Types of Instruments Used in EDM

Types of Instruments Used in EDM

Kostya V.

September 6th, 2014


Producers use traditional synthesizers, drum machines and samplers in electronic dance music. Producers can also use laptop computers or record decks. Those awesome electronic sounds you hear in EDM come from many different mixes and sound machines.


Synthesizers are not your parents’ fuzzy video game soundtracks and catchy pop songs from the 80s. Synthesizers can make more than one sound; they can create otherworldly tones, the sweet music of flutes, or the sounds of the ocean. Synthesizers achieve these sounds by manipulating and combining traditional sounds to create a new sound. The word ‘synthesizer’ is not meant to imply the sounds are artificial; it refers to synthesis or the process of elements coming together in a way that forms an entirely new sound.

A synthesizer cannot make sounds or music all by itself. The musician’s synthesizer is another instrument requiring a controller, a plan and someone to perform the music. A performer or producer uses subtractive synthesis to create a sound. They begin with a waveform or a sound containing frequency, amplitude, wavelength and period. Sounds can also be created with harmonics or layers of frequencies that combine to make ‘voice’. Volume is also a characteristic of a synthesizer. Sound moves through attack, decay, sustain and release; these are all terms an astute performer knows.

Drum machines are electronic musical instruments that replicate the sound of drums or other types of percussion instruments. You can use drum machines with electronic music, or when you do not need or want a traditional drummer and drum set. Drum machines use sequencers with sample playbacks, or a synthesizer component that specializes in drum timbres. Drum machines can produce unique sounds, and producers often compose exclusive drum beats.

The drum machines used in EDM are programmable. Programming your drum machine varies by the type and product. You can implement your drum sounds in real-time (and create drum patterns) by pressing trigger pads on a ‘keyboard’. A step-sequence of the pattern that is built up over time can also be used. An example is a drum machine ‘learning’ a 4-on-the-floor dance pattern. Place a closed hi-hat on the 3rd, 7th or another step. Kick drums come in on the 1st, 4th or any other programmed dance step. Add in a clap or snare drums on different steps, and a pattern emerges. Patterns can be manipulated to include fillers, breakdowns and other elements. It is easy to see the reason behind the ubiquity of drum machines in EDM. The possibilities of beats are endless.

‘Sampling’ is taking a portion of one sound recording and mixing it with another piece. Experimental musicians who began playing with electroacoustic music developed sampling. Originally, they physically manipulated tape loops or vinyl records to achieve samples for external use. This was very popular in the 1960s, and it gave way to tape loop sampling, leading to minimalist music. Sampling is also prevalent in psychedelic rock and jazz fusion. Hip hop music has extensively used the art of sampling and mixing to this day. Traditionally, DJs experimented with manipulating two turntables to form a master audio mix. Electronic dance music uses sampling to form a new piece from an existing source, or in some cases, multiple sources.

Originally, a sampler was a piece of hardware, but now it is often contained within a computer program. Sampling can also consist of using the beat of an existing song (or rhythm breaks) and repurposed to form the beat of another song. DJs often use this technique to enable continuous mixing, and ensure their audience will be able to dance continuously and uninterrupted. You can also take a sample from spoken words, such as advertisements, movies and television shows.


There are some EDM producers who take existing samples, scratched-manipulated tracks, and even their own music, and fuse them together to construct new songs. From a legalistic point of view, sampling is somewhat controversial. Before sampling from other artists, it is often necessary to obtain permission and obtain legal clearance. There are some EDM producers who believe that sampling demonstrates a lack of creativity, but others claim sampling is innovative and revolutionary. Like a writer who takes ideas from someone else’s work, sampling takes ideas from other musicians, and producers utilize them to create a completely different sound.

• Visually speaking, electronic dance music has developed by using lighting that enhances and builds up hypnotism and, some have speculated, heightens consciousness. Layers and rhythms are used to create and build and then release. Light is a very integral part of EDM, and creative use of lasers can unite EDM music, festivals and fans. Stimulating effects are important to EDM; organizers design bigger, flashier production elements to attract and excite fans. Visual effects can include everything from mind-bowing laser shows, to prop elements, to creative stage designs; it can transform partygoers to another world—just live in the moment of pure light and pure bliss.

Some of the most spectacular light shows include Bassnectar’s 360-degree stage at NYE 2012 in Nashville. Lasers pivot and pulse across the room with a multitude of colors. The Kinetic Field at EDC Las Vegas in 2014 features a light show that looks like stained glass windows, with a display of light that is out of this world. Lasers and pyrotechnics shoot from the stage lighting, up at the ’windows’ of light and giving festivalgoers the ride of their lives.
Outer-space is a very popular theme with EDM. Take Skrillex’s spaceship for example: The lighting behind the ship is very surreal; his stage is the control port, and pyrotechnics bloom everywhere. Sensation White Innerspace Belgium in 2012 was all white lights, globes, sculptures and rooms bathed in white lights, turning fans into ghost-like caricatures.
Tomorrowland always puts on a light show that is difficult to replicate. In 2011, the main stage featured laser lights, illuminated eyes protruding from a giant face, and copious amounts of fog.
To be perceived as a well-executed EDM show, synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and fantastic light shows need to come together in one harmonious production. Discover the festival and club stars of the future. Watch as they combine their remixes, original scores and light shows into an incredible extravaganza.