I often hear sounds and think "boy, would that be a cool sound for playing a tune on a keyboard." But, often the sounds begin substantially before where the understood "downbeat" would be.

An example would be a real trumpet; before the note truly begins to ring, there's rushing air and the beginnings of the lip vibrations. A synthetic example could be more extreme, with some sort of sonic introduction to the actual pitch appearing.

Given that keys won't emit sound before they are actually pressed (only the most expensive keyboards can predict the future), that means the key would need to be pressed before the musical beat so that the "beat" of the sound would occur at the musical beat. So, this means we have the player having to work some fraction of a second ahead of the rest of the band in order to stay in time with them.

Is this feasible? Or, is it commonly done (e.g. with the horn sound)? Or, with the horn, are synthetic versions edited so that they have no audible precursor to the beat?

  • There's no reason to edit a synthesized clip, since it was created the way the originator wanted it. If you want to synth startup breath sounds (often heard for solo jazz sax), put it into the clip. Oct 1 '18 at 13:01
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    Are you asking "can a player work ahead of the beat", or "do synthesised sounds include the breath in their attack", or "can you add sounds before the beginning of the note" - in which case the answer is a yes to all 3 - or something else?
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Oct 1 '18 at 13:30
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    Actuating the instrument slightly before the time the note is to be heard in order to account for a delay in the initial transients, etc., is quite common, both for acoustic and electronic instruments. Some instruments must be actuated before you want to hear the first note, such as bagpipes. Oct 1 '18 at 13:44
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    Would the two people who voted to close this please explain why, with three answers (and eight votes between them) it is "unclear what I'm asking"? Oct 1 '18 at 20:23
  • I would imagine that it is the challenge I gave - what is it you are asking. I can read 3 possibles from your question.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Oct 2 '18 at 16:41

So, this means we have the player having to work some fraction of a second ahead of the rest of the band in order to stay in time with them.

Is this feasible?

Yes - part of the skill of being a keyboard player is to trigger the sound such that the audible result rhythmically 'works' with the rest of the piece, taking account of the fact that the attack may not be instantaneous.

If you think about it, this is the same as when playing the real instrument - for a brass instrument to reach a noticeable volume by a certain point in time, you'll have had to start the blowing action a short time before.

Of course in some cases, you may not wish the sound to be apparent at the notated starting point, but merely to start fading in at that point. To some extent, these are often decisions for the player to make.

  • Thanks. Just how far ahead of time might a keyboard player be able to work without getting totally confused? 50ms? 250ms? A half second? Oct 1 '18 at 16:13
  • @DanielGriscom Hmm... perhaps in the 50ms range if real precision is required - but more if the timing can be more relaxed? Depends on the skill of the player, complexity of the part played, etc. etc. of course.
    – topo morto
    Oct 1 '18 at 16:31
  • I play the trumpet. You breathe in before the phrase and then the tongue is placed behind the top teeth and no breath can escape until the instant the tongue is pulled sharply backwards. Then the air rushes down the instrument and the sound starts immediately. There's no "wind up" time. Only if you start the note solely with breath (without tongue) would the notes start in the way you describe. Brass players do very occasionally start notes like that - but it's nearly always with tongued articulation instead. Feb 18 '19 at 14:27
  • @BrianTHOMAS Interesting point, although the tongue can only be pulled backwards at a finite speed, and the instrument then takes a little time to start resonating. That's why a trumpet can't really make a sharp attack like a drum or struck instrument - though again I appreciate that may be more in the realm of timbre than timing.
    – topo morto
    Feb 18 '19 at 18:35
  • @topo morto - the Earth Wind and Fire brass section don't agree. :o) Mar 2 '19 at 17:49

Yes. As human musicians of all kinds, we all have to start before the beat, because we do not move infinitely fast, and the instruments do not respond infinitely fast. It's just a question of how much before the beat we start, which is of course different for different instruments. Another example is a bass panflute of mine, which takes a sizeable fraction of a second to get the lowest tones going.


As far as I can tell, if an instrument emits sound substantially after the attack, then players of that instrument generally will adjust mentally, conceptualizing the act of playing a note at a certain time as instantaneous, ratther than being in front of the beat (as long as it's not unreasonably delayed). In Luke Sawczak's words, the latency constant disappears to experienced players, who perceive that they are playing exactly on the beat.


The sound of a key of a real piano begins with a percussive attack and dies away. To imitate the gentler attack of many orchestral instruments, arrangers sometimes resort to ornaments such as grace notes, rolled chords, and tremolos to lead up to a strong downbeat.

On a synthesizer, many effects are possible. My own Yamaha has a timbre setting called Slow Strings, which makes almost no sound when the key is pressed and then crescendos to a sustained volume (and will diminuendo if you let go of the keys while holding the sustain pedal).

  • Thanks for the answer, but my question was focussed on whether such effects are accurately playable. Feb 18 '19 at 11:24

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