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Shape tool. Shaped by tool. Reshape tool?

Shape tool. Shaped by tool.

For years, musicians have manipulated their environments, objects and traditional instruments in order to create new sounds, approaches and compositions. From the prepared piano work of Henry Cowell to the Intonarumori of the Italian Futurist movement. Fast forward 100 years and this idea of manipulation has continued into the digital age, with artists such as the Modified Toy Orchestra performing exclusively using circuit-bent children’s toys and excluding traditional instrumentation. Is there any need to create new musical tools or are the ones already in existence already sufficient?

The “Tools”

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” (McLuhan 2001). This was written in an era when subjective electronic media outlets began infiltrating the homes of many western families. For example, the television: often considered a triumph of human engineering and design which allows any message, image or sound to be transmitted across the globe. However, the television can form an impression upon its viewers. If everything which one sees upon a television one takes as gospel, then one is simply mirroring the opinions of the television and becoming shaped by what it broadcasts. Ergo, “thereafter our tools shape us.” But how does this apply in terms of music creation? Arguably, most electronic musicians will at some point in their creative process use computer-based software; whether this is from the early stages of sound conception and design to the latter stages of recording, production and performance. Many popular DAW software packages offer a variety of tools allowing musicians access to digitally recorded equivalents of what would once before have only been available in a professional studio.

Risk of Commonality through Timbre Recognition

Automatically, issues arise from this. If every user of any given piece of software is using the same methodology and sound creation processes as every other then there is likely to be an amount of similarity. The trained ear can recognise individuality within an instrumentalists recital to the point that it is possible to recognise a musician by their sound, in the same way we recognise the voices of people we know. Certain different types of instruments also have their own sonic elements which are considered unique to that instrument, an instrumental version of the accent. For example, the Stradivarius violin. Many of these instruments have become revered, described by violinist Miles Hoffman as having a certain “sweetness” only found in what he calls “… great old Italian instrument[s]…” (Hoffman and Inskeep 2004).

The same applies when considering electronic music. Many producers have a particular way of manipulating their sounds and it is possible to tell this from others. Genres are also distinguishable by the production techniques employed. The extensive use of side-chained compression (also known as “ducking”) in French House typifies this. “Ducking” is used to manipulate one sound dependant on the characteristics of another. Most commonly, it is used to momentarily drop the volume of other tracks when a bass drum sample is used creating a sound which “pump[s] rhythmically” (Price 2008). This can be seen in tracks such as Daft Punk’s One More Time (2000) in which the horns are subject to ducking as is the backing track of strings and horns in DJ Falcon’s Honeymoon (1999).

In the same vein, if a user of a DAW selects a preset instrument which is native to their software, discerning listeners may be able to recognise the software by the preset sounds employed. It is possible to manipulate electronic sounds to give them individual traits but a common problem in this area is the lack of expression that it is possible to create with electronic instruments. This is due to the fact that the user is actually playing a digital representation of the instrument. Expression is created by manipulating the natural sonorous qualities of the instruments body and build (for example, muting a guitar string in various places). This is difficult to replicate digitally and as a result of this it can often be hard for users to give standardised preset software instruments their own sonic flair which would distinguish them.

“… when you use commercial music software, you feel yourself being led down a certain path of making music and just end up sounding like everyone else… ” — Johnny Greenwood (xpxdavex 2008)

Is there a Problem with Commonality?

In some cases, musicians may be quite content with creating sounds which are similar to those of other artists. Indeed, in many cases this can be commercially more viable. If one sound set has found favour among mass chart culture and in turn, financial return, then duplicating the success of the first with a series of clones could in fact be a rewarding business model.

This can be seen in terms of the recent revival of the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. This drum machine was used widely — the first single alleged to use the 808 was Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock (1982). Its ability to produce a kick sound which fulfilled low-end frequencies made it a staple piece of equipment in Rap and Hip-Hop scenes, used by artists such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. It was also utilised in the popular music scene on tracks such as Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody (1987) and Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing (1987). In the last decade the 808 has made a return as a “classic” sound. Kayne West’s album 808s & Heartbreak (2008) references it in the name in the album title and West has also used it widely in his music. Artists such as the Black Eyed Peas (Boom Boom Pow, 2009) and Kesha (Your Love Is My Drug) reference the 808 lyrically.

Commonality can also form genre. In reference to music which he describes as “post-digital’, Kim Cascone notes that “Music journalists occupy themselves inventing names for it” (Cascone 2004, 392), he then goes on to list what are now considered “genres” within the “post-digital” umbrella: glitch, microwave, DSP, sinecore. Genres are developed, often journalistically, as catch-all terms which describe music which contain similar elements. Subcultures, often equated with an “aggregate of persons… or collectivity” (Fine and Kleinman 1979, 2), can also form as a result of this. Similar thinking musicians and listeners come together in “collectivity” to share the genre. This serves to expand the music’s cultural reach.

However, McLuhan’s maxim, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” could equally be applied when viewing genre as a tool of musical definition. Pioneers of a genre conceive a new style (shaping a tool) which creates a rule set that other artists may work to (thereafter our tools shape us).

… one sees that the human race is one person (all of its members parts of the same body, brothers — not in competition any more than hand is in competition with eye) enables him to see that originality is necessary, for there is no need for eye to do what hand so well does. (Cage 1978, 75)

“Art”, however, is imbued with a sense of creativity and many artists often aspire to originality. Commonality can be seen in opposition to originality; if a work of art shares too many similarities with another creation, the originality of the former is diminished as it begins to look less like a unique idea and more like a duplication. In recent years, the development of the internet and the amateur home studio have provided musicians with new tools. These two technologies allow musicians to record and distribute music without the funding of a record label or benefactor. Websites like YouTube, Soundcloud and MySpace facilitate the distribution of a user’s music free of charge to a worldwide audience. While this is generally accepted as a positive thing (it gives distribution and recognition opportunities to those who normally would not have had them) is has also led to market saturation. The above quote from composer John Cage exemplifies my point here. Cage remarks that “there is no need for eye to do what hand so well does.” If this is considered within the bounds of the internet and music, you can see it as Cage’s metaphorical “hand” creating music exponentially which is then posted on to the internet. Therefore, the “eye” has to effectively keep up and push the envelope further to avoid repeating the tasks the “hand” has already finished. However, if both “hand” and “eye” are operating using the same tools, will the tools not shape the “eye” in to the shape the “hand” has already taken on? Can diversity and innovation flourish in such an environment?

This argument also serves to further McLuhan’s maxim. By uploading music to the internet, we change the shape of the internet music scene, little by little, effectively “shaping a tool”. The tool in this instance being the internet. If as a result of the mass musical culture on the internet, whether intentionally or not, one avoids certain genres due to their popularity or overuse, then one becomes within the words “thereafter our tools shape us.”

Alternative Approaches — Reshape the tool?

There is alternatives to using and altering presets. Many DAWs have synthesizer sounds which allow the user to either imitate sounds they have heard before in music or sculpt the sounds from scratch they want to hear in similar fashion to the original analogue synthesizer owners.

Figure 1
Figure 1. A Pure Data patch, demonstrating the use of a laptop touch pad to alter the pitch of two oscillators.
Figure 2
Figure 2. A Pure Data patch, in which the oscillator pitch is informed by the temperature of the laptop’s Central Processing Unit (CPU).

Alternatives to DAWs, come in the form of open source software and graphical programming languages. On opening Max/MSP, Pure Data or Supercollider, the user is met with a blank screen. The empty background, aptly named a “canvas”, is an area upon which the user can create whatever their imagination allows. By connecting on screen components (known as “objects”) with onscreen wires, the user can create a program which fits their way of working best. The amount of work required to design a working “patch” can often be off putting to the casual user. However, the results can be more rewarding. By allowing the user to create and write however they want, the user can make music in a uniquely new way. Whilst most DAWs and soft-synths may aim to replicate traditional instruments, even down to their interfaces, it is possible to use the laptop as an instrument in new ways with open source softwares and graphical programming languages. To demonstrate this, I have created simple patches using Pure Data which allow the musician to approach their music differently. Figure 1 shows a patch whose input is not controller via traditional methods. The pitch of two separate sawtooth oscillators is controlled by the X and Y values of a laptop touch pad. The two oscillators are then each sent to separate speakers. This allows the user to create sounds and explore pitches in ways which it is not possible using a replica of a conventional instrument. Figure 2 demonstrates another method, but one which requires less human interaction. In this scenario, two sine wave oscillators generate tones based on the internal temperature of the computer. Whilst this example is more an example of generative music, created by parameters of the computer — the manipulation of the concept does not end there. It allows the computer to be utilised in a way more congruous with traditional instruments in the sense that the body and build of the computer can also interact with the sounds produced. Whilst ultimately, by creating one’s own software to work with, one is shaping ones tool, there is the opportunity to return to the root and re-shape the software (or, tool). There lies at least one inherent advantage of graphical programming languages and open source software versus DAWs. When one uses a DAW, tutorials will only teach you how to interact with the software and how make it operate. When using open source, one sees into the heart of the program and the same applies with graphical programming — by creating and redesigning the software via code, the user comes to understand how it works and literally what makes it tick. This can be especially helpful when errors arise.

In Conclusion

To favour a particular process in this article would be subjective and unfair as there is always a humanistic element in the creation of music, which is bound to produce idiosyncrasies. Any empirical decision couldn’t possibly encompass all factors and therefore it comes down to personal choice. However the resounding element of McLuhan’s maxim, “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” constantly returns. In the wider context, this can apply to all forms of electronic music in that by choosing an instrument, we are shaping our tools ready to use and ultimately, from that point onwards that “tool” will in turn shape us and the sound of the piece. In terms a metaphor, using a DAW could be seen as an artist approaching a canvas with a selection of pictures and paintbrushes in his hand, as suggestions of what to create. The alternatives (graphical programming, open source) could be seen as the same artist approaching a canvas without any mediums, ignoring any presuppositions about the way he should work.


Cage, John. Silence — Lectures and Writings. 2nd ed. London: Marion Boyars, 1978. p75.

Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music.” Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. London & New York: Continuum, 2004.

Fine, Gary Alan and Sherryl Kleinman. “Rethinking Subculture: An Interactionist Analysis.” American Journal of Sociology 85/1 (1979), pp. 1–20.

Gourley, Bob. “Aphex Twin.” Chaos Control Digizine (1993). [Last accessed 10 February 2011]

Hoffman, Miles and Steve Inskeep. “The Sweet Sound of a Stradivarius: A Visit to the Library of Congress’ Musical Collection.” National Public Radio, 24 June 2004. [Last accessed 10 February 2011]

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2001.

Price, Simon. “Side-chain Compression in Reason.” Sound on Sound (September 2008). [Last accessed 10 February 2011]

xpxdavex. “Jonny Greenwood on Computer Programming.” YouTube (4:34). Uploaded by user “xpxdavex” on 3 January 2008 [Last accessed 10 February 2011]

Selected Discography

Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. Planet Rock [12” Vinyl] USA: Tommy Boy / Warner Bros. Records, 1982.

Black Eyed Peas. Boom Boom Pow [CD] USA: Interscope Records, 2009.

Daft Punk. Discovery [CD] France: Virgin France S.A, 2000.

DJ Falcon. Hello My Name is DJ Falcon [12” Vinyl] France: Roulé, 1999.

Gaye, Marvin. Sexual Healing [12” Vinyl] USA: CBS, 1983.

Houston, Whitney. I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) [12” Vinyl] USA. Arista, 1987.

West, Kanye. 808s & Heartbreak [CD] USA: Roc-A-Fella Records, 2008.

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