I play some musical instruments and want to begin electronic music. I have read and understood the concept of MIDI being a format for representing sound and time.

Now when presented with a DAW, and the vast number of different devices for electronic music production in shops, I am totally confused and do not know where to begin to understand what each does, what the names refer to, what overlaps or any recognizing from name to function.

Keywords for devices

  • USB MIDI keyboard
  • USB / MIDI keyboard controller
  • synthesizer/vocorder
  • dynamic effects sampler
  • digital home keyboard
  • micro workstation
  • sequential speaker switcher
  • microsampler/sampler keyboard
  • synthesizer keyboard
  • note controller keyboard
  • digital workstation keyboard
  • USB/MIDI pad control unit
  • groove sampler
  • sampler
  • sound module interface

The list could go on. I tried to find some tutorial or pdf that goes through things to give a conceptual overview but I failed to find such a thing. I expect that they definitely exist, so what are good keywords to search and understand what is going on? I also expect every device to not be too unique in its function, so how do I find the overlap and what function is being produced?

Is the DAW not supposed to be able to do everything? So why does all of this hardware still exist?

  • 2
    "understood the concept of MIDI being a format for representing sound and time" have you really? MIDI does not represent sound, though it can control sound. Feb 3, 2012 at 0:28

1 Answer 1


I bet this won't be the best answer but let's give it a shot shall we? Different DAWs do different things. I wouldn't recommend Ableton Live or Propellerhead Reason for someone who wants to record a live band - both DAWs are oriented to a more software generated sound and sample handling situation. The same way I wouldn't recommend Pro Tools for someone who wants to make electronic music. It's expensive and it was created to be a substitute for an 'analog' studio.

Again, a DAW can be a complete solution with various internal instruments, for example REASON has an instrument called SUBTRACTOR which is a Software Subtraction Synthesizer. But the SUBTRACTOR is just an instrument within the DAW. If you use ABLETON you have ANALOG which is a classic analog software synthesizer.

Let's try talking about this terminology.

  • USB MIDI keyboard :This is just they keyboard, like the keys on a piano.
  • USB / MIDI keyboard controller The CONTROLLER part means that you probably have KNOBS and FADERS on the instrument.
  • Synthesizer - Synth is something that creates sounds out of nowhere. You can go straight to wikipedia and search Synthesizer for some awesome information. A synth can also be HARDSYNTH or SOFTSYNTH Which mean that it can be a physical synth (Google Tb-303) or it can be a software based synth (Google Rebirth - an classic acid techno emulator). Remember that there are VARIOUS forms of synthesizer a sound. The most used is Subtractive Synthesis. But you also have GRAIN synths, FM, AM, and whatever more you may imagine.
  • vocoder is a sound effect usually used in vocals. If you don't know what it sounds like, check out this.
  • dynamic effects sampler is a terminology used for fx boxes like Korg KP3 Kaoss Pad Dynamic Effects Sampler - It's mainly used in live situations but it may be used in a studio situation - but then again, it's a box with various types of audio effects.
  • digital home keyboard - We use this expression to talk about home keyboards - like Casio CTK-533. Those are simple keyboards with a lot of presets. It's not a synth since you cannot create sounds, you can only use the ones that comes with it.
  • micro workstation I've no idea what that is, maybe you're talking about KORG's microSTATION. There are some specific pieces of hardware that contain everything you need to create electronic music - you can then record all these patterns on this keyboard and play them live. Underworld is a band that relies on this type of equipment very often.
  • sequential speaker switcher - Again, I have no idea what this means, but maybe it's the sequential switcher that is used in studios to route audio signal through different means - for example - I may record a guitar via DI (Direct Input) and the use this signal trough various speakers and amps that are connected to my system.
  • microsampler/sampler keyboard - Just check this Wikipedia article and then go to youtube and check Jordan Rudess experimenting with the iPad app sample wiz.
  • synthesizer keyboard - A synthesizer keyboard is the same as a synth. Usually we say synthesizer keyboard when the synth you're working with has it's own keyboard. You see, since MIDI is universal you can have a mute keyboard (a equipment that only sends MIDI data, it doesn't generate sound) and you can plug it to this, which is a synth module. You can generate sound by itself, it needs an external keyboard.
  • note controller keyboard I can't imagine what this means.
  • digital workstation keyboard I'd say it's the same as the microworkstation
  • USB/MIDI pad control unit - Midi controlers come in many many many many many shapes. Usually you have something with pads or big buttons to record drums, like the APC40 or the http://midifighter.com/
  • groove sampler - This is a more complex situation. You see, when you write in MIDI instead of record with a MIDI keyboard you have no groove - all you have is a series of perfect played notes that have no sound variation what so ever. Real people don't play like that. They vary sightly their speed and volume as they play. A groove sampler comes in to help this situation. It basically changes the note's place and velocity to give more groove. Some DAWs like Reason and Ableton have this kind of support integrated into their code. This sound on sound article talks about ReGrove which is Reason's solution. You can also check youtube to find practical examples of this.
  • sampler - Then again similar to the explanation given for the microsampler, it's something that helps you work with, well, samples - that is - recorded sound. It's behavior is similar to a synth, but instead of using generated sounds from oscillators or sound banks, it (usually) uses a library of pre recorded sounds. Reason's Bass Refill showcases the power of the NT-XT Sampler, which is another Reason instrument. On ableton you have the Sampler and Simpler that does this. And you even have hardware machines, like Akai's MPCs
  • sound module interface are massive instruments, check out a better definition here

As a final note: Explore www.vintagesynth.com and http://www.synthmania.com/Famous%20Sounds.htm - the amount of information on electronic music is gigantic, we talked about a few effects, but we didn't cover chorus, flanger, phaser, delay, grain delay, glitch effects, and much much more. If you wanna go into electronic music I'd suggest getting Propellerhead Reason demo or Ableton Live demo and playing with it.

I don't recommend other DAWs since I'm not sure if they provide a good set of factory instruments and patches to work with. And also, both Reason and Ableton have one of the best manuals I've seen - they fully explain every single detail of each instrument and what can be achieved. Also youtube has tons of tutorials for doing everything you may imagine.

In the end, it really doesn't matter exactly which DAW you'll pick, but more like what can you do with it. All major DAWs can produce electronic sounds, but each one works in a deferential way.

If you really want to learn more, getting your hands dirty is the best choice.

  • that is a very nice comprehensive answer, thanks, and I have cakewalk sonar. Which wasn't producing any sounds until I had to made a track for a specific synthesizer, and then allocate notes which was not intuitive to begin with and the manual is alien speak.
    – Vass
    Feb 4, 2012 at 12:37
  • I can't say much about Sonar, I don't think I ever used it - BUT remember that YOUTUBE has tutorials for anyone, in almost any genre, in any platform. Thanks for the edit @Friend_of_george I really need to learn how to indent my answers...
    – Johnny Bigoode
    Feb 7, 2012 at 13:05

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