Common Music Technology Terms

Newcomers to the world of electronic music are often overwhelmed by the barrage of terminology bandied about by more experienced DAW users. Indeed, as one becomes more familiar with the systems, it is easy to forget just how daunting it can be for someone who is new to the tools and processes digital musicians take for granted.

With this in mind, I decided to develop a simple glossary of music technology/DAW terminology. The first (very short) draft is available in this blog’s sidebar, and i will be adding to it on a regular basis from now on. As a preview, I have included a few of the entries below…

  • Aftertouch – Pressure changes applied to a key after the initial strike.
  • Attack – The speed with which an action occurs – this can be applied to a variety of actions, such as playing a note or applying compression. Generally, a soft string pad will have a very slow attack, whereas a drum hit has a very fast attack.
  • Binary – Base two (using two digits to count). The common decimal system (base 10) uses ten digits (1-10), and hexadecimal uses 16 (1-10 and A-F).
  • Clipping – This occurs when an audio signal exceeds 0dB in the digital environment; the signal is truncated at 0dB, resulting in a harsh square wave form of distortion. Analog clipping can sometimes be a desirable effect, as it sounds much ‘softer’.
  • Compression – In its most basic form, this means the attenuation of a signal above a set threshold. If the peaks are reduced in a recording, the overall (RMS) level of the recording can then be made higher (louder).
  • Decibel (dB) – The unit of measurement for sound pressure level (SPL). In layman’s terms, it could be described as the smallest variation in volume detectable by ear.
  • Filter – A low-pass filter allows frequencies below the threshold to pass through, and a high-pass filter allows frequencies above the threshold to pass.
  • Frequency – A measure of the number of waveforms that pass a particular point (per second). It is measured in Hz (cycles). Higher pitched notes have higher frequencies.
  • Headroom – Simiar to dynamic range, this is the amount of ‘room’ in dB between the RMS (average) level of a recording and the point at which distortion begins to occur.
  • Quantisation – Most sequencers allow quantisation to be set at various levels; basically, it forces notes to move towards particular lines in the timeline. At 100% and 1/8 settings, all notes quantised will sit at one eighth divisions of a bar. At 50%, the notes will move 50% closer to these divisions.


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