This is a legacy blog. It was about the intersection of music and digital audio technology, and was called 'The Verge'. Today, of course, the existence of a much more famous blog of the same name precludes my use of it.

The main focus of this weblog was to assess digital technology as both an enabler of, and an obstacle to, musical progress.

While the tech press usually fixates on exciting new trends, I have always been more interested in trends of a longer scale: in the large scale cultural implications of digital music production and distribution as a whole; and in the effects that these developments have had, or might have, on the nature and evolution of musical culture specifically.

All of the statements of opinion anywhere on this page, reflect my views and only my views.

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Older blog posts:

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

The Digital Audio revolution: A primer

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer, Part 3

February 17, 2009

So let's see...where were we......

Probably the best place to begin is the working environment, or DAW. DAW is an acronym of Digital Audio Workstation, which is a fairly good description of what it is. There are many kinds of DAW, so it is hard to give a blanket description of them, but most of them allow one:
  • to record, edit and process audio tracks
  • to play, write parts for, and record software instruments using MIDI
  • to mix audio tracks and MIDI tracks together to create a finished musical work

This might be a small list, but it describes an endless universe of creative possibilities. It also describes processes that would have been impossible or absurdly expensive as little as 15 years ago.

The recording and processing of audio alone used to involve gear that cost a great deal of money and required technical skill and patience to operate and maintain. A magnetic tape recorder that can record 16 to 24 tracks of high quality audio costs a small fortune (a very used one is going for 9,000 dollars at Vintage King as of the writing). The reels of tape alone cost 250-300 dollars apiece. All of the methods of processing this audio cost a great deal of money as well, from the console to the outboard compressors, equalizers, enhancers, reverbs, delays and so on. Software instruments, on the other hand, didn't even exist 15 years ago.

Today, one can find an application that can record, edit and process up to 16 tracks of cd quality audio for precisely zero dollars. One can also find free applications that allow various numbers of MIDI tracks that can control all sorts of software instruments. And there are numerous applications for between 40 dollars and 80 dollars that can record unlimited tracks of audio at whatever bit rate you want, while allowing unlimited MIDI tracks controlling a vast array of musical instruments.

Needless to say, there are also numerous applications that are considerably more expensive than these that have more or less the same functionality. The additional features that these applications offer may or may not be important to some composers, but they certainly aren't necessary to make good music.

But a DAW application is much more than a mere substitute for a studio full of hardware. For it places all of these resources at a composers disposal in a much more intuitive manner than any hardware studio.

Of course, 'intuitive' is a quality that is unique for each person. But for the past 300 hundred years or so, composers have thought of musical design in terms of a score, which is a visual representation of music in which the time element is represented by gradations on an axis that is read from left to right, and the pitch element is represented by gradations on axes that go up or down, as in this simple bit of piano music: Waltz by Bartok

This type of visual orientation is deeply ingrained in the minds of most composers. Happily, this two axis perspective forms the basic orientation for most DAW applications, or rather, the basic orientation for at least part of their workspaces. In fact, as noted in part 2, some applications have score editors, allowing one to work with MIDI data in the familiar standard notation. But most applications use (in addition to other, less popular methods) a piano roll editor, which has the same basic function and orientation.

This is a shot of the piano roll editor of Propellerhead's popular Reason software: Reason piano roll

And this is a shot of the piano roll editor of a free application called MULAB: MULAB piano roll

As you can see, they work pretty much the same way, with a piano keyboard providing the vertical gradations, and a time line with bar, beat, and smaller subdivisions providing the horizontal gradations.

The nature of the piano roll makes it difficult to work with more than one track at a time, which is why most applications make it easy to toggle between the piano roll editor and a track view (MULAB): MULAB track view

In track view, the similarity to a traditional score is striking, as can be seen by comparing the same MIDI file (an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker) in an application that uses a score view (Myriad Software's Melody Assistant) and one with a track view (Mackie's Tracktion): notated dance of the sugar plum tracktion dance of the sugar plum

NOTE: This post was finished and saved incorrectly, so the final changes, which were major, weren't all there, but some of them were. I mean, we're talking a about a real mess here, and I just don't feel like rewriting it all, so.....

If anyone was enthralled by the narrative and feels cheated, I apologize, but then, many of the same issues are discussed here.

Sort of.

So there you go.

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