robot rock symbol

How do tracks get put together?

Buttons, pots (twiddly knobs), sliders, mouse clicks, spinning reels of tape, whirring hard drives and the cold silence of solid state used to capture sounds either through microphones or direct from instruments. Combining the thud of the kick drum, the pop of the snare, the crack of the hi-hat to cut through the warm ambience of the synth pad that underscores the soul and emotion of the vocalist. The realm of the music makers and their toys.

The Synth Head History Museum

Music technology in an electronic form has been around for longer than most people think. Multi-track recording was around since the late 1940s, although it wasn’t until the late 1960s that such machines were to be found throughout most studios. Electronic instruments, specifically synthesisers were still very much a new thing, one such pioneer was the American engineer Robert Moog (pronounced Mowg – there is great argument about this).

Exploring the types of hardware and software.

So electronics came about long before computer software, certainly in the analogue realm. To be fair analogue is where it’s at folks, especially if you are a music gear snob. That being said software has come a hell of a long way, and the architecture of computer machines is advanced enough to be able to model and successfully push data at a fast enough rate through components in order to emulate hardware synths and lots of different ones simultaneously.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)

Standardised in 1983, it allowed electronic instruments such as drum machines, samplers, keyboard synths and sound modules to link together, even if they were made by different manufacturers. Using a sequencer, different instruments can be played on different channels (native MIDI has 16), to then give rich productions for studio recording or live performance playback.

Outboard gear

Hardware synths, samplers, groove boxes, sequencers, FX units, mixing desks and magnetic tape recorders. There are tonnes of other things that could be added, suffice to say that there are museums around the world with treasure troves of cool electronic sound making kit. In the last few years, different manufacturers have been releasing versions of vintage gear that feature almost exact copies of the original electronic architecture, allowing a new generation of music makers to have access synths that might only be found in the studios of rare collectors with larger budgets.

Internal gear

A computer (Apple, Microsoft, Linux distro), sound card (yes there are external ones), hard drives (again external recording storage is an option). Some specialist sound cards feature articulated sound sets and synth modules (more common in the early 2000s). These internal cards allow for custom sound banks to be loaded, one popular format is the soundfont, their use has fallen a little since the introduction of better/faster computer hardware and the development of VSTs (virtual studio technology – essentially the brain of vintage synth without the actual case and physical electronics).

Making the noise


Prior to electronic memory sample storage, systems mostly relied on analogue magnetic tape, the most noteworthy machine from the 1960s was the Mellotron. The range of machine was limited to a maximum of 3 octaves, in later model it was possible to replace the entire tape bank array when new sounds were required.

The Fairlight CMI is generally accepted as the first widely adopted digital sampler (commercialised 1979). It was a very well respected piece of kit coming in with a hefty price tag of $27,000+

So a range of digital samplers from different manufactures came on to the market throughout the 80s. Processing and system component chip technology became more advanced, although memory space, specifically RAM was very low and very pricey.

Artists from the Hip Hop scene readily adopted a new addition to the sampler market in 1988, the unit was the much loved MPC60 produced by AKAI. The grid pad design, integrated midi sequencer and the ability to attach it a simple sound system (not a studio rig) made it both accessible and a hit with non-musicians, although the unit would still nail you for $5,000 at the time. For the first time a device existed that could in effect produce an entire track (with the right skills) and in one publicised case, most parts of a complete album (DJ Shadow – ‘Entroducing’ 1996).

AKAI carried on releasing new models with more features, more memory and higher sample rates. Other manufacturers began to copy the layout that had proven so successful, today many DJ control surfaces have taken inspiration from the novel design of the first pioneering unit.


Right, the history of synths goes back a long way, featuring some quirky interesting developments along the way. One notable device is the Trautonium, developed at the Berlin Music University by Freidrich Trautwein. The Second World War and the run up to it, pretty much stymied any commercial success the machine might have had.

It wasn’t really until the mid-1960s that synthesisers became a real entity amongst musicians with the previously mentioned MOOG.


Did a small selection of synths really influence the development and evolution of popular music?

Every era in modern music has seen the introduction and/or re-working of instruments. Studio techniques and sound manipulation kit has advanced. For a long time heavy synth usage was affiliated with the more experimental musicians, many found in the Progressive Rock genre.

The usual suspects in the synth line-up might include, the mini-MOOG, ARP Odyssey, Yamaha CS80, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Oberheim OB-X, Yamaha DX7, Roland Jupiter 8 and finally the Korg M1.

Okay so there are definitely other machines that arguably might be in the list, or at least be worthy of mention. The uniqueness of being human and possessing free will is why we don’t all like the same thing, although we might collectively enjoy some sounds more than others.

In essence, synths are simply loads of fun and with the range of hardware clones available now, guys and gals can more easily afford to deck out their garage rigs with some pokey phat hardware, not just the virtual (software) versions that have been released for some time.

Drum machines

When you haven’t got a drummer handy, let’s face it, a machine might be the answer to provide that percussive rhythm you need to get down those tasty licks and grooves. Fun fact, when Wurlitzer produced their Rhythm Sideman machine in 1959, several muscians’ unions ruled that they could only be used in cocktail lounges, if the keyboardist was paid the wages of three musicians (greedy money grabbing mother cookers).

Up until the end of the 1970s, machines relied on electronic sound generation using op-amps and transistor (previously valve / vacuum tube) components to generate the percussive sounds. Most machines were preset pattern based with only a small number of innovative models offering any kind of unique pattern programmability (Eko ComputerRhythm 1972 – punch card storage). Roland’s CR-78 was the first microprocessor centric programmable rhythm machine. Artists were looking for more human sounding percussion in juxtaposition to the flood of electronic sounding rhythm machines, this left a space for the likes of the Linn LM-1, released in 1980, and this drum computer was the first machine to use digital samples. The device also introduced rhythmic elements such as shuffle, swing, accent and most importantly real time programming. It was so successful, being adopted by numerous artists, studios and producers that top level drummers in L.A. bought their own so that they could learn to program it and effectively stay employed.

Roland released a programmable transistorised machine in 1982 called the TR-808 Rhythm Composer. Initially the machine was a failure, the demand was more for the aforementioned sample based drum machines that were being shipped out in great numbers. Strangely the machine found success as a heavily discounted, second hand unit. Lesser known artists and producers started incorporating the unique sounds into new patterns that subsequently found their way onto records. Before long higher league artists such as Marvin Gaye, Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force brought the hypnotic sounds of the drum machine into the limelight. Throughout the late 1980s and beyond, the distinctive sounds appeared on thousands of records in the Hip-Hop and EDM genre, suffice to say that the 808 has been used on more hit records than any other drum machine.

Again Roland produced another failure turned to hit in the follow-up machine called the TR-909, a mixture of sample and electronic generated percussion that featured the new MIDI architecture.


Never discount the importance of musicians for they have the inspiration and understanding of how sounds fit together, they bring the soul into the movement and can turn a flat linear motif into a platinum hook. In any art, expression and emotion is where it’s at. If you can source a great musician who is also a canny electronic instrument programmer, then you are onto a good thing when it comes to getting your next masterpiece chugging along with all that tight flare and panache.

Arranging the noise

Back in the days of yore, pretty much the only way to have session musicians play what you wanted them to was by scoring out the manuscript for them to site read and then of course, with a little direction, coax the sound you needed out of them. The electronic age with the integration of the microprocessor has allowed music to be created, recorded, re-mixed and played back in exciting and powerful ways.


Focusing on multi-channel sequencers that didn’t take up half a room, digital sequencers became tangible and useful around the early 1970s and then with the standardisation of MIDI, Roland jumped into the market with their MSQ-700 sequencer back in 1983.

The home computer market was also growing, and a certain machine from Atari, the Atari ST was making waves with its built in midi port hardware and highly accurate timing. Plain and simple the system just worked and kept everything tight in playback, there were several software sequencers and trackers available in 80s, Steinberg’s Cubase quickly became a production favourite on ST.

In the early years hardware sequencers held much of the sway over the software applications. The progression of time with new developments saw the introduction of more features being added to software sequencers. The visual aspect of the computer music sequencer also helped to win more people over, editing and arrangement became quicker and easier to execute, even though many hardware sequencers made use of LCD screens to show information.

In the early 1990s, computer applications saw the introduction of audio capabilities to the sequencer options, the Atari Falcon (Atari’s last computer release) had the capability of recording 8 tracks of audio, along with inbuilt digital signal processing to add FX.

There are quite a number of digital audio workstations available now, with literally bags of sound editing options, beat makers, step sequencers, FX and native software synthesisers and drum machines.

Ironically the last half of the 2010s has seen the release of new hardware workstation/grooveboxes (grooveboxes were a cool thing back in the 1990s – they featured synth sounds and percussion with some sequencing capabilities) with exceptional abilities, this has drawn some of the die-hard PC/MAC music producers away into computer free music production.

Shaping the noise

So you have a few instruments, some percussion or perhaps vocals ready to go and yet they sound kind of flat and lifeless in the mix. This is when the deft use of EQ (equalisation), panning, volume and of course the introduction of different FX will make all the difference.

FX units

What is exists in the outside world can be mapped in the software realm. A good number of bands going out on stage will make use of FX units, these can be rack mounted affairs, desktop modules or floor pedal units. Guitarists and singers tend to use the foot pedal type FX gear the most as it allows for variations to be added to their sounds by the click of a footswitch. The growth and evolution of technology has allowed for FX boxes to contain a great number of functions that can be chained in sequence if required. With the turn of a dial or press of a button an alternative preset sequence can be activated to be used at the appropriate moment.

Mixing Desks

The mixing desk is probably the most important piece of kit for the stage performance. All the instruments and vocals run through this thing to be combined into either a glorious, dynamic wall of sound or an utter cacophony of noise that would make grown adults race to the exits.

Each instrument will either have a mono or stereo channel (keyboards and sound modules usually make use of stereo channels). The sound may be direct input to the desk itself, or the signal may need ‘lifting’ by use of what is known as a DI box. Direct injection boxes turn unbalanced signals into balanced ones and change the impedance of the signal to match that of the XLR (the 3-pin input type) sockets on a mixer, some DI boxes feature a ground switch (used for removing unwanted hums and noise).

The sound engineer is the person who works the magic by manipulating each channel’s (instrument/vocal) panning, EQ, gain and the desk overall master output to make the band sound as epic as they can be (the band members are required to have some talent for the whole thing to work well). Desks can be simple manual units with basic controls or they can feature masses of FX, filters, motorised faders (volume level sliders) with banks of pre-sets for each and every song to suit different acoustic environments. Budget tends to play a part in both the quality and features that are available; as with most bit of kit, having more options isn’t actually always better unless you really know how to use everything appropriately.


You can’t have vocals without microphones, nor can you absorb the subtle nuances and ambience of some instruments without a good mic or three handy. There are dynamic mics that work well in the live performance and there are condenser mics that sensitively capture the full power of musicians in the studio environment.

Recording the noise

The best musicians are assembled and chugging through the next platinum smash hit and someone didn’t hit the record button. Truth is most studio work is performed in a series of takes to build up layers, with different band members or session musicians performing their bit(s) to a click track.

Magnetic tape

Right, so tape is really old school tech and yet it is still being used to store master versions of digital mix compositions. Large studio reel to reels could hold 32 tracks and multiple machines could be synchronised by the use of a time track recorded onto one of the spare tracks of each recorder. Before the introduction of hard drive arrays and then faster hard drives, reel to reel was the way most studio recordings were put together prior to a final bounced (all the individual tracks are consolidated, with their volume, EQ, FX and pan settings) stereo mix. The final master tape(s) were then sped off to the publishing base to produce consumer copies on vinyl, cassette, CD and possibly Mini-Disc (we truly love Mini-Disc, Yay!)

Hard drive (single or array)

Hard drive audio recording has been around as early as 1984, although the major studios didn’t really adopt the expensive machines until the very late 1980s. The mid 1990s saw the capacities of hard drives increasing with a decline in cost per unit, this allowed for smaller studios to take on the technology. The real advantage of hard drive recording is that it can operates in a non-linear fashion unlike traditional magnetic tape. This of course means that sound files can be edited separately without having to re-record the whole track. For demo purposes sections of the backing tracks could be repeated without having to record them more than once also. Modern single drives are more than capable of recording multiple stereo tracks simultaneously, to increase data throughput, arrays of disks using RAID controllers can read and write data at even faster rates than one disk alone could handle, especially useful when real time recording many channels (e.g. orchestras). Not going to mention SCSI and IDE differences because we can’t be bothered to go into those details.

The reduced costs and very high speeds of solid state drives (no moving parts) have seen traditional RAID arrays dwindle; the most basic of SSD can handle the throughput 10x that of one regular/simple hard drive. To give you an example, a single, contemporary SSD is capable of recording 64 channels at 24bit 192KHz without even breaking a sweat.

Digital multi-track recorders

For the small studio or working band there are some nifty standalone items that allow you to record simultaneous tracks to a digital storage media, usually and SD card. For under £400.00 (2019) you can pick up a 32 track digital mixer/recorder that has an impressive array of FX, compressors, editing features. Many of these machines can simultaneously record 8 tracks at a time, more than sufficient for most bands to capture real time takes. The tracks can be combined/bounced on to other tracks should you run out of the full 32 range. The question may arise, ‘why would you opt for a standalone recorder over a computer and multichannel interface/soundcard?’ Not all folk want are comfortable using a DAW, and secondly these machines can be used on the road and are essentially great sketch pad tools for getting down ideas really quickly. Not to be mocked but porta studios have been used by some renowned artists for recording albums (Bruce Springsteen, Madlib, Wu-Tang Clan)