Out of the Box: The Benefits of Computer Free Music Making

The modern age’s established music production model has been firmly computer-centric for a while now. Digital audio workstations in particular have completely transformed what, not too long ago, was a far more complicated process. Prior to the widespread take-up of software DAWs, the only way for producers to capture and mix their tracks to a releasable standard lay in the often complex chaining together of separate hardware mixers, sequencers, drum machines, preamps, compressors, synthesisers and other standalone hardware effect units. It required both patience, skill and a not insignificant home studio budget. Professional recording studios ruled the roost and home production was a priced-(and-skilled)-out hobby for all too many budding enthusiasts. 

As with countless other facets of the modern world, advances in computer power have re-drawn that landscape. DAWs provided an easier way to not only get down musical ideas, but to develop and mix radio-quality material. In conjunction with ever-more convincing software reproductions of pricey hardware and dexterous effects plug-ins. 

The growing pace of CPU speed has also allowed for even more pristine sample libraries to be created. Take the orchestral powerhouses assembled by the likes of Spitfire Audio, Orchestral Tools and EastWest, which allow computer musicians the ability to carefully orchestrate and conduct their own virtual ensembles within a DAW. A concept that, a scant two decades ago, would be utterly mind-blowing. 

While there’s no denying that DAWs, plugins and sample libraries have unlocked the doors of pro-level music production for millions, the physical hardware world continues to thrive, particularly when it comes to instruments. Hardware and modular synths still sell extremely well, despite the ubiquity of software synths. 

The mid-2010s saw the first wave of an analogue synth resurgence after the previous decade’s general shift toward computer and digital-focused advancement. “What we are seeing now is a phenomenon I went through personally after inventing the first professional softsynth (Reality) back in the mid-’90s,” synth guru Dave Smith told Musical Merchandise Review in 2014. “At some point, most musicians realise that software does not feel like a musical instrument. And making music on a computer is just not the same as playing a real instrument. So, the kids who started on the apps are migrating to hardware.” 

The psychology behind this return to traditional hardware was being mirrored in the music listening world, too. The vinyl revival gained traction at a very similar point in time, reflecting a broader response to our increasingly computer and web-dominated cultural landscape. Perhaps a reaction to the ease in which people could listen to an artist’s back catalogue on tap, or compose a release-ready piece of music in under ten minutes, the perceived authenticity of both vinyl and hardware music technology made music listening and music-making substantial again. 


Using real instruments and classic production techniques isn’t just about making a stand against software. Assassins’ Creed composer Jesper Kyd regularly quests for the unexpected, and harnesses a range of vintage analogue synths on his latest soundtrack for Warhammer: Darktide. As Kyd told us, it’s in the imperfect nature of clanky old hardware that the right quality for the soundtrack presented itself. “When you do things the *wrong* way, on a vintage synth, magic happens.” Jesper enthused. 

Prolific engineer and producer Marta Salogni explained to us how she finds great joy stepping away from the computer, and exploring the possibilities of tape. “I do connect more with it. It takes my mind off a screen and it brings it down to the tactile, auditory element of a record.” Said Marta, “This is what it was all about before screens, people would just use their ears. Screens are great because you can see what’s happening, but sometimes it’s better to not look and just use your senses. It’s not a medium that everyone is familiar with. There’s also a big layer of serendipity to it, a collaboration with the medium which I find hard to achieve otherwise.” 

A shared goal for these creatives, is in the pursuit of the ‘happy accident’ – unplanned sonic diversions that it can take longer to land upon with perfection-aligned software. There’s also the giddy exhilaration of putting your hands on physical keys and incrementally finding sweet spots with real rotaries, switches and buttons. Not to mention of course, the ability to zone into a particular groove and express more freely, beyond the grid-snapped, mix-conscious needs of DAW-oriented writing. The Horrors’ Tom Furse told us that this is discernible to him, even when working with big-name sample libraries. “I’ve been recording some live strings recently and there really is such a huge difference. They sound very convincing, but when you get the real articulation and expression from a real player, that hasn’t been beaten yet.” 


A particular fault line between those who work exclusively in-the-box, and those that opt for a hybrid or computer-free set-up, has been based on the perception that computer music-making lacks humanity. In an interview with Pitchfork in 2010, one of music’s most famed pioneers dismissed the notion that computers were simply a tool for aiding musicians. “[Making music on a computer] isn’t how traditional players work at all; musicians know that their muscles have a lot of stuff going on as well. They’re using their whole body to make music, in fact. Whereas it’s quite clear that if the interface between you and a computer is a mouse, then everything of interest that happens must be happening in your head.” 

Thirteen years on from Eno’s statement and the distance between these formerly distinct worlds have been further bridged. MPE technology allows a far more wide-ranging (and real-instrument-aping) way into controlling MIDI. The MPE world, shaped by innovators such as Roger Linn, ROLI and Expressive E, allows for the nuanced, directional expressivity of a MIDI note, as if it were being played with a real instrument. Added to that, is the ability to quickly apply subtler modulations such as pitch bend and glissando on instruments that it would be impossible to affect that way in the real world. The type of primitive ‘mouse-controlled’ music-making that Eno refers to has been overshadowed by this slicker interface. Meaning that you can feel those vibrations in your muscles once more. Even when manipulating computer-generated synths. 

But, though that perception is now arguably outdated, there remains an undeniable psychological aspect to writing solely behind a screen that plays a part here too. In our recent interview with Algiers, the band told us that many of the ideas on their latest record had been generated because they’d shaken up how they approached the creative process. “We like hands-on things. We work in software a lot too, but as with most practices it’s good to change things up and use physical materials. Even in graphic design, which is my background, sometimes it’s great to get off the computer and work with physical media. It’s exactly the same with music. We’ve been accruing different gear and building set-ups.” The band’s Lee Tesche told us. 

Ultimately music-making is an art, not a machine-like process. While DAWs, software and samples provide us the means with which to build release-quality music without having to fork out thousands, it always helps to change our regular habits from time-to-time. DAWs and computer production have been liberating, there’s no doubt about that. But, while computer-based processes often work hard to nudge us into a paradigm of ‘perfection’, taking your hands, eyes and ears out of the box can lead to both a refreshed creative mindset. It’s easy to start thinking of our tracks as hard-drive clogging files, and tightly-mapped, colour-coded projects. By stepping away from the screen, those same tracks are free to evolve in all manner of unexpected, organic directions.