Since the dawn of electronic music some time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, musicians and inventors have been coming up with creative new ways to manipulate sound and make music. These days, there is an astounding array of hardware and software available to any artist. The tools a musician chooses to produce their music are as unique as their style. Below is an overview of some of the devices commonly used to produce electronic music:
Audio samplers are instruments that can record, store and playback sounds. They often include tools common to synthesizers such as filters, pitch-shifters, and oscillators. Usually samplers come with a keyboard, sequencer, or some other form of controller. Samplers are often used to replace real instruments by musicians on tight budgets, but can also be pushed to create new, innovative, and creative sounds.
Drum machines are widely used. They are popular in electronic and hip hop music. They are also often used during studio recordings and when human drummers are not available. The history of drum machines is quite long, but they never really entered public consciousness until Roland introduced the TR-808 and TR-909 in the eighties. Since then, the beats of the TR-808 and TR-909 have become some of the most recognizable sounds in pop music.
What distinguishes sound modules from other electronic musical instruments is their lack of a playable interface. They must be paired with an external controller such as a midi keyboard, sequencer, or a trigger pad. Sound modules can be synthesizers, simple tone generators, digital pianos, samplers, and more. Some, known as drum modules, are geared towards producing percussive sounds. Most sound modules accept midi input and are rack mountable. Some famous modules include the Roland MKS20 and the Yamaha TX16W.
Like sound modules, tabletop synthesizers sport a small form factor. Unlike modules, they include a compact controller. Their size and portability can be an advantage for touring musicians and those short on space. Despite their small size, they can pack an incredible sonic punch. People familiar with club and dance music may recognize the sound of the tabletop Access Virus synthesizer. Another popular tabletop synth is the Minimoog Voyager XL.
Audio sequencers can trigger patterns of notes as part of a drum machine, sampler, or synthesizer. These sequencers are often referred to as step sequencers and are usually monophonic. Sequencers can also be used to playback and record longer pieces of music, and arrange polyphonic material. These types of sequencers can be found in production stations and other standalone hardware, but have largely migrated to computer software where they are often included as part of a DAW, or digital audio workstation.
Production stations combine the power of audio sequencers, drum machines, controllers, and samplers. These standalone devices can be all an artist needs to make music. Oftentimes, they come pre-programmed with patterns and loaded with samples. The grooves of Akai's popular MPC series have unquestionably left their mark on hip hop music.
These days, computers are replacing a lot of electronic instruments that used to be only available as stand-alone hardware. Oftentimes, a DAW will include software equivalents of all of the hardware instruments mentioned in this article. Despite this fact, leading manufacturers continue to innovate and release new hardware instruments every year. This is good news for electronic musicians who now have almost unlimited choices as to what tools they want to use to create their music.