Tokimonsta's Koreatown Studio, from Matthew Smith's 2015 documentary, Looking for the Perfect Beat

In the past thirty years, digital software for record production has often been modeled as a virtual simulation of the “analog” studio, with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that simulate multitrack mixing boards, tools for magnetic tape editing, and virtual instruments modeled after acoustic drums and guitars. Yet, with the rise of “smart” media and the increasing mobilization of digital music making, ideas regarding the creative function of the recording studio—and the performance practices contained within it—continue to change dramatically. Most noticeably, digital tools for music production have become increasingly influenced by—and integrated within—digital tools across other media, from instant editing smartphone “apps” to video game design.

This convergence of technical practices and design logics across media has resulted in an electronic music aesthetic that Simon Reynolds calls “digital maximalism.” Integrating my experience as a sound designer and producer of digital music with theoretical frameworks from sound studies, science and technology studies, and the emerging “musicology of record production,” this chapter will detail the evolving ecology of music software in the context of new methods for the contextualization and conceptualization of sound and new media technologies in general (Frith and Zagorski-Thomas 2012).

Through a case study of Ableton Live, a popular digital audio workstation (DAW), I posit the shift from simulation to abstraction in music software design as coterminous with trends in the aesthetics of software more generally: from the move away from skeuomorphic design and the “desktop” model of software interfaces, to the haptic, multimodal engagement of video games and touch-screen technologies. Here, I will first introduce the term “procedural listening” as the practice of listening in to the processes and mechanics of media platforms rather than the perceived sonic source being recorded.Unlike the previous generation’s industry standard, Avid’s Pro Tools, Ableton abandons traditional recording studio practices, eschewing long-held metaphors for musical inscription such as vinyl and magnetic tape, and instead presents the producer with a modular, ludic interface designed for a more performative micro editing and real-time recombination of sonic sources. As a result, a “maximal interface” aesthetic has emerged within DAWs and software applications more broadly—one that values the juxtaposition of tools, practices, and content, as well as an increasing hybridization of creative techniques across media formats.


Plugin Mechanics