The Hegemony of the DAW

Music Technology · Permalink · Edit

Michael Terren, in The Hegemony of the DAW:

Further, American musicologist Robin James suggests that the uptake of DAWs in popular music practice, and its subsequent emphasis on timbre as opposed to melodic or rhythmic innovation, parallels the ‘cognitive turn’ of capitalism. Timbre is a diffuse concept that is often defined by what it is not: all the qualities of a sound except for pitch or loudness, many of which are subjective and informed by cultural and historical factors. By assigning parameters to timbre and making them measurable, repeatable, and subject to automation, DAWs offer a protocol of control for the characteristics of sound that cannot be described by consensus. ‘The interfaces of these electronic instruments,’ James writes, ‘make explicit and quantitatively specific some dimensions of timbre that were implicit, qualitative features of traditional notation and instruments … and make them work as one of the central engines of musical composition and expression.’ Just as cognitive capitalism monetises subjectivity, the DAW instrumentalises the inherent subjectivity of sound.


The uptake and technological advancement of DAWs follows much the same path, the same suspension of sounds floating in the digital ether, always ready to be changed and changed again. In practice, this condition promotes an individualistic approach to compositional practice, where not only sounds but ideas, directions, and possibilities are also suspended, idiosyncratically organised and illegible to anyone but the musician themself. As DAWs evolved from the nexus of the commercial recording studio to the nexus of the home musician’s bedroom, so too did DAWs change their framing toward individual practice. Advertising copy from 2005 for Apple’s Logic Pro 7 described it as, ‘Half studio. Half instrument. Total creative freedom.’ This tagline parallels the ideology of deregulation and unimpeded liberty. It asserts itself as a proprietary platform for the producer-consumer to express themself freely, as long as they conform to its colonial, claviocentric model and accept the impossibility of collaboration without hierarchy.

I’m tempted to quote the whole thing so you should just go read it.