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Beyond the DAW: DAWless Jamming and the Tactility Renaissance

jeudi 9 mai 2024, 14:00 , par Sweetwater inSync
Beyond the DAW: DAWless Jamming and the Tactility Renaissance
At the end of the day, what is a DAW? Besides a digital audio workstation, DAWs compile a comprehensive studio experience into a single, virtually limitless space. With every creative opportunity this affords, there’s another decision to be made, and sometimes the infinite possibilities of the digital age can be overwhelming. If it’s not the analysis paralysis that strikes when you open a project file, then there’s something lost with the tradeoff we make for a DAW’s astronomical potential: tactility. Jamming with a DAWless setup lets you slice through the uncertainty.

Even 30 years ago, the flexibility of DAWs was nearly inconceivable, but packing so much power into a single point sacrifices the presence and physicality crucial for musical growth. DAWless jamming has emerged as a radical reaction to the digital dominance of the modern era. Boundaries separating personal, professional, artistic, and social pursuits have blurred. While this empowers collaboration, it’s difficult to ignore the negative impact on creativity from so many things competing for our attention through the same handful of devices. As artists traversing this digital panopticon, the importance of identity is magnified beyond the standard strains of an always-online culture. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just unplug? Going beyond the DAW will liberate your sound and cement your style.

Defining “DAWless”: Setups and Jamming

DAWless setups comprise multiple instruments — including MIDI controllers, synthesizers, drum machines, pedals, mixers, effects units, sequencers, samplers, and further hardware — to perform and produce electronic music sans DAW or computer. Different approaches are malleable enough to serve multiple uses, but the distinct needs of studio- and performance-oriented configurations will inform the signal flow and the ergonomics of your arrangement. Experimentation, with some healthy trial and error, will reveal the structure that’s most conducive to your creative workflow, but an aerial view of the DAWless space will provide guidance, even if that’s what you don’t want.

To level, we’re omitting arrangements that utilize an all-Eurorack approach as well as production done solely with a groovebox. Each category of instruments has its place within a DAWless setup, but the Eurorack ecosystem’s sensibilities pre-date the existence of DAWs. The groovebox began as a proto-DAW, and the modern groovebox is essentially a DAW in a box.

“We Got a Real Jam Goin’ Down”: Our DAWless Design

We tapped the jam jockeys among Sweetwater’s tune squad to build a rig that maximizes studio and stage versatility with a diverse yet focused collection of sonic hues that form a powerful performance palette. This multigenre rig comprises:

Akai MPC Live IIElektron Digitakt IIArturia MiniFreakRoland Boutique JD-08Korg Volca ModularTASCAM Model 12

Each component of this arrangement brings distinctive characteristics, from interfacing elements to aural textures, into the collective fold. There’s no singular, “right” way to build a DAWless setup, but identifying redundancies will help you summit the peak musical potential of a finite system.

Sonic Architecture: Signal Pathways, Ergonomics, and Interactivity

Every DAWless setup needs a central nervous system through which all other sounds are managed, modulated, modified, and manipulated and yet offers its own creative flair. Here, the Akai MPC Live II and the TASCAM Model 12 mixer play the parts of foundation and sound-traffic controller, respectively.

Wired-up Wonders

This rig utilizes the Akai MPC Live II as its foundation, thanks to its diverse I/O suite. The MPC Live II features a 2-in/2-out set of 5-pin MIDI ports, eight CV/gate jacks, three USB ports, a phono stereo output pair, a 1/4-inch stereo audio input pair, and six total 1/4-inch audio outs. Moreover, it’s a class-compliant device that supports two-way MIDI over USB in addition to flexible assignment options with audio and MIDI configurations.

This flexibility means the CV/gate jacks control the Korg Volca Modular — a peculiar instrument that delivers the shades of harmonically complex synthesis popularized by the infamously esoteric Buchla modules. With the MPC Live II’s formidable MIDI capabilities, the 5-pin outputs are running to the Digitakt II drum machine and JD-08 synth module, respectively, while two-way USB MIDI lets you connect the MiniFreak and MPC via USB. This deliberate decision expands your sonic capabilities at several levels: You can control the JD-08 through the MPC; you retain complete control of the MiniFreak’s aural arsenal; two-way MIDI ensures any use of the MiniFreak’s onboard modulation matrix, sequencing, arpeggiation, or further rhythm-based tools stays synchronized; and you can cue distinct sequences from the MPC to run in parallel on both the JD-08 and the MiniFreak.Audio from every component runs to its own mono or stereo input on the Model 12 mixer, and the mixer’s dual auxiliary outputs send audio back into the MPC. Because each channel strip can be independently adjusted to send its incoming audio to one or both auxiliary outputs, you can resample any combination of instruments back into the MPC in real time. Since the Model 12 is MIDI capable, it functions as the system’s master clock.

The Importance of Ergonomics: Hands-on Sound Shaping

Considering accessibility in the abstract, it’s probably not difficult to understand the importance of the practicality of your arrangement. But where do you start? Because DAWless jamming is as easily deployed solo as it is with an ensemble, a flat surface is the most-likely space you can expect to use. Incorporating shelves or similar multitiered structures can offer unique benefits, but the principals of ergonomics remain the same.

If you visualize your space along a sliding scale of less- and more-accessible placement, then the gear with which you plan to interface most should fall on the latter side of that scale. “Accessibility” means different things to many people, and your relative proximity to any one instrument shouldn’t be the sole decider. Be mindful of how you move when you’re locked into the groove, which instruments are more likely to be tweaked for flourishes, which remain largely uninterrupted, and if your studio or performance space affords access from elsewhere than just your root orientation to establish a solid baseline.

For example, someone who knows they’ll be performing in front of an audience may want to inject some stage presence into their work. So, they might prefer their gear to be arranged in a concentric, 360-degree configuration, wherein the least-tweaked elements are further from their edge of the table. Conversely, if you need to be locked in for a studio performance, then understanding the part(s) you’ll play in advance will inform how you prioritize placement.

No matter your circumstance, it’s important to remember that access isn’t solely defined by distance. A multitiered arrangement would suggest that a lower tier is, by distance, “more accessible” than a higher tier, but how frequently do you want to hunch down to tweak something, especially if the next instrument is all the way at the top? Understanding the space you have to operate will help iron out any uncertainties in the placement of each part.

Why Ditch the DAW? A Case for Growth

Artists navigating the frenzied orbit of production techniques, songwriting conventions, and performance styles that we collectively dub “electronic music” understand how thorny this nebulous, though technically accurate, label is. Each style under its roof — hip-hop, ambient, house, jungle, vaporwave, hyperpop, trap, beat making, and everything in between — shares a conceptual musical lineage. These intertwined roots mean the same core palette functions within any of these spaces, and a DAW is the robust common denominator.

DAWs pack an entire studio’s worth of instruments, mixing gear, and capability into a singular point of interaction, but this trade for “more” comes at the cost of focus. Now, that’s not to say the appropriate discipline can’t be nurtured in a DAW-driven environment, but having simultaneous access to such a vast quantity of instruments and tools means that the amount of time you spend with each one — discovering its strengths, quirks, and stylistic flourishes, learning through happy accidents — is inevitably diminished.

This time is imperative to understand the limits of your gear and how to push them to cultivate a personal style. Furthermore, you learn what doesn’t work and gain deeper familiarity with how the interactions among varying sounds and tools elicit certain results. This not only streamlines your workflow by expediting a working knowledge of how you might achieve one sound or another, but it provides a well-rounded sense of the sonic terrain you’re discovering and identifying as it unfolds before you

Without a challenge to overcome, there’s nothing pushing you to think outside the box. There’s comfort in familiarity. Knowing what works for your sound is essential to building an identity, but getting too comfortable risks stagnation. With untold worlds of sonic possibilities, challenges illuminate blind spots, and you don’t know what you don’t know, right?

Gebgdc, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Trent Reznor’s experiences recording Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut LP, Pretty Hate Machine, illustrate how small decisions can invoke seismic creative developments. At the time, Reznor was employed by Cleveland’s Right Track Studios, working the night shift as an engineer and handyman. Reznor dove into his record collection to sample placeholder drums, intending to record a live drummer for the final product, due to creative limitations with his E-mu Systems Emax sampler. Or so he planned. Ultimately, the sampled drums were kept and equalized, and the supplementary instrumentals served as a contrast to the inhuman, quantized feel of the sequencing done on his Macintosh Plus. This juxtaposition of raw feel and computational perfection cemented much of the foundation for what we consider core tenets of the industrial sound.

Cultivating Style and the Psychology of DAW-based Production: Why It Matters

The vast and varied landscape of DAW-fueled possibilities mirrors the frequently encountered information overload of contemporary technology. When you’re given so many options right out of the gate, what pushes you to make one decision over another? It would be wonderful if musicians could spend eons experimenting with sounds, but the unfortunate reality is that the expectation of progress often conflicts with your desired time to work out what you want from your sound.

DAWless and DAW-driven approaches to production aren’t mutually exclusive, but having constant access to the most granular details of your sound can perpetuate the unintended side effect of obsessing over perfection. If Trent Reznor had access to the modern DAW, then it’s conceivable that the studio-downtime privilege he enjoyed on his night shifts would’ve been spent constantly revisiting drum sounds or tinkering with synth tones, ever chasing the phantom of perfection.

Of course, you probably don’t want things to be out of key, off tempo, or otherwise misaligned with your sound, but an aversion to any modicum of “imperfection” sacrifices the emergent human factor of hands-on performance. Ditching the DAW — even incidentally — affords you a distinct opportunity to interact with your instruments and excavate the style you want from the limitations of what’s at your disposal.

Hip-hop producer Timbaland is famously quoted for citing Trent Reznor as one of his favorite producers. Even as a tertiary form of influence, Reznor’s DAW-free approach to his productions inspired Timbaland — an artist with a resume diverse enough to include Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Ginuwine, Aaliyah, Jodeci, Nelly Furtado, Lenny Kravitz, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, and others — to craft chart-topping hits that benefitted from the quote, unquote, “instability” of production without an overbearing mathematical perfection. Nobody else can stand in for the way you interface with your instruments. What that means for you is something only you can discover.

Plus Ultra: Discover What’s Beyond Your DAW

Please don’t misunderstand: DAWs are an indispensable tool for modern electronic music production. Reducing them to a product of convenience undermines the latent technological, creative, and aural potential they support. But spending time without a DAW lets you investigate and hone your style, one that DAW-only production will fall short of supporting, apropos of guidance. Through a combination of resolve, dedication, and deep understanding of the instruments available, you’ll surely uncover a path forward that rivals, and even supersedes, the practical and artistic possibilities of a DAW.

If you’re feeling inspired to get after some DAWless jamming, then give us a call at (800) 222-4700! Sweetwater’s Sales Engineers are constantly educating themselves through vendors, manufacturers, and product designers, from boutique builders to titans of tech, learning how musicians of every caliber are using their gear toward brilliantly unexpected outcomes. A DAWless setup should be tailored to your workflow, aspirations, and talents, and our Sales Engineers are more than happy to help guide you to the gear to unlock your sonic style.
The post Beyond the DAW: DAWless Jamming and the Tactility Renaissance appeared first on inSync.

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