Five Electronic Digital Instruments That Are Changing Music

Rishabh Rajan and Kimberly Ashton
September 21, 2018

Ableton Push, Novation Launchpad, Akai MPC Live, Teenage Engineering OP-1, and Roli Seaboard are transforming the way music is made. 

Starting next fall, electronic digital instruments (EDIs)—computing devices with user-configured software and performance controllers—will join the ranks of piano, saxophone, and other instruments in Berklee’s curricula.

EDIs, unlike their traditional cousins, are undergoing a constant metamorphosis driven by their growing influence on modern music, and especially electronic dance music.

As the college prepares to roll out its new EDI program, Rishabh Rajan, an assistant professor in Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design Department, gives us a primer on the five EDIs that are changing music. Here’s Rajan:

Ableton Push

If I were to name just one EDI that has transformed the way electronic music artists are producing and performing music, it would be Ableton Push. Along with its companion software, Ableton Live, Push has become the primary instrument for many electronic music artists.

It is a controller hardware with a grid of 64 pads for programming and performing drums parts as well as melodic, and even chordal sequences. The pads are surrounded by an array of buttons that help the user seamlessly switch between different performance modes. For creating dynamic movement in music, the Push has eight touch-sensitive encoders and one touch strip.

The instrument can be used in various performance scenarios, from finger drumming to melodic playing to live DJing. Despite being tethered to a computer, the Push works like an independent instrument, ensuring that the performer doesn’t have to stare at a computer screen while in front of an audience.

Here’s a performance on the Push in conjunction with a DJ turntable:

Novation Launchpad

It’s hard to include the Launchpad on this list as Ableton Push does everything the Launchpad does, but at the same time it’s hard to not include the Launchpad considering how important this EDI has been for many artists and for electronic dance music in general.

The Launchpad has been around for almost a decade, and now Novation produces three versions of it. It is essentially a 64-pad controller with nothing else. On the surface this seems like a drawback, but this limitation has led to some of the most creative electronic music performances, most notably Madeon’s “Pop Culture,” which took him from making homemade YouTube videos to producing with the likes of Lady Gaga and Coldplay.

Watch the famous “Pop Culture” mash-up, performed on a Novation Launchpad:

Akai MPC Live

The Akai MPC60, released in the late ‘80s, was a revolutionary electronic musical instrument. This device opened up a whole new audience to production at a time when you had to have access to a studio to produce any kind of music.

The MPC (Music Production Center) saw the birth of hip-hop and subgenres of electronic music that utilized creative sampling techniques. It was a sampler, a drum machine, and a sequencer. The MPC60, which had a grid of 4 x 4 pads, was for electronic music production in the late ‘80s and ‘90s what a laptop is for electronic music production today. Notable producers who used the MPC60 in their work are J Dilla, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, and DJ Shadow.

In 2017, Akai released the MPC Live, which stays true to the original design yet embraces technological advancements. It, like the original MPC60, is a standalone instrument that does not require a computer and has all the sampling, programming, and sequencing capabilities on a 4x4 grid, but features a modern multitouch display, making it even easier to use in live performances. The MPC Live can also be connected to a computer and extended into a complete production suite with MPC software.

Watch this hip-hop jam performed on the MPC:

Teenage Engineering OP-1

Looking at the OP-1, you might be reminded of the Casio VL-Tone from the 1980s. But despite the aesthetic similarity, the OP-1 is miles ahead of Casio’s calculator synth. Released in 2011 by Teenage Engineering, the OP-1 has 11 synthesis engines; sampling capabilities; a four-track recorder; and even an FM radio that can be recorded into the sampler.

The OP-1 is probably the most compact and self-contained music production and performance device. Despite being small and having a toy-like appearance, the device has a high-quality sound engine and is embraced by a lot of big-name producers and performers. There are a lot of polarizing opinions on the OP-1 due to its high price, but anyone who has used it and understands its capabilities will tell you that the price is justified. This is an EDI that is here to stay.

Watch this live-looping track production on the OP-1:

Roli Seaboard

The Roli Seaboard is the newest EDI on this list. Despite being a newcomer to the industry, Roli has quickly become one of the leading companies in the EDI manufacturing market. With Pharrell Williams as an investor and chief creative officer, the company has developed instruments that has changed the way musicians are producing and performing.

Its Seaboard series of instruments has a piano keyboard-inspired design, except it uses a squishy silicone material instead of the usual plastic, wood, or ivory. The surface has a touch-sensitive response, enabling performers to use multiple dimensions of expression while performing. Playing the the Seaboard feels like playing on a keyboard, violin, and guitar at the same time. The 1984 MIDI specification that music producers have been using for the past 30-odd years was recently updated to include the new MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression). The Roli Seaboard uses MPE extensively. This instrument is a true revolution for performance with expression in the electronic world.

See some of the Seaboard’s capabilities:


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