On Going DAWless

Dawlessness (a word I have just coined) seems to be something that people are quite passionate about at the moment, both for and against. There are popular synth YouTube channels devoted to it (see Dawless Jammin’ with Jade Wii) and some people wear their DAWlessness as a badge of pride (see Look Mum No Computer). In case anyone is not familiar with the whole DAWless thing, it’s just what it sounds like—making electronic music without the use of a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). This usually means a number of sequencers playing synths and drum machines, all synced over MIDI, perhaps supplemented with some live keys and/or vocals. The real puritans then record the whole thing to cassette. Don’t ask how they upload it to YouTube…

Advocates of this way of working offer a number of reasons for rejecting what is the most powerful music tool available today. They say the computer is a distraction – that you shouldn’t make music on a machine that also gives you access to Facebook, Instagram, streaming news, cat videos, etc. They talk about the sense of immediacy and feeling like you are playing an instrument rather than doing your tax returns. Some people cite the benefits of imposed creative limitations.

On the other side there has been a certain amount of mockery and meme-ing that asserts that DAWless jams are tuneless, formless, one-groove affairs with no journey. Why on earth would anyone willingly give up the boundless possibilities that a modern, fully-fledged DAW offers, they ask? Investing a lot of money to set creative limitations seems a little perverse, does it not?

I’m not here to argue one way or the other. Both approaches are perfectly valid. The explosion of external, mostly analog hardware over the last 10-15 years has made a DAWless approach accessible—and not just for the preserve of synth collectors with vast studios of vintage gear. Thanks to Roland, Korg, Akai, Arturia and others, you can now buy a mixer, drum machine, synth, and standalone external sequencer—a complete DAWless jamming setup in other words—for well under $1,000. Meanwhile, computing power has continued to grow and DAWs have become even more sophisticated, with ever-more powerful and creative VST instruments available. In reality, the vast majority of electronic music producers use some hardware alongside a DAW, and there is absolutely no need to choose.

Still, I think it is interesting how in some ways we have come full circle with electronic music production. After all, most of the greatest early electronic dance music tunes were made in a similar “dawless” way. Before PCs had the muscle to host virtual instruments and record multiple audio streams, their role—if they were used at all—was as a sequencer. A series of machines, synced over MIDI or DIN-sync, effects on the mixer send/return, a multi-track tape recorder or ADAT. Whole tracks would be built up by playing the mixer faders and mutes. Of course, the DAW itself is merely a digital simulacrum of this whole setup—instruments, a powerful sequencer, a mixer and a multitrack recorder, all in a single software package.

And if you think about what a DAW really is—a Digital Audio Workstation—you can see that in fact, many so-called DAWless jams are not really DAWless at all. Because what is an MPC Live, or a Elektron Octatrak, or a Synthstrom Deluge if not a Digital Audio Workstation? These modern devices are MIDI sequencers, samplers, synths, mixers and, in the case of the Deluge, even recording devices. With such a richness of features it is not surprising that people are finding that they can make full tracks without using a computer. In a future post I will look at these devices and compare their potential for making full songs without using a DAW.

Finally, I would argue that one of the key drivers of the popularity of going DAWless is the perceived need to deliver visually engaging live performances. The often voiced suspicion that the laptop artist is probably just on Facebook seems to have been taken to heart by a whole generation of electronic musicians. As a result some people seem to feel a table full of devices is required for a fully authentic “live” experience.

The history of music is full of arguments over authenticity and musical integrity. There was a time when people expected a recorded song to be a faithful rendition of a band playing live. Nobody expects that now…we have become totally accustomed to the notion of the creative, artist producer—from Brian Eno onwards. In a way the DAWless movement is taking electronic music out of the producer world—where things are iterated, planned, adjusted, and finally released—into the musician world, where you just play. From asynchronous to synchronous music making. There is nothing wrong with this at all; most people are attracted to one approach than the other.

Do you always use keyboards and hate programming sequencers, or vice versa?

Do you think of yourself as a musician or a producer?

Is a DAWless setup appealing to you or would you rather watch a succulent grow?

SEE ALSO : “How do I get started with modular?”

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