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UX and the music DAW Part 1: An Introduction to the 80s and 90s

The UX of your DAW software makes a critical impact on creativity.

I was a around the age of 9 when my uncle, a computer engineer, insisted that we take a trip to a computer software store to purchase something new. I was familiar with the computer to the extent that my uncle introduced all concepts and material to me from an ancient IBM compatible 8086 to Sierra Online’s King’s Quest. On this particular day we were apparently upgrading from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. As a young person I did not actually follow the news or developments of this subject. I was just a willing participant.

Windows 95

From my vantage point I took all technological advances for granted. However my uncle would offer context by emphasizing significant developments. Windows 95 was such a thing. From there the idea of personal computing increased, presumably exponentially or that’s the impression given to me at the time. There’s little reason to doubt that.

I was being bred as a computer nerd and noticed people around my community slowly acquiring computers for the first time. Microsoft pulled it off. For some reason people wanted computers. I put it that way because not everyone understood what to do with it.

I cut my teeth on 1990s, personal computing, audio recording software. I saw the rawness of the industry and it’s extremely important to discuss.

Alongside this advancement, audio recording software followed behind. Not at the same rate or with the same success. Not at all. It followed none the less. I cut my teeth on 1990s, personal computing, audio recording software. I saw the rawness of the industry and it’s extremely important to discuss. More important than what a younger producer may assume.

The evolution of the DAW is about two things: the evolution of computer hardware and the evolution of consumer needs. The nexus in between is where we find music production software shifting as a new Intel processor is introduced and it changed awkwardly with consumer mindsets.

The evolution of the DAW is about two things: the evolution of computer hardware and the evolution of consumer needs. The nexus in between is where we find music production software…

I don’t intend to cover the audio software of the 1980s. Primarily because I never used that software during that period. However let’s have an overview.
An admittedly unusual overview of music DAW software during the 1980s

  • The Macintosh, as many know, was one of the first personal computers and certainly the first that has clearly defined our idea of personal computing today
  • Early software projects, originating from UC Berkeley were introduced in the late 80s and would eventually evolve into Pro Tools
  • The first version of Pro Tools, released in 1991 worked on Apple’s system 6/7
  • Recording four tracks was the maximum offered by Pro Tools 1 during it’s release
  • The two top Billboard singles of 1987 were “Walk Like An Egyptian” by The Bangles and “Alone” by Heart
  • The Music Tracker scene advanced as shareware versions were created to support the Windows system

Schism-beyond

But wait, what’s a “Music Tracker” you may ask? As I mention, I’m skipping some details of the 80s. An undercurrent that should be acknowledged is that the paradigm of multitrack recording, that was spearheaded by Pro Tools, was not the only school of thought at the time. A different concept of computer music production existed as early as 1987 and was called a Music Tracker. It originated from a commercial software project called “Ultimate Soundtracker… written by Karsten Obarski… by EAS Computer Technik for the Commodore Amiga.” Think of it as a sort of step sequencer for small audio samples.

It’s worth noting this area of music software development because it represents the alternative influences that one day influence mainstream music production. None the less, Music Tracker software was likely fringe and underground. You know what else was underground during this period? Most electronic music.

Another significant, but increasingly insignificant, software development project that occurred during this active period of 1987-91: Cakewalk 1.0.

Another significant, but increasingly insignificant, software development project that occurred during this active period of 1987-91: Cakewalk 1.0. It was initially released on DOS then Windows 3.1 in 1991. I was first introduced to it on Windows 98.

This is where we will begin in the next part of this series. As mentioned, I cut my teeth on Cakewalk and in my mind it represents the complicated dynamics of technological innovation, evolving musical tastes, and software limitations that have a role in all music production software but are very pronounced in Cakewalk’s history. Simply put, multitrack recording concepts took a few punches during the 90s as many factors changed consumer demands. Cakewalk in my view represents that tense, confusing period.

I should explain my thesis with more clarity even though I am attempting a less formal approach with this series of articles. I’d like to move into different areas of history and ideas as the series evolves. However the larger thesis I aim to argue is this: all music software functions as an instrument. It functions as a musical instrument due to qualities of user experience. The evolution of user experience tropes and measures within music production software has not always been deliberate or informed. We as musicians can benefit or find ourselves hindered by this. However being unaware of these details doesn’t allow us to work within or outside the structure of the instrument. This series will present a history of user experience and user interfaces in music software as well as a theory of why it’s important to production.