electronic music basics

What is a DJ Mixer?

Technology is a big part of the entertainment industry today. A disc jockey no longer just plays records. A DJ now uses an entire advanced sound system. The centerpiece of which is the mixer.

A DJ Mixer is an small mix panel used especially for live performances.
A DJ Mixer is an small mix panel used especially for live performances.

What is a DJ mixer?

A DJ mixer is an important piece of electronic equipment used by disc jockeys to mix sound effects and audio sources during live events such as dances. It also allows the disc jockey to make his own audio using other sources and makes it easy to play continuous music without downtime. This way people can dance without one moment of silence.

Benefits of DJ mixers

Most mixers can record audio, and be used to make a unique mix that the DJ can be played on cue. The DJ mixer makes changes to one or more recordings by altering the audio’s basic components. A crossfader, one of the defining features of mixers, serves as a pair of faders running into each other.

The DJ can thus quickly transition from one track to the next by fading out of one song and fading into another one simultaneously. It allows the volume of one track to momentarily lower before raising it up again for the next one. In this way, the DJ can keep the dancing going non-stop.

The DJ mixer also allows the DJ to actually feed any non-playing audio source into his headphones. Additionally, although some DJs are into improvising at a gig, others like to make their own mixes and keep a list of them ready prior to an event.

How is a DJ Mixer used for scratching?

Today’s scratching techniques are done with the inclusion of direct-drive turntables which are connected to the DJ mixer system. It’s known as turntablism. Early belt-drive turntables had slow start-up times and the belt would break from the scratching or “back-spinning.” Without the mixer, however, the back spinning would not be heard in the mix.

Scratching, Beatmatching, and Beatmixing are all things that can be done with the help of a DJ Mixer.
Scratching, Beatmatching, and Beatmixing are all things that can be done with the help of a DJ Mixer.

How is a DJ Mixer used for beat-mixing, and beatmatching?

Beatmatching is also known as pitch cue. It is a technique that allows a DJ to time-stretch an upcoming cut to match its tempo to that of a track presently playing. This results in the beats (and the bars) being synchronized.

For example, the snares and kicks on a pair of house music tracks can be altered to hit at the exact same moment when both of the recordings are played at the same time. Beatmatching is essentially a part of beat-mixing which uses a combination of beatmatching and equalization. This technique was created as a way to keep people from walking off the dance floor when a song ended.

Today it is a basic technique for DJs working in any genre of dance music. The beat is kept continuous and constant throughout the night at the club even if there is a change in disc jockeys during the evening. Advances in digital software have made beatmatching easier to master.

A mixer is an essential tool for a club or party DJ
A mixer is an essential tool for a club or party DJ

What are some common features of good DJ Mixers?

Other than crossfading, DJ mixers generally include a number of other common features that aid a disc jockey in creating his own unique signature sound. Some basic audio components include several different controls that allow the disc jockey to control and change the bass, beat, and treble of the audio. Many units don’t include more than a few generic sound effects but DJs reportedly focus on mixing music that already exists instead of adding sound effects anyway.

Of course, the best DJ mixers are built for hybrid DJ rigs. They are compatible with both digital rigs and analog setups. They include four input channels and each one of them should have gain, and LED metering.

LED metering is especially helpful for live events. It provides a great visual for checking or monitoring levels. Three-band EQ control for all channels is also a good feature for a DJ mixer to have.

It’s best to have a DJ mixer that is compatible with both Mac and PC and comes with what’s known as a dedicated “XLR mic channel” with an extra input for an additional mic in the mixer’s fourth channel. In fact, multiple phono, line and mic inputs are always good. The mixer should also work well with Serato and the crossfader should operate smoothly and free of any hiccups.

The best DJ mixers should also be free of cheap knobs and controls as well since they will get a lot of use and must be endurable. Cue buttons should not be too small. A top DJ Mixer should include a replaceable crossfader with slope control.

It should also work with all current OS systems. In general, build, durability, and stability are all important as well. Price comparison shopping is always especially recommended for disc jockeys on a budget.

There you have it, music fans. Now you know more about what you’ll need to be a DJ. With such a variety in DJ mixers, one really must research needs, wants and budget range.

DJ using a turntable with a mixer
DJ using a turntable with a mixer



Pocket Operator PO-35 Vocal Synthesizer Review

Let’s take a close-up look at the Pocket Operator PO-35 Vocal Synthesizer – from Teenage Engineering.

The PO-35 is small.

How small? Smaller than an iPhone.

Pocket Operator - The mini synths that fit in your hand.
Pocket Operator – The mini synth that fits in your hand. This is the PO-35 Speak.

Pocket Operator PO-35 Synthesizer - It's smaller than an iPhone
Pocket Operator PO-35 Synthesizer – It’s smaller than an iPhone. This is the packaging.

Here it is out of the package – you can see it is a very minimalistic product.

It is a bare bones product , but that is part of the appeal – to make it fun and easy to make electronic music.

The PO-35, like the entire pocket operator line, is a bare bones, minimal product - but that's part of the fun.
The PO-35, like the entire pocket operator line, is a bare bones, minimal product – but that’s part of the fun.

It has a folding wire stand.

It is a very compact footprint when the wire stand is folded, but when it is extended it’s great for desktop or tabletop usage.

Why a folding wire stand?  So you can use it on a table or desk
Why a folding wire stand? So you can use it on a table or desk

Two AAA batteries go on the back. It’s sort of a tight fit – but once they are in, there is no danger that they will come loose.

There is a warning on the packaging about ESD – Electro Static Discharge.

PO-35 Pocket Operator - Batteries go in the back - 2 AAA batteries.
PO-35 Pocket Operator – Batteries go in the back – 2 AAA batteries. You can also see the folding wire stand.

This is a hazard with many exposed electronic devices – but we don’t think it’s too big of an issue with the PO-35.

How much battery life? You should get several months of use.

PO-35 Back View
PO-35 Back View – You can also see the line-in and headphone jacks on the top.

PO-35 - closeup of the two knobs - that control 4 different settings.
PO-35 – closeup of the two knobs – that control 4 different settings.

Close up of one of two jacks on the device (there's another one on the opposite side.)
Close up of one of two jacks on the device (there’s another one on the opposite side.)

The PO-35 has a small LCD display.

It can also double as an alarm clock.

LCD of the PO-35
LCD of the PO-35.

Closeup of the PO-35 keypad - many buttons serve multiple functions, so there is a learning curve - but that is part of the fun.
Closeup of the PO-35 keypad – many buttons serve multiple functions, so there is a learning curve – but that is part of the fun.

Why is this called the “Speak” model?

Technically it is a vocal synth – it has a microphone built-in for sampling.

You can also sample through the input jack.

The PO-35 has a built-in microphone for voice sampling
The PO-35 has a built-in microphone for voice sampling

Check back soon, and we’ll have more details about how to use the PO-35.

Want to save what you’ve done and ensure it is not over-written? Simply break off the lock tab.

You will need to solder it back on to write again though – so we’d recommend leaving it as-is.

The lock tab can be removed to ensure that what you've done is accidentally over-written or changed.
The lock tab can be removed to ensure that what you’ve done is accidentally over-written or changed.

Pocket Operator PO-35 – In Summary

It’s small, it’s cheap, and it’s a lot of fun.

The Pocket Operator series is an easy way to dip your toe in the waters of electronic music – in a tactile way – without a big investment.

It would make a great gift for a creative teenager or aspiring musician as well.

Pocket Operator - the mini synth that fits in your hand
Pocket Operator – the mini synth that fits in your hand

electronic music basics

What is a Digital Audio Workstation?

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an umbrella term referring to any digital audio recording and editing device or software. This is a broad definition that, taken literally, can mean everything from a smart-phone with a music-recording app to the most expensive, high-tech professional recording studios.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is software used for creating music on a general purpose computer, like Mac or Windows
A user controlling digital audio workstation. Narrow depth of field

In most cases, the term refers to any digital audio recording software platforms. There are many such programs on the market, varying in capabilities, features, and of course, price. There are also some free-ware audio recording programs. While these may not have the bells and whistles of the products for sale, some of them are quite good for simple applications.

The first application of a digital audio workstation is recording digital audio files. A DAW encodes analog (what we’d think of as natural, or normal) sound waves into a digital representation that may then be manipulated and played back.

Most DAW’s come with (or require) an interface that allows you to plug microphones and/or instruments “directly” into your recording software. The interface and the software interact seamlessly to capture and encode your music, podcast, or voice-over.

In 1979, guitarist Ry Cooder released the first fully-digitally recorded album titled “Bop Til You Drop.” It was recorded on a digital 32-track console manufactured by 3M. Since then, digital audio has revolutionized music and the entire recording industry.

It didn’t happen because digital audio makes recording, editing, mixing, and mastering audio tracks quicker and more efficient, though it does. It isn’t the fact that it saves tons of money on DAT tape and studio time, though it does that too. The reason digital audio has revolutionized the industry is because of its almost limitless (as compared to analog, or digital tape) storage capacity.

The Beatles were among the first recording artists to lust after additional tracks with which to work. For Sergeant Pepper and especially Abbey Road, they were employing all the usual tricks (mixing multiple tracks down to one in order to free up space, wiring two 8-track consoles together) and trying to invent some new ones.

Today, producers need not concern themselves with how many tracks are left available to them. With the click of a mouse, the modern digital audio workstation instantly creates a new track with which to work (complete with effects and plug-ins should an engineer or producer desire.)


Virtually unlimited tracks with which to work means more than just that many more chances to record audio. The ability to create such a high number of new tracks allows for the process of bussing. Bussing is when a producer or engineer sends, or “buses” a track or multiple tracks to another single track. This is usually done to add ambiance to the overall mix of your project. Having multiple tracks available to serve as bus tracks give a producer a very wide pallet upon which to work.

Digital Audio Worksation (DAW) used with MIDI Keyboard and MIDI Controller
Digital Audio Worksation (DAW) used with MIDI Keyboard and MIDI Controller

MIDI Synth instrumentation and interfaces are a second reason DAW’s have revolutionized the music business and become the industry standard. The songwriter and/or arranger’s dream come true, MIDI instrumentation means that you have an orchestra at your fingertips. Did you write a bassoon part you think might sound better played by a bass-clarinet? The click of your mouse can let you know in an instant. Imagine the music Mozart might have produced, had he twenty-four-hour access to the complete Vienna Symphony?

The following are three popular digital audio workstations on the market today. Most DAW’s are available in tiered versions, offering inexpensive beginner and intermediate packages. For purposes of comparison, we’ll look at the features of the top tier versions of these products.


Most of the high-quality DAW packages on the market today feature at least three main visual interfaces: a virtual mixing console, a piano roll for composing and sequencing, and a browser for arranging and adding automation. The interfaces offered by FL STUDIO are clear and user-friendly. The piano roll, in particular, is considered by many to be among the best available.

FL Studio includes over eighty instrument and digital-effect plugins. Compression, delay, equalization, flanging, phasing, reverb, chorus, and distortion are just a few of the effects available. Are you looking for a sound, instrument, or effect not included with FL Studio? No problem. This digital audio software is compatible with most third-party plugins, making expanding your digital plugin library a snap.

This DAW also comes with a lifetime software-update guarantee, so you’ll always be able to run the most up-to-date versions of the software.


A more inexpensive alternative to FL Studio software, Ableton’s premium DAW comes equipped with a total of eighty-seven plugins. Fifteen of the plugins are software instruments, fifty-five are audio effects, and seventeen are MIDI effects.

Ableton software provides for unlimited audio and MIDI tracks with which to work. It can handle two-hundred-fifty-six mono audio input channels and the same number of output channels.

While this digital audio software includes more plugins than does FL Studio, its visual interfaces are less attractive and user-friendly. A musician or engineer new to FL Studio will, after a few moments, find their eyes landing right where they need to on the browser, mixer, or piano roll. It may take just a bit longer to familiarize oneself with Ableton.


This very popular digital audio workstation differs from the previous two entries in that it is available (at least officially) only for Apple devices and computers. A sophisticated product with an easy-to-use visual interface, GarageBand allows songwriters to create music easily, with or without an instrument on hand.

GarageBand for Mac includes one-hundred synth sounds so you’ll always be able to find the perfect instrumentation. The software’s most compelling feature, though, is how it approaches drum loops. Rather than come with a list of pre-programmed drum loops, it includes twenty-eight “drummers” all with varying styles. Simply select a drummer and a tempo, then let the track play. GarageBand’s uber-simple click-and-drag interface allows users to manipulate the selected drummer’s performance, allowing for practically infinite possibilities.

One more thing has to be said for GarageBand: it’s free. Yes, you read that correctly. As of 2013, if you own a Mac or other Apple Device and are running the most current operating system you may install and use GarageBand for free. Additional plugins can be purchased for $4.99 through the app store.

DAWs – In Summary

The advent of digital audio has revolutionized music and the recording industry. Digital Audio Workstations allow the modern songwriter/producer/engineer/musician to manipulate digitized sound to an astounding degree.

If you’re considering downloading or buying a digital audio workstation, be prepared for your output to increase in both quality and quantity. Today’s systems make it easy for just about anyone to produce professional sounding audio in a fraction of the time.

Keep in mind though, that while most systems offer many of the same features, they can vary a good deal in price, in the number of included plugins, and the degree to which they are user-friendly. As most DAW’s are offered in beginner, moderate, and complete packages, be sure to know the features you will likely need so you can buy the right version for your recording, mixing, and sequencing needs.

Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production
Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production


Synthesizers in Electronic Music

What is a Synthesizer?

A synthesizer, or synth, is an electronic instrument. It usually has a key layout like that of a piano, although the exact layouts of the keys vary depending on the model. Each key produces a different tone and many synths can have multiple programs which means that the keys can produce a variety of different tones. The sounds created by a synth can vary widely, as they can imitate real instruments, create drum noises, ocean noises or even generic electronica noises. Synths can be controlled with several types of electronic and compatible instruments, such as the electronic drum set.

Without getting too deep into the scientific jargon of the physics of sound, synthesizers can adjust tones electronically to mimic the sounds of other instruments. When played at the same note, different instruments don’t sound the same because they have a different timbre. Basically, the sound may be the same note but the sound wave is actually a different shape. Thus, synthesizers can use electronic signals to manipulate the tone enough to mimic the timbre of several different instruments. Synthesizers are also unique because they can be used to create completely new sounds. Thus, it is an incredibly versatile instrument.

From an electrical standpoint, synths create sounds from nothing or from scratch. Most instruments have a physical action that creates the sound, a synth uses electricity to create sound from nothing. This is rather unique in the music world. Early synths could only emulate electronic noises and thus had limited use in music and other applications. With increasingly better technology, however, synthesizers are used now for a more varied range of applications. For instance, synths are used in a wide variety of musical genres, to help create movie sound effects and so much more.

How Synthesizers are Used in Music

Synthesizers are used in music in a plethora of ways. Obviously, this has changed over time as the technology and capability of synths has grown exponentially. Now, synths do not necessarily sound electronic, although they can if desired. Experienced users can create synth loops and tracks that sound like acoustic instruments, so much so that only a trained ear would be able to tell the difference between the two. For a subtle effect, synths can be used to boost the backing tracks in a song. For instance, consider a standard bass line. Sometimes, these can be hard to hear in a song. With a synthesizer, that bass line can be matched with a second tone, making it appear more in the song.

Rhythms can also be created with a synth pad. This is obviously very different from the sustained notes discussed above but they can blend in with the song all the same. Modern synthesizers do not always sound like the obnoxious and repetitive electric drum loops of the 1980s, but they can. Using more natural sounding notes, synths can create rhythms and loops that sound organically acoustic. Sustained notes can also have added rhythms, which creates a unique effect. For a creative and talented synth user, there are endless possibilities.

Many types of synths can interface with a computer, instead of just playing the tones. This is also unique, as many instruments do not have this level of functionality. Computer interfacing adds a secondary dimension to synth music, as it allows the user to edit and mix their synth blends into a new product. Computers also provide the ability to layer synthesizer tracks on top of one another. Theoretically and in practice, entire songs with a full range of instruments can be created with only a synth.

Brief History of the Synthesizer

The first electronic instrument was invented before 1900, although it was far from a synth. True synthesizers were not possible until the 1930s and 1940s. A side effect of innovation for World War II, several electronic components were invented. Additionally, several components that already existed were able to be made smaller and more transportable. Among these were electronic oscillators, audio filters and envelope controllers. The earliest true synthesizer, by definition, was invented in 1937 in Germany. It had only four tones that could be played. Following this, in 1939, the Hammond Novachord was released. This was the first electronic piano and it had twelve notes with vibrato.

Electronic pianos and electronic organs continued to be released into the 1960s. It was during this era that the synthesizer began an instrument that would be used in modern music in a mainstream fashion. Initial synthesizers were massive and usually had to be built into a room as a permanent installation. This made them expensive and generally unattainable to musicians and other sound enthusiasts. The Moog Modular Synthesizer was the first notable exception to this and was released in 1963. This began shaping the music scene as several famous groups began adding electronic sounds to their songs. The Moog and Minimoog, while incredibly popular in the early scene, were only able to play a single note at a time.

It was not until the 1970s that synthesizers began being able to play chords and multiple notes at the same time. The first synthesizer with this capability was the Yamaha GX-1, which was released in 1973. Other Yamaha models, Roland Models, and Moog Models followed suit. In 1974, Yamaha released the first digital synthesizer after years of work on the product. Following this, digital synthesizers were more common in worldwide markets and more affordable. This meant that they became significantly more popular in the music industry and were being used by a wide variety of musicians and genres.

Now, synthesizers are used across genres and due to technological developments, sometimes impossible to differentiate from acoustic instruments. They have also found a place in movie production, as synthesizers have been used on countless soundtracks and scores. They work well for sound effect creation as well.

Types of Synthesizers

In songs that utilize a synthesizer, there are usually three main roles that the synth will fall into. Firstly, the synth lead. In some modern songs, there is an electronic hook or melody that ties together the other backing tracks of the song. This is considered the synth lead and has been present in mainstream music since the 1980s. A synth pad role generally provides sustained notes that blend with a song’s main melody. Basically, the synth pad provides a drawn-out accompaniment to the lead melody of a song. Finally, the synth bass. This is a self-explanatory role as the synth bass essentially replaces the role of a traditional bass within a song.

There are tons of iconic examples of synth parts in popular music. In 1982, Rush released the song ‘Subdivisions.’ This was one of the first songs to not only use a synthesizer as a main instrument, but also feature a synth solo. Rush is a band that is characterized primarily by nearly out of control drumming, but in this song, the drumming seems restrained. This is to give the synthesizer its full glory. Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is another example of the usage of the above synth parts in modern music. Released in 1980, the song’s synthetic keyboard echoed the songs main melody without overtaking it. This created the famously haunted and endearing melody.

‘Jump’ by Van Halen is a fantastic example of a synth lead hook. This catchy song, released in 1983, makes use of the synth part for the song’s iconic melody. This song, while insanely popular worldwide, represented a shift in musical ideas for the band, as it did not feature the famous Van Halen guitar parts in the same way. Finally, The Doors released ‘Light My Fire’ in 1967. This song defined the bluesy synth part for music and paved the way for other groups to released similar pieces. The Doors rarely played with a bassist because their pianist was so good that he could play both the keyboard part as well as the piano part, simultaneously. In ‘Light My Fire,’ the fantastic synth lines and solos are done on an electric and synthetic organ, one of the first of its time.

Famous Synthesizers

The EMS VCS3 was released in 1969 and was one of the first ‘famous’ synths. It originally cost 330GBP, 480GBP with the keyboard included. For synth machines in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was a cheap and easy to use machine. Thus, it was one of the first affordable models that could be used for music. At first, however, this wasn’t the case. Before the EMS VCS3 became mainstream, very few people knew how to use it. Given this, many considered it an overly complex electronic sound machine. Instructions on how to use the device became more widespread as the popularity of electronic music grew. This synth had a strange and eerie sound and was notably featured on White Noise’s ‘Love Without Sound’ (1969) and Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ (1972). The song ‘Silver Machine’ got its name from the EMS VCS3.

Moog Minimoog is perhaps the single most famous synthesizer. Prototypes of this synth were released in 1969 and the official first release was in 1972. The original price was $1495USD. This was another one of the first synthesizers that was practical enough for musicians and affordable. Prior Moog models were way too large to move from stage to stage, whereas the Minimoog was significantly more portable. Original Minimoog units could only play a single note at a time but they were incredibly popular, nonetheless. They had an iconic electronic sound that is likely what most people imagine in their head when they hear the term ‘synth.’ The Minimoog was famously featured on Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ in 1974 and Devo’s ‘Mongoloid’ in 1977.

The Yamaha CS-80 was an expensive addition into the synth market at $6900USD in 1976. It was the first synthesizer that could play full chords, however, making it worth the cost for many. These units weighed 220lbs (100kg) which, in addition to the price tag, made them unaffordable to many smaller musicians and audio enthusiasts. Yamaha CS-80 units were a regular installation at bigger studios. Sounds from these synths were some of the first used in major blockbuster and televisions releases. For instance, the entire Blade Runner soundtrack is made from mostly pre-set options on the CS-80. This is also the primary instrument used for the score of most of the original Doctor Who episodes. Musically, it is featured on the iconic song ‘Africa’ by Toto, released in 1982.

Later, the Yamaha DX7 was even more successful than its predecessor. It was quite ugly, but it cost only $2000USD in 1983 when it was released. It was also a great deal lighter. While this synthesizer model has not remained popular over time, it was the producer of most of the iconic electronic sounds of the 1980s. These models were FM instead of analogue, meaning that they depreciated in value significantly faster than earlier synthesizer models. They also failed to gain the aftermarket following that other releases have. The DX7 had a glassy and colder tone than many other synthesizers and had a harsher sound too. Still, it was featured on A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ in 1984 and Kenny Loggins’ ‘Danger Zone’ in 1986.


electronic music basics

All About MIDI Keyboards

MIDI keyboards let a musician communicate directly with their computer or another electronic instrument. These versatile controllers are an essential part of the musician’s toolkit. MIDI technology has only been around since the 1980s, but it works so well that it’s become a standard of the music industry.

A MIDI Keyboard can be part of a synthesizer

What Is a MIDI Keyboard?

A MIDI keyboard is a device that can send MIDI data. Both MIDI controllers and electronic keyboards might be referred to as MIDI keyboards; they look quite similar, but they’re actually different items.

An electronic keyboard is a MIDI instrument. These keyboards contain prerecorded sounds, and they might even be able to record new sounds. An electronic keyboard can be used to send, receive, and play MIDI data. You can use an electronic keyboard as a MIDI controller, but you can’t use a controller in place of an electronic keyboard.

A MIDI controller is the classic definition of a MIDI keyboard. These devices can’t produce sound on their own. Instead, they send MIDI data messages to a computer or another electronic instrument. Most MIDI keyboards look like miniature pianos, but all sorts of different MIDI controllers exist. From samplers to drum pads to MIDI guitars, any device that communicates in the MIDI language can be used as a controller if you have the right cable.

What Is MIDI?

MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is a General MIDI is a standard specification for MIDI instruments. Computers and electronic keyboards that use general MIDI share the same program map; if the data says to play on program #57, the sound of a trumpet will always be produced.

Because MIDI data is so standardized, it can be used to accomplish a variety of musical feats. A composer might write a piece for an entire MIDI orchestra. If the data is sent to a general MIDI device, the song will be played exactly as the composer intended.

MIDI data can usually be converted to sheet music and vice versa. The same concepts of note length, pitch, and timing can be communicated across both languages; however, MIDI programs can include additional data like volume, instrument, or modulation that won’t appear in a sheet music score.

MIDI data is saved as a .MID file. If a program or device can read this file, it can recreate the song inside. The sounds might be different, but the notes, timing, and volume will all be the same.

It’s worth noting that MIDI keyboards are controllers; they don’t contain internal software, and they can’t receive, read, or record MIDI data. Instead, MIDI keyboards communicate data to a computer or another device.

How MIDI Keyboards Are Used by Musicians

A midi controller is an essential part of any musician’s home studio. From tiny desktop keyboards to complicated samplers, most digital artists can’t resist owning a few different controller types.

Most midi keyboards don’t make sound on their own, so musicians use a USB connection to plug the controller into their computer. A digital audio workstation (DAW) like Logic, Ableton, or Reaper is then used to connect the keyboard to a virtual instrument.

Musicians use keyboards to record digital performances. Additional keys on the controller might be mapped to produce specific effects; the DAW can record these effects in real-time. The performance can later be edited and re-mixed to achieve the desired sound.

Using a MIDI keyboard is significantly easier than entering notes in by hand. These keyboards can be used with almost any musical program; check out PianoRollComposer for a hassle-free way to play immediately.

If a MIDI keyboard isn’t working with a specific software, check the program’s settings. Most DAWs and programs require the keyboard to be “enabled” with a small checkbox next to the controller’s name.

A Brief History of the MIDI Keyboard

According to the MIDI Association, the history of MIDI starts with the development of the first musical machines in 850 AD. Humans have been playing with the idea of “automatic music” for quite some time; player pianos in the 1800s could read and recreate a score of music using a system that looks very much like the modern digital piano roll.

The actual MIDI language was first invented in 1981 by an engineering genius named Dave Smith. At this point, electric keyboards, synthesizers, and similar music technology already existed. Smith’s digital language allowed composers to program these devices to play sounds at specific times.

This development completely revolutionized the music industry. From simple recorded performances to daisy chains of MIDI devices all playing in unison, this new technology turned automatic music into a fun and functional reality. Over 30 years later, the MIDI 1.0 standard is still in use; when something works so well, there’s no reason to change it.

What Are Some Common Features of MIDI Keyboards?

The most necessary feature of a MIDI keyboard is the keyboard itself. If it doesn’t have piano keys, it’s a MIDI controller instead. You can find one-handed MIDI keyboards with 25 keys or full-range keyboards with 88 keys like a standard piano.

An essential but not visibly obvious feature of a MIDI keyboard is touch sensitivity. MIDI data includes the force with which a key was hit; a sensitive keyboard will be able to record more accurate performance information.

Next, many MIDI keyboards contain pitch and modulation wheels. These allow the performer to play with the sound of a note in real-time; check out this video by MangoldProject for an example.

Finally, a MIDI keyboard also tends to come with buttons, knobs, faders, and other controlling mechanisms. These features all act as “keys.” When you configure a DAW to work with a MIDI keyboard, you can choose to map a different function to each key; some musicians like to map samples, while other artists like to set up shortcuts for their most-used digital actions.

The beauty of MIDI controllers is that they’re completely customizable. Buy a simple keyboard for grab-and-go recording, or choose a controller with fifty buttons that you can carefully map in your DAW. Many samplers and other digital instruments can act as MIDI controllers; if it has a USB or a MIDI hookup, plug it into your DAW to see what it can do.

electronic music basics

Drum Machines in Electronic Music

A drum machine is a type of electronic musical instrument that appeared in the 1930s.

Drum machines create the same types of noises that a drum makes along with other percussion instruments and can be used in place of regular drums. Most present-day drum machines are even able to program the music artist’s distinctive drum rhythms.

A Vintage Drum Machine
A Vintage Drum Machine

Additionally, drum machines have become very popular in creating background music for different artists and genres, especially hip hop and dance. The purpose of a drum machine, other than to create amazing music, is to remove the necessity of a live drummer and still offer many different sounds for artists. Major music labels even began using drum machines to save the money that live studio drummers expected.

Drum machines can also be used to quickly make a demo without requiring a drummer in the studio and setting up a full drum kit. The machine may not be able to fully replace live drummers, but If placed into the hands of a truly incredible artist, it will create astonishing music.

Drummer at a concert
Drum machines are sometimes used to replace a live drummer – either in the studio or at a venue.

Drum machines are still heavily around today and are always undergoing redesign and technology advancements.

What are the common features of drum machines?

Drum machines are typically shaped like a box and consist of a keypad that looks almost like a computer keypad. The modern drum machines come with important features, such as pressure sensitive pads, built-in effects, and programming and editing features.

Drum machine showing keypad
Drum machine showing keypad

The pressure-sensitive pads are how the drum machine makes different types of sound. By touching the pads, different sounds will emerge from the machine. The artist playing the drum machine can pick which sound they want to come from each pad. By pressing these pressure-sensitive pads, a new drum pattern can be recorded and used for their future music.

The built-in effects are usually one of the most amazing aspects of drum machines. Modern drum machines generally have several unique built-in effects for the musical artist to try out and experiment with until they find the one that matches what they are looking for.

The program and editing features are how a musical artist can record the drum sounds and combine them with other sounds to create music. When it comes to programming on drum machines, it is different for each machine. Most machines have programming that can be completed in real time, which means the musical artist generates drum patterns as the pads are being pressed.

Another programming method is step-sequencing; this is when a pattern is created over a period of time by adding segments of sounds and placing them where needed. Another programming technique is song-sequence, which is when the drum machine repeats the programmed patterns from memory in the order that the artist chooses.

Also, if a drum machine has MIDI connectivity, the artist can program the drum machine with a computer or another gadget accessible with MIDI.

A MIDI Controller might be used along with a drum machine.
A MIDI Controller might be used along with a drum machine.

How are drum machines used in modern music?

Drum machines are still very popular and being used in today’s modern music. A well-known artist that uses a drum machine for his music is Kanye West. In 2013, he was on stage performing his songs and revealed his small drum machine. All he had to do was push one button and it would begin the beat for his song. In fact, his most popular songs and most of his album, College Dropout, uses a drum machine for the background music and sounds. Another artist that uses a drum machine for some of his songs is Frank Ocean. It is obvious that his song, Blonde, has a beat from a drum machine. Dr. Dre also firmly stands behind using a drum machine and is known to have a few easily accessible in his studio every day. Additionally, Outkast is a band that frequently used a drum machine often in their unique-sounding songs.

Music has changed and it will continuously rely on electronics, technology, and digital gadgets. If an artist can use a drum machine, they can technically be labeled as a musical artist and a producer. Being able to create music while also working on the technology aspects of modern music has produced many highly skilled musical artists that are also producers, performers, beatmakers, and orchestra conductors. These special types of artists know how to create rhythms and percussive sounds, and they have the knowledge of how to bring their songs into existence.

Without the drum machine, electronic music and the hip-hop genre may not have existed. Thanks to the drum machine, an artist does not need a certain number of musicians with instruments to create their music. Instead, it made it where solo artists and producers can put together wonderful music, and it all came from a machine with buttons, built-in effects, pressure-sensitive pads, and programming.

What is a Drum Pad?

Similar to a drum machine is the drum pad.

This device is also used to simulate a real drum set – but you play it using drum sticks – rather than buttons.

Drum pad being played with drum sticks
Drum pad being played with drum sticks

What are some famous drum machines?

The very first drum machine was the Rhythmicon, which was introduced in 1931. Leon Theremin created the machine for Henry Cowell. The reason Cowell wanted the machine was because he wanted to use technology to do something a human could not do. So, the idea of being able to create multiple wavelengths into beats sounded terrific to him. This drum machine fell short and was difficult to use. It consisted of sixteen different rhythms but was quickly neglected.

The Linn LM-1 is the first drum machine to utilize digital sampling to generate percussion and drum sounds. This drum machine was created in 1980 with only 500 available. This was the beginning of the era of sound machines impacting the sound of pop music extensively. The drum machine caused a lot of unemployment for live drummers in Los Angeles at the time, which led to them purchasing drum machines to find employment. The famous music artist, Prince, was one of the first people to buy a LM-1 and he used it on almost all of his songs, including the popular Purple Rain. Once it was realized that the LM-1 was thriving so well, the Oberheim DMX was released to the public. The DMX drum machine was extremely popular as well when it came to the hip-hop music genre.

Roland TR-808 is another drum machine that was very popular when it came to hip hop music. This drum machine was released in 1980 and was able to create a very loud, “ground-shaking bass.” This drum machine was one of the first programmable devices that artists were able to use to produce their own rhythms and beats. This was great for musical artists because they did not have to use any of the preset patterns. The Roland TR-909 was created in 1983 and was the beginning of using MIDI. With MIDI, artists and producers are able to sync various devices. Both the 808 and 909 had long-term influence on popular music, and they helped lead the evolution of the popular techno, house, and acid genres. Furthermore, both of these drum machines are currently still being used in today’s music.

Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production
Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production

Drum Machines – In Summary

Drum machines are here to stay in modern electronic music.

Their flexibility allows them to be used for all sort of interesting creative musical styles.

They require less physical skill – so the barrier to entry is lower than a real drum set.


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electronic music basics

Understanding sequencers in electronic music

What is sequencing?

Mostly, sequencing is programming a collection of musical instructions and playing them back to making music. It is one of the most common and straightforward methods of elaborating a melody in eighteenth and nineteenth-century classical music. In digital recording, sequencing allows music creators to program a combination of notes, rhythms, articulations, and effects. The audio can be sent to anything from your DAW of choice to hardware synths. Sequencing is also the restatement of a motif or longer melodic (or harmonic) passage at a higher or lower pitch in the same voice. In music, sequencing is the rehashing of a theme or longer melodic (or symphonious) entry at a higher or speak with a softer tone. Sequencing is commonly known as one of the most straightforward strategies for explaining a tune in eighteenth and nineteenth-century classical music. Sequencing is frequently broken up into two segments; most of the time, no more than four and usually go one direction. High and low parts go in the same interval distance. Sequences can also be formed from a melody or harmony. There are several kinds of sequences, and each series has its pattern. In a melody, a sequence includes subsequent segments that connect to the first segment. A tonal sequence, on the other hand, is a sequence which provides for layers that are constructed from a diatonic scale and connects to the first segment. Other forms of sequences include rhythm sequence, modified sequence, false sequence, and modulating sequence, among others.

What is a sequencer?

When it comes to recording audio digitally, a sequencer is an electronic device developed for collecting various types of sequences (chords, musical notes, or rhythms). Those sound sequences can be transferred to and played back on either an electronic musical instrument, a Musical Instrument Digital Interface instrument, or sound module. The primary purpose of sequencing is programming various types of sequences so musicians and producers can play them back. Prime examples of sequencers are the abilities to change the volume levels’, ‘playing a solo guitar’ or ‘altering the bass’. Sequencers give music creators the ability to also create their music by adjusting the mixer settings at any time. Music creators need to familiarize themselves with how mixers work before learning and experimenting with sequencing music. With hardware sequencer, most synthesizers, drum machines, and music workstations have their sequencers.

What is a hardware and software sequencer?

Hardware sequencer includes various types of different sequencers such as electro-mechanical sequencers, step sequencers, and digital sequencers, to name a few. Electro-mechanical sequencers include rhythmic patterns generated by rotating disk switches, stepping relays, and tone generators. Software sequencer is digital multitrack software which may consist of MIDI step sequencers is available as a standalone application or an audio plug-in format.

A closeup photograph of the controls of a MIDI synthesizer. This picture shows the power, mode, volume, and sequencer options of the synthesizer.
A closeup photograph of the controls of a MIDI synthesizer. This picture shows the power, mode, volume, and sequencer options of the synthesizer.

What is a step sequencer?

A step sequencer simply sequences steps in a beat. The step sequencer is much easier to use for drums than PRV audio. Step sequencer allows music creators to set any number of steps in each beat and individually include drum names to that beat. It also gives them the ability to easily change velocity, along with setting swing, portamento, and other fx as well. Most creators use step sequencer entirely for creating drum patterns. Here is how to step sequencer works; the step sequencer is usually closed between first clips from each synth. Then the step sequencer will pick up the session drummer’s names correctly without a drum map. If the step sequencer is not closed between first clips from each synth, drum maps will keep the instrument names as it is.

What is a “DAW”?

A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a digitalized structure created with the purpose of both recording and editing audio digitally. DAW is often referred to as either audio hardware, audio software, or both. Between the 70s and 90s, developed DAWs were hardware units that featured a mixture of consoles, a converter (analog to digital), and data storage device. DAWs are commonly used for recording, editing, mixing and playing back digital audio. Integrated DAWs are devices that are still being developed and used today. However, Integrated DAWs are being replaced by more computer software that includes digital software. In most professional recording studios, there may be one or a couple of large mixing boards connected to a computer. With computers replacing most integrated DAWs, audio editing and post-production are performed primarily with software rather than hardware.

Digital Audio Worksation (DAW) used with MIDI Keyboard and MIDI Controller
Digital Audio Worksation (DAW) used with MIDI Keyboard and MIDI Controller

What is MIDI?

MIDI is an acronym that stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and it is a system created for recording and playing back music on digital synthesizers. MIDIs are supported on most personal computer sound cards. In the early 80s, MIDI started as a standard for allowing communication between modular analog synthesizers. The MIDI standard was completed in 1983 by a consortium of musical equipment manufacturers which includes Korg, Oberheim, Roland, Sequential Circuits, and Yamaha. Products featuring the standard, such as the famous Yamaha DX7, were available on the market soon after. MIDIs have initially been designed with the intention of control a single keyboard from another. Soon, MIDI was quickly created to work on someone’s personal computer. MIDI is best used for connecting various devices that develop and control sounds (synthesizers, samplers, and workstations). Sounds, software, and hardware communicate with each other, using MIDI messages. MIDI can allow one keyboard trigger sounds on another synthesizer. Then will enable it to record audio and transferring it to editing, flexible orchestration, and song arrangement.

What is a MIDI Sequencer?

The MIDI sequencer allows creators to record and edit digital audio without using an audio-based input source. That audio is then recorded as a series of events that would ordinarily be played in from a keyboard instrument. MIDI Sequencer can be implemented as hardware and software and became recognized in the 80s. The creation of MIDI soon became broadly useful for personal computers to serve its purpose as sequencers. After MIDI was widely recognized and used, PC based were soon MIDI sequencers created. Later, converts were developed to link MIDI to a CV which allows synthesizers to be constrained by a MIDI sequencer. To this day, MIDI is still a household name and product that remains a standard in the music industry.

MIDI Keyboard
MIDI Keyboard


electronic music basics

Samplers in Electronic Music

Like other modern technology, samplers have had a significant impact on the music industry. They have especially influenced such music genres as hip-hop and rap. But first, for those not yet in the know, we should review some basics.

What is sampling?

Obviously, in order to understand what a sampler is and what it does, one must first know what sampling is in terms of the music industry. According to Merriam-Webster sampling is the specific “act, process, or technique of selecting a suitable sample.” In this case, it would be a “sample” of music.

When a music producer or artist samples music he or she is employing a method of digitally encoding specific music or even a specific sound and then reusing it within a larger song or instrumental. How is this done? It is done with a sampler.

A sampler is an electronic instrument used in modern music
A sampler used by professionals in the music business.

What is a Sampler?

A sampler is essentially hardware used in today’s modern music. More specifically, it is a digital or electronic musical instrument which utilizes “samples” or sound recordings of vocals or instrumental sounds (such as trumpet, piano, or violin), extracts from previously-recorded instrumentals or songs (like a popular four-second bass guitar refrain from a famous funk track) or even such sounds as ocean waves or sirens.

The music samples are either recorded or loaded by either the manufacturer or the user. The selected sounds are played back via the sampler program, an audio or music sequencer, a triggering device (such as electronic drums) or a MIDI keyboard to compose or play music. The audio samples are generally saved in digital memory so it can be quickly and conveniently accessed.

Additionally, an audio sample can frequently be altered and the pitch can be changed in order to create chords or scales. These samplers frequently also offer users effects units, various filters, modulation via a specific low-frequency oscillation and several other synthesizer-style operations that allow the user to alter the original sample in numerous ways. The majority of samplers on the market today have multitimbrality abilities. In essence, they are able to play back more than one sound at the same time. Many of them are also reported to be polyphonic, meaning they can play multiple notes simultaneously as well.

Origins of Sampling in Music

The origins of sampling go back beyond hip-hop and even beyond the height of jazz music when musicians would lift riffs from each other. Its roots go back decades earlier in fact. It was born from the art of sound collage.

Rock band recording in a studio
Rock band recording in a studio

Indeed, early pioneers of sound experimented with music’s very definition. Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer, for example, created the musique concrète movement in the 1940s. Prior to tape recorders, they utilized disc cutters to expand the limits of music by creating individualistic collages of sound.

The pioneering pair used more than just musical instruments. They used mechanical noises and train sounds too. They were soon followed by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and much later by bands such as the Beatles. Witness the sound collage “Revolution 9” which was included on their 1968 eponymous platter known as “The White Album.”

Keyboard player using a synth keyboard in the studio
Keyboard player using a synth keyboard in the studio

Several years before that, in 1956, Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman created “Flying Saucer.” Using a fake news story about an alien invasion and a mashup of several rock and roll hits from that time, they created a single that was so popular it was perhaps first to attract copyright lawsuits.

The Residents’ 1977 single “The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles” was a popular underground sound collage. In the late 1970s and early 1980s sampling really exploded with the dawn of hip-hop, industrial and electronic dance music. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five became famous with their 1980 record, “Freedom,” which actually sampled “Get Up and Dance” by the group Freedom.

Legal Issues

Is sampling legal? It can be but is not always. Indeed, early on, rappers and hip-hop artists like Public Enemy heavily sampled songs worry-free. Permission was not even an issue to them. As rap and hip-hop grew in sales and popularity though, copyright owners began to notice.

Artists started to pay modest monies to buy the rights to sample songs. Soon additional charges such as rollover rates were added to the cost of sampling a song based on the number of units sold. To further complicate the issues, artists who sampled were next being made to pay two copyright holders: the copyright owner of the recording and the owner of the composition itself.

An audio mixer is another electronic device that is used in music recording
An audio mixer is another electronic device that is used in music recording

These days, copyright owners are quite ready to take legal action against unauthorized sampling. Consider the case of DJ Danger Mouse who mashed up the raps from Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” with music from the Beatles’ “The White Album” to create “The Grey Album” in 2004. When promo copies of this work somehow reached EMI, the record label that currently owns the rights to the Beatles’ songs, DJ Danger Mouse was promptly hit with an official cease and desist order.

He was promptly prevented from commercially releasing the work. The album still went on to become an incredible hit on the internet and it can still be obtained via certain P2P networks. (The internet is forever.)

What makes things irritating to samplers is that it is often not the artists themselves who do the suing. It is the large corporations that actually own the copyrights. In 2005, a one-man business known as Bridgeport that had previously purchased numerous copyrights sued Jay-Z over his sampling. Still, today the safe rule is to get a license or don’t sample.

A hardware sampler has buttons or pads that are large and easy to press
black modern musical instrument, sampler on an intense red background

Sampler Hardware

Perhaps the first sampler, harking back to the 1960s, was Mellotron which utilized magnetic tape. In the 1980s, more affordable equipment such as the popular Akai S900 became available. At present, samplers are available as both software and hardware and users can slice, splice, and loop recordings.

The Sampling Capabilities of DAW Software

Currently, there are many Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) available to interested parties. They range from unbelievably expensive packed full of professional studio feature software to the free and relatively that allow little more than basic four-track editing.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is software used for creating music on a general purpose computer, like Mac or Windows
A user controlling digital audio workstation. Narrow depth of field

Typical Features

Typical features of a high-quality sampler include a sequencer, a compact flash slot for import and storage, multiple channels of external MIDI sequencing, parameter automation, and USB for loading and organizing samples. Other available features are multiple effect types, extensive audio manipulation capabilities and a truly comprehensive song/pattern system. With such a variety in samplers, one really must research both needs, wants and budget range.