Complexity and the DAW: Managing and staying in control

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This post takes a different approach to my previous ones, to talk about something that all computer musicians have to deal with: complexity. We all know that the computer is capable of far more processing, calculations, and data than the human mind is capable of, and this means we can now create music with a degree of complexity hitherto impossible without computers. Earlier this year I saw John Chowning, the inventor of FM synthesis (the basis of Ableton’s Operator synth, Native Instruments’ FM8, and many more), give a talk about early computer music, and he made the point that the computer he worked with in the 1960s, the IBM 7090, cost $2 million at the time, but with today’s cost of bytes of memory per dollar, that computer would cost less than 10 cents. Similarly, today’s run-of-the-mill laptop would’ve cost nearly a hundred billion dollars to make in the 1960s. So not only can musicians do much more complex things with computers nowadays, it’s much easier and more accessible to do so.

An IBM 7090 computer circa 1961, similar to the one which was used to develop FM synthesis in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

An IBM 7090 computer circa 1961, similar to the one which was used to develop FM synthesis in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What we haven’t fully worked out, however, is how to psychologically manage the enormous complexity that can go into producing a track, arranging a song, and everything else that a producer might have to do.

When working on a track, have you ever got to the point where you feel totally overwhelmed by how much *stuff* you’ve got going on in your session? Perhaps you have a huge amount of automation on several dozen tracks. All these moving parts, all these possibilities for things to go wrong… it wears on you after a while. At least it does for me, working off my laptop, always trying to strike the balance between the limited processing power of my laptop while trying to retain the freedom to make drastic and sweeping changes to my session if I need to.

You might be surprised to know that there has been a lot of research into this problem. As the creative use of software has become the norm in the fields of music, photography, graphic design, and a myriad of other practices, researchers have been trying hard to work out not only how professionals and beginners use these types of software, but how to improve software such that it doesn’t inhibit creativity.

The digital audio workstation (DAW) is software that’s almost always used for creative purposes. It’s capable of vast amounts of complexity. Every piece of software used for making music is made differently, of course, and this has ramifications for the music itself. Have you ever tried to guess what music software was likely to have made a track that you’re listening to? I certainly think that productions in Ableton Live have a different “sound” to productions made in Pro Tools, and those sound different to a performance using Max, for example. The way software is designed has very real implications for how the music takes shape.

This PhD thesis interviewed several professional music producers around the globe about how they use their DAW. The author worked out that DAWs weren’t providing the complexity-management tools that producers were after—they needed better ways to hide complex automation, arrangements etc, and they needed to do it in such a way as to not be destructive. What these producers want was to be rid of the psychological burden of complexity—one of the fascinating things about this research is that if producers look at a highly edited track, they start to doubt that that track is any good because it required so much editing in the first place, and this doubt inhibits their ability to be creative.

The thesis was published in 2008, and DAWs have made some good strides since then, but the problem is still apparent, and producers still use idiosyncratic procedures to sort out their digital-musical lives. I’m now going to suggest three ways to deal with perceived complexity in Ableton Live.

One way I like to reduce perceived complexity is to work on how a track sounds *outside* of its session. Say I’ve got a synth sound that sounds pretty good but it needs a lot of editing, what I like to do is:

  1. Mute the track you want to work on, and render everything as it is to an audio file (Cmd+Shift+R; make sure your Rendered Track is set to ‘Master’). Save.
  2. Click “Save As” and save a new session, call it the name of that track and save it in the same Project file, and then delete every other track. Make a new audio track and put the audio file you just rendered on it.

Now you’ve got a more or less clean slate, where all you allow yourself to concentrate on is getting this one track to sound great. Once you’ve finished editing that track, you can freeze or flatten it, and then import it back into the main session:

  1. Open up the main session
  2. In the browser, find the session you were working on before
  3. Click the little arrow next to that session
  4. Drag the name of the track right into your arrangement view
Editing one track at a time by rendering every other track to a single audio file in a new Live Set can make things seem less complex and help you concentrate

Editing one track at a time by rendering every other track to a single audio file in a new Live Set can make things seem less complex and help you concentrate

Now you’ve got your beautifully edited track back into your main set. This might seem like a slow way to work, and it chews up hard drive space pretty quickly, but I’ve found it actually speeds up the editing process because it forces me to work on one track and one track only, rather than making little edits here and there on every track at once.

Another strategy I sometimes use is, when everything gets overwhelming, bounce everything out, and put the audio file into a program like Sonic Visualiser. This free program provides a few ways to look at an audio file, including beautiful spectrograms. It also allows you to write text on the spectrograms. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I’ve found my progress in a piece moving a lot quicker when I sit down with Sonic Visualiser for an hour or two and take notes of exactly what needs work and where, and this gives me some clarity for what to work on next. If you like trying to keep your creative and analytical minds as separate as possible, this will help you.


Making comments on a spectrogram in Sonic Visualiser

My final piece of advice comes back to that thesis about how producers work. The author said that many producers used notebooks (you know, the ones made of paper that you write in with a pen or pencil?) to help them remember how and where they saved certain things, in which session certain sounds were recorded from, etc. There’s something quite touching about this—the idea that people who deal with vastly complex digital constructions on a computer need to use pen and paper to get a grip on it all. Perhaps that’s indicative of how neglected digital management is in the musical world? Anyway, I also write things down, Josh does as well, and you should too. In my experience the very act of writing something down somewhere you know you won’t lose it acts as a cleaning of the slate, allowing you to focus on making music again. Though I don’t use a physical notebook—I just use a plain text editor—this is essential for keeping up with where you’ve saved things. I also like to give my Live sets numbers like ‘v01’, ‘v02’ etc., and then writing in the ‘notebook’ what I’ve actually done in each of these sets.

Ultimately, naturally, how one goes about managing the complexities that arise in producing and composing with computers is deeply personal, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about it! We should always be actively trying to adapt and improve how we work on music, even if we mostly do it out of procrastination. I’ve suggested a few of my tips, and I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

noisemakerComplexity and the DAW: Managing and staying in control

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