of music at everyone’s fingertips, the potential of this technology fully realized. Utopian as it might sound, I believe these digital workstations have improved the future of our music.

Stephen Meisel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at smeisel@cornellsun.com. Appearances runs alternate Fridays this semester. 

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