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.