Computer Music (Fairlights, Midi, Macintosh and beyond)


I was watching this old Macintosh promo video about early Midi and sampling featuring Herbie Hancock, Laurie Anderson and others and became fascinated by their testimonials about how groundbreaking these early computers were as creative and compositional tools. (Keep in mind, we’re talking $100,000 devices with a total memory of about 10 megabytes haha.)

Anyways, that got me thinking, who do you think are some of the best artists that use computers (not synths or hardware samplers) as their main compositional tool?

Some that come to mind are Holly Herndon, Arca, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Lee Gamble, and The Art of Noise.


Matmos needs to be mentioned in here somewhere… hmm

unless you are programming your tunes in-the-box on hardware gear w/ its own sequencer (like a Triton keyboard, or TB-303 or MPC) the computer is always the compositional tool… right?

To me, composition is like writing a score, it’s pretty broad. The composition is different than the sound making object. The composition is like an unread book, it sits just there, different people can come up and read it aloud and you could get a sense of that same composition being played on different instruments. I could write a score for violin quartet on paper and play it on a kazoo or rewrite the score in Logic and have my SubPhatty perform the score (oh my MacBook and SubPhatty are talking through MIDI, kinda like how a printer uses a USB cable to receive printing instructions). So a compositional tool is what ever holds the score/sequence/program/whathaveyou and is triggering the ‘sound objects’ to do their thing - computers talk to hardware synths with MIDI (basically a 5-pin data cable or din-5) and can get them to play a score, for instance. Most everybody uses a DigitalAudioWorkstation to compose or sequence their music in this way (i.e FL, Logic , Cubase, Ableton, Reason, etc.).

Now, the computer itself can be a ‘sound object’ itself through the miracle of VST technology, pretty old by now, which is basically synth emulation on your computer, which appear as “plugins” within a particular DAW. Some of these VSTs can do some far out shit

Are you talking more like, the computer twisting music and sound into new territories then? You should check out some open source programs like MAX for Live or Ansible, a friend does things with those programs to much aplomb

Or I recommend taking it back to the essence - trackers


big tune

roni size, krust & dj die some of the best to do it

computers can help us analyze and sculpt music at a microscopic level

this guy had his computer speed up a bass drum pattern’s bpm so fast that it made a tonal pitch. Are rhythms really pure tone slowed down to the level of ordinary human perception?


Yeah, I love Max. I don’t make any instruments or plugins of my own but I am a big fan of lots of the M4L devices I’ve found online (this is an incredible list if you haven’t already seen it before

By “some of the best artists that use computers as their main compositional tool”, I think what I meant more specifically is “what are some of the best artists that use the creative possibilities of computing/software as their main instrument as opposed to just using it as a sequencer, etc.” You make a lot of good points about how anyone who uses something like Ableton or Logic is using a computer as their main compositional tool, and that “a compositional tool is what ever holds the score/sequence/program/whathaveyou and is triggering the ‘sound objects’ to do their thing.” I probably should not have used the word “compositional” though in this case.

An example of somebody that uses software and the possibilities of modern computing as their main “instrument” would be Holly Herndon. A lot of her pieces are based solely on complex Max MSP systems and patches to manipulate her voice, even going as far as to integrate unique AI programs that she made herself with her partner. Although there are definitely some things from the past that sound in the same ballpark as Herndon’s work, her work is unique to 21st century computing technology. So while somebody may use Ableton to arrange and sequence great music that sounds like it could have come out in 1992 (ie: jungle, dub techno, etc.), Holly Herndon’s music would not have been possible to make in 1992 (nor does it sound like it could have been from 1992) due to very apparent technological limitations of the time. Those are ther kinds of artists I was referring to.

A great older example would be the Art of Noise from the early 80s, who were one of the first major Fairlight users. There music would have been impossible to make or sound the way it does even a few years earlier due to the lack of more advanced (for its time) sampling technology.


They’re the shit (especially the early Roni Size stuff)! You ever see this Jungle special from Amsterdam? Some amazing videos of Source Direct and Photek at work, also using computers as their main tool.


wow massive salute for that Max4Live thread

kinda see what you are on about here…


so I’ve been really sleeping on this album, got the vinyl laying over there and everything… it’s spacious

could it have been made 20 years ago? I dunno

also somewhat related is this Wire article w/ Disrupt: he kinda goes into how while having rinsed/exhausted all possible avenues of the 80’s 8-bit chip dub that so inspired his sound, he was sleeping on all manner of video games that had come out since that time, so went back and copped used PS2s or PS3s and some games or whatever that he straight up missed, dove deep into that world and started making music that kinda matched the more ‘open-map’ modes of newer games … reminds me of the sound of Kode9’s ‘Notel’ idea (music for nonplaces)

perhaps too new technology is inspiring our composing ideas even if we are still using our old gear? allowing us to imagine new possibilities for where music could go if circumstances are constantly changing…


Good call with Logos, I’m not too familiar with that latest album of his but he was great when I saw him with Chevel a while back and I’d definitely consider “Cold Mission” as part of that whole canon I was talking about. Kode9 too. I know he was part of the CCRU group with Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher and that rubbed off on him a lot. Zero was a really underrated album I think.

Damn, never heard of Disrupt but that sounds fascinating. Going to cue up that mix later and check it out, thanks.

Your correct too about utilizing old gear using new technology, I think there is a lot of possibility there. Lee Gamble did something interesting where he made some of his earlier music on Live using samples from pads, FX and interludes from old jungle tapes and made something hauntological and very much its own thing. Similar things have probably been done with other antiquated sounds/technology in a different way but I can’t think of anything off the top of my head right now.