Beyond the Basics: An Introduction to Keyboard Workstation Functionality

If you’ve ever sat down in front of a modern day synthesizer, you know that there are seemingly thousands of different sounds to choose from. From pianos to orchestras to Javanese gamelan, they have almost every sound imaginable.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the things that keyboard workstations, essentially a hybrid of synthesizer and sampler, can do that go beyond the basics, first with an example of a classic synth and sampler, and then a contemporary counterpart. Hopefully, this will give you some insight into what kind of synth and sampler will serve your purposes, as well as opening your mind to some new possibilities. I’ll lay out a few common scenarios, but remember to let your imagination be your guide.

Layering and Splitting Sounds

Layering simply means that you can simultaneously play two or more different sounds simultaneously. For example, you can add strings to your piano sound, or a clarinet to your string ensemble. Every synth and sampler is different in terms of how many sounds you can layer, but most give you at least four.

You also can split the sounds, that is, assign each instrument to different registers of the keyboard. Say, an upright bass to the lower register of the keyboard, a piano to the middle register, and perhaps some drums to the upper register. You can be a one-man band in this way. You usually can change the octave of each sound so that anything assigned to the highest register of the keyboard, for example, isn’t necessarily in that octave. Layering and splitting in this way can aid tremendously to not having to switch patches as often.

OLD: AKAI s3200

NEW: Native Instruments Maschine


Sampling is essentially playing back a pre-recorded sound. You can playback specific sounds that you have either made or acquired, as opposed to using some approximation. For example, a car horn or a revving motor. This can be especially handy in the live environment for playing specific sounds that were used on the record that would otherwise be impossible to recreate. You can usually playback these sounds at different pitches as well, giving you further creative control.

OLD: Ensoniq ASR10

NEW: Korg Microsampler



Sequencing is the part of the synth and sampler that allows you to record and program various parts, as in a song; parts such as a rhythm section to play along with, orchestral parts you can layer as you compose a piece, or practically any other part that you can think of. This is an extremely powerful feature and one that is handy both in the composition, studio and live environments. Solo pianists can play along with a rhythm section at a gig. Electronic musicians can get extremely radical with layering sounds, arpeggiations and other effects.

Synth players who have DAWs still may prefer their internal sequencer as it can be very fast to compose and perform on once you get the hang of it. Most, if not all, sequencers built into a synth and sampler have a mixer section as well, where you can control parameters such as volume level and effects. There are many settings you can tweak and you’ll want to consult your synth and sampler manual for this.

OLD: Akai MPC60

NEW: Elektron Octatrack

EQ & Effects

Beyond just layering sounds, you can build completely new sounds by modulating, EQing, and further tweaking existing patches into your own unique sound. EQ can do a tremendous amount towards sculpting a sound to be your own. Effects like reverb and chorus go a long way as well, especially if you’re going the one-man band route.

OLD: EMU E4XT ultra

NEW: Roland System-1 Plug-Out


Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are many features a synth and sampler can give you beyond the basic sounds. While many new synth and sampler advances have arisen in the form of plugins for computers. After all, the guts of a synth and sampler is a computer in and of itself. Plus, the various synth and sampler companies all have their own unique spin on sounds and synthesis. As your ear develops and you learn what’s out there, you will get to know the sonic personality that each manufacturer brings.

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