Reposting this in a shortened (~2000 word), blog form as per Richard’s suggestion – this one’s for those who were put off by the long-winded report format of my previous post! I found it hard to cut it down further than this, so I apologise if you still find this difficult to get through
So, as I previously stated this was my dissertation – and as such it was obviously required to be backed up by a LOT of primary and secondary research. I took just about every book on film composing, orchestrating, music technology out of every library I could get to in Manchester – as well as conducting a few well-responded surveys and interview-style questions with multiple kind composers online. I had 27 responses from film composers in the survey and 9 in-depth interview answers which I was pretty pleased with and managed to satisfy and support all of the points considered in the piece.
The objective of the piece was effectively to consider, and to weigh up both the positive and negative effects the DAW has had upon the film music industry, with a focus on how it has impacted upon the compositional process and musical output. To get to the point though, summarised below are the main benefits and drawbacks from my findings.
— ADVANTAGES —
SAMPLES – The accessibility of high-quality instrument samples is without doubt the huge benefit that the advent of the DAW brought about. Composers can now play with infinite combinations of sounds, and not only that but make them sound almost as though they are being performed live, without the obvious financial and time limitations that a live orchestra would impose.
AUDIO PLUGINS – The DAW opened up a whole new world of timbres, even just in terms of orchestral music through advanced audio plugins. Just one example being convolution reverb, which allows one to capture the resonance or reverb characteristics of just about anything – whether it be the body of a violin, or a huge scoring stage – and apply it to their music. Just within this one avenue opens up countless possibilities music-wise, so it’s impossible to think just how much more creativity is possible with this as compared to before it existed.
ACCESSIBILITY – I received one quote from composer Ron James that summed up this point better than anything I could come up with – “I think it’s good that some cat in Brazil who would never have been able to conduct an orchestra can write a symphony.” It’s indisputable that the DAW has opened up the field of composing, not only for film but in general, on an unprecedented scale. Regardless of its faults, this surely can only have been a good thing for music in general.
ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES – Mike Masnick and Michael Ho produced a report in 2012 entitled “The Sky Is Rising” which looked at trends in the entertainment industry. It found that every aspect of it is expanding at an unprecedented rate – more content creators are producing more content than ever before. The DAW is a valuable tool for younger composers to gain experience in writing music for this industry, which offers far, far more opportunities for them to do so than ever before – and continues to grow day in day out.
— DOWNSIDES —
EFFECT UPON ORCHESTRATION – It became apparent when considering this issue that in actual fact you don’t really need any knowledge of orchestration whatsoever to write what can sound like a great orchestral piece inside a DAW with samples. I got a great quote from composer Guy Rowland regarding this – “I, along with a fair number of others, could not compose without DAWs. It’s patently obvious that less technical skill is required to score now. You can make an impressive sound with practically no skill whatsoever.” This isn’t necessarily a huge downside, as obviously music is still being created and it ultimately could sound great. But can cause neglect of knowledge of areas of music that can only increase writing skill – such as orchestration.
EFFECT UPON COMPOSITION – Using samples within the DAW leads to numerous knock-on effects that influence, sometimes greatly, the composition process. These tend to be things that we either don’t think about or just don’t notice at all. For example, samples directly and inherently dictate the way in which a piece unfolds as it’s composed – one common feature of this is the neglect of woodwinds, as they blend the worst and often sound the most “unrealistic” of all the sampled instruments. Another is the failure to use common orchestral devices – stopped horns, muted strings, string effects such as ponticello, sul tasto – techniques within the orchestra that give it its characteristic variety of colour. If you don’t have these samples, you won’t use them! In these ways, samples actually limit the possibilities of composition rather than enhancing them. Of course, for an experienced composer most of this isn’t an issue, but for younger composers learning – their initial orchestral experiences may be negatively impacted upon by the limitations of samples. Surely this can’t be a good thing?
CONSEQUENCES OF REAL TIME PLAYING – The mere act of inputting notes via a MIDI keyboard is in itself a drawback in composition. There are patterns of notes more naturally produced when someone sits at and plays a piano, as opposed to a Clarinet for example. One might play in somewhat of a pianistic passage for an instrument that can’t necessarily play that in reality, and have absolutely no idea this is the case. The tendency is also to play harmonic voicings that fall within the shape of the hand with a piano, which again has its disadvantages compositionally. Intricate, scalic passages may also be neglected due to the composer not being able to play them into the DAW well enough in real-time on the piano. Of course this isn’t applicable in all cases, but it is a point to consider.
EFFECT UPON LIVE PERFORMANCE OF MUSIC – The increasing quality and realism of samples within the DAW has lead to a marked decline in composed music being performed live. My survey revealed that only 5 of 27 regular composers had had their music performed live, and of those only 1 regularly. In most cases, lower or medium budget pictures replace live performance entirely with samples due to cost. This again reinforces the viewpoint that younger composers can merely ignore orchestration and score reading, and simply concentrate on making sample mockups sound good – as realistically the likelihood of live performance is relatively low in the early stages. I dug out a great quote regarding this – “Although the DAW has strengthened music production universally, it has done so at the cost of the musician. With a limited amount of market to share among recording artists, there is less demand for musical talent.”
— REALITIES OF THE DAW —
TRANSFORMING ROLES – Merely the way the DAW visually represents music affects the way in which it is both learned, composed and studied. The piano roll replaces the traditional stave in effect – with all the notes visible on one homogenised screen, simplifying what was once a complex and admired ability. Endless changes can be made, making it easier to experiment (arguably a good thing), although it inevitably causes less thought to be given to specifics, as was once the case when writing down notes with a pencil was the norm. One also doesn’t need any knowledge of harmony to compose inside the DAW, due to its endless capacity for revisions and edits, as well as the ability to play notes in.
PERFECT TIMING – Quantization (the ability to “snap” realtime played in notes to a grid, keeping them in time to the millisecond) has arguably caused a lot of the emotive aspects of orchestral music to be lost. Compositions that are fully quantized, a practice which is commonplace due to its ease, sometimes sound somewhat robotic and inhuman – especially when the timing is so precise as is advocated by DAW preset software.
KEEPING THE BEAT – One issue highlighted in some of the interviews I conducted was the tendency for DAW composed pieces to be somewhat lacking in expression. One primary reason for this is the tendency when starting a piece to set an initial tempo, and then conform the entire piece to that tempo. It is possible, although very difficult and rarely seen for “tempo rubato” to be employed in DAW compositions, a practice that really makes music come alive – a primary example being the final 15 minutes to E.T. by John Williams.
LOOP THE LOOP – Perhaps one of the most used functions of a DAW is the loop function – whereby a section of recorded track, perhaps 4 bars or 8 bars long, can be infinitely looped. This ability is all too easy to use, and undoubtedly speeds up the process of composition – although it has lead to a noted increase in ostinatic and repetitive rhythms within scores. It’s not to say these didn’t exist prior to the DAW, just that the instances of this kind of feature in a score have increased over time.
JACK OF ALL TRADES – It is indisputable that the advent of the DAW has lead to an exponential increase in the workload of composers. Prior to it, the composer would effectively devote all of his or her time to writing the music, and perhaps orchestrating it. Now in many cases the composer is also expected to mix and master the music – with no additional leeway given for those extra roles. With the extra work, it seems possible to hypothesise that the composition aspect suffers.
MUSIC, SOCIALITY – In the “golden age” of film soundtracks, there would always be some interaction socially among composers. Whether it be with the live players when the music is recorded, or the music editor when it is mixed – it would always be done in person. When the DAW came along, many of these interactions were dispensed with over time – many of the tasks that required this collaboration can now be achieved inside it. Hans Zimmer pre-empted this in the setup of his Remote Control Productions company, surrounding himself with others – although in most cases, especially lower down the foodchain, composers are becoming more and more isolated in their process.
— CONCLUSION —
It should be remarked that the DAW is a great evolution in music, a massive advancement in the capability to create it. More people are able to compose music, of any kind, than ever before – creativity is at an all-time high. Regardless of the impact of this upon orchestral music, the overall outlook for music as a whole is excellent. Composer Hans Zimmer once said: “Music is shifting, changing, going through evolution, and every once in a while someone comes up with something revolutionary”. To look at this from a technical perspective, that revolution has been the DAW; and the changes in orchestral film music in the past decade could be seen as simply a natural evolution – in the same way that the once ever present harpsichord left the orchestra during the 1700’s, or the valve French Horn was developed in the early 1800’s.
However prolific the advancement of the DAW, the way in which composition takes place; whether it be on a computer or with a pencil and paper, will always remain the composer’s choice.
Orchestrator Peter Alexander states this quite clearly:
“Whether or not [the effect of the DAW on film music] is positive or negative really depends on whether or not the composer has chosen to learn to compose along the traditional approach of learning harmony, composition, counterpoint, and orchestration and really developed their musical imagination, or, have bypassed that in favour of letting samples, loops and other “composer packages” become the foundation for their musical imagination.”
It is therefore possible to conclude that the DAW has indeed had a profound effect upon the composition of modern orchestral film music; and from an orchestral perspective, that effect has been largely negative. From a creative perspective however, the DAW has had an enormously positive impact – and creativity is ultimately the driving force behind music.