Music workstation

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A music workstation is an electronic musical instrument providing the facilities of:


It enables a musician to compose electronic music using just one piece of equipment. [1]

Origin of concept

"Page R" pattern editing software on Fairlight CMI Series II (1980) realized the interactive composition of music using sampling sound Fairlight II Page R.png
"Page R" pattern editing software on Fairlight CMI Series II (1980) realized the interactive composition of music using sampling sound

The concept of a music sequencer combined with a synthesizer originated in the late 1970s with the combination of microprocessors, mini-computers, digital synthesis, disk-based storage, and control devices such as musical keyboards becoming feasible to combine into a single piece of equipment that was affordable to high-end studios and producers, as well as being portable for performers. Prior to this, the integration between sequencing and synthesis was generally a manual function based on wiring of components in large modular synthesizers, and the storage of notes was simply based on potentiometer settings in an analog sequencer.


Polyphonic synthesizers such as Sequential Circuit Prophet-5 and Yamaha DX7 were capable of playing only one patch at a time (the DX7II could play 2 patches on 2 separate MIDI channels) There was some sequencing ability in some keyboards, but it was not MIDI sequencing.

In the mid to late 80s, workstation synths were manufactured more than single-patch keyboards. A workstation such as the Korg M1 was able to play out 8 different patches on 8 different MIDI channels, as well as playing a drum track, and had an onboard MIDI sequencer. The patches were often samples, but users could not record their own samples, as they could on a Fairlight. Having samples as the sound source is what made it possible to have various drum sounds in one patch. In contrast, a DX7 or a JX3P did not have the synthesis features to create all the sounds in a drum kit.

First generation music workstations

Examples of early music workstations included the New England Digital Synclavier and the Fairlight CMI.

Key technologies for the first generation

Low-cost computer hardware
Leveraging the technology of personal computers, adding a microprocessor enabled complex control functions to be expressed in software rather than wiring. In 1977, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and other polyphonic synthesizers had used microprocessors to control patch storage and recall, and the music workstations applied it to control sequence storage and recall as well. The Fairlight used a dual Motorola 6800 configuration, while the Synclavier used a mini-computer called the ABLE. [2]
Digital synthesis
While it was possible to create a music workstation with digitally controlled analog synthesis modules, few companies did this, instead seeking to produce new sounds and capabilities based on digital synthesis (early units were based on FM synthesis or sample playback).
Disk-based storage
Again leveraging the technology of personal computers, music workstations used floppy disks to record patches, sequences, and samples. Hard disk storage appeared in the second generation.
Control devices
In a music workstation, the keyboard was not directly connected to the synthesis modules, as in a Minimoog or ARP Odyssey. Instead, the keyboard switches were digitally scanned, and control signals sent over a computer backplane where they were inputs to the computer processor, which would then route the signals to the synthesis modules, which were output devices on the backplane. [3] [4] This approach had been used for years in computer systems, and allowed the addition of new input and output peripherals without obsoleting the entire computer. In the case of the music workstations, the next output devices to be added were typically computer terminal displays (some with graphics), and in the case of the Fairlight, the next input device was a light pen for "drawing" on the display screen. [5]

The result was that music workstations evolved rapidly during this period, as new software releases could add more functionality, new voice cards developed, and new input technologies added.

Second generation music workstations

By 1982, the Fairlight CMI Series II represented another advance as it now offered more RAM-based sample memory than any other system with an improved sample rate, and in the Series III (1985) changed from 8-bit to 16-bit samples. The Synclavier introduced hard-disk based sampling in 1982, storing megabytes of samples for the first time.

Other products also combined synthesis and sequencing. For instance the Sequential Circuits Six-Trak provided this possibility. The Six-Trak was a polyphonic analog synthesizer, which featured an on-board six-track sequencer.

Still other products focused on combining sampling and sequencing. For instance the E-mu Emulator models, first introduced in 1981, combined sample memory (read from floppy disks) with a simple sequencer in the initial model, and an 8-track sequencer in later models.

The biggest change in the industry was the development of the MIDI standard in 1983 for representing musical note sequences. For the first time, sequences could be moved from one digitally controlled music device to another.

The Ensoniq ESQ-1, released in 1985, combined for the first time a multi-track, polyphonic MIDI sequencer with a dynamically-assigned multi-timbral synthesizer.

Korg M1 (1988-1990s) Korg M1.jpg
Korg M1 (1988–1990s)

In the late 1980s, on-board MIDI sequencers began to appear more frequently on professional synthesizers. The Korg M1 (released 1988) a widely known and popular music workstation, and became the world's best-selling digital keyboard synthesizer of all time. [6] During its six-year production period, more than 250,000 units were sold.

Key technologies for the second generation

As mentioned above, MIDI data represents pitches, velocities, and controller events (e.g. pitch bend, modulation wheel). MIDI information could be used on the backplane that linked the elements of the workstation together, connecting the input devices to the synthesizers, or it could be sent to another device or received from another device.
Display technologies
Music workstations adopted the most effective input/output devices available for their price range, since there were complex control settings to display, complex waveforms, and complex sequences. The lower-end devices began to use LED displays that showed multiple lines of characters and later simple graphics, while the higher-end devices began to adopt personal computers with graphics as their front-ends (the Synclavier PostPro used an Apple Macintosh).
Large memory banks
Music workstations soon had megabytes of memory, located on large racks of cards.
Modular software
Music workstations had software that was organized around a set of common control functions, and then a set of options. In many cases, these options were organized as 'pages'. The Fairlight was known for its "Page R" functions [7] which provided real-time composition in a graphical form which was similar to that later used on drum machines such as the Roland TR-808. The Synclavier offered music notation.
Digital signal processing
This enabled the music workstation to generate effects such as reverb or chorus within its hardware, rather than relying on external devices.
Since the primary users of the high-end workstations were film composers, the music workstations added hardware and software to generate SMPTE timecode, which is a standard in the motion picture industry. This allowed one to generate events that were matched to scenes and cuts in the film.

Third generation music workstations

Although many music workstations have a keyboard, this is not always the case. In the 1990s, Yamaha, and then Roland, released a series of portable music workstations (starting with the Yamaha QY10 (1990)). These are sometimes called walkstations.

Akai MPC60 (1988) Akai MPC60.jpg
Akai MPC60 (1988)

The concept of the workstation mutated around mid-1990s by the emergence of groove machine-concept birthed in mid-1980s - a keyless version of a workstation, still with a self-contained sound source and sequencer, mostly aimed at dance. Again, nowadays they also feature a sampler. The groove machines were realized in mid-1980s (ex. Linn 9000 (1984), SCI Studio 440 (1986), Korg DDD-1 (1986), Yamaha RX5 (1986), Simmons SDX (1987)), Kawai R-50e (1987), and by the wide acceptance of E-mu SP-12/SP-1200 (1985/1987) and Akai MPC60 (1988), finally the concept have been widely accepted. Then in mid 1990s, Roland entered to the hype with the MC-303 (1996), and also Korg and Yamaha re-entered the market. Korg created the much-used Electribe series (1999–).

Akai developed and refined the idea of the keyboard-less workstation, with the Music Production Center series (1988–) of sampler workstations. The MPC breed of sampler freed the composer from the rigidity of step sequencing which was a limitation of earlier groove machines.

Key technologies for the third generation

Low-cost, high-capacity memory
By 1995, a music workstation might have 16 to 64 megabytes of memory in a few chips, [8] which had required a rack of cards in 1985.
Sample libraries
While a second-generation workstation could be sold with just a few sounds or samples and the ability for the owner to create more, by 1995 most workstations had several additional sample sets available for purchase on ROM, and an industry had been created for third-party sample libraries. In addition, there were now standard formats for sound samples to achieve interoperability.
Battery power
Since music workstations were now used by wide range of performers, down to individual dance music DJ's and even street performers, portable designs avoided power-intensive components such as disk storage and began to rely on persistent memory and later flash-memory storage.
Interoperability with personal computers
Initially through custom interfaces and later USB standards.

Modern music workstations

Yamaha EX5 (1998-2000), supports multiple-synthesis algorithms including sampling Yamaha EX5 top.jpg
Yamaha EX5 (1998–2000), supports multiple-synthesis algorithms including sampling

Yamaha, Roland and Korg now have sampling as a default option with the Yamaha Motif line (introduced 2001), the Roland Fantom series (introduced 2001) and the Korg Triton (introduced 1999), Korg OASYS, and Korg M3 Workstations have a fairly large screen to give a comprehensive overview of the sound, sequencer and sampling options. Since the display is one of the most expensive components of these workstations, Roland and Yamaha initially chose to keep costs down by not using a touch screen or high-resolution display, but have added such in later models.

Another path of music product development that started with the feature set of music workstations is to provide entirely software-based products, using virtual instruments. This is the concept of the digital audio workstation, and many of these products have emulated the multitrack recording metaphors of sequencers first developed in the music workstations.

Open Labs introduced the Production Station in 2003, [9] which changed the relationship of the music workstation and the personal computer from a model where the music workstation interfaces to the PC into one where the music workstation is a PC with a music keyboard and a touch screen display.

A variation on Open Labs' approach, Korg released the Korg OASYS in 2005. OASYS housed inside a keyboard music workstation housing a computer running a custom operating system built on the Linux kernel. OASYS was an acronym for Open Architecture SYnthesis Studio, underscoring Korg's ability to release new capabilities via ongoing software updates. OASYS not only included a synthesizer, sampling, and a sequencer, but the ability to digitally record multi-track audio. OASYS was discontinued in 2009, and Korg Kronos, an updated version built on the same concept, was introduced in January, 2011.

Evaluation of a music workstation

While advances in digital technology have greatly reduced the price of a professional-grade music workstation, the 'time cost' of learning to operate a complex instrument like this cannot be underestimated. Hence, product selection is critical, and is typically based upon:

Related Research Articles

Digital synthesizer Synthesizer that uses digital signal processing to make sounds

A digital synthesizer is a synthesizer that uses digital signal processing (DSP) techniques to make musical sounds. This in contrast to older analog synthesizers, which produce music using analog electronics, and samplers, which play back digital recordings of acoustic, electric, or electronic instruments. Some digital synthesizers emulate analog synthesizers; others include sampling capability in addition to digital synthesis.

MIDI Means of connecting electronic musical instruments

MIDI is a technical standard that describes a communications protocol, digital interface, and electrical connectors that connect a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers, and related audio devices for playing, editing, and recording music. The specification originates in a paper titled Universal Synthesizer Interface, published by Dave Smith and Chet Wood, then of Sequential Circuits, at the October 1981 Audio Engineering Society conference in New York City.

Synclavier early digital synthesizer

The Synclavier is an early digital synthesizer, polyphonic digital sampling system, and music workstation manufactured by New England Digital Corporation of Norwich, Vermont. It was produced in various forms from the late 1970s into the early 1990s. The instrument has been used by prominent musicians.

Music technology (electronic and digital)

Digital music technology encompasses digital instruments, computers, electronic effects units, software, or digital audio equipment by a performer, composer, sound engineer, DJ, or record producer to produce, perform or record music. The term refers to electronic devices, instruments, computer hardware, and software used in performance, playback, recording, composition, mixing, analysis, and editing of music.

A music sequencer is a device or application software that can record, edit, or play back music, by handling note and performance information in several forms, typically CV/Gate, MIDI, or Open Sound Control (OSC), and possibly audio and automation data for DAWs and plug-ins.

A software synthesizer or softsynth is a computer program that generates digital audio, usually for music. Computer software that can create sounds or music is not new, but advances in processing speed now allow softsynths to accomplish the same tasks that previously required the dedicated hardware of a conventional synthesizer. Softsynths may be readily interfaced with other music software such as music sequencers typically in the context of a digital audio workstation. Softsynths are usually less expensive and can be more portable than dedicated hardware.

Sampler (musical instrument) Device that records and plays back samples

A sampler is an electronic or digital musical instrument which uses sound recordings of real instrument sounds, excerpts from recorded songs or found sounds. The samples are loaded or recorded by the user or by a manufacturer. These sounds are then played back by means of the sampler program itself, a MIDI keyboard, sequencer or another triggering device to perform or compose music. Because these samples are usually stored in digital memory, the information can be quickly accessed. A single sample may often be pitch-shifted to different pitches to produce musical scales and chords.

Electronic keyboard musical instrument

An electronic keyboard, portable keyboard, or digital keyboard is an electronic musical instrument, an electronic or digital derivative of keyboard instruments. Broadly speaking, the term electronic keyboard or just a keyboard can refer to any type of digital or electronic keyboard instrument. These include synthesizers, digital pianos, stage pianos, electronic organs and digital audio workstations. However, an electronic keyboard is more specifically a synthesizer with a built-in low-wattage power amplifier and small loudspeakers.

Digital audio workstation computer workstation or software application used for editing and creating music and audio

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an electronic device or application software used for recording, editing and producing audio files. DAWs come in a wide variety of configurations from a single software program on a laptop, to an integrated stand-alone unit, all the way to a highly complex configuration of numerous components controlled by a central computer. Regardless of configuration, modern DAWs have a central interface that allows the user to alter and mix multiple recordings and tracks into a final produced piece.

Korg Triton Workstation synthesizer

The Korg Triton is a music workstation synthesizer, featuring digital sampling and sequencing, released in 1999. It uses Korg's HI Synthesis tone generator and was eventually available in several model variants with numerous upgrade options. The Triton became renowned as a benchmark of keyboard technology, and has been widely featured in music videos and live concerts. At the NAMM 2007, Korg announced the Korg M3 as its successor.

Korg OASYS Workstation synthesizer

The Korg OASYS is a workstation synthesizer released in early 2005, 1 year after the successful Korg Triton Extreme. Unlike the Triton series, the OASYS uses a custom Linux operating system that was designed to be arbitrarily expandable via software updates, with its functionality limited only by the PC-like hardware.

Korg DW-8000 Hybrid digital-analog synthesizer

The Korg DW-8000 synthesizer was an eight-voice polyphonic hybrid digital-analog synthesizer 61-note keyboard instrument released in 1985. By the time of its launch Korg had already begun a common trend in 1980s synthesizer design: using numerical codes to access or change parameters with its predecessor - the Korg Poly-61, which was widely regarded as the company's first 'knobless' synthesizer. This was a move away from the heavily laden, complex control panels of earlier designs.

Yamaha Motif Series of music workstations

The Yamaha Motif is a series of music workstation synthesizers, first released by Yamaha Corporation in August 2001. The Motif replaced the EX series in Yamaha's line-up and was also based on the early Yamaha S series. Other workstations in the same class are the Korg Kronos and the Roland Fantom G. The series' successor is Yamaha Montage.

Korg Trinity Music workstation

The Korg Trinity is a synthesizer music workstation released by Korg in 1995. It was also the first workstation to offer modular expansion for not only sounds, but also studio-grade feature such as SCSI, ADAT, various sound engine processors, audio recording capability, and more. It was considered one of the most comprehensive music workstations, in term of features, at the time.

Korg Wavestation Synthesizer

The Korg Wavestation is a vector synthesis synthesizer first produced in the early 1990s and later re-released as a software synthesizer in 2004. Its primary innovation was Wave Sequencing, a method of multi-timbral sound generation in which different PCM waveform data are played successively, resulting in continuously evolving sounds. The Wavestation's "Advanced Vector Synthesis" sound architecture resembled early vector synths such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS.

The Korg DSS-1 is a 12-bit polyphonic sampling synthesizer released in September 1986. It came out at a time when many of the popular synthesizer companies were beginning to get into sampling, an area of sound design that had previously been left to a handful of fledgling companies such as Fairlight, E-mu, and Ensoniq. Like Yamaha and Casio, however, Korg did not stay long in the sampling arena. The DSS-1 was the company's only sampler until 1998 when Korg introduced sampling options on their Triton and Trinity series of workstations, and on their Electribe series of drum-and-phrase samplers.

Synthesizer Electronic musical instrument

A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals. Synthesizers typically create sounds by generating waveforms, through methods including subtractive synthesis, additive synthesis and frequency modulation synthesis. These sounds may be altered by components such as filters, which cut or boost frequencies; envelopes, which control articulation, or how notes begin and end; and low-frequency oscillators, which modulate parameters such as pitch, volume, or filter characteristics affecting timbre. Synthesizers are typically played with keyboards or controlled by sequencers, software or other instruments, and may be synchronized to other equipment via MIDI.

Korg Kronos Music workstation

The Kronos is a music workstation manufactured by Korg that combines nine different synthesizer sound engines with a sequencer, digital recorder, effects, a color touchscreen display and a keyboard. Korg's latest flagship synthesizer series at the time of its announcement, the Kronos series was announced at the winter NAMM Show in Anaheim, California in January 2011.


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  3. "The Synclavier II - An Introduction". Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  4. Synclavier II Architecture
  5. "Fairlight The Whole Story". Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  6. Colbeck, Julian (June 2001). "Korg M1". Electronic Musician. Archived from the original on 2011-09-26. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-08-16. Retrieved 2010-08-29.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. "Roland XP-80 | Vintage Synth Explorer". Retrieved 2018-03-25.
  9. NAMM: Open Platform Synthesizer Unveiled

Further reading