How one electronic music producer wants to decolonize music software

I've spent a lot of my time over this past pandemic year improving my skills with Digital Audio Workshop software. I also feel like I tend to have a pretty keen eye for identifying issues around colonialism. Yet somehow, I never considered the relationship between the two until I read this Pitchfork article about Khyam Allami, a musician and musicologist of Iraqi descent who was born in Syria but raised in London.

Allami had grown up in London playing guitar and drums in punk bands. He was exploring Arabic music for the first time—or at least trying to, but the music's distinctive quarter-tones were proving difficult to emulate. The software simply wasn't made for him.

While every part of the world has its own distinct acoustic instruments, electronic producers around the globe must make do with a narrow range of production tools. Popular digital audio workstations like Ableton, FL Studio, Logic, and Cubase were built primarily to facilitate music-making in a Western mode, according to the principles of European classical music. If an artist wants to compose with the common features of music from Africa, Asia, or Latin America, they have to fight against the software and rely on complex workarounds.


Through his research, Allami discovered that it had been possible to explore microtonality using MIDI, the language of electronic music tools, since 1992, but software developers had not implemented functions to make microtonal tunings intuitive to use. As one product manager of a popular music notation program told him, they simply didn't believe that there was a market for such features.

For those not hip with the lingo of music theory: Western music relies on half-step and whole-step intervals. There are 12 half-steps in an octave (C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, B, C), at which point the scale repeats, just higher. But non-European music doesn't always conform to the same style. In traditional music from places like India and China and Iraq, for example you can find quarter-steps — notes between each of the Western music notes — or other intervals.

But most digital music software is still based on a piano roll, which still follows that 12-note half-step octave scale. While you can custom-program your own triggers in MIDI, it's not always easy.

So Allami spent the last 15 years on a journey (during which DAWs have evolved tremendously anyway). He founded a record label, Nawa Recordings, that highlights alternative Arabic music. And now he, along with collaborators Tero Parviainen and Samuel Diggins from the creative technology studio Counterpoint, have two new pieces of free software called Leimma and Apotome that help to decolonize your digital audio workshop. As Pitchfork explained:

Leimma allows users to explore tuning systems from around the world or create their own, while Apotome offers generative music creation using these diverse tuning systems. They intend to give musicians a blank musical slate, rather than nudging them towards any specific musical tradition.

Pretty cool!

I found my own frustrations while working on my Irish folk album Forfocséic earlier this year; while the scales were still very basic European-based stuff, the rhythms are typically slightly-ahead-of-the-beat. I made the mistake of trying to basically auto-correct the rhythms (called "quantizing") to make sure it all lined up … but the software wanted to break things down into very clean fractions of a beat that did not actually work with the music. I tried to use a digital cheat and ended up creating hours and hours of more work for myself in having to undo it. So I can't imagine trying to get the MIDI triggers to actually do what you want them to with non-Western music modes!

(I also vaguely recall doing a mashup of digital drum machine beats with some Sitar samples for a project in my World Music class in college, but in hindsight, that was probably some gross appropriation, not to mention that it probably sucked as well).

Decolonizing Electronic Music Starts With Its Software [Tom Faber / Pitchfork]

 Leimma and Apotome [Khyam Allami and Counterpoint]

Image: Public Domain via PxHere